21 June 2016

L'honnête homme

Émile Amiel in the preface to his biography of Erasmus (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1889), pp. vi-vii (my translation):
In our utilitarian age people have said and repeated in every way that higher education, as it has been constituted since the sixteenth century, no longer meets the needs of democracy, which lives, they say, upon industry, trade, and agriculture. This is only true up to a point; it has not been demonstrated that the study of letters, properly understood, is inappropriate for these three sources of wealth. Nor has it been shown that a scholar, blessed with a sharp mind, is unsuited to business. However, these are two ways of misunderstanding the question. Besides the fact that man does not live by bread alone, our opponents forget the paramount thing, namely that college does not and should not claim to prepare students to take up lucrative careers immediately. That is the job of technical schools. College only seeks to accomplish one thing, namely the regular and concurrent development of all the faculties. For the mind as for the body it should be a plain gymnasium in the Greek sense of the word, where the wrestler prepares himself for the struggle of life. In the simplest terms, it is a training ground where the mind learns to learn. It need not be concerned about the immediate application of knowledge, which is the responsibility of graduate or professional schools. The humanities are intended to form what in the seventeenth century was known as l'honnête homme, which is to say a gentleman in the literary and moral sense, one able to take his place in a society he is called to serve according to his own lights. Let us ask no more of them.
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