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He wrote ballads, like his uncle Benjamin and his grandfather Peter Folger, on popular events,—the drowning of a Captain Worthilake, and the pirate Blackbeard,—and, after his brother had printed them, sold them in the streets. His biographer, Weems, quotes one of these verses, which he declares he had seen and remembered, and I give it with the qualification that it comes from Weems :
“Come all you jolly sailors,
You all, so stout and brave;
What happened on the wave.
“Oh! 'tis of that bloody Blackbeard
I'm going now for to tell ;
With a down, down, down, derry down."
His father ridiculed these verses, in spite of their successful sale, and dissuaded him from any more attempts; but Franklin remained more or less of a verse-writer to the end of his life. Verse-writing trained him to write good prose, and this accomplishment contributed, he thought, more than anything else to his advancement.
He had an intimate friend, John Collins, like wise inclined to books, and the two argued and disputed with each other. Franklin was fond of wordy contention at that time, and it was possibly a good mental training for him. He had caught it, he says, from reading his father's books of religious controversy. But in after years he became convinced that this disputatious turn was a very bad habit, which
made one extremely disagreeable and alienated friends; he therefore adopted during most of his life a method of cautious modesty.
He once disputed with Collins on the propriety of educating women and on their ability for study. He took the side of the women, and, feeling himself worsted by Collins, who had a more fluent tongue, he reduced his arguments to writing and sent them to him. A correspondence followed, and Franklin's father, happening to find the papers, pointed out to his son the great advantage Collins had in clearness and elegance of expression. A hint is all that genius requires, and Franklin went resolutely to work to improve himself.
“ About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse ; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I
began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was, to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.”
In some respects this is the most interesting passage in all of Franklin's writings. It was this severe training of himself which gave him that wonderful facility in the use of English that made him a great
Without it he would have been second-rate or ordinary. His method of improving his style served also as a discipline in thought and logic such as is seldom, if ever, given nowadays in any school or college.
Many of those who have reflected deeply on the subject of college education have declared that its ultimate object shoưld be to give in the highest degree the power of expression. Some have said that a sense of honor and the power of expression should be its objects. But there are few who will dispute the proposition that a collegian who receives his diploma without receiving with it more of the arte of expression than most men possess has spent his time and his money in vain.'
During the last thirty years we have been trying every conceivable experiment in college education, many of them mere imitations from abroad and many of them mere suggestions, suppositions, or utopian theories. When we began these experiments it was taken for granted that the old methods, which had produced in this country such scholars, writers,
and thinkers as Lowell, Longfellow, Holmes, Hawthorne, Webster, Prescott, Motley, Bancroft, Everett, Phillips, Channing, Parker, and Parkman, and in England a host too numerous to name, must necessarily be wrong. We began to imitate Germany. It was assumed that if we transplanted the German system we should begin to grind out Mommsens and Bunsens by the yard, like a cotton-mill; and that if we added to the German system every plausible suggestion of our own for making things easy, the result would be a stupendous success.
But how many men have we produced who can be compared with the men of the old system ? Not one. The experiment, except so far as it has given a large number of people a great deal of pretty information about history and the fine arts, is a vast failure. After thirty years of effort we have just discovered that the boys whose nerves and eyesight are being worn out under our wonderful system cannot, write a decent letter in the English language and a committee of Harvard University have spent months of labor and issued a voluminous report of hundreds of pages on this mortifying discovery, leaving it as perplexing and humiliating as they found it.
Remedies are proposed. We have made a mistake, say some, and they suggest that for a change we adopt the English University system. After partially abolishing Latin and Greek we were to have in place of them a great deal of history and mathematics, which were more practical, it was said ; but now we are informed that this also was a mistake, and a movement is on foot to abolish history and algebra.
Others suggest the French system, and one individual writes a long article for the newspapers proving beyond the possibility of a doubt that French education is just the thing we need. Always imitating something ; always trying to bring in the foreign and distant. And until we stop this vůlgar provincial snobbery and believe in ourselves and learn to do our own work with our own people in our own way, we shall continue to flounder and fail.
Let us distinguish clearly between information and education. If it is necessary, especially in these times, to give people information on various subjects, -on science, history, art, bric-a-brac, or mud pies, – very good ; let it be done by all means, for it seems to have a refining influence on the masses. But do not call it education Education is teaching a person to do something with his mind or his muscles or with both. It involves training, discipline, drill; things which, as a rule, are very unpleasant to young people, and which, unless they are geniuses, like Franklin, they will not take up of their own accord.
You can never teach a boy to write good English by having him read elegant extracts from distinguished authors, or by making him wade through endless text-books of anatomy, physics, botany, history, and philosophy, or by giving him a glib knowledge of French or German, or by perfunctory translations of Latin and Greek prepared in the newfashioned, easy way, without a grammar.
The old English method, by which boys were compelled to write Latin verses, was simply another form of Franklin's method, but rather more severe in