Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/March 1887/Editor's Table
|←Sketch of Edward L. Youmans||Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 March 1887 (1887)
By William Jay Youmans
EDWARD L. YOUMANS, the projector of this magazine, and its editor from the opening number, died at his home in this city on the morning of Tuesday, January 18th, in the sixty-sixth year of his age. For nearly forty years he has been before the public as a teacher of science, either through his published works, on the lecture-platform, or in an editorial capacity; and though it may almost be said that he was cut off in the prime of his intellectual powers, it has been the fortune of few men of his generation to accomplish a larger amount of useful work. Leaving it to others who, less drawn by ties of kindred, and less dominated by the influence of long association, will be more competent to measure the impress he has made upon American ideas, it will be proper here to refer to the purposes and hopes which animated Professor Youmans in the establishment and conduct of "The Popular Science Monthly."
For years before the plan of the publication took definite form, he was frequently heard to deplore the inhospitable attitude of the periodical press, particularly in this country, toward the growing influence of science in the world of modern thought, and it was in order to open a way by which this influence might the more readily find access to the educated classes that the publication of the "Monthly" was first resolved upon. One of the earliest obstacles encountered, even before the magazine was fairly under way, was the active hostility of more than one of the leading periodicals of that time. The conductors of several of these journals, literary as well as religious, were intolerant of the views to which it was, among other things, the purpose of the "Monthly" to offer a channel of expression. Indeed, not only did they refrain from printing the writings of the leading scientific thinkers, but they seemed ever ready to condemn any means that might be employed to bring those writings before the public where they could be judged upon their merits. This was so much the case fifteen years ago, when the "Monthly" was started, that not one of the prominent magazines in the country would publish Mr. Spencer's papers on the "Study of Sociology"; yet so great was the change in public sentiment on these subjects, wrought by the "Monthly" under the guidance of Professor Youmans, that two of these very journals were among the earliest and most liberal applicants for Mr. Spencer's philosophical favors when he visited America ten years later.
Professor Youmans's conduct of this magazine has been marked by a sincere devotion to the search for truth and the diffusion of the most enlarged knowledge; by a careful exclusion of the merely sensational; by a vigilant solicitude to avoid misleading its readers through putting forth as science the unaccredited theories which so persistently seek public expression—with a quick readiness to correct errors into which he may have been inadvertently betrayed; and by a watchful care to keep abreast of the progress of science, particularly in its bearing on philosophy, education, ethics, social economy, etc.; and, above all, by constant adherence to the principle that "the highest value of science is derived from its power of advancing the public good."
Loyalty to the spirit and principles thus outlined was indicated in the opening announcement of the "Editor's Table" of the first number of the "Monthly," where it was declared that the journal had been started "to help on the work of sound public education by supplying instructive articles on the leading subjects of scientific inquiry." It was there shown, further, that the meaning of the term science was widening, that it had come to be regarded as applying to the whole of Nature; "as being, in fact, a method of the mind, a quality or character of knowledge upon all subjects of which we can think or know." This implied a more critical method of inquiry in fields not before so strictly dealt with. Whatever subjects involved accessible and observable phenomena came within its range; it was the common interest of rational beings; and included in the immense extension of its conception all subjects of human interest. There was growing up a valuable literature of popular science in the shape of instructive essays and lectures from men who were authorities upon the subjects which they treated, for the diffusion of which adequate means were not yet provided. The "Monthly" would afford this, and in doing it would appeal not to the illiterate, but to the generally educated classes, and would seek to enable them to carry on the work of self-instruction in science.
