Stephen Anderson, the Rodewald Lector at New College, Oxford, writes about the eccentric genius who introduced the Direct Method, i.e. teaching Latin exclusively in Latin, to English schools.


What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?

WHD Rouse and the Direct Method.

What on earth have we here? A sea shanty in Classical Greek? Why would such things even exist?

I first met that one at a college Classical Society dinner in, I think, 1978. Once we were all quite merry, if not entirely κραιπαλόκωμοι, the President of the Society produced some duplicated sheets with a number of songs1 in Greek and Latin. These, he explained, were the work of Dr WHD Rouse, one time Head Master of the Perse School, who, as part of his campaign to teach the classical languages by speaking them, had published for his pupils a book of well-known songs, both to be a bit of fun, and to offer some painless instruction.Οn and off these songs have fascinated me ever since. It’s because of them that I think that the life and work of this extraordinary man, WHD Rouse, deserves just a little attention.

William Henry Denham Rouse was born on 30th May, 1863, in a mission, run by the Baptist Church, in Calcutta. His father, George Henry Rouse, was Indian Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society. William was educated partially at home, partially at school in India – at the wonderfully named Doveton College Academic and Parental Institution – and partially in both Wales and England. In 1881 he won a scholarship in classics to Christ’s College, Cambridge, an institution which was to remain important to him for the rest of his life.

At Cambridge Rouse passed through the Classical Tripos with honour and distinction. After a 1st in Part One he chose to study literature and philology in Part Two: in both he gained first class marks. After graduation, then, he stayed on at Cambridge to do philological research, and eventually, in 1888, was elected a Fellow of Christ’s, for a limited period of six years. Some fine scholarly work was the result: a translation of Brugmann’s Indo-European Grammar, a collation of the manuscripts of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca and a grand work on Greek votive offerings for which he gained a Litt.D.

It was during these years, too, that Rouse first dipped his toe into the world of schoolmastering. From 1886 to 1888 he taught classics at Bedford School – which he didn’t much like – and in 1890 tried again at Cheltenham. Here he came into contact with a number of Modern Languages teachers who were interested in the Direct Method, i.e. they taught French and German by speaking them, an idea which had first originated in Germany. This ‘teaching by speaking’ doesn’t, of course, strike us as in the least odd today: as long ago as in the ’60s I was taught French by at least a version of the Direct Method, and it is still very much in use now: but in the late nineteenth century things were very different; perhaps even as a bid to make them seem more academically respectable, French and German were taught like ‘dead languages’, by the rote-learning of grammatical paradigms and by exercises in composition, the so-called ‘grammar grind’, reputedly loathed by so many who had to suffer it. There is no doubt that seeing the Direct Method in action like this in Modern Languages had a profound and serious effect on Rouse. All languages, he believed, as had his father before him when translating the Scriptures into Bengali, are alive, living and at their best when used as a direct means of clear communication.

In 1895 Rouse moved, with the Headmaster of Cheltenham, to a new post at Rugby. Here he was the so-called ‘Tutor to the Town’, a sort of House Master for day boys. In that capacity he taught the young Arthur Ransome, of Swallows and Amazons fame, encouraging him, against his parents’ wishes, to try to become a writer. Ransome was later generous in his praise: ‘My greatest piece of good fortune,’ he wrote, ‘was that I passed so low into the school that I came at once into the hands of a most remarkable man whom I might otherwise not have met. That was Dr WHD Rouse.’

As well as teaching classics at Rugby Rouse did a lot of writing. Most important for our purposes are his two books on verse composition, one each for Greek and Latin, which appeared in 1899. In both these volumes, whose modus operandi as textbooks is described by OUP as being ‘a plan entirely novel’, Rouse, instead of just giving rules and printing passages for translation, first breaks up the principles of verse composition into manageable and learnable chunks, and then, takes excerpts of English poetry, and, step by step, actually shows how one might successfully render them into Greek or Latin. As he says himself in the introduction to the Greek volume, ‘the real advantage is that we not only show the result to a class, but the way in which it is attained.’ In these books one can definitely see germs of what were to become the central features of Rouse’s teaching later at the Perse.

