RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1883. [Extract of a letter on classical education] In Farrar, F. W. 'General aims of the teacher. A lecture in Cambridge teachers' training Syndicate course. March 3, 1883', American Journal of Education (Hartford, Conn.) 32: 129-154 (139-40).

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed and edited by John van Wyhe 2008. RN1

[page] 139

And, as illustrating what I have said about the encouraging recognition of merits which lie outside our ordinary school routine, I think that you will all be interested to hear a letter which I once had the honor to receive from Charles Darwin. Knowing him slightly, I sent him a lecture of mine, delivered sixteen years ago before the Royal Institution, on "Some Defects of Public Education." "I am very much obliged,"1 he wrote, "for your kind present of your lecture.2 We have read it aloud with the greatest interest, and I agree to every word. If I had been a great classical scholar, I would never have been able to have judged fairly on the subject. As it is, I am one of the root-and-branch men, and would leave Classics to be learnt by those alone who have sufficient zeal, or the high taste requisite for their appreciation." Then, after very kind words to me, which I omit,3 he adds, - "I was at school at Shrewsbury, under a great scholar, Dr. Butler. I learnt absolutely nothing, except by amusing myself by reading and experimenting in chemistry. Dr. Butler somehow found this out, and publicly sneered at me, before the whole school, for such gross waste of time; I remember he called me a 'Poco Curante,' which, not understanding, I thought was a dreadful name."4 This letter of a great man is, I think, instructive in may ways. It illustrates our vivid memories, even to old age, of words

1 The letter, dated 'March 5, 1867', was addressed to Frederic William Farrar (1831-1903) was a schoolteacher, clergyman and Canon of Westminster from 1875. He preached Darwin's funeral sermon in Westminster Abbey. This appears to be the first time this letter was published. The entire letter was reprinted in More letters 2: 441-2 and Correspondence vol. 15, p. 127 et al.

2 Farrar 1867.

3 The omitted text reads: 'You have indeed done a great public service by speaking out so boldly. Scientific men might rail forever, and it would only be said that they railed at what they did not understand.'

4 The end of the letter was omitted by Farrar, it reads:

I wish you had shown in your lecture how Science could practically be taught in a great school; I have often heard it objected that this could not be done, and I never knew what to say in answer. I heartily hope that you may live to see your zeal and labour produce good fruit; and with my best thanks, I remain, my dear Sir
Yours very sincerely
Charles Darwin

[page] 140

spoken to us in early boyhood. It illustrates how undesirable it is to sneer. It shows how minds of the grandest capacity may not even be touched by an exclusively classical curriculum. It shows how much we should try to have wide appreciation of differing gifts and to be many-sided in our teaching.

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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

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