French

II. William Montague: a nineteenth-century visionary

In the Spring of 1855 William Lewis Montague, a native of Belchertown, received his Amherst College degree as a member of the class of 1855.6 He would return to his alma mater three years later with a Master's degree in hand and take over the teaching of French.7 By 1865, when he earned the title of Professor of French (p. 6), the modern languages curriculum had already begun a significant expansion. Two years later, all students at the College were required to study French during the third term of the freshman year.8

Under Montague, French was not studied simply to obtain a reading knowledge of the language. Already in the mid-nineteenth century emphasis was being placed within the curriculum on the development of the students' oral skills. First term sophomores were required to attend exercises in "Elocution, and pronunciation of French" on Saturday mornings.9 But this "practical" element of language learning was not divorced from broader cultural goals. The status of literary studies at the institution could be seen in the establishment of mandatory Friday morning lectures for seniors on the topic of French literature.10Montague was the first Amherst College professor to lecture on a literature from a romance language. Although the curriculum emphasized French, it was not the only romance language that could be studied at the time. Italian figured among the electives that could be taken by juniors.11Spanish would soon be reintroduced into the curriculum as an elective that could be taken during the senior year.12

In the fall of 1868, Montague was listed as "Professor of French, Spanish, and Italian" (p. 6), a title that he held until 1891, when Italian became his sole focus.13 During the course of his career Montague managed to find time beyond his teaching duties to serve as the College Registrar (1860-80) and as the College Librarian (1864-78).14 From 1883 to1896, Montague served as Director of Amherst's "Summer School of Languages," which was dedicated primarily to the training of secondary school teachers in the use of the "direct method" and to the development of the teachers' oral skills in a variety of languages. It boasted students from as far away as Constantinople and the Washington Territories.

Montague published fifteen books during the course of his career, including a Manual of Italian Grammar (1870), a Manual comparative grammar of the Spanish Language, with an historical introduction (1873), and an Introduction to Italian Literature (1875). His interests were not limited to philological concerns, however. After retiring, he edited a bibliographical record of the alumni of Amherst College from 1821-1896 that has proven to be an invaluable resource for historians. He also produced a genealogical study of the Montague family in America, in which he traces his roots back to William the Conqueror. Moreover, like his modern-day successors, he was an avid and accomplished gardener.

Under Montague the French curriculum went through several transformations. The reading lists consisted primarily of classical seventeenth-century French theater: Corneille's Le Cid, Racine's Athalie, and the comedies of Molière. They also included readings from Pascal and on the history of France. Not long after the program for the Bachelor of Science degree had been established, the lists were expanded to include a text on mathematics: Sturm's Cours d'analyse: calcul différentiel was listed as elective reading for sophomores.15 By 1880 senior electives in French consisted of more contemporary readings from the nineteenth century: Sainte Beuve, George Sand, and the lyric poetry from the Romantic period, most particularly that of Victor Hugo and Alfred Musset (pp. 28-30).

During most of Montague's tenure, Italian and Spanish were offered as electives. French and German, by contrast, were required of all students. In 1868 all sophomores and third-term freshmen attended French class on the average three times per week. By the second term of their junior year, they could choose to study French further or to begin another modern language (pp. 19-21). Evidence exists that the institution wanted to encourage the study of modern languages beyond the basic requirements. In the same year, alumni from the class of 1855 established the first prize for excellence in French: $40 for the student who performed best on oral and written exams, $30 for second place (p. 30). By 1877 the prize amounted to $70 (p. 37), a tidy sum at a time when the total expenses for an academic year were calculated to be only $234. The first French prize awarded went to Adoniram J. Titsworth, who went on to win the Woods prize at the end of his senior year.

