Classical Character: The moral value of classical study, ca 1807–1828
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, there raged a debate about the link between classical study and moral upbringing in Sweden. As the use of Latin declined across Europe, advocates of a classical education began to argue the moral value of studying ancient languages and texts. Latin was presented as the best way to train the mental faculties and ancient literature provided moral training. Despite mounting criticism and demands for reform, classical study in Sweden, as well as in many other European countries, maintained and even strengthened its grip on the curriculum in the nineteenth century.
This article analyzes public arguments for and against the moral value of classical study in newspaper articles, pamphlets and official reform material. By tracing arguments about the moral societal value or use (”nytta”) of a classical education new light is shed on the successful defense of classical studies. Whereas both Swedish and international scholars have previously noted the presence of moral arguments, this prevalent line of reasoning has mostly been ignored. In Sweden in particular, the Latin debates have been viewed as part of an ideological schism, thereby obscuring the importance ascribed to moral upbringing in general by educators, teachers and professors engaged in public disputes over the societal value of different forms of knowledge.
The moral argument can explain why classical study retained its importance in the face of stout opposition. Because many educators interpreted societal value primarily as moral value, the primacy of classical education with its time proven moral dimension was not easily challenged. Even proponents of reform agreed that classical literature and texts simply were the best tools to train the young mind and build a moral character.