Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/July 1877/Editor's Table

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 11 July 1877  (1877) 
Editor's Table
 
EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE STUDY OF NATURE IN SCHOOLS.

THE progress of scientific education is slow, but the evidences of its reality are unmistakable. Among the recent and most encouraging illustrations of it, we note the various arrangements in different colleges for making excursions and expeditions for observation and the collection of specimens by students who are sufficiently interested to extend their studies in these directions. The excursions are to be in charge of competent professors, and the time of vacation is to be devoted to the work. The idea is excellent, as it will combine the pleasure of travel and out-of-door activity with valuable mental acquisition, which need not be so close or severe as to neutralize the advantages of vacation. It is especially in geology and natural history that the benefits of such excursions will be most obvious. In the former of these sciences, field-observation and the inspection of rocks, minerals, and landscape features in different localities, are requisite to give reality to knowledge and redeem the study from the illusiveness and unreality of its pursuit in mere text-books. Botany and zoölogy also are subjects which call their devotees into field and forest, mountain and valley, and require a kind of peripatetic cultivation. These vacation excursions, half for pleasure and half for profit, are valuable indications both of the increasing interest of this class of mental pursuits, and of an increasing appreciation of the only proper method of carrying them forward; while the friends of science have reason for congratulation at these signs of improvement in rational scientific culture.

But the obverse of this picture should not be overlooked. We cannot conceal from ourselves that these excursions are things to be thankful for, very much because of the defects of normal study throughout the year. Of course the vacation is a season of liberty, and allows a range of wandering which school confinement does not permit; and it is possible that excursion-work may be nothing more than a freer extension of the habitual practice in the school—which, of course, is the way it should be. Yet the open study of Nature, in her living objects, is undoubtedly, in most cases, rather a contrast to college experience than a continuation of it. It is to be remembered that the college has still a definite somewhere in Nature, from which the student can have an outlook upon realities, although the traditional scholarship makes little account of this circumstance. There are natural objects enough at hand, and crowding the collegiate environment, to illustrate a wide range of scientific study, if it were the policy of these institutions to make such objects available for this purpose. It is well to go away to find and examine new things, where that is convenient, or where it may be specially necessitated; but it should not be held to imply that there are not abundant facilities all around and everywhere for securing the same general object. The study of Nature is beginning to be recognized as an important part of common education, but it remains yet to be organized for this end.

 

 
THE ACCUSATION OF ATHEISM.

It has been suggested that, if Dr. Draper had entitled his book "A History of the Conflict between Ecclesiasticism and Science," instead of "between Religion and Science," he would have disarmed criticism, and saved himself from a great deal of theological abuse; but he preferred to credit people who profess religion with having it and being influenced by it, in their treatment of science. There is, indeed, no ground for impeaching the general sincerity of religious people who are alarmed at the advancement of science, and denounce it as subversive of faith. Their difficulty is simply that of narrowness and ignorance, inspired by a fanatical earnestness. Atheism has now come to be a familiar and stereotyped charge against men of science, both on the part of the pulpit and the religious press. Not that they accuse all scientific men of atheism, but they allege this to be the tendency of scientific thought, and the outcome of scientific philosophy. It matters nothing that this imputation is denied; it matters nothing that scientific men claim that their studies lead them to higher and more worthy conceptions of the Divine power, manifested through the order of Nature, than the conceptions offered by theology. It is enough that they disagree with current notions upon this subject, and any difference of view is here held as atheism.

In this, as we have said, the theologians may be honest, but they are narrow and bigoted; and it is surprising that they cannot see that, in arraigning scientific thinkers for atheism, they are simply doing what stupid fanatics the world over are always doing when ideas of the Deity different from their own are maintained. And it is the more surprising that Christian teachers should indulge in this intolerant practice, when it is remembered that their own faith was blackened with this opprobrium at its first promulgation. In a very able article by Prof. Zeller, of Berlin, on "The Contest of Heathenism with Christianity," reprinted in The Popular Science Supplement, No. II., this interesting subject is taken up, and the writer remarks upon it as follows:

"To the heathen nations, the Christians were in the first place atheists; for in every age this name has been given to those who did not agree with the prevailing conceptions of the Deity; not only when they denied his existence, but when they sought to instill a more just and worthy idea of God. 'Down with the atheists! ' this was the war-cry of the heathen mob against the Christians. It was with this cry, for example, that in a. d. 156 the venerable Bishop Polycarp was received on the race-course at Smyrna. The only gods the people knew anything about, whose temples they frequented, whose statues they worshiped, to whom they offered sacrifices and prayers, were denied by the Christians; they were declared to be the inventions of man's superstition, and sometimes to be evil spirits, devils. Can we wonder that the people who were still devoted to these gods felt the attack upon them to be an attack upon themselves, their most sacred and cherished possessions; that they were the more deeply incensed at it the more seriously they feared by toleration of it to lose the favor of the gods on whom their welfare depended? The reproach of atheism was therefore the most dangerous that could be brought against the Christians. In that 'Down with the atheists! ' with which the yells of the mob greeted Polycarp at Smyrna, was included the sentence of death, which they at once proceeded to execute by preparing the stake. And the cry was followed in numberless cases by the same results. If any public misfortune, any alarming event occurred, which seemed to indicate the displeasure of the gods—a pestilence, a dearth, a flood, an eclipse, an earthquake—superstition was always ready to make the Christians responsible for it, as enemies of the gods; the exclamation was sure to be heard, 'The Christians to the lions! ' Both the educated and uneducated have always attributed every other wickedness to the enemies of the gods, and so it was with the Christians. Being atheists, they were also criminals, and all manner of horrible stories were told of them. It was not enough that they were said to worship a god with the head of an ass, which we see represented to this day in a caricature of that period, the well-known mock crucifix in the Kircher Museum at Rome; it was said, also, that in their secret assemblies they practised all sorts of horrors, killed and devoured children, and gave themselves up to frightful excesses. Scarcely any evils were attributed to the Jews in the middle ages by Christian fanatics which had not been before attributed to the Christians by heathen superstition."

It would be well if our theologians would remember these things when tempted to deal out their maledictions upon scientific men as propagators of atheism. For the history of their own faith attests that religious ideas are a growth, and that they pass from lower states to higher unfoldings through processes of inevitable suffering. It was undoubtedly a great step of progress from polytheism to monotheism; as it was certainly a most painful transition to lose the idea of a social hierarchy of human or superhuman immortals constantly mixed up with human affairs and the working of Nature, and to substitute the idea of a solitary divine personality, related to mankind chiefly through a special theological scheme. But this was neither the final step in the advancement of the human mind toward the highest conception of the Deity, nor the last experience of disquiet and grief at sundering the ties of old religious associations. But if this be a great normal process in the development of the religious feeling and aspiration of humanity, why should the Christians of to-day adopt the bigoted tactics of heathenism, first applied to themselves, to use against those who would still further ennoble and purify the ideal of the Divinity? It cannot be rationally questioned that the world has come to another important stage in this line of its progression. The knowledge of the universe, its action, its harmony, its unity, its boundlessness and grandeur, is comparatively a recent thing; and is it to be for a moment supposed that so vast a revolution as this is to be without effect upon our conceptions of its Divine control? Is it rational to expect that the man of developed intellect, whose life is spent in the all-absorbing study of that mighty and ever-expanding system of truth that is embodied in the method of Nature, will form the same idea of God as the ignorant blockhead who knows and cares nothing for these things, who is incapable of reflection or insight, and who passively accepts the narrow notions upon this subject that other people put into his head? As regards the Divine government of the world, two such contrasted minds can hardly have anything in common. "As a man thinketh, so is he;" and as a man is, so will he think. If he is ignorant and stupid, his contemplation of divine things will reflect his own low limitations. He will cling to a groveling anthropomorphism and conceive of the Deity as a man like himself, only greater and more powerful, and as chiefly interested in the things that he is interested in. If he delights in the pious excitement of "revivals," he will think of the Almighty as the patron of camp-meetings, and as watching from on high with special solicitude the doings of Moody and Sankey in Boston. It is superfluous to say that men who look upon the universe as science has disclosed it cannot much sympathize with this view of the Deity and all that it implies. The profound student of science will rise to a more spiritualized and abstract ideal of the Divine nature, or will be so oppressed with a consciousness of the Infinity as to reverently refrain from all attempts to grasp, and formulate, and limit the nature of that which is "past finding out," which is unspeakable and unthinkable. Religious feeling may be awakened in both those minds; but its inspirations and its accompaniments will be as wide asunder as the poles. Our religious teachers ought in these days to have liberality enough to recognize this serious fact, and remembering that human nature is religiously progressive, as well as progressive in its other capacities, should abstain from copying the bad example of narrow-minded heathen thousands of years ago, who treated the Christians very much as many Christians now treat those who are devoted to the gospel of science.