By 1876 applicants were required to pass an entrance exam in French in order to obtain admission to the College (p. 22). The emphasis placed on developing the oral skills of the students might have been the rationale for this requirement. Perhaps through his association with the Sauveur "Summer School of Languages," of which he became the Director in 1883, Montague became a proponent of the "direct method," which held that teachers of modern languages were most effective when they conducted their classes entirely in the target language. The catalog from 1884-85 asserts that the goal of the Romance Languages curriculum was to "read with ease the best authors in several languages," but this meant that the students should be able to "read and understand independently of translation." In an apparent effort to reach this goal, Montague conducted all of his courses in French. According to the catalog, "the requirement of an elementary knowledge of the language for admission to the College makes it possible to conduct all recitations in French" (p. 29).16

By 1887 the admission requirements changed to embrace German. Applicants could choose to take an entrance exam in either German or French (p. 22). If they later chose to become familiar with a different romance language, they had every reason to expect to make rapid progress under Montague's system. In those days, students tended to have a thorough grounding in Latin before arriving at the College. The potential for accelerated study of a romance language was enhanced by such a preparation. Students who studied Italian could take an elective in Dante by their junior year. Those who studied Spanish could elect to read Cervantes (pp. 36-37).

It is possible that these admission requirements proved to be too demanding over the long run. In 1891 the entrance exam in French or German was no longer mandatory, but candidates were still advised to offer "one or both" of these languages at matriculation (p. 24).17 Freshmen were still required to take French or German as part of their normal course of study. Presumably many students placed into a very advanced level of French. The curriculum at the time was so highly developed that students could eventually take a course that included materials written between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, among which one found such difficult medieval texts as the Chanson de Roland, and works by Joinville and Froissart. Renaissance texts on the reading list included Rabelais and Montaigne (p. 39). None of these were being translated into modern French at the time. The students read them in the original.

In 1892 Montague decided to turn all of his attention to Italian. The Reverend Edwin A. Grosvenor, father of the eventual Director of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor, was recruited to be Montague's successor. His intellectual interests lay elsewhere, however. Although he accepted to teach French for three years, he had already published a work on the Hippodrome of Constantinople (1889) and preferred to consider himself a historian. He wrote a second book on the history of Constantinople that appeared in 1895.

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William Lewis Montague--
Amherst College Archives

 

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Entrance exam in French:
June 21, 1877--
Amherst College Archives

 

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Footnotes:

6 Montague is listed as a senior on p. 8 of the 1854-55 Amherst College catalog.

7 See p. 6 of the 1858-59 Amherst College catalog.

8 See p. 20 of the 1867-68 Amherst College catalog.

9 See pp. 21, 38 of the 1867-68 Amherst College catalog.

10 See p. 23 of the 1867-68 Amherst College catalog.

11 See p. 22 of the 1867-68 Amherst College catalog.

12 This would occur in 1868. See p. 21 of the 1868-69 Amherst College catalog.

13 The Treasurer's report from 1882 lists the salaries of all Full Professors as being $2500. This is the equivalent of approximately $45,000 in 2002 dollars. There is some evidence that earlier there were other unnamed individuals assisting Montague in the teaching of French. A line in the 1862 Treasurer's report cites $932 for "extra teaching" including French, Elocution, etc.

14 It was during his tenure as Librarian that student assistant Melvil Dewey developed the Dewey decimal system for cataloguing the holdings of the Library.

15 See p. 25 of the 1878-79 Amherst College catalog.

16 Fuess corroborates the image of the classroom environment that one might deduce from the catalog description. Montague did conduct all of his classes in French. However, he was reputed to be too kind and understanding a master, was known as "Monty" to his students, and was easily led off task by those who were uninterested in recitation (Story, p. 176). Patton and Field characterize Montague as "one of the first College Professors in this country to introduce the conversational method in the classroom" (pp. 242-43). Some of the documentation provides a less than flattering picture of Montague's effectiveness as an instructor. See Story p. 176 and 262. By contrast, Tyler is much more generous in his assessment and includes laudatory remarks about the improvements to the curriculum that Montague instituted during the course of his career. See Tyler, 1873, p. 430. It is entirely possible that Montague's reputation for being easily led off task was part of the pedagogical techniques associated with the "direct method". As long as the boys were speaking in French, the topic of conversation could be allowed to wander a bit from the text that was being discussed during the classroom session. The behavior that was interpreted by others as a discipline problem might well have been a subtle technique for encouraging the students to keep the classroom proceedings entirely in French.

17Candidates for the Scientific Course still had to prepare two languages from among Latin, French and German before arriving at the College. See pp. 24-25 of the 1891-92 Amherst College catalog.

 

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