The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV The Transmission of Polite Learning and of Scientific Interests

All intended for divinity should be taught Latin and Greek; for physic the Latin, Greek and French; for law the Latin and French; merchants, the French, German and Spanish; and though all should not be compelled to learn Latin, Greek, or the modern foreign languages, yet none that have an ardent desire to learn them should be refused.

-- BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, 1749

Hypotheses may be of use to put us upon further enquiry, and a more critical examination, but are never to be received, any further than they are supported by proper evidence.

-- SAMUEL WILLIAMS, 1785

The mass of the colonial population was only slightly touched, if at all, by the body of polite learning and scientific interests which developed in the colonies and which was a precious part of the legacy to the new nation. In a sense, to be sure, Christianity had assimilated much classical learning, and ordinary men and women did hear frequent allusions to the ancient writers in the learned sermons of some of their clergy. Here and there among the lowly an indentured teacher-servant was well versed in the classics. In rare instances an ambition to master natural science led the son of an artisan to study Latin; Thomas Godfrey, a Pennsylvania glazier, learned the language in order to read Newton Principia. But on the whole the plain people had little use for Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, or indeed for the classics of the Renaissance literature. The idea that even the common people might derive esthetic satisfactions and mental stimulus from the classics was still practically unheard of. To the people themselves such studies doubtless seemed a useless luxury. Only as the offspring of humble folk sought entrance into the professions or the world of culture and social status did knowledge of the classics and of modern polite learning become essential.

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