As far as I can establish, Rouse was happy at Rugby, but, as time moved on, he became ambitious for the job of a Head Master. In this quest the cards were stacked against him: not only had he already become known as an outspoken ‘union man’ with the AMA (Assistant Masters’ Association), never much of a recommendation to school governors, but even more importantly, he had not taken holy orders in the Church of England, still, in those days, a virtual sine qua non for aspirant Head Masters of public schools. For all his dynamism and all his scholarship, he failed to be appointed at the King’s School, Worcester, at Tonbridge, at Aldenham and at King Edward VI’s, Birmingham. Later too, he was to fail at St Paul’s in London. Eventually, in 1902 he was successful at the Perse School, Cambridge, a school just at that time in serious financial trouble, and, indeed, in danger of closure.

Dr Rouse with his Perse School pupils plus dogs

At the Perse Rouse was now free to put into practice the educational theory that had been forming in his mind throughout his days as a teacher. He turned the school, essentially, into an academy which concentrated more on classics than on anything else, though there were also English, Modern Languages, maths and science. Both classical and modern languages were taught by the Direct Method. Rouse himself did much of the classical teaching, especially in the Sixth Form. Indeed, throughout his time as Head Master (he went on until 1928), he never had an office or study, but based himself in his form room, taught most of the time, and was a real thorn in the flesh to one official body after another, whose forms he ‘forgot’ to fill in, and to whose letters he rarely replied. Very different from the Headmasters and Headmistresses of today!

So, exactly how did he go about this Direct Method teaching? And why did it matter so much to him?

Let me deal with the second question first: it mattered so much on at least two fronts. First, it was, he claimed, much more effective in terms of results than conventional teaching. I quote from a document entitled ‘The Perse School’ written by Rouse for his governors in 1927:

After a few years spent as a Schoolmaster, I felt a conviction that there was something radically wrong… The trouble lay not in the machinery of instruction…[but] in the spirit of the boys. They would work out of a sense of duty, or to please a master whom they liked, or to get promotion…but the work in itself was distasteful… With the majority of boys, the work was an unmitigated grind, disliked and when possible evaded…why this was so I did not know…the whole thing was dead. I had only a feeling that the key to the situation lay in making the work real by some means, and conversation suggested itself as a possible means.

Secondly, he believed that learning a language through direct contact with it was morally superior as an educational experience, and would produce people more inclined to, and better equipped for, social reform, something he perceived as absolutely necessary in the Britain of his day.

As to what the Direct Method actually consisted of, there are numbers of accounts by Rouse himself, as well as the memoirs of those who underwent the experience. For now it is enough to say that all instruction was based on the primacy of the spoken word: Latin lessons were conducted in Latin, Greek lessons in Greek. Conversation, or as Rouse himself put it, the ‘living word’, was the key to everything. Basic grammar was taught in the lower school through simple Latin discussion and the enactment of playlets2; and Sixth Form work consisted largely of reading plain classical texts aloud, without translating. Rouse maintained that the teacher could always tell if a pupil wasn’t actually understanding what he read; and could then quiz him (in Latin or Greek, of course, the boy also replying in the original language) until convinced of his comprehension. Prep, then, would consist of the pupil writing, again in the original, summaries of what had been read during the day. Thus the skills of composition, still massively important in those days, were nurtured in the normal procedure of things, rather than by regularly translating, as a sort of artificial exercise, chunks of Gibbon or Macaulay or the like into indifferent pieces of fake Cicero or Demosthenes. Only in examinations did the latter type of exercise occur, as also did more traditional unseen translations into English.

A tall order indeed! I wonder how many even of the most able classical teachers today would feel confident in the delivery of such a curriculum. Rouse himself summed up the benefits of this approach in four concise points:

  1. It is natural.
  2. It is living.
  3. It is speedy.
  4. It is intelligent.

Against all the odds, surrounded by supporters in the form of radical colleagues and clever pupils, Rouse made a success of his experiment. Within relatively few years the failing fortunes of the Perse School were turned around: numbers increased, the finances stabilised, and by 1911 Rouse was able to build for himself and his boarders a new School House at Cherry Hinton on the outskirts of Cambridge.

The new School House wasn’t the only important thing for Rouse in 1911: that summer he held in Bangor the first of the Summer Schools which were to lead to the foundation of the ARLT, the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching3; and there was something else as well, something by which we’ve all been affected, and for which all of us classicists, at some time or other, been grateful.

