HC Deb 19 February 1891 vol 350 cc1167-73
(10.44.). MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

I have a little matter to bring before the attention of the right hon. Gentleman. I have not had the advantage of hearing the whole of the Debate this evening, but I did hear considerable complaint from hon. Gentlemen opposite of the difficulty of obtaining officers. Now, in connection with those complaints, I want to understand why it is that the right hon. Gentleman has decided that Latin shall be a compulsory subject for all students entering Woolwich and Sandhurst. Knowledge of Latin may be valuable, but I think it is infinitely more important that a military officer should know French or German, or, in fact, any modern language rather than Latin. In times gone by this was never a compulsory subject, and, in fact, my hon. and gallant Friend tells me that, though he passed creditably in Latin, it was not a compulsory subject. But the right hon. Gentleman has issued his ukase declaring that Latin shall be a compulsory subject, and why? On account of the Report presented to Parlia- ment last year by the Director General of Military Education, and the demand is based upon the opinion expressed by the Civil Service Commissioners. This change has apparently been made at the suggestion of the Civil Service Commissioners, who say it is "unfair to the public schools" not to make Latin obligatory, because Latin is taught in those schools. Now, I am not one of those who desire to see the Army restricted to the upper classes, and those who receive what is called a classical education and a Latinist is not necessarily a better officer. A thorough knowledge of mathematics, French, German, Italian, and Russian, if you like, is of more value, and a man should not be refused entrance to Woolwich or Sandhurst on the assumption that, not having knowledge of Latin, he is not qualified for the specific training to fit him for an officer. I passed some ten years of my life in learning Greek, but I could not now pronounce a single Greek word, and certainly I could not translate a passage from any Greek author. I have found, if I may venture to say so, that I have increased in wisdom and sense since I devoted myself to other things than Greek. But, seriously, it is a cause of great complaint that Latin is made a compulsory subject, because it shuts out so many young men of the middle classes. We are told that the new regulation is to put public schools upon an equal position with others, but it really gives the boys from public schools a superior position. But the consequence is you have not officers enough. But do away with the absurd regulation, do not yield yourselves bound hand and foot to the masters of the great public schools. In these schools the education of a lad costs at least £100 a year, and generally more, and there is no doubt there are large numbers of young men perfectly eligible for being officers in the Army whose parents cannot afford such an outlay on their sons' education. Take the case of sons of officers. They are brought up in the traditions of the Army, and in all probability would make very good officers. But their parents are on half pay, and cannot afford the heavy outlay for a classical education. They give their sons a good practical education, but then they are told they cannot compete for entrance into the Army. Would it not be infinitely better for an officer to speak French or German than to talk Latin? I have been in various parts of the world, but I have never been addressed in Latin in my life. The only advantage is being able to read classical books, and I cannot say I appreciate that very highly with the miserable knowledge of Latin I possess. This change is really in the interest of the classes, and in order to keep up the aristocratic tone of the Army. But I say you should throw open the Army as wide as possible in accordance with the democratic ideas of the time. I do not wish to take a Division on this matter, but I do wish to call serious attention to it, and I do trust we may have an assurance that this regulation shall be swept away, and that we shall go back to the old system under which Latin was not an obligatory subject.

(10.50.) SIR GEORGE CAMPBELL (Kirkcaldy, &c.)

I hoped somebody from the front Bench would have given us a favourable answer. I have a notice on the Paper upon this subject, and I hoped I should find the opportunity of showing the absurdity of the new regulation, but my hon Friend has raised the question in a better manner than I could have done. I thought we had advanced to the extent that we were beyond the reverence for monkish Latin, but now I find the Government taking this retrograde step, and making this concession to the classes and the schools of the classes. There is no doubt that it is hard upon many intending candidates. A certain notice was given, I know, but the matter was forcibly brought to my attention in connection with a particular candidate, an enlightened man, who was preparing for the Army according to modern ideas, but who now finds that entrance is barred from want of knowledge of Latin, Knowledge of Latin may be useful, I admit, if taught in a reasonable manner, but I object to its being made obligatory, especially in the case of military officers who may spend their time so much more usefully learning other subjects of practical utility in their profession. I hope I see indications from the right hon. Gentleman that he means to reply, and I trust we may receive some satisfaction on this point before we reach the Education Vote for the Army.

