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

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


TWO great tendencies of modern thought are every year more and more marked: one relating to its character, and the other to the form of its expression. The thinking of the age is taking a scientific direction, and becoming more profoundly imbued with the scientific spirit, while the leading minds of all nations are contributing their choicest work for periodical publication. Not only are old sciences perfecting and new ones arising with a rapid development of positive knowledge, but the method of the movement is steadily extending to all spheres of opinion, and influencing important questions with which it was long supposed that science had nothing to do. It is one of the marked effects of the recent growth and diffusion of the scientific spirit that it is giving a new earnestness and seriousness to literary effort, bringing forward questions of universal interest into greater prominence, and inducing in the most eminent minds a desire to communicate more directly and immediately with the people, by the readiest modes of publication. Hence, in England, France, and Germany, as well as in this country, the best thought appears in the popular magazines. A further result of this tendency to earnestness, in recent periodical writing, is that authors are taking the responsibility of their work before the public, by attaching their names to their magazine contributions. The old and vicious system of anonymous writing in the reviews is declining, and giving place to the open, manly, and honest expression of the writer's convictions. Through the operation of such causes, periodical literature is acquiring a weight and influence in our time much greater than it has ever had before.

The Popular Science Monthly was established in recognition of these tendencies, and to make the vigorous, valuable, and independent intellectual work of the age, wherever done, more accessible to American readers. We have drawn, for our articles, from foreign sources, because science is of no nationality, and it is an obvious dictate of commonsense to get the best things wherever they are to be had. This policy has been approved by the public, and now, after ten volumes have appeared, we find our limits so inadequate that an increase of facilities becomes necessary to secure the object for which the magazine was started. So many excellent things have been constantly slipping by us for which there was no room in the pages of The Monthly—so many sterling papers which our readers would prize, and have often called for—that we find ourselves now compelled to resort to the issue of supplements in order to accomplish the purpose at first had in view. The volumes that we have thus far furnished undoubtedly contain the largest amount of varied and valuable mental work to be found within equal limits in any periodical of any country, and we now intend to increase its scope and influence by the help of these supplementary issues, so as to meet the augmenting requirements of the times, and make this publication the completest reflection of the scientific and philosophic progress of the age that can be anywhere obtained. It will represent the course of contemporary thought on subjects of leading interest, preserve its most permanent elements, and form a comprehensive and independent scientific library, well suited to the wants of non-scientific people.

During the ensuing year The Popular Science Supplements will appear once a month, containing, each, ninety-six pages, price twenty-five cents; and they will contain the freshest and most important articles that appear abroad, of the same general character as the past contents of The Popular Science Monthly. Objection has sometimes been made that The Monthly is high-priced, but it has been furnished as cheaply as the nature of the enterprise would allow. There is no maxim of trade more sound and practical than that value must be paid for, and that the lowest-priced goods are always the poorest, and but rarely the cheapest. Quality should certainly be taken into account in our mental nutriment if anywhere, and The Popular Science Monthly and its Supplements will furnish the cheapest first-class reading in the United States.



Prof. Jevons has contributed an article to Mind (copied into The Popular Science Supplement, No. 1), in which he attempts a defense of "cram" in connection with the system of competitive examinations. Such is the working of that system, and so inevitably does it lead to cramming, that it is not difficult to see either that the system must be abandoned or "cram" defended; and Prof. Jevons intrepidly takes the latter alternative. We admire his pluck but condemn his logic. Clear thinker as he is, in this brilliant and specious paper he has simply confused an important subject in the interest of a questionable cause.

He makes his case by drawing a distinction between two sorts of "cram," which he calls "good cram" and "bad cram." He says: "A candidate, preparing for an important competitive examination, may put himself under a tutor well skilled in preparing for that examination. The tutor looks for success by carefully directing the candidate's studies into the most 'paying' lines, and restricting them rigorously to those lines. The training given may be of an arduous, thorough character, so that the faculties of the pupil are stretched and exercised to their utmost in those lines. This would be called 'cram,' because it involves exclusive devotion to the answering of certain examination-papers. I call it 'good cram.'