To him may be literally applied what he wrote of Agassiz, on the occasion of his death: "He [Agassiz] had great enthusiasm and impulsiveness, and the whole fervor and intensity of his nature was spent in the single-minded pursuit of science. Not content with what he could himself know, and do, and enjoy, he was powerfully impelled to make others the sharers of his knowledge, his activity, and his pleasures. He not only won them to him by his geniality and his cordial and unaffected manners, but he inspired them with his own purposes, and moved them to his own ends." He was not content to be merely a scatterer of his own stores of knowledge; "he had a profound interest in popular education, but the soul of that interest was for improvement in its methods. In the matter of public instruction he was a revolutionist and a propagandist. He warred with current ideas and consecrated practices. He condemned in the most emphatic way the wretched lesson-learning routine that prevails in the schools. He denounced our wordy and bookish education as baseless and unreal, and demanded such a change in our systems of instruction as shall bring the pupils face to face with Nature herself, and call out the mind by direct exercise upon phenomena—the facts, laws, relations, and realities of the world of experience." All this is true of Professor Youmans; but it never entered his mind to assail existing systems till he believed he had something better and more effective to put in their place.
His faith and his heart were in his work, and he executed his self-imposed duties with a vigor, an earnestness, and a thoroughness that are peculiar to those who believe in what they are doing, and whose highest satisfaction is obtained in the consciousness of benefits conferred. Leaving this work—so persistently and so successfully carried on —to other hands, he has left along with it an example of conscientious devotion to principle, of outspoken allegiance to truth, and of unsparing self-sacrifice, that will remain a precious heritage to his friends, and may fitly serve as an inspiration to all who are striving for the general good.
IN his article on "Socialism," in the new "Scribner," General Francis A. Walker, of Boston, advances two opinions that seem to us open to the gravest question. In the first place he apparently approves of the exemption of church property from taxation in so far as the practice is grounded on a belief that the interests of public order will thereby be subserved. In the second place he bestows "the heartiest approval" on the "socialistic movement," as he himself describes it, for transferring "power and discretion in the matter of the education of children" from the family to the Government. Let us very briefly discuss both points. The exemption of church property from taxation is equivalent, General Walker tells us, to a "subsidy of many millions annually. . . It is claimed," we are further told, "that the services of this agent are worth to Government more than the taxes which the treasury might otherwise collect from the smaller number of churches and missions which would survive the assessment of the ordinary taxes, and that the remaining tax-payers really pay less, by reason of the reduction in violence and crime hereby effected." Now the question that presents itself to our mind is this: What view might we expect a dispassionate and capable observer, like the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to take of an utterly unverified and utterly illogical claim of this nature? That it is unverified no one can deny. What facts are there to prove that, if church property paid taxes like other property, crime and violence would increase, and the general rate of taxation be advanced? Absolutely none. That the claim is an illogical one is equally evident. Why should state aid to the churches, if it really assists the cause of order, stop short at the exemption of church property from taxation? If a few millions in this way are of so much benefit, why not try the effect of a few millions more in the payment or supplementing of the salaries of ministers? Why not have a fund for the erection of church-edifices in spiritually destitute districts? Why not subsidize the Bible Society? Why not distribute tracts through the Post-Office letter-boxes? There is really no end to what the Government might do to aid the churches; and it is really very odd that any one should seriously pretend that the whole duty of the Government in the matter is done when it has "dead-headed" the churches on the assessment-roll. Or look at the same question from another side. If it is conceded, as it probably is by the great majority in this country, that state patronage of the Church is hurtful to the life and activity of the latter, why should it be held that the particular form of state patronage involved in exempting ecclesiastical property from taxation is beneficial? Why should it not be held that just as the Church has gained in spiritual vitality by being cut off from other forms of state support, so it would further gain by shaking itself free from this last remnant of the old system? If this view is correct—and we should like to know what solid arguments can be advanced against it—then, instead of a gain to social order by the remission of the taxes on ecclesiastical property, there must be an injury to that very cause through the moral injury inflicted on the churches. The whole argument referred to by General Walker is so hollow, so unscientific, so manifest a begging of the question, that we can not but be surprised at his omission to denounce it as such; and still more at his putting it forward as an argument valid enough, if only used genuinely, in the interest of good government. No one knows better than General Walker that the sincerity with which an argument is used has nothing whatever to do with its logical validity, but depends wholly on personal conditions. A very ignorant or stupid man may use with perfect sincerity an argument which a better-informed and clearer-headed man could not use without conscious sophistry. We should very much like to read an article from General Walker's pen dealing with the one question: Should ecclesiastical property in the United States he exempted from taxation? We feel persuaded that, when he came to give us his own undiluted views upon that point, he would deal somewhat trenchantly with the argument above referred to, and not altogether in the direction of the brief notice contained in his article on "Socialism."
