A Commentary (Oct 1933)
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550 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 13 (Oct 1933) 115-201 In the month of July, Irving Babbitt died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the end of an illness of some nine months.2 After a life of indefatigable, and for many years almost solitary intellectual struggle, he had secured for his views, if not full appreciation, at least wide recognition; he had established a great and beneficent influence, of a kind which has less show than substance, through the many pupils who left him to become teachers throughout America; and he had established a strong countercurrent in education. Those who only know Babbitt through his writings, and have had no contact with him as a teacher and friend, will probably not be able to appreciate the greatness of his work. For he was primarily and always a teacher and a talker. He combined rare charm with great force: so that those who knew him will always remember his foibles with affection, and cherish the memory of his brusqueness when other men’s suavity is forgotten . Twenty-four years ago, when I first knew him, his reputation was only amongst a few. He was the author of two books, the first of which I still regard as the more important, Literature and the American College, and The New Laokoon.3 He was considered an interesting, eccentric and rebellious figure amongst the teaching profession; and his outspoken contempt for methods of teaching in vogue had given him a reputation for unpopularity which attracted to him some discerning graduates and undergraduates at Harvard University. Fortunately for his pupils, his classes in those days were small, and could be conducted informally round a small table. For Babbitt, I think, like some other great teachers, was at his best with a small group of pupils. Superficially, his lectures were almost without method. He would enter the room with a pile of books, papers and notes, which he shifted and shuffled throughout the hour; beginning to talk before he sat down, beginning anywhere and ending anywhere, he gave us the impression that a lifetime was too short for telling us all that he wanted tosay.ThelectureswhichIattendedwere,Ibelieve,concernedwithFrench Literary Criticism; but they had a great deal to do with Aristotle, Longinus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus; they touched frequently upon Buddhism, [ 551 A Commentary (OCT) Confucius,Rousseau,andcontemporarypoliticalandreligiousmovements.4 Somehow or other one read a number of books, Aristotle’s Politics or La Fontaine’s Fables, just because Babbitt assumed that any educated man had already read them.5 What held the lectures or talks together was his intellectual passion, one might say intellectual fury; what made them cohere was the constant recurrence of his dominant ideas; what gave them delight was their informality, the demand which they made upon one’s mental agility, and the frankness with which he discussed the things that he disliked , and which his pupils came to dislike too.6 I think that the point at which Babbitt’s ideas converged with the greatest force was the subject of Education. In England, where a traditional fabric of education still stands, though there are not wanting signs of the death-beetle in its timbers, it is difficult to bring home the urgency of the subject. In America, where education has for two or three generations responded to the whim of any modern theory, where a single man of character and conviction can impose his views, from time to time, upon the methods of the whole nation, and where the divergent tastes and ideals of scholars variously trained in Germany, France or England, have been a source of weakness and instability, every vagary has had its opportunity, and successive scholastic generations have only suffered from successive experiments. All this may appear irrelevant to the European, specifically to the English situation; but I believe that it has a bearing. Changes there must always be, reforms there will always be need for, because any system of education is imperfect and requires constant adaptation. But bad changes are as easily made as good; and the fact that a method has failed in one country is no guarantee that it will not be tried in another; and on the other hand the success of a system in one country does not warrant its suitability to another: I should like to know, for instance, whether English models are appropriate for Scotland. The errors against which Babbitt fought are errors from which we are not...


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