Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/June 1880/Editor's Table

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SOME weeks ago an attempt was made to get up a public sensation out of a reported disagreement in the faculty of Yale College, concerning the teaching of sociology. It was alleged that a conflict had arisen between President Porter and Professor Sumner of the chair of Social Science, in regard to the use as a text-book of Spencer's "Study of Sociology"—a conflict in which the faculty participated, and which might lead to difficulty. Professor Sumner was interviewed, and said it was an old affair, and had been greatly exaggerated; and he hoped that the press would not disquiet itself by working up a discussion of the subject which could do no good to anybody. This was, of course, the signal of a general outbreak; both the secular and the religious journals "going in" with extraordinary unction. Though much interested in the matter, we acted upon the hint of Professor Sumner, and refrained from any remark in the May "Monthly." But the occasion has been used in such a way that some further comment is needful.

It was a wise and an appropriate thing on the part of the authorities of Yale College to establish a professorship for the teaching of social science. The subject is one of growing public importance in all civilized countries, and it is of transcendent interest in this country, where everybody takes so deep an interest in the administration of public affairs. The step was, moreover, imperatively demanded by the progress of knowledge. No intelligent man will deny that social order is based upon natural laws, and exemplifies cause and effect. Social phenomena may be analyzed and classified, and reduced to general expressions or principles, like the other phenomena of Nature. Notwithstanding the apparent chaos of politics, and the discords of legislation, there is nevertheless an underlying regularity in the action of social forces which makes rational politics and legislation possible. Laws are bad or good because there is a constitution of society by which their goodness or badness is determined. It is no longer a question that these social laws shall be worked out as an independent body of science; and this has been already so far accomplished as to lead to valuable practical results, and make it in the highest degree expedient that our eminent institutions of learning should recognize the subject, and enter upon the duty of teaching what is known of it, and of contributing to its further development.

In creating this chair, therefore, Yale College was only conforming to the intellectual requirements of the time; but it was nevertheless a courageous proceeding, for which the institution is to be honored. There is no mistaking the significance of the term social science. It implies that human society is a part of Nature to be studied by observation and induction, like the other parts of Nature, and to be pursued in conformity with established scientific method. That method is occupied with the determination of facts and those orderly relations of facts which are expressed as generalizations. As in astronomy or in botany so in sociology, the inquirer has to observe and compare phenomena throughout the whole field, so as to formulate the great activities that are displayed in each sphere, and thus arrive at a connected and comprehensive body of natural laws which make up the truths of the science. It is perfectly well known that the history of all the sciences shows that in their early stages one of the most formidable tasks of the investigator has been to get rid of the mass of irrational and superstitious beliefs by which the subjects have been overlaid and obscured. Social science is no exception, and in its present formative stage it presents precisely the same difficulties that other sciences have encountered, except that the errors and prejudices are here older, more inveterate, and deeply rooted than in any of the former spheres of scientific inquiry. In physics and chemistry the phenomena dealt with have been fully surrendered to the experimentalist and the reasoner, and there is no longer any interference with him in pushing his conclusions to the farthest limit. But sociology has not reached this fortunate stage. Its investigation is interfered with and impeded by theologians on religious grounds.

We are not at liberty to suppose that the intelligent authorities of Yale College were ignorant of what they were doing when they formally recognized that human society is to be studied in future by the method which has created all the other sciences, and made provision for its teaching in this manner. They knew that the first allegiance of the man of science is to truth as it is determined by processes of reason, and that he is bound to make no terms with preconceived erroneous opinions. That the trustees understood this and acted accordingly, is sufficiently shown by their selection of a professor to fill the new chair of Political Economy and Social Science. They could easily have chosen a facile man for perfunctory work, who would have occupied himself in expounding the miscellaneous matters that now pass current with the public under the name of "social science." But they sought and obtained a thoroughgoing student of the subject, a man of intellectual force and independence, who would give character to the position, and reflect honor upon the college, by his own original contributions to the science committed to his care. That among the considerable number of men who compose the governing body of Yale College—a majority of them clergymen, as we are told there—would have been some more narrow-minded than others, who would be disposed to interfere with the Professor's work and hamper his teaching, was perhaps inevitable; but the liberality and good faith of the institution were virtually pledged to maintain the rights of science in the liberty of its official representative.