" 'Bad cram,' on the other hand, consists in temporarily impressing upon the candidate's mind a collection of facts, dates, or formula, held in a wholly undigested state, and ready to be disgorged in the examination-room by an act of mere memory. A candidate unable to appreciate the bearing of Euclid's reasoning in the first book of his 'Elements,' may learn the propositions off by heart—diagrams, letters, and all—like a Sunday-scholar learning the collects and gospels. Dates, rules of grammar, and the like, may be 'crammed' by mnemonic lines," etc.

We object to this distinction. "Bad cram" means a great deal more than Prof. Jevons here indicates; and his "good cram" is either "bad cram" or no "cram" at all. He is mistaken in limiting what he calls "bad cram" to loading the memory with formula without understanding principles, as in the illustration he offers of Euclid's "Elements." It is possible to "cram" the apprehension of a subject as well as its verbal forms. We knew a young lady in one of our leading academies, the only female student in a geometry-class of twenty, who, under the spur of feminine vanity, kept her position at the head of the class for the whole term, giving the demonstrations every time when the gentlemen broke down, and having the clearest understanding of the subject which such a prolonged ordeal compelled, while the whole experience amounted to nothing for permanent effect. The boasted discipline was a pure illusion. She lived for a whole term in a sort of atmosphere of geometrical excitement, and upon leaving the school the mathematical fever subsided and the geometry disappeared like a dream. It was a case of pure "cram." Time was not taken for digestion—for the deepening of acquisition and the consolidation of mental habits. "Cram" refers not so much to any form or kind of acquisition (although some favor it more than others), but rather to the rate of any acquisition. Its essential element is excessive and unnatural forcing—a stuffing of mental aliment, that may be excellent in itself, but out of relation to natural appetite or healthy assimilation. Prof. Jevons says that the epithet "cram" affords an admirable "cry" for the opponents of the examination-system; that "it is short, emphatic, and happily derived from a disagreeable physical metaphor;" by which he probably means that its metaphorical use in education is derived from a disagreeable physiological experience. But is its mental application really so metaphorical, after all? One may eat so as to keep pace with the digestive and assimilative processes of the system, or he may exceed that rate in taking food, which is cramming. But is not mental acquirement also based on physiological activity, and subject to a time-rate depending upon cerebral assimilation? The "cram" of the dining-room and the "cram" of the school-room are, at bottom, the same thing, merely involving different physiological organs.

Prof. Jevons, indeed, yields this point explicitly. He concedes the physiological basis of mental culture, in saying: "It is the very purpose of a liberal education, as it is correctly called, to develop and train the plastic fibres of the youthful brain so as to prevent them taking too early a definite 'set,' which will afterward narrow and restrict the range of acquisition and judgment." But if it is plastic fibres and cells that we have at last to deal with, what escape is there from the conclusion that true education—the leading out of the faculties—must take its rate from the measured processes of nervous growth?

Prof. Jevons's "good cram" is defined as arduous and thorough study directed to the winning of honors at a competitive examination. But thorough study, carried on under the conditions favorable to enduring acquisition, is not "cram" of any sort, because the term in its essential meaning excludes thoroughness. We shall not deny that much vigorous, persistent intellectual work may be accomplished under competitive inspiration, in which no "cram" is involved; and we think Prof. Jevons commits a harmful error in applying the term "cram" to such study, and undertaking to qualify it by an adjective that simply neutralizes it. Under such an authoritative sanction, all "cram" will become "good cram," and a plausible excuse be thrown over one of the most extensive vices of education.

Prof. Jevons's object is to defend competitive examinations; and there is a painful significance in the fact that he admits the system to be so involved and bound up with the practice of "cram," that nothing remains but to west the word from its established meaning, and give it a new and respectable meaning. His tactics are ingenious, but nothing is gained by them. However the words are altered, the facts will remain.

Prof. Jevons strives to strengthen his view by carrying it out into the application of practical life, which he maintains to be little else than a sphere of incessant "cram." He says: "The actual facts which a man deals with in life are infinite in number, and cannot be remembered in a finite brain . . . . In some cases we require to remember a thing only a few moments or a few minutes; in other cases a few hours or days; in yet other cases a few weeks or months; it is an infinitesimally small part of all our mental impressions which can be profitably remembered for years. Memory may be too retentive, and facility of forgetting and of driving out one train of ideas by a new train is almost as essential to a well-trained intellect as faculty of retention." He then goes on to say that the lawyer, the physician, the merchant, "deal every day with various combinations of facts which cannot all be stored up in the cerebral framework, and certainly need not be so. . . . . The practical barrister 'crams' his brief;" and "what is 'cram' but the rapid acquisition of a series of facts, the vigorous getting up of a case?"

