Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/February 1885/The Larger Import of Scientific Education

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 26 February 1885  (1885) 
The Larger Import of Scientific Education
By John Wesley Powell


THE establishment of a School of Science and Arts at the capital of the nation, through the munificence of Washington's venerable philanthropist, is a landmark in the progress of culture and the history of education, and shows that the demands of modern culture are fully recognized. Let us briefly glance at some of the characteristics of this new education. Scientific education is catholic; it embraces the whole field of human learning. No student can master all knowledge in the short years of his academic life, but a young man of ability and industry may reasonably hope to master the outlines of science, obtain a deep insight into the methods of scientific research, and at the same time secure an initiation into some one of the departments of science, in such a manner that he may fully appreciate the multitude of facts upon which scientific conclusions rest, and be prepared to enter the field of scientific research himself and make additions to the sum of human knowledge. Honest investigation is but the application of common sense to the solution of the unknown. Science does not wait on Genius, but is the companion of Industry. Under the régime of the elder education, the larger number of those who prepared themselves to be scholars, by acquiring the languages in which scholarship was embodied, never passed beyond the portal to knowledge, but speedily fell back into the ranks of the unlearned. Only the few went on to explore the fields open before them; many were called, but few were chosen. Scientific education takes men at once into the very midst of the new philosophy.

There is no calling in life to which a cultured man may properly aspire in which a scientific training is not essential to success. This can not here be fully set forth, but some illustration may be given. If the scholar would devote himself to law—law itself is now a science, and, in the application of the principles of law to facts as they exist in modern civilization, a general knowledge of the facts which constitute the body of science is essential. In the East some of the greatest lawyers of the land are to-day engaged in gigantic litigation relating to the invention of the telephone, and in the far West other great lawyers are engaged in litigation relating to mines, which involve the facts and principles of geology. On every hand are kindred illustrations.

But there is a line of facts in the history of law which peculiarly illustrates this proposition. In savagery and in barbarism despotism is not highly developed. The greatest despotisms of the world were established in early civilization. In the main these despotisms were established on four fundamental ideas: first, there was property in man; second, tenure to land was feudal; third, the king was the fountain of justice; fourth, facts were established by compurgation. The last is of interest here.

In early civilization there were no proper legal methods by which to determine the facts involved in legal controversy, and, when courts were convened and juries organized, the facts were to be obtained from the averments of the interested parties, and no system of assembling evidence by witnesses, as now known in our courts, then existed. The parties to litigation, civil or criminal, made their statements and substantiated them by compurgators. Every man in an ancient community was supposed to have his friends who would vouch for the truth of his statements, and he stood best before the courts whose vouching friends or compurgators were the most influential. No device for the establishment of despotism and wrong has ever been more efficient than the system of compurgation.

In modern legal practice all this has been changed, and the law of evidence has been vastly developed, until it constitutes one of the most important departments of law; and to-day, in the hearing of cases, the larger share of the time is devoted to the establishment of the facts, and the greatest skill of attorneys is exercised in this branch of the case; and every great lawyer and jurist now understands that it is easier to grasp the principles of the law than to reach the facts which should guide in their application. Thus it is that a knowledge of the facts and the principles of science is essential to him who would be successful as advocate or as judge.

Perhaps the student aspires to be an historian. In the past, history has been devoted chiefly to the exploits of heroes and the story of wars; but history is now being speedily reorganized and rewritten upon a scientific basis, to exhibit the growth of culture in all its grand departments. History itself is now a science, and is no longer an art in which men exploit in rhetorical paragraphs.

In many ways and on every hand it can be shown that scientific education furnishes the training that is needed for life in modern civilization.

I refrain from alluding to the relations of such a school to the stupendous industrial accomplishments of modem civilization, and to the training demanded thereby; first, because that field has already been well cultivated; and, second, because it has been lately assumed that scientific education is wholly utilitarian. It is true that all utilitarian training is scientific, but that is not the only characteristic of scientific training—it is catholic, it is universal.

