Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/November 1875/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.
WHICH UNIVERSE SHALL WE STUDY?

A CERTAIN class of astronomers have aimed to persuade us that there are "more worlds than one;" and those ingenious speculators Stewart and Tait have recently argued for two universes: the present universe, open to the sense, and an "unseen universe" beyond the range of direct scientific investigation but open to intrepid scientific faith. From another point of view this idea of two universes comes out in a much more definite and practical way; and that is when considered with reference to the two great orders of knowledge that are now making rival claims on the attention of mankind as means of education. This conception of two universes as objects of thought was very instructively set forth by the able author of the articles we have published under the title of "The Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion," in his third paper, and the passage defining the distinction is so well drawn that it will bear repetition. The writer says:

"There is something which sets itself up as a just reflection of the universe, and which it is possible to study as if it were the universe itself; that is, the multitude of traditional unscientific opinions about the universe. These opinions are, in one sense, part of the universe; to study them from the historic point of view is to study the universe; but when they are assumed as an accurate reflection of it so as to divert attention from the original, as they are by all the votaries of authority or tradition, then they may be regarded as a spurious universe outside and apart from the real one, and such students of opinion may be said to study, and yet not to study the universe.

"This spurious universe is almost as great as the genuine one. There are many profoundly learned men whose whole learning relates to it and has no concern whatever with reality. The simplest peasant, who, from living much in the open air, has found for himself, unconsciously, some rules to guide him in divining the weather, knows something about the real universe; but an indefatigable student, who has stored a prodigious memory with what the schoolmen have thought, what the philosophers have thought, what the fathers have thought, may yet have no real knowledge; he may have been busy only with the reflected universe. Not that the thoughts of dead thinkers stored up in books are not part of the universe as well as wind and rain; not that they may not repay study quite as well; they are deposits of the human mind, and by studying them much may be discovered about the human mind, the ways of its operation, the stages of its development. Nor yet that the thoughts of the dead may not be of the greatest help to one who is studying the universe: he may get from them suggestions, theories, which he may put to the test, and thus convert, in some cases, into real knowledge. But there is a third way in which he may treat them which makes books the very antithesis to reality, and the knowledge of books the knowledge of a spurious universe. This is when he contents himself with storing their contents in his mind, and does not attempt to put them to any test, whether from superstitious reverence or from an excessive pleasure in mere language. He may show wonderful ability in thus assimilating books, wonderful retentiveness, wonderful accuracy, wonderful acuteness; nay, if he clearly understands that he is only dealing with opinions, he may do good service in that department, for opinions need collecting and classifying as much as botanical specimens. But one often sees such collectors mistaking opinions for truths, and depending for their views of the universe entirely upon these opinions, which they accept implicitly without testing them. Such men may be said to study, but not to study the universe."

This discrimination is both true and highly significant. Old opinions, old languages, and antiquated learning, are fit subjects of study as a part of archæology, like old buildings, old costumes, old coins, ear-rings, pictures, etc., which are not without a certain historic interest. But from this point of view they are parts of the universe to be explored and explained, like all the rest of it, by scientific methods. This, however, is a widely different thing from setting up old knowledges and thoughts of the dead as systematic and exclusive objects of study, and the sufficient means of mental cultivation. Yet the advocates of education by traditional, unscientific studies habitually slur over this distinction, and, declaring that old languages and old traditional ideas are as much parts of the universe as the rocks and stars, proceed to install them into a separate world in which the great multitude of students are made to pass their whole intellectual lives. It is no exaggeration or mere figure of speech to characterize this realm of antiquated thought and dead language as a spurious universe. No one will deny that the broad and distinctive object of scientific study is the real and present universe of phenomena, fact, and law, which is open to the direct, immediate action of the human mind. The study of it in all its phases, by observation, experiment, analysis, synthesis, and classification, has given rise to a vast body of truths and principles known as scientific knowledge, or modern scientific thought, and by which and through which the actual living universe is to be interpreted and known. Obviously the keys to the knowledge of the real universe are held by science, and it is inevitable that, if scientific knowledge be left out of any educational scheme, the genuine universe is omitted from that scheme. And when this subtraction has been accomplished what remains? An unreal sham, an illusive, discordant representation of things which may now be justly termed a "spurious universe." We say it may now be justly so termed, although, before the true universe was discovered, there could have been no knowledge of its counterfeit. The mass of pre-scientific opinion concerning the world and its contents, the course of Nature, man, life, and society, when taken in relation to what is now known of these subjects, and when regarded as a body of thought to be employed for purposes of culture, must be held as representing not the universe of reality, but only a distorted and spurious semblance of it.