Professor Sumner adopted as his text-book Spencer's "Study of Sociology," to be used by the senior class, consisting of young men from twenty to twenty-three years of age, of mature mind, and who have for years had the benefit of Yale College teaching. He adopted the book because it was the only one to be had at all suited to his purpose. It is an introduction to social science by its ablest living investigator. Profoundly impressed with the difficulties of the study in the present state of knowledge, with the misconceptions that are formed of it, and the causes of erroneous thinking in regard to it, Spencer deviated from his regular line of work to make this useful preparatory volume for those who propose to devote themselves to the general inquiry. He explained, in a succession of chapters, how men's judgments are liable to be warped in considering social questions by their habits of thought and their preconceived ideas. One of these chapters was entitled "The Theological Bias," and we are informed that this was considered by some of the faculty so objectionable as to render the volume unfit to be put into the hands of the Yale seniors.

Now, it is to be remembered that Yale College was committed, through the action of its authorities, to the honest teaching of social principles by the method of science. The object of the students was to gain true ideas of the nature and organization of human society. Nothing, surely, could be more pertinent, or necessary, than for them to be put upon their guard against sources of error in considering the subject. If there is a bias from theological influences that is calculated to vitiate or pervert the judgment upon social questions, what could be more important than that it should be pointed out? In dealing with society from a scientific point of view, Mr. Spencer had to consider it in its widest relations, or as manifested in varying grades, by all races of men upon the earth. In all forms of society religious systems play a leading part, but these systems are diverse and numberless. Mr. Spencer, therefore, drew his illustrations of the distorting influence of theological beliefs upon views of society from different quarters. Mohammedans and Feejeeans, Catholic and Protestant Christians, are cited to exemplify the common tendencies of theological doctrine to obscure the mental vision and prejudice opinion. He shows, moreover, with equal force, how the anti-theological bias may produce, and has produced, the same perverting effects.

The difference in the points of view of the theologian and the scientist comes out here sharply. Science inquires into the laws of phenomena; social science into the laws of social phenomena. As societies have developed, religious systems have also grown up as a part of the general phenomena of social growth. Social science is concerned with religion as a universal fact of human nature, which gives rise to universal social effects—it deals, in short, with the natural laws of universal religious phenomena. With these views theology has no sympathy. It is scornfully and passionately rejected by the religious devotee. His position is that there is one religion that is absolutely true, and that all other religions are absolutely false, and any notion of treating them all alike is rejected with horror. And the one religion that is true, being a supernatural system, is not to be studied as a natural phenomenon, or by the method of science. The devout mind thus recoils at the very fundamental conception of social science, which it regards as the offspring of infidelity and atheism.

To this source of prejudice Mr. Spencer devoted a chapter in his book, and how necessary it was is now abundantly apparent. The religious press has raised a storm of denunciation against the sociologist and all his books, and the professor, faculty, and college that have had anything to do with them. Religious prejudices are stimulated to their utmost by the odium theologicum. The "Study of Sociology" is cursed as a book of atheism, and the school that uses it is condemned as a propagator of infidelity. That stanch exponent of the spirit of orthodoxy, the "New York Observer," makes up a sharp issue between Christianity and social science as follows: "The traditions of the college (Yale) are all in favor of the Christian religion, and the public may be assured that the faculty and trustees will never consent to have the atheism of Spencer offered to the students. They can find enough of that without going to college to find books in which Christianity is argued against and ridiculed. We are glad that President Porter stands firm, and we may also add that the resignation of any professor who has sympathies with Herbert Spencer will be a great advantage to the college."