 

 
THE FAMILY AND THE STATE.

We commend to those students of social questions who are interested in their scientific aspects the essay "On the Evolution of the Family," by Mr. Herbert Spencer, which was begun in the June Monthly, and is concluded in our present number. The article is an instructive illustration of what is properly meant by social science, and it also shows what is gained for the subject by investigating its phenomena from the standpoint of evolution. It is obvious that we can know little of the nature of the family until we have a right idea of its origin; and it is equally evident that it cannot be intelligently and wisely dealt with, either by social or political arrangements, on a false theory of its derivation and consequent erroneous views of its constitution. It is a current belief that the family is as old as humanity, and is an indestructible element of human society, and much the same thing everywhere. Even such inquirers into the philosophy of political history as Mr. Maine commence their researches by assuming the family or patriarchal group as a starting point. But on the theory of evolution this form of the domestic relations must be accounted for. The patriarchal condition was an outgrowth of earlier conditions, the complex resultant of a preexisting state which there is reason to believe was far more prolonged than the period that has elapsed since the family was instituted. Be that as it may, the point of view now gained is that of the family as a growth, a product of the slow interaction of various natural agencies, and an institution therefore that is liable to impairment, disintegration, and decay.

This conception of the family gives an interest to the question of its relation to the state that no other hypothesis enforces. The family is older than the state, and grew up without it by natural laws and through long domestic experience and social discipline. The state is a subsequent development, a new direction of the power of society which is liable to be so exercised as to disturb and modify in serious ways the domestic relations. A child cannot build a house, but it can burn it down; the state did not make the family, but it can mar and destroy it. If, as Mr. Spencer alleges, "the salvation of every society depends on the maintenance of an absolute opposition between the régime of the family and the régime of the state," governmental tendencies become a matter of the gravest social concern. And these considerations acquire additional force in a country like this, where the whole people are given over to politics, and where there is a universal passion for experimenting with society under a superstitious delusion in regard to the omnipotence of legislation. If the principle laid down by Spencer be a true one, then are the functions of government sharply limited, and, by transcending them, the state to that extent usurps domestic functions, and becomes destructive of the family. The family grew up and became consolidated, as we may say, under pressure of necessities and responsibilities that could not be escaped, as there was no state upon which parents could roll off their burdens. But the state has come, and besides its essential duty of protecting the common rights, it is becoming more and more called upon to take care of the people, to improve the condition of the people, to take charge of their children, in short to assume the "parental" function. We have already gone so far in our state meddling with the work of education and relieving parents from the responsible care of their children, that the demand is now urgently made by progressive teachers and advanced educational reformers that the government shall follow out the policy to its logical and consistent consequences, and assume the complete educational control of the young. From the time of weaning to graduation, the state (that is, the politicians who at any time happen to be in office) will hire the teachers and pay them, prescribe the studies, furnish the books, build the schoolhouses, and administer the discipline by which character is to be formed. This is an invasion of the domestic sphere, and an abrogation of those domestic functions by which the family was called into existence and has ever been maintained. Our school system is applauded on account of its imposing parade of statistics, its profuse expense, and the millions of children that the state has got charge of; but, when its indirect influences are taken into account, it may be found that, like most other human contrivances, it entails evil as well as good. Which shall preponderate, it remains for time to tell.