Scientific education gives the highest mental training; scientific education means a training in modern scientific culture. What this culture is, has already been outlined. It is the product of all the mental endeavor of the race to which we belong. This struggle for improvement, this grand endeavor to secure happiness through human activities, which have been defined as the humanities, began in remote antiquity. Where our race lived in savagery, we know not. All we know is that at some time and in some solace our ancestors were savages. In Asia and in Europe and in Africa this struggle was continued. Slowly and painfully, with many misfortunes and many reversions, the Aryan race has steadily moved forward in the march of culture, and every branch of the race has contributed its part. Every great artisan and artist, every great statesman, every great linguist, every great philosopher, every great thinker in all that time, has contributed his part; and, more than this, our race has borrowed from the other races of the world everything which they could contribute worthy of our acceptance.

Modern culture, therefore, stands as the product of all mental endeavor for all time. It may, then, be safely assumed that the study of that which has made civilization, and is civilization in its highest form, and which is the result of all the training of all the world, must itself furnish the best subject-matter for training that human ingenuity can devise.

Scientific education is aesthetic training. To purblind ignorance the beauties of the world are dimly seem, but the glory of the universe is revealed by science. Classic poetry was the best literary product of its time, because it was informed by the philosophy of its time. Its philosophy was chiefly mythology, and the characters of ancient poetry are mythic heroes and gods. So the highest literature of the new civilization must be informed by its highest philosophy; it must be instinct with that knowledge of the universe which is now the glory of the scholars of the world. The splendors of the heavens and the earth, as known to modern science, have put in eclipse the dull glories of ancient mythology.

Scientific education is a training in mental integrity. All along the history of culture from savagery to modern civilization men have imagined what ought to be, and then have tried to prove it true. This is the very spirit of metaphysic philosophy. When the imagination is not disciplined by unrelenting facts, it invents falsehood, and, when error has thus been invented, the heavens and the earth are ransacked for its proof. Most of the literature of the past is a vast assemblage of arguments in support of error. In science nothing can be permanently accepted but that which is true, and whatever is accepted as true is challenged again and again. It is an axiom in science that no truth can be so sacred that it may not be questioned. When that which has been accepted as true has the least doubt thrown upon it, scientific men at once re-examine the subject. No opinion is sacred. "It ought to be" is never heard in scientific circles. "It seems to be" and "we think it is" is the modest language of scientific literature.

In science all apparently conflicting facts are marshaled, all doubts are weighed, all sources of error are examined, and the most refined determination is given with the "probable error." A guard is set upon the bias of enthusiasm, the bias of previous statement, and the bias of hoped-for discovery, that they may not lead astray. So, while scientific research is a training in observation and reasoning, it is also a training in integrity.

Scientific training is an education in charity. Sympathy for the suffering of others is at the basis of eleemosynary charity, and it has grown with the development of social interdependence. The charity that was born in the family in primitive times, with the growth of the tribe into the nation, has developed into national charity, and finally, in modern civilization, it has become the great principle of philanthropy. Now the sufferings of all mankind touch the hearts of all men. If a tornado destroys a village, the whole world tenders alms; if a party of heroes are starving in the ice-fields of the North, their sufferings kindle sympathy in the heart of every civilized man.

But there is a charity unknown to tribal society, and little known in early civilization—a charity born of knowledge, a charity kindled in the hearts of men by science. It is charity for men's opinions—philosophic charity. In all the past, he whose opinions were not in conformity with current beliefs was held to be depraved, and hemlock was his portion, or fagots were used for his purification.

It has at last been discovered that the world has always been full of error, and we are beginning to appreciate how man has struggled through the ages from error to error toward the truth. We now know that false opinions are begotten of ignorance, and in the light of universal truth all men are ignorant, and as the scholar discovers how little of the vast realm of knowledge he has conquered he grows in philosophic charity for others. The history of the world is replete with illustrations to the effect that the greater the ignorance the greater the abomination of unconforming opinion, and the greater the knowledge the greater the charity for dissenting opinions.

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  1. From an address delivered at the inauguration of the Corcoran School of Science and Arts, in the Columbian University, Washington, D. C, October 1, 1884.