The "Christian Intelligencer" says: "Herbert Spencer's 'Sociology' has been introduced as a text-book. The faculty are divided in regard to the use of such a work. The President, it is said, opposes the study of a book essentially infidel. There should be no difference, no discussion among honest men upon such a matter. Yale College has been endowed by the gifts of Christian men almost exclusively. To use the foundation they have established for the propagation of skepticism is a breach of trust and is no better than burglary or forgery."

The "Christian at Work" remarks: "It might be of little moment if his text-book were a treatise on pure mathematics or chemistry. But it is otherwise upon such a subject as sociology. That concerns the relation of man to the state, and vice versa; it treats of the moralities, and of laws designed to conserve the Sabbath and enforce morality, and of the claims of religion. To all such laws Mr. Spencer is avowedly hostile. . . . Put the youth under the dominion of Spencer's social system, and they will deny the right of the state to enforce a day of rest, or make laws for any other purpose than the bare protection of life and property. Under Spencer's system all other laws would be done away with, and we should have a condition of affairs in which one right alone would be recognized—the right of every one to do as one pleased. . . . We trust the accomplished Professor will himself see the wisdom of deferring to a very proper feeling which we believe unmistakably exists on the part of the Christian public, that nothing should be allowed, however otherwise excellent in itself, which will in the slightest degree unsettle the minds of the young by giving them a bias toward a pernicious, dangerous sociology, which seeks to eliminate public education from the state, and rejects the moral element in legislation save as required for the protection of life and property."

The "Independent" says of the "Study of Sociology": "Theologically it is probably the most objectionable book Spencer has written, making no secret of its contempt for believers in the Christian religion, who are told that they must lay aside their faith if they wish to study sociology. There is enough of this intolerance to make the book decidedly offensive. We are not surprised that complaint was made against the book, although we believe that no pupil of Professor Sumner will accuse him of any lack of faithfulness in pointing out the weak or misleading passages in any author whose textbook he uses. We presume that, before another class has occasion to pursue the study, the works to which this was an introduction, or some better book, will be ready for use, and will replace, with its collections of facts, the offensive philosophizings of the 'Study of Sociology.'"

These extracts are fairly representative of the ideas and the spirit of the religious press of this country. Passing by the various misrepresentations with which they bristle, what is their common upshot? That in its treatment of social science Yale College is bound to take into account, first of all, its theological character as a Christian institution. We say, on the contrary, that the first duty of Yale College, as a seat of liberal learning, is to truth, which is to be cordially welcomed from all sources. It is bound to recognize, first of all, that knowledge is progressive, and to teach it in its most developed and perfected forms. It is not at liberty to disregard the lessons of experience. There was a time when the great universities of Europe were called upon to resist the progress of astronomy, in the name of Christianity. Later, they were again called upon to resist the progress of geology, in the name of Christianity. And now our colleges are called upon to resist the progress of sociology, in the name of Christianity. The demand, futile in the former cases, is now ridiculous. It is an anachronism, and serves only as a register of the survival of bigotry. The mortifying fact is, that we in this country are behind the age in liberty of thought as a guiding principle in higher education. The Reverend Chancellor of the University of New York is reported to have declared that, if the works of Herbert Spencer should be introduced into the institution over which he presides, he would resign his position. Yet these works are introduced and freely used in the English universities. Alike in England, Scotland, and Ireland, students are required to be acquainted with the contents of the "Psychology"; and in some of the universities Spencer's philosophical treatises are used as text-books. Oxford led the way a dozen years ago with the "Biology" as well as the "Psychology," and even went so far as to allow Spencer's works to be given as prizes. In France, the state authorities, who superintend educational affairs, have formally adopted Spencer's works to be introduced into the libraries of the lyceums and colleges throughout the country, and have also made them available for prizes. And all this without any such foolish noise and fanatic splutter as has followed a similar attempt in one of our own colleges.