Next, as to the transfer to the state of the "power and discretion in the matter of the education of children." This, we are told, "deserves the heartiest approval. . . as a scheme for accomplishing good through state action, in a field properly pertaining to individual initiative and enterprise." It is a little difficult to understand how a field that "properly pertains to individual initiative and enterprise" can properly be encroached upon by the state. Some explanations on this point would be very acceptable. How can it be said that the field of education properly pertains to individual initiative and enterprise if the contention, indorsed by General Walker, is correct, that "the individual members of the state would be richer, and happier, and better, if power and discretion in the matter of the education of children were taken away from the family and lodged with the Government"? It seems to us that it is altogether too soon to bestow our "heartiest approval" upon this particular "socialistic movement." General Walker himself notes that "the immediate effects of popular instruction in reducing crime are in dispute." He might also note that this doubt has arisen almost wholly since the state has taken so prominent a part in the business of education. When education was in the hands mainly of the family, an education was universally thought to be the very best gift a father could bestow upon his son. Now, that the state is forcing education upon all, the value of the article has sensibly decreased; and many are beginning to doubt, looking both at moral and at intellectual results, whether in this matter society is not working in a wrong direction. A vast amount of thought has been bestowed during the last half-century upon educational methods; and yet we seriously doubt if there was evermore dissatisfaction with the general results of popular education than there is to-day. We could refer General Walker to an article that appeared a year or two ago in one of the leading newspapers of his own city, the "Boston Herald," setting forth the difficulty a certain insurance company had in finding, among a score of graduates of the Boston grammar-schools, a single youth competent to take a junior clerkship, the only qualifications for which were fair skill in figures, good handwriting, and a certain knowledge of the rules of English composition. Is it not the fact that "commercial colleges" have sprung up all over the country to supplement the deficiencies, from a business point of view, of the public schools? And in spite of the vast disadvantage at which state competition places all private tuition, the number of private schools and academies advertised in the papers is still very great. The effect upon the home of the wide assumption of educational functions by the state has yet to be fully ascertained; but already there are grave reasons for thinking it has been far from favorable. It is no small matter to take from the family the "power and discretion in the matter of the education of children"; and before we talk of giving our "heartiest approval" to the change, we should be quite sure that it is not going to loosen the very foundations of society. Our own opinion is that education is no part of the functions of the state, and that it would be better, therefore, to leave it in the hands of the family, even though the result were to show, in the course of a few years, a larger proportion than now of that kind of illiteracy which consists in not being able to read or write. We have known illiterates of that kind who could "give points" to people who could both read and write in the matter of common sense and general information. The question is too wide a one for discussion in these columns; but we desire here to record our conviction that when “power and discretion in the matter of the education of children are taken away from the family and lodged with the Government,” the rights and duties of the family are seriously invaded, and that no good can come of it in the long run.
Mr. Grant Allen visited America last year for his health, and not on an errand of scientific observation. Yet, that his well-known habit of looking closely at what he saw, and questioning it for the instruction it might yield, was not relaxed, is shown by the very interesting and suggestive article which he has contributed to our pages this month on “A Mount Washington Sandwort.” The history of the plant, as he elucidates it, is most interesting, and can not fail to give us broader views of the effect of glacial action upon the distribution of life over the earth.