Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/March 1881/The State as an Educator

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OF all the institutions which we are proud to call American, none makes so great an expenditure as our system of public education, and none receives so little critical attention from those by whom it is supported. It is seldom referred to except for purposes of flattery. Of all the offspring of American liberty this is the pet, and, as usual, it is the spoiled child. And this will probably remain so as long as indiscriminate praise is more welcome than just criticism.

I purpose, in the few minutes allotted to me, to discover, if possible, the true sphere of the state in reference to the education of the young. I shall use the word state in its broadest sense—a community of persons living within a limited territory and bound together by political ties. If such a community has a right to exist, then it has a right to do anything that is necessary to maintain that existence—to appropriate private property and even to take life itself. But, while the power of the state is thus broad, its duty is proportionally narrow, namely, to protect the person and property of the subject from the violence and fraud of his fellows. While for this purpose no sacrifice is too great, yet to exact from the subject more than is necessary for this purpose is legalized spoliation; for, when you take of a man's property more than is necessary to protect his person and the remainder of his property, you violate those very rights for the protection of which alone governments are instituted among men. Then, before the state can be justified in undertaking any enterprise, it must be shown, first, that the thing to be done is necessary either for the maintenance of its own existence or for the protection of the persons and property of its subjects; and, second, it must also be shown that it can be done better by the state than by individual effort.

There is at present in America a strong tendency to enlarge this sphere of government. Indeed, it may be said that it is our national weakness to look to the Government for everything. Thousands seek to throw upon the state the responsibility for miseries brought on by their own injudicious actions. The fact is that, beyond the safety of person and property, government forms one of the least factors in that complex product called happiness. Our greatest danger is the danger of being governed too much. As a result of this tendency to increase the domain of government, we have technical and professional colleges established and maintained by the state. When tried by our first criterion, I apprehend that it would be difficult to show that it is necessary to educate physicians and lawyers at public expense in order to protect persons and property; and it may well be doubted whether the rapid increase in the membership of these professions, due in no small degree to these institutions, is a national blessing. "But," it is asked, "are not the physician, the advocate, the engineer, necessary to the convenience and happiness of the community?" Certainly, so are food, clothing and shelter; yet not even Bentham thought of providing these at public expense. Then what special claims can these institutions have upon the public? The same arguments that would justify the state in educating the lawyer and doctor would also justify it in endowing the grocer and clothier, for they, too, are necessary to the convenience and happiness of society.

Moreover, the state, by supporting these institutions of special education, inflicts a positive injury upon society in crowding these favored professions, by thus interfering with those laws of social equilibrium which alone should govern the choice of vocation. Whenever the state by special legislation renders one vocation more accessible than another, it injures society by turning into one channel the intellectual energy that rightfully belongs in another. If, then, our premise be correct, these expensive institutions of technical learning are beyond the true province of the state.

But if the state is not denied all right to teach, what instruction shall she give? I answer, those things that will enable the rising generation to perform intelligently their functions as citizens. Yet how many leave our state institutions learned in the literature of Greece and Rome, but ignorant of our own history; conversant with the ideal republic of Plato, but unacquainted with the writings of our own Hamilton; charmed with the beauties of Homer and Virgil, but deficient in the elements of political economy; able to compute the distance of the sun, but incapable of explaining our system of national currency! Take, if you will, the curricula of the high schools, colleges, and universities of the land, and compute the percentage of studies found there that are calculated to make competent members of the commonwealth! And yet this is the boasted system of education upon which we are told the perpetuity of our government depends!

It now becomes necessary to apply to education our second test, namely: Can it be done more efficiently by the state than by individual effort? Many, no doubt, who are ready to accept the conclusions already reached on the subject of special education, will still be inclined to think that general instruction should be at the expense and under the control of the state. But, before we attempt to decide by what agency we can best attain a certain object, it is necessary that we should have a well-defined idea of that object. What, then, is the true object of education? It is, if I mistake not, to aid Nature in perfecting the individual. Its aim should be to promote, not to destroy, individuality. Its object is human development, but, in the language of Von Humboldt, it is human development in its richest diversity.

The great poet Goethe saw and the naturalist Von Baer formulated the truth that in all organic life development consists of a change from a state of homogeneity to a state of heterogeneity; that, as we ascend the scale of animal life, there is a gradual transition from the like to the unlike, from unity to diversity. The social organism is no exception to this general law, and so we find among savages a marked similarity in costume, food, habits of life and in opinions. But as we ascend the scale of civilization we find fewer universal habits and still fewer universal opinions. Indeed, it has been shown that those opinions which are universal usually date back to the childhood of the race, and hence are usually false. Then social as well as physical development is a change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. But all history shows that nations as well as individuals have not only a period of youth and of manhood, but also a period of decay and of death. What is the cause of this fatal event which nations like individuals have sought, but sought in vain, to evade? Where does this retrograde movement begin? Nations decline because the conditions of their development are reversed; and decay begins just at that point at which the tendency to heterogeneity is exchanged for the tendency to homogeneity—at that point at which the people cease to become more diversified and begin to become more and more alike. There is in the development of nations a unanimity of savagery, a diversity of progress, and again a unanimity of stagnation. In view of these facts it becomes the duty of the educator to give full scope to the individual, and to encourage rather than restrain the peculiarities of the young.

If these propositions be true, it is, then, by no means clear that the state is the most efficient educator of youth. The vastness of the enterprise demands the most rigorous system. But the more rigorous the system the less room will there be for the development of individual differences. The tendency of such a system is to make the mind a mere receptacle which receives its daily portion of mental pabulum. Even if trained to think at all, they must of necessity be trained to think very much alike, which is but little better than no thought. In other words, as the system grows stronger the individual grows proportionally weaker.