Something has, however, happened in France equally funny and instructive, which it is proper to mention, especially as it may serve as a hint for compromise on this side. The question is, When an author can not be answered, what is to be done? The tactics of the Chancellor above referred to is to run; but there remains the alternative of expurgation. If there are things that can not be replied to, and which will "pervert the young mind," cut them out. Now, the French have very little trouble with Spencer's treatment of religious subjects, but his irreverence for the ancient classics greatly troubles them. It might be thought a good method to point out his errors to students, but that plan does not meet with favor. And so the Minister of Public Instruction in France has arranged to prepare an edition of Spencer's "Education" which the Government may approve, and in which the part dealing with science and classics is omitted.

Now, why not have an edition of "The Study of Sociology" with the part on the "theological bias" left out? The "Independent" is confidently looking for a new text-book which Professor Sumner can use without theological objection; but why not adopt the French dodge, and protect the students as effectually as may be by dropping out of the existing volume all reference to the influence of religious prejudices in hindering the scientific investigation of social phenomena?


To the excellence of the well-known series of "Science Primers," of which there are now a dozen, we have uniformly testified. They are written by the ablest scientific men of England, who are masters of the topics upon which they write, and they have been prepared under the eminent editorial supervision of Professors Huxley, Roscoe, and Stewart. They have made a very favorable impression upon the public, and met with a success that was sufficiently assured at the outset. A million of the books, it is said, have been called for in England, and they have had a large sale in this country. Professor Huxley engaged to write an introductory primer to the series, which has just appeared, and the public is informed that sixteen thousand copies of it were ordered in advance, of the London publisher. Authors and booksellers are to be alike congratulated upon so brilliant a result.

The secret of this success is undoubtedly to be found in the perfect adaptation of the books to the existing conditions of education. They may be employed in schools without giving the slightest trouble, and are certain to be favorites with teachers who can use them with a minimum of intellectual exertion. They are all so plainly written that there is no mistaking the writer's meaning; there are no perplexing problems to he solved; the pupils can learn the short lessons with ease, and the recitations should go on with the utmost smoothness and facility. Yet this perfect conformity of the hooks to old established school habits, while it has secured their immense success, raises serious questions as to their adaptation to the improved methods of study which are now demanded in early scientific education.

From this point of view we think the title of the series misleading, and that as a consequence the books are liable to be put to a wrong use. The term primer suggests the lowest grade of elementary school-books—first books for primary classes, or for children beginning to study. The "Science Primers" are obviously unsuited for this purpose. We should say that the distinguished gentlemen who prepared them, and who are all of them occupied in the absorbing work of scientific research in their respective departments, have not given due attention to that very important matter in early education—the minds of children. This is, in fact, a science by itself of great interest and no little complication, and for the most part quite alien to the special pursuits of these authors. A man may be deep in physics and profound in astronomy, and yet know very little of the mechanism, growth, and various conditions of the unfolding faculties of the child. It matters nothing how clear, simple, and accurate is the text of a primer if it is not skillfully suited to the early stages of mental activity; and this is where the "Science Primers" fail as books for beginners.

It is clear that children can not at first grasp generalizations; and to begin by giving them general principles, and making them learn lessons embodying the results and outcome of scientific thought, is a fundamental educational mistake. They should begin with the simple, the concrete, the familiar, and be very gradually and very slowly led on to combinations of ideas and the perception of simple relations; and only in the higher stages of mental growth should they be tasked with those highest products of science—system, exactness, and abstraction. Knowledge may be put into a child's mind wrong-end foremost, so to speak, and so as to disturb and paralyze its faculties, rather than to favor their natural and healthy growth. The first step in the scientific education of children ought not to be an abrupt transition from their intercourse with the natural objects around them to lesson-learning from books; it should be simply to direct and guide them in making observations. The process should be continuous with their unguided and spontaneous activities, and stimulated by the cultivation of curiosity. Play may run into simple experiments under such careful management as not to create weariness or distaste for this kind of effort.

