Theodor Haecker on the Teaching of Latin and Greek

The misuse of higher education

The following is from Theodor Haecker's Tag-und Nachtbücher 1939-1945, translated into English by Alexander Dru as Journal in the Night (Pantheon Books, 1950), pp. 114-115.) I have made a couple of corrections in the translation. The following entry was written in 1940 in Hitler's Germany. The National Socialists seized power in 1933 and their 'one thousand year Reich' collapsed under the Allied assault in 1945. Haecker, a Christian, was bitterly opposed to the Nazi regime. Haecker's Journal provides keen insight into a dark time when an entire society went off the rails. It is relevant today as our society loses track of its tradition and trajectory.

420. The principal cause of the present situation: the falling away from God, disobedience towards God, is of course interwoven with many subsidiary causes. One of these is the mass use and thus misuse of higher education. Newman warned against it. Why, he said, should fathers whose sons are to go into trade or business have their sons taught Latin and Greek? Latin and Greek are a violation of the understanding of the average child, and a torture if the teacher is unreasonable. By far the greater proportion of those of our Führers who studied the humanities were below the average as scholars. They are revenging themselves horribly, full of poisonous ressentiment for the drudgery and sweat and the inferiority complex which a too high ideal of education brought upon them.

'Higher education' translates Gymnasium. The Newman in question is John Henry Cardinal Newman. The "mass use and thus misuse" of higher education is immeasurably worse now in the USA than it was then in Germany. Some things simply cannot be made into mass consumption items. Philosophy is one of them. You may try to make it relevant to Joe Sixpack, but only by diluting it and without profiting Joe much in any case. The average person wants and needs job training, not education in the strict sense of the term.

The other side of the coin, however, is that an elitism such as that of Newman would have made it impossible for many of us from the lower orders to have received the education we did receive, watered-down thought it may have been. There are tough questions here. Democratization brings with it leveling and insipidity. But is a rigid class-structure that permits no social mobility really preferable?

I went to an excellent high school in which two years of Latin were required of all. The requirement has since been eliminated. I see that as a grave loss, but then I went further in the humanities, studying Latin for my doctoral comprehensives and making use of it in my research. One may reasonably ask whether my fellow students who most of them retain next to nothing of those two years of Latin would have been better served by two years of Spanish, say, especially now that the Reconquista is well under way.