China, whose philosophers first recognized the supremacy of force, and whose moralists gave us a code which, after twenty-five centuries have elapsed, is yet too exalted for practical life, was reduced to her present condition, not for want of talent, of which she had much, but by a most rigorous system of state education, which consisted, not of investigating new phenomena, but of conning by rote what their ancestors had taught them. But we need not go to the Orient to witness the effects of state education. Germany has a most unyielding system, whose fruits are already beginning to ripen. This gigantic system, the pride of the Old World and the wonder of the New, is fast reducing the German mind to a mere repository of facts and figures. It will be remembered that no one can enter a German university until he has spent nine years in the gymnasium, chiefly upon Latin and Greek. To show the influence of such a course of study, I can do no better than to quote the words of Lord Macaulay, who says: "Unfortunately, those grammatical and philological studies, without which it was impossible to understand the great works of Athenian and Roman genius, have a tendency to contract the views and deaden the sensibilities of those who follow them with extreme assiduity. A powerful mind which has been long employed in such studies may be compared to the gigantic spirit in the Arabian tale, who was persuaded to contract himself to small dimensions in order to enter within the enchanted vessel, and, when his prison had been closed upon him, found himself unable to escape from the narrow boundaries to the measure of which he had reduced himself."

France until recently had a most perfect system of state instruction. No private schools could be established without a license from the Minister of Education, and these might be closed at any moment by a simple order from that officer. Under this system France made rapid strides toward that condition in which China has so long remained. M. de Tocqueville, that clear-headed Frenchman to whom America owes so much, remarked that his countrymen of his day were much more alike than their ancestors even of the next previous generation.

There are reasons why the effects of state education will not so readily discover themselves in America. In the first place, our system is yet very imperfect. But the chief reason is our extensive foreign immigration, whose heterogeneity tends to counteract the unifying influence of our education. This, however, can not always last, and we shall hope in vain if we hope to escape the effects of those influences which are shaping the destinies of other nations. True, we permit parents to educate their own children, but at the same time we tax them to support the education of all; and we shall find but few who are able and still fewer who are willing to pay others to educate their children and then do it themselves. So our system is virtually a prohibition upon all private schools.

Nor has America entirely escaped the dwarfing influence of such a system. A recent writer says that while the percentage of college graduates is rapidly increasing, strange as it may seem, the percentage of college-bred men in public positions is decreasing. This, however, does not show that we as Americans are slow to recognize ability, for in no other country is true merit so sure to be rewarded; but I believe it does show that our education has a tendency to unfit men for the practical affairs of life. The demand is not for cultured minds filled with facts tumbling over each other in the dark, but for minds trained to independent thought. The question is repeated more and more emphatically, not what do you know, but what can you do? Every vocation of life is crying itself hoarse for men—men with the intellectual audacity to think and the moral courage to do.

It is the tendency of state education to make all intellectually alike, by urging the slow and restraining the fast, by giving a surface polish to the dull and bedimming the brilliant. Its tendency is to crush genius and enthrone mediocrity. It is the great leveling influence of modern times. This procrustean system binds its tender victims upon its inexorable bedstead of iron, and if found too short it cruelly attempts to stretch them out, until not unfrequently the brittle thread of life itself is broken in the effort; and if, when placed upon it, they perchance extend beyond its limits, they are as remorselessly trimmed down to the required standard.

Fortunately for mankind, some of the great minds of the age escaped the influence of popular education. When at the age of fourteen Henry Thomas Buckle won his first prize, his parents asked him to name anything he chose as an additional reward, and, with his wonderful precocity, he asked to be removed from public school. His request was granted, and who that has read his "History of Civilization" can doubt the wisdom of his choice? Herbert Spencer, any one of whose numerous volumes would place him in the first rank, not only as a student of human nature but also as a philosopher and man of letters, was never at public school. John Stuart Mill, than whom England has never produced a greater, who united in one mind the wisdom of the ancients and the learning of the moderns, who was at once an Aristotle and a Bacon, who was not only a profound philosopher but also a practical man of affairs, was singularly exempt from the influence of public instruction. Should the glaciers once more descend from the north and sweep before them all that makes us a great people, leaving no vestige of civilization behind, would America be known to future generations and handed down in history as the land of the most expensive school system on the globe, or would it be known as the birthplace of our Franklins, our Greeleys, our Lincolns, whose school-days might be counted on the fingers?

I would not, however, be misunderstood. I do not wish to see the whole system of state instruction destroyed at one fell swoop. Revolutions, in educational as well as in political and religious systems, should be gradual, lest the destruction of an institution so interwoven with the various interests of men should prove too great a shock for the ever-frail structure of society. Even at best we shall be compelled to educate a portion of the community at public expense, so must we also feed and clothe them. This, however, is no reason why all the children of the land should be reduced to the same mental diet.

I believe that the only way in which we. can hope to carry forward our civilization, or even keep it from retrograding, is jealously to guard the integrity of the individual, and to make the temple of the mind so sacred that neither law nor custom shall be able to enter and enslave. It is therefore high time to cry a halt in this rapid encroachment of the state upon the domain of the individual. It now becomes the imperative duty of every friend of America to strive to limit the state to its true function, and thus avert, if possible, those evils which have buried historic nations beneath their classic ruins. For the conclusion, however unpalatable it may be, is forced upon us, that the perfection of our system of state education implies the destruction of individuality, and that the destruction of individuality means social, political, intellectual stagnation, the last symptom of that fatal disease to which China long ago fell a victim, which is even now gnawing at the vitals of France and Germany, and of whose insidious approach America may well beware.

  1. Read before the State Teachers' Association at Seward, Nebraska, April 1, 1880.