The "Science Primers" do not sufficiently conform to this method to make them suitable books for beginners. They in fact belong to the advanced, if not the adult, stage of mental development. In the first two books that were published, the "Primer of Physics" and the "Primer of Chemistry," there is a common preface, in which it is said that "the object of the authors has been to state the fundamental principles of their respective sciences in a manner suited to the pupils of an early age. They feel that the thing to he aimed at is not so much to give information as to endeavor to discipline the mind in a way that has not hitherto been customary, by bringing it into immediate contact with Nature herself. For this purpose a series of simple experiments has been devised, leading up to the chief truths of each science. These experiments must be performed by the teacher in regular order before the class." This is all that is said regarding the adoption and educational use of these books, and it is open to grave criticism.

In the first place, the fundamental principles of the sciences are not "suited to pupils of an early age," and can not be made so by any manner of presentation. The immature mind can not apprehend them, and, though the language in which they are embodied may be learned by heart, there will be no real understanding of the truths conveyed, and the sole "discipline" that can be gained will be that of loading the memory with undigested and unassimilated statements. The mature mind of the race has been long and painfully occupied in working its way to the "fundamental principles" of science; and to pour these into the minds of "pupils of an early age" is not a wise or enlightened practice. Undoubtedly the true method is to bring the young mind "into immediate contact with Nature herself"; or rather to keep it there, as this is where the educator at first finds it. But what is "immediate contact with Nature" in this case, but for the pupil to occupy himself with the objects of Nature—to make his own observations, to make his own experiments, to start his own questions, solve his own difficulties, and do his own thinking? All this would be at first rudimentary and crude, and the pupil will not get at "fundamental principles," but he will cultivate his faculties in the only way they can be properly cultivated, by self exertion. The Science Primers fail for beginners by making no provision for this kind of activity. They are to be told in the old way—they are to have things shown, and explained, and made clear, and everything done for them. "The experiments must be performed by the teacher in regular order before the class." This is the ancient college way of imparting instruction; but even the colleges are departing from it as an intellectual failure, and are establishing physical and chemical laboratories in which the students can be really brought "into immediate contact with Nature herself." Listening to lectures, witnessing experiments, and reciting from textbooks, is not that "immediate contact with Nature herself" which rational education now demands. And what is true of the Primers of Chemistry and Physics in this series is equally true of the Primers of Geology, Botany, Astronomy, Logic, and Political Economy. They are all lesson-books of fundamental principles, clear and admirable as expositions, but all of them as much second-hand book-knowledge as the "Primers of History."

It was hoped that Professor Huxley, as chief editor of this series, and writer of the Introduction to it, would have taken up the question of primary scientific education, at least sufficiently to explain and limit the school use of these little books. But he considers other questions, as we show elsewhere in the notice of his volume; and this is the more disappointing, as Professor Huxley has ever been a strenuous advocate of direct first-hand knowledge in science. He long ago declared that "mere book-knowledge in physical science is a sham and a delusion"; and in his last admirable work on the "Study of Zoölogy" he enjoins that the book be read "crayfish in hand"; but is not this principle of equal if not greater importance when it is proposed to deal with "pupils of an early age"?

There is one book, however, introduced into the American edition of the series, which is not liable to the objections here indicated. This is the "Inventional Geometry" of Mr. W. G. Spencer. It is not a child's book, but it adopts the right method. It may be taken up by boys and girls twelve or fifteen years old, and it will do more to cultivate and strengthen their original powers of thought, more to give them clear ideas and mental self-reliance, than all the other Primers of the series put together. But, as it implies some mental effort to gain the power that can only come from exercise, it is not so easy as the other books, and will, therefore, not be a favorite with teachers in schools, and can hardly be expected to have the remarkable success of the other Primers.