Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 16.djvu/211

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197
FIRST-HAND AND SECOND-HAND KNOWLEDGE.

FIRST-HAND AND SECOND-HAND KNOWLEDGE.[1]
By W. B. DALBY, F. R. C. S.

IN every system of education in which natural science forms no part, whatever knowledge the pupil gains is acquired from what he reads or from what he is told, and the truth of facts so presented to him he must take either upon trust or, in so far as they can be demonstrated to his reason, by logic or mathematics. In the study of natural science, on the other hand, he sees, he feels, he hears the same fact repeated again and again under the same conditions; and his informant is Nature—Nature, who never errs. Which is the better mode of acquiring information? Which information is the more likely to be true, to be the more worthy of trust, and safer to be acted upon? These questions need no reply. We shall all agree that one of the most important elements in education is English literature, and certainly in this department history must be included as not the least useful and delightful. But consider for a moment how entirely different, as a force in mental culture, is the information acquired by learning anything in science or in history. Take, for example, the character, or even the acts, of Mary Stuart. Although the events in her life occurred only some three hundred years ago, I dare say I could find among the students I am addressing as much difference of belief in many of her recorded actions, and certainly of opinion in regard to her character, as on any subject I could raise. To do this it would only be necessary to select a student fresh from the reading of Mr. Froude's history, and another who had derived his impressions from earlier histories, and had not laid aside the romance with which Scott's novels have surrounded this Queen. Mr. Froude's references to existing documents may be sufficient to induce me to receive his facts for purposes of history; but, accept his accounts as much as I will, my belief is of a very faint sort if I compare it with anything I have seen for myself. Viewed in the light of actual knowledge, the facts derived in the two ways have a different kind of value to me, both no doubt good in themselves, but still widely apart. With all due respect to the authorities at our old universities, I can not but think that the time will come when the elements of physiology and chemistry will be considered as valuable a method of mental training as the production of what are fancifully termed Latin verses, as the study of the traditional records of Jewish history, or the learning by heart of sentences from Paley's "Evidences." In the work which you now propose to undertake you will require no one's evidences but those of your own senses, and any statement from your teachers you will be able to subject to such tests. In whatever degree you do this your studies will be useful; when once

  1. Part of an address delivered at St. George's Hospital, London, October 1, 1879.