The question of scientific education, then, undoubtedly the greatest question of our time, is simply this: "Shall we study the genuine or the spurious universe? Shall the minds of students be developed and moulded by direct exercise upon the phenomena and problems of Nature and present human experience, or shall they be cut off from the living world and trained in the acquisition of old knowledges, just as if science had never arisen?" This question may seem to many a futile one, as they will say that in this age the influence of science cannot be escaped. Nevertheless it is an urgent and a practical question. For, although the influence of science cannot be escaped by society, it can be and it is extensively evaded and escaped in education. In this our schools and colleges do not represent the age; they are out of harmony with it; they are far behind it. The genuine universe is not the supreme object of study; it is only partially recognized or not recognized at all. The spurious universe is still in the saddle. It has not been displaced; it has hardly been disturbed. Science is still begging of our colleges for a few crumbs; and, when snubbed, is trying here and there to organize schools of its own, which are generally looked upon as mere technological shops where needy youths are apprenticed to bread-and-butter occupations a grade or two above the workshops of artisans and mechanics. The dignity of being liberally educated, the honors of scholarship, and the prestige of culture, are reserved for those who, passing by all the grand results of modern science, give themselves to the study of the spurious universe.

The latest illustration that comes to us of the extent to which this statement is true, is furnished by the condition of the great public or preparatory schools of England. An official report has been made upon this subject, which represents the state of things after a quarter of a century of vehement agitation for some reformatory change that shall bring the popular culture of that country into greater harmony with the present state of knowledge. The case is thus forcibly presented by the London Spectator, a journal that will not be suspected of extreme views upon the subject:

"During the past three hundred years, the spread of scientific knowledge has revolutionized European modes of thought, has fundamentally altered the European idea of the universe, of the earth's place in the grand whole, and of man's place on the earth, and has profoundly modified European social life and political institutions; but, to our great schools, science has been as if it had made no progress. To those who have regulated the studies of those places of learning, it has not appeared at all important that English gentlemen should be able to. follow with intelligence the fruitful researches to which the pioneers of modern thought were devoting themselves, should be capable of appreciating the discoveries which were abridging space, approximating classes, and calling into existence industries, activities, and relations, that are gradually transforming the ancient order of things—in a word, that they should be in sympathy with the modern spirit.... Of course, such a state of things has not been allowed to continue without protest and controversy, and some little has been done to make room for science-teaching in our schools. It has, however, been very little. The sixth report of the Royal Commission on scientific instruction now lies before us. It is confined exclusively to an examination into the provision made in the various secondary schools throughout the country for the teaching of science, and this is what appears: Returns, more or less complete, were received from one hundred and twenty-eight endowed schools in all, and, out of this total, 'science is taught in only sixty-three, and of these only thirteen have a laboratory, and only eighteen apparatus, often very scanty.' Even these figures, however, give but a very imperfect notion of the neglect with which science is treated. It will hardly be believed that there are no more than eighteen of these schools which devote as much as four hours in the week to scientific instruction, that sixteen actually afford no longer time than two hours a week, and seven think an hour sufficient. These, however, are the good examples. There are thirty schools in which no definite time whatever is allotted to scientific study. Again, out of the one hundred and twenty-eight schools, only thirteen give any place at all to science in their examinations, and 'only two attach a weight to science in the examinations equal to that of classics or mathematics.'

"If, now, we attempt to account for this extraordinary neglect of science, in a country whose greatness, if not its very independence, depends upon the skill of its population in using the forces of Nature as their servants, we find the blame to rest in a very great measure on the universities. The older universities were founded and attained celebrity at a time when natural science did not exist, and they have never admitted science to an equality with classics and mathematics. The feeling of Oxford and Cambridge has naturally guided the public schools. The masters are, almost without exception, even to-day, Oxford and Cambridge men, and are penetrated with the Oxford and Cambridge spirit. Moreover, the parents of the boys, and the boys themselves, necessarily attach importance to the studies which will win honors and distinction at the universities, while they disregard studies that will in no way help them in their careers. Lastly, the neglect of science at the universities causes the schools to suffer from a want of competent teachers. Most of the head-masters in their evidence refer to this difficulty, but, at the same time, they are unwilling to look elsewhere for the kind of men they want. Thus the head-master of Rugby says: 'I would here observe that a mere chemist, geologist, or naturalist, however eminent in his own special department, would hardly be able to take his place in a body of masters composed of university men, without some injurious effect upon the position which science ought to occupy in the school. . . . In preferring the two older universities, I do so only by reason of their stronger general sympathies with public-school teaching. I am aware that if I merely wanted a highly-scientific man in any branch, I might find him equally in Dublin, London, or at a Scotch university,' In plain language, trades-unionism forbids an ugly competition."

It thus appears that the policy of one hundred and twenty-eight of the leading schools of England, in regard to the admission of scientific studies, is powerfully influenced, if not controlled, by the universities, so that, in the foremost nation in the world, there is a vast, compactly-organized educational system which ignores the universe, as disclosed by modern science, and employs as its means of mental cultivation a spurious universe of dead traditions, languages, methods, and opinions.