Now the upshot of all this is, that in life we have constantly to make temporary acquisitions, and which often require vigorous exertion. But will it be pretended that the making of temporary acquisitions is the legitimate work of education? A lawyer may "cram" his case, but if he succeeds with it he must not have crammed his law. There is undoubtedly a varying value in mental acquisitions; some are not worth retaining, and others are of lasting importance. But there are facts, truths, principles, that should be indelibly engraved upon the minds of students: these should be the staple of education, and be the means of that deliberate discipline which it is the chief object of education to impart. Our educational system is virtually at fault in not having yet organized a curriculum in which acquisitions of permanent value are made fundamental. Prof. Jevons says: "If things taught at school and college are to stay in the mind, to serve us in the business of life, then almost all the higher education yet given in this kingdom has missed its mark." Exactly; and for this reason the system is under sharp arraignment, and a "new education" is demanded. Prof. Jevons's assertion that many things are not worth retaining in the mind, naturally leads to the vital question, "What knowledge is of most worth?" To make his argument good, that knowledge may be crammed because of its worthlessness, he must show that no knowledge is worth retaining, and all is to be stuffed with a view to getting rid of it.



The Rev. Moncure D. Conway writes gossipy letters from London to the Cincinnati Commercial, and in his eagerness for sensational statements, as is usually the case with gossips, is quite too careless of their truth. He has started the story that the closing portions of Mr. Herbert Spencer's "Principles of Sociology" are so loosely and badly written as to indicate that Spencer is showing a decline of his mental powers. This has created anxiety in the minds of many, and we have received various inquiries as to what ground there is for Mr. Conway's statement.

It is true that Mr. Spencer has not been in good health, and has been compelled recently to desist from labor, and it is this circumstance that just now operates to give point to Conway's opinion; but it is to be remembered that Mr. Spencer's health was not so good when he began his philosophical system in 1860 as it has been since; while in writing "First Principles" he was often compelled to stop work, and go to the country for rest and reinvigoration.

As to the evidence of mental failure to be gathered from the work on Sociology Just published, we do not observe that anybody else besides Conway has found it. The volume has been widely reviewed by leading English periodicals, and none of them, that we have seen, share the discernment of the correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial. On the contrary, they testify to the sustained power and originality of his work, and are more concurrent and emphatic than ever before as to Mr. Spencer's capacity to carry forward the gravest and profoundest intellectual undertaking of the age. It is, moreover, the views developed toward the close of the volume that have made the strongest impression upon the minds of the critics. They see, in his treatment of the questions there discussed, especial indications of that wide grasp and subtile analysis which have been so marked a characteristic of his previous philosophical volumes. We print elsewhere a portion of the notice of "The Principles of Sociology" that appeared in the London Examiner and it will be seen that, in referring to these very views, brought out at the close of the book, the writer remarks, "It strikes us that Mr. Spencer here exhibits an increased power of seizing the many influences which contribute to a complex result." To do this in a vast field of comparatively unexplored phenomena is certainly the highest test of intellectual vigor. It is admitted by those who have reviewed the book most thoughtfully, that the ideas reached and developed by Spencer in its concluding portions are certain to exert a powerful influence in modifying the course of current opinion, and that they will give a new direction to controversies that will call out the best effort of the leading thinkers of our time.

Mr. Spencer has continued his exposition in a chapter to be appended to the volume of Sociology, of which we give in the present number of the Monthly the first installment. To those who are solicitous about his breaking down mentally, we commend the perusal of this paper, and the conclusion of it, which will appear next month. Having disposed in the volume of Mr. Max Müller and his followers, who were overdoing the myth-business, he now takes up the social doctrines of Sir Henry Sumner Maine. This able writer maintains a theory of social development in which the starting-point is the patriarchal system. Mr. Spencer holds that this view is philosophically defective, as it assumes a certain social condition without accounting for it, by investigating the anterior and still lower conditions of social relation. Each one will be his own judge, after reading the argument, as to its validity against Sir Henry Maine's view; we call attention to it here only for the benefit of those who are concerned about the truth of Mr. Conway's statement.