The Spike or Victoria College Review 1947
It is a Brave Man, in an age when functionalism is almost a mania, who will defend the classical tradition in education, and who will say that learning by heart the conjugation of amo, or the declension of Xωpa is a suitable preparation for life in the twentieth century. Classical scholarship, that magical horseman who has hard ridden a submissive western world ever since he first leapt from the ashes of Constantinople, five centuries ago, has at last been unhorsed. A knowledge of Cicero is no longer the mark of culture, and the House of Commons, which once rose as one man to finish a tag left in the air by Pitt, might, if placed in a similar position today, be hard put to it to know what language was being used.
And the reasonable person is obliged to recognize that the world is right. Far too much time, far too much effort of able minds, has been mis-spent in deciphering the inscriptions on lavatory walls, and in giving meaning to the pedestrian thoughts of scribblers whose unworthy work has survived by a trick of chance; far too much attention has been paid to the minutiae of scholarship, and the reading into phrases of what never existed in the author's mind. How they would be flattered, the old Greeks and Romans, if they had known the care and study which was destined to be given to their flimsiest thought.
So it is high time that the old runes were exorcised—but it would be unwise to discount every virtue with which the past has endowed the study of Greece and Rome. Greek and Latin are languages, which as much as any others, have expressed the pathos and aspiration of men. Dull would he be of soul who could not hear the fluctuent music of: —
'Multas per gentes et multa per aequoravectus. . .'
Moreover, these two language are the one small but dazzling mirror which flashes back light to us from the dark backward of time. The users are better known to us than our own brothers. They provide us with a standard gauge to measure the progress of the world.
It is pitifully easy for iconoclasts to assail classical education in a country like New Zealand, where roads have never heard the tramp of legions, where you will find no Roman house, dig as deep as you will, and where there are no place names derived from the Latin tongue; easy when the Acropolis is but a name, and where the only sculpture is in crude plaster casts, or in books. He who would teach New Zealanders to love what does not exist for them in their race-consciousness, must have great heart and great patience.
John Brown, fresh from St. Andrews and Oxford, with their all but religious veneration for the classics, must have felt dismayed at the atmosphere in which he found himself, the immature, materialistic atmosphere of New Zealand in 1899. He had to start a tradition with bare hands. The soil was reluctant. With Scotch tenacity he stuck to his task. He was not a man with wide imaginations, cursed with the urge to body forth in words the 'shape of things unknown'. He was content to build slowly, brick by brick, letting the house take what shape it would.
In this way he mentored an inviolate world for close on fifty years and many fine scholars have owed their first steps to him. Many more have owed to him a wider appreciation of art and literature, since, realising the wastage involved in forcing students to learn a difficult tongue, when the real desideratum was an enjoyment of the best in the Hellenic age, he inaugurated a course in Greek history, Art and Literature which answered that very need.
And the man? I found him always kindly, always helpful. Here again he was the Scot, shy, cautious, slow to show his feelings, but with a fund of cynical acerbity. I think he never quite became a New Zealander, but remained for ever hurt by the disrespect we showed for the objects which to him were so precious. But he did not let this interfere page 8 with his interest in his students, and his devotion to his chosen field remained unchanged.
A Knighthood at the end of his many years of service found him like the old gladiaton in Horace's first Epistle: 'Spectatum eatis et rude donatum. The gesture was a wise one. Few people have earned this public recognition so well, few have appreciated it more.