(10.53.) MR. E. STANHOPE

I have no right to speak again, but as I may be thought to be wanting in courtesy if I do not reply to the hon. Member for Northampton I ask leave of the House to do so. I confess, I never expected to find myself in controversy with the hon. Member on this subject. The question before the House is really one between the crammers and the schools. I represent the schools, the hon. Member the crammers. ["No, no!"] That is the view I take. I am still more surprised to hear the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy decrying Latin, for I have always understood that the children in every middle class school in Scotland are taught Latin.


We are getting wiser now.


I am sorry to hear it. I have always thought that the success of the hon. Member's countrymen in various professions was largely due to their system of education. But seriously let me tell the house our reasons for the step. The fact is, that in 1888 the Civil Service Commissioners reported that the number of successful candidates from the public schools was less than it ought to be, and that Latin not being an obligatory subject, gentlemen who had received a liberal education at public schools were discouraged from competing.


No, not discouraged, but given greater advantages.


We are doing our very best to get high scientific acquirements from the officers of the Army, and for that purpose candidates must have a good substratum of a really sound education. For that reason we think that boys educated at public schools ought certainly not to be discouraged.


Nor are they.


They are the kind of candidates we want. To meet this state of things it was suggested by the Civil Service Commissioners that Latin should be made one of the obligatory subjects. They pointed out with great force that there was this further advantage that if a boy thus educated failed after examination as a candidate for entrance into the Army he was still well qualified for another profession. We submitted this to the consideration of head masters of public schools, and found they were almost entirely in agreement with the views of the Commissioners. This change has accordingly been made. But I must dispute the suggestion of the hon. Member for Northampton as to this being a change in the interest of the aristocracy. Since I have been at the War Office I have done all I could to make the Army easier of access for poor men. It is desirable that the successful candidates for the Army should have a sound and really liberal education in all subjects in which boys are ordinarily instructed at the present time, because such an education is found to be the best foundation for that technical training which Army officers now require. It is said that this change will handicap boys who are educated abroad. That will not wholly be a disadvantage, for a boy intended for the Army will be all the better for being educated in England and under English traditions than in a foreign school. That being so, I have laid down the regulation which I believe will be for the advantage of the Service. That being so I believe the regulation is one that will be found of much advantage to the Service. I know that it would bring into the Army a good class of men, and that at the same time it would not keep out of the Army a poorer class of men. I trust, therefore, that the House will without any hesitation agree with me in thinking that the regulation is a good one.

(11.1.) MR. ROBY (Lancashire, S.E., Eccles)

I believe it is possible that, if the 10 years the hon. Member for Northampton thinks he had wasted upon Latin had been devoted to other topics, it might have produced a formidable addition to the number of questions put in the House; but, nevertheless, I must join the hon. Member in protesting against the making of Latin a compulsory subject. I do not think that any good is done by enforcing the study of Latin for purposes for which it is not necessarily an indispensable qualification. As far as I can judge, an officer in the Army would so seldom find any use for his knowledge of Latin that there is no need to make it a necessary qualification; and the possible amount of knowledge of Latin a man would obtain in order to qualify him to pass an Army examination would in any case be worthless indeed. The opinions of the head masters of public schools ought not to be taken as decisive in this matter. Naturally, they recommend what best suits the system in use at the schools. I have not a word to say against Latin as a public school subject; but for many professions and occupations in life a really good knowledge of French and German would be infinitely better; it would be more useful, and to students themselves the modern languages would be more genial subjects of study. It is not wise at all to make Latin a compulsory subject for Army examinations. It may be desirable that the study of it at public schools should in no way be discouraged, but that is a different thing from making it compulsory for Army examinations, and thus making it difficult for men to enter the Army who might make good and useful officers. As far as my opinion may be worth anything, I give it entirely against either Latin or Greek being made compulsory subjects for examination for the Army.


I am glad the Secretary for War has resisted the hon. Member for Northampton on this subject, because a grounding in Latin is necessary to those who do not succeed in entering the Army and have to go to other professions, and the knowledge of French and German acquired at school is so superficial that it is a farce to examine candidates in those languages.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Supply considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)