Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic, The Brothers Karamazov, is, for my money, mainly about the soul of Russia as it was in the late 19th century. It is mainly about the tug-of-war between the swelling tide of atheism (as represented by Ivan, Rakitin, and Smerdyakov) and the flickering light of theism as expressed in traditional Russian Orthodoxy (represented by Zosima and Alyosha). It is not mainly about education. And yet the few moments in which education comes to the fore are not less interesting or less important because they are peripheral. If anything, their interest and import are heightened because of the expansive theme around which they orbit. In The Brothers Karamazov, as in life, education is not central. But also in The Brothers Karamazov, as also in life, education maintains its immovable place on the periphery of an all-important matter—the eternal souls of human beings and the warfare in which they’re caught up.
Higher learning, particularly of the French sort, is alluded to several times throughout the novel, though not ever directly discussed at length. Instead, it is to the education of a Russian schoolboy, Kolya Krosotkin by name, that Dostoevsky directs his most sustained attention on the subject. Kolya is a thirteen—soon to be a fourteen, he’d want you to know—year-old boy at the time of his first encounter with the novel’s hero, Alyosha Karamazov.
For those who haven’t read the book, Dostoevsky describes Alyosha as a “lover of mankind,” one who pursues a monastic life “because it alone struck him at the time and presented him …with an ideal way out for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness toward the light of love.” Yet the monastic life was not to be Alyosha’s calling after all, for as the elder Zosima nears his death, he charges Alyosha to leave the monastery for good upon his departure and to pursue “a great obedience” and to “work tirelessly” in the world. This Alyosha does, and his work in the world leads him to minister to—among others—the schoolboys of Skotoprigonievsk.
As for Kolya, his father died while he was an infant. He is a sharp, slightly mischievous though good-hearted boy, who conceives of himself as quite grown and mature and would have others do the same. Shortly before meeting Alyosha, he told a younger schoolboy that he was a socialist, and confidently—though, of course, with an air of feigned indifference—explained the basic tenets to the lad. Then, while gathered together with several of the younger schoolboys and Alyosha, Kolya expostulates his fully formed, and obviously parroted, ideas about education.
“I, in any case, do not regard these old wives’ tales as important, and generally I do not have much respect for world history,” he suddenly added nonchalantly, now addressing everyone present.
“World history, sir?” the captain [the father of one of the schoolboys] inquired suddenly with some sort of fear.
“Yes, world history. It is the study of the succession of human follies, and nothing more. I only respect mathematics and natural science,” Kolya swaggered, and glanced at Alyosha: his was the only opinion in the room that he feared. But Alyosha was still as silent and serious as before….
“And also these classical languages we have now: simply madness, nothing more … Again you seem to disagree with me, Karamazov?”
“I disagree,” Alyosha smiled restrainedly.
“Classical languages, if you want my full opinion about them—it’s a police measure, that’s the sole purpose for introducing them,” again Kolya gradually became breathless, “they were introduced because they’re boring, and because they dull one’s faculties. It was boring already, so how to make it even more boring? It was muddled already, so how to make it even more muddled? And so they thought up the classical languages. That is my full opinion of them, and I hope I shall never change it,” Kolya ended sharply. Flushed spots appeared on both his cheeks.
“That’s true,” Smurov [the boy Kolya had explained socialism to], who had been listening diligently, suddenly agreed in a ringing and convinced voice.
“And he’s first in Latin himself!” one boy in the crowd cried….
“What of it?” Kolya found it necessary to defend himself, though the praise also pleased him very much. “I grind away at Latin because I have to, because I promised my mother I’d finish school, and I think that whatever one does one ought to do well, but in my soul I deeply despise classicism and all that baseness … You don’t agree, Karamazov?”
“Why ‘baseness’?” Alyosha smiled again.
“But, good heavens, the classics have been translated into all languages, therefore there was absolutely no need for Latin in order to study the classics, they needed it only as a police measure to dull one’s faculties. Wouldn’t you call that baseness?”
“But who taught you all that?” exclaimed Alyosha, at last surprised.
The conversation ends abruptly, and it is never really picked back up. Kolya and Alyosha’s conversation in the subsequent chapter (aptly titled “Precocity”) revolves around the more central matters and the way they’re forming—rather, deforming—young Kolya’s heart.
Yet isn’t this brief clash of ideas about education fascinating? Here, in the mouth of a fictional schoolboy one hundred fifty years ago, we get a defense of STEM education and a denunciation of studying the classical languages. How is the swelling tide of atheistic socialism affecting ideas about education in 19th century Russia? We have our answer here. The only use of studying the past is to learn about how foolish they were back then, and the only conceivable purpose for making schoolboys learn Latin is to bore and stupefy them.
We are told simply that Alyosha disagrees. The reasons for his dissent are left to our speculation. Perhaps it goes something like this. His theism has fostered in him a commitment to the humanities—his love for God has anchored his love for man. His Christian commitment has taught him that the past is full of heroes, that the best thing we possess in the present (i.e., the Gospel) is something we’ve received from prior generations, and it is the best thing we can pass on to the future. So that’s history. What about the classical languages?
For one thing, it’s important to remember that language study and the humanities are always intertwined. The texts you want to read most carefully set the agenda for the languages you set yourself to learn. As Alyosha’s Christian theism has begotten in him a commitment to classical history, so his commitment to classical history has begotten in him a commitment to the classical languages. Second perhaps is the internal inconsistency of the pro-STEM, contra-Latin position. In order to be pro-STEM, Kolya must downplay the importance of the humanities. Yet in order to be contra-Latin, he must appeal to Latin and the humanities’ greatest triumph, i.e., making the greatest stories and ideas accessible to present-day audiences—making sure that the old does not become the forgotten. This is akin to citing the moon landing as proof that astronautics is worthless. Finally, Alyosha was undoubtedly influenced by our founder’s article on Latin’s ability to develop young minds, and knew that any position which believed Latin-study to have a dulling effect on one’s mind was a position to run away from posthaste.
Well, what only may have been in Alyosha’s case can be actually the case for us. Our Christian theism ought to tie us to history and the humanities, and our hold on the humanities to our study of Latin and Greek. If pressed further, we’re happy to point to the internal inconsistencies of the opposing view and appeal to those who are wiser than ourselves and have known better.