When in that year James Loeb, a German-Jewish-American banker and philanthropist, set out to create the Loeb Classical Library, he first asked the distinguished Cambridge classicist, Sir James Frazer, to be the principal English editor. Frazer agreed, but only if he could have an assistant, and for this job he chose Rouse. Frazer subsequently stood down, before ever doing anything, and his place was taken by TE Page, editor of Virgil and Horace. A third was the American, Edward Capps, Professor of Classics at Princeton from 1907 to 1935. Rouse’s association with the Loeb Library was long and distinguished: he remained a general editor long into his retirement, and himself contributed a number of volumes, Lucretius, Seneca and Nonnus, on whom he had started work at the very beginning of his career.

The Direct Method never really gained a firm national foothold. Rouse was its champion, and a few of his pupils and supporters from the early days of the ARLT became dedicated practitioners. But even before the end of his Headmastership of the Perse some of the writing could be seen on the wall. A committee of the Board of Education reported in 1921 that: ‘Few teachers speak in favour of the Direct Method as applied to Latin…. Nearly all the teachers who condemn it have tried it and found it unsatisfactory.’ Even former supporters of the system wavered now, and when Rouse himself read the final report, he announced to his staff, ‘They have praised us with faint damns’. Perhaps it was never destined for success, demanding, as it did, so much of both pupil and teacher, at its best in the hands of its own creator, but a nightmare for those who weren’t really up to it.

Rouse retired from the Perse in 1928, and his successors wasted no time in effecting pretty radical change. It was as if there was an unspoken determination to dismantle the old man’s kingdom with its strange illusion of Latin and Greek as living languages, and the school moved fast into a more modern world: different examinations were introduced, science became massively more important, and the classics were undermined.

As for the man himself, he lived on until 1950, right to the end a vigorous protagonist for his own beliefs, even though the world had turned, and not much of what he had done survived in recognisable form. But he remained active, teaching for Girton College, writing, translating, and even producing, for Linguaphone, recordings of spoken Greek and Latin, the Latin a proper language course, the Greek just a collection of readings.

By 1948, when he was now 85, it was clear that he could no longer manage on his own at Histon Manor, his retirement home. He moved to Hayling Island in Hampshire to live with two cousins. Here, early in 1950 he fell ill, and died on 10th February. A few days later he was buried at Histon.

The Direct Method, at least as far as Latin and Greek are concerned, hasn’t, of course, except in a few pockets, survived to the present day. Equally it would be unfair to say that it has left no legacy. One area where it has is quite specific – I mean the regular Reading Competitions which are organised throughout the country by branches of the Classical Association (CA).  Their establishment was the direct result of the activity of Rouse’s two greatest pupils, Frank Lockwood and Cyril Peckett, as they sought some way to reconcile the high-minded CA and the more down-to-earth ARLT with its tradition of spoken Latin: the fact that high level literary passages were chosen pleased the CA, whilst the ARLT rejoiced that Latin was being spoken rather than read in silence. More than ever today we are constantly aware of just how important the sounds of Greek and Latin are in our appreciation of these languages.

In another area Rouse’s legacy is even more all-pervasive in the classics teaching world of today. Central to the Direct Method was the belief that language should not be acquired by the ‘grammar grind’ of rules and tedious exercises, but rather by immersion in the spoken word, proficiency and understanding accruing to the pupil by an inductive process rather than by rote learning. In the 60s, after the demise of compulsory Latin for Oxford and Cambridge, a number of new Latin course appeared as numbers rapidly fell; the Scottish Ecce Romani and the now near-ubiquitous Cambridge Latin Course depended too on an inductive approach. Gone, at least initially, were the paradigms of verbs, nouns and adjectives, and gone for ever, or so we thought, were sentences to be translated into Latin about Belgians attacking ditches with arrows. Instead we were offered Roman narratives set in Roman contexts, all against a background of the study of civilisation and culture. And knowledge of the language is acquired, or so the theory goes anyway, by an inductive process, not through speech and conversation, as for Rouse, but by reading the original and hearing it read aloud.

Rouse’s method, in the short term anyway, was perhaps bound to fail: it was too utopian and made too great demands on both pupil and teacher. But, in the long term his determination to banish for ever from the classical form room the horror of the ‘grammar grind’ made its own vital contribution to the development of the courses in regular use today. Every time a Latin teacher lifts a copy of the Cambridge Latin Course and starts to read aloud – Caecilius est in horto – Rouse lives again, and his gospel of the living word is proclaimed afresh.


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