Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/August 1884/Editor's Table

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THE Legislature of the State of New York has passed a law providing for the instruction of "all pupils in all schools supported by public money, or under State control, in physiology and hygiene, with special reference to the effects of alcoholic drinks, stimulants, and narcotics upon the human system." Other States have passed similar enactments, 80 that there seems to be something like a general movement appealing to this new form of influence for the promotion of the cardinal objects of the temperance reform. That movement has relations with various sciences, not only with physiology, but also with sociology, and perhaps some reference to its history will help us to judge of the promise of the new measure.

The bad effects that flow from the excessive use of spirituous liquors, and the evils of drunkenness, have been recognized and deplored in all times. While every literature has its poetry in praise of the cheering influence of wine, so it has its proverbs showing the evil consequences of devotion to the intoxicating cup. But the first organized movement to check the excessive use of intoxicating liquors belongs not only to modern but to very recent times. The temperance reform was inaugurated but a little over half a century ago. Numerous societies were formed, with wide affiliations, to act upon public opinion in the most efficient and persistent manner. There rapidly grew up a copious and varied temperance literature, consisting of explanations of the injurious action of alcoholic liquors, of vivid delineations of the results of the inebriating habit, of statistics of the criminality and pauperism that flow from it, of its enormous cost to the community at large, of impassioned appeals in sermons and lectures, and of poetry and fiction all combined, for the promotion of the philanthropic objects of the temperance associations.

The characteristic of the temperance movement at this early stage was the directness of its personal appeals to influence voluntary action. Individuals were plied with facts and arguments, and on grounds of self-respect and social obligation to abstain from the habit which had its root in the selfish appetites, and bore the fruits of suffering to the victim, calamity to the family, and grave detriment to society. To give the utmost support to voluntary action, the pledge was introduced, which offered the advantage of an explicit written committal, and a public avowal of the purpose of the individual to abstain from spirituous liquors. In short, the policy was to influence persons, by every consideration that could be urged, to the practice of restraint and temperance in the use of alcoholic beverages. The movement was pushed with fervor and zeal, and every expedient resorted I to, to gain the result. The pledge in favor of the temperate use of spirituous liquors was changed to a pledge against all use of them, on the ground that moderation, by the laws of human appetite, rapidly passes to excess.

Among the means of influence. Science was, of course, called upon to give its evidence. Prize essays by distinguished medical men on the physiological effects of alcohol were multiplied, and tracts stating the results were sown like autumn leaves through the community. One of the most eminent of the reformers, Mr. E. C. Delavan, after laboring long, and devoting great wealth to the promotion of the reform without the full results which he had anticipated, acknowledged his discouragement to a sagacious friend, who suggested to him that there was a sure way in which the cause might he made to succeed. "It has been shown," said he, "that the use of alcohol is very injurious to the human stomach. Men care for their stomachs more than for anything else. Prove to them that alcoholic liquors impair and destroy the digestive organs, and your case is won and that work done." Mr. Delavan, accordingly, had prepared a series of colossal lithograph plates, showing the progressive influence of alcohol upon the coats of the stomach, from the first congestion that follows moderate indulgence in the stimulant, onward through the stages of inflammation and disorganization to the final ulcerated condition shown by the post-mortem of habitual drunkards. The enterprise was pushed with great vigor. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in the manufacture of these stomach-charts, and they were hung up conspicuously in the halls of court-houses, on the walls of public institutions, and in all places where they could be observed by everybody. That these illustrations did good service there can be no doubt, although able medical men denied their strict accuracy. One effect was to concentrate so much attention upon the stomach that all other parts of the human system were neglected, and this made necessary new scientific expositions, showing that the peculiar and most injurious effect of ingested alcohol is upon the nervous system and the brain.

But, while great good was undoubtedly accomplished by the means adopted, and, indeed, all the good that could be expected from them, the results were still unsatisfactory—that is, the evil of intemperance was not swept from the country as the sanguine reformers had anticipated. The movement was driven as a crusade having a definite end. Attention was so concentrated upon the evils of intemperance that they came to be considered as almost the only evils with which mankind are afflicted. Fervor of feeling grew into heated and passionate partisanship, with impatience of tardy results. There was but little recognition of anything like natural laws in the case, and no admission of the great truth that radical changes in the conduct of human nature must proceed slowly and are limited by many conditions. There grew up a conviction that the temperance movement as thus prosecuted had proved a failure. Men had been instructed, persuaded, and denounced, until it was felt that these agencies had accomplished everything of which they were capable, and it was resolved to push on to more stringent measures. If men could not be induced to abstain voluntarily from the use of intoxicants, then they must be compelled to abstain. Government must be appealed to, to force the results which moral influence had failed to secure. If men would not stop drinking, they must be deprived of the means of drinking, and so it was determined to strike at the trade in alcoholic liquors, and to outlaw it by prohibitory legislation.

The temperance question was thus launched into politics, a change of great import, as it was the virtual abandonment of the policy hitherto pursued. Moral influences were, of course, not openly repudiated, but it remains true that they no longer characterized the temperance movement. The faith in them had departed, and its place was taken by the new faith in the efficacy of political action. We called attention last month to the overshadowing influence of the great superstition that political agencies are omnipotent for the accomplishment of social ends.

In the face of notorious facts, and in the teeth of all experience, we cling to the notion that government can do everything; so that now it is widely believed that a reformation of social habits, involving the strongest appetites, which it has been impossible to bring about by the most vigorous, prolonged, and comprehensive moral movement of modern times, can still be brought about through the passage of enactments by political majorities.

How far this change went may be further illustrated. In the first stage of the temperance movement the wrong to be righted was on the part of the individual who indulged in drinking-habits. The practice was denounced because held to be intrinsically immoral, self-destructive, and vicious in all its influences. The turpitude and wickedness of the case consisted in the act of indulgence. But, with the change of tactics on the part of the reformers, the point of assault was shifted: the pressure was virtually taken off the party that committed the wrong act, and applied to the commercial transaction that preceded it. The liquor-trade was denounced as the real root of the evil of intemperance, and the men who sold alcoholic spirits were held to be the culpable offenders and the criminals who deserved to be dealt with by punishment like other criminals. Yet the sale of liquors, like the sale of anything else, is a compound transaction—a seller implies a buyer—and they are both voluntary parties to the proceeding. If that proceeding is wrong, both are to be condemned—certainly the one who makes the demand as much as he who supplies it; and, if the partnership transaction is criminal, it is difficult to see why both should not be punished alike. But, in the new aspect of the case, he who drinks is virtually relieved from condemnation, while those who sell him the beverage become the objects of concentrated reprobation, to be punished with the full severity of the law. This fundamental change in the policy of the temperance movement, involving as it does the virtual abandonment of those agencies which are most proper to influence conduct, and which were clearly vindicated in their beneficent working can hardly be regarded as a step forward in the legitimate development of the temperance movement.

It is in the light of such experiences that we are to consider the measure now brought forward for the further promotion of abstinence from intoxicating liquors.

This measure is a partial reversion to the older method, and may be characterized as politico-educational, with special relation to the scientific aspect of the subject. It is proposed to give instruction in relation to the physiological effects of alcohol, and thus, as has been said, "to play the school-house against the saloon." It may be well to do this, but it will be wise not to expect too much from it. It is a very crude measure, and has been born of temperance zeal rather than any intelligent appreciation of the subject.

In the first place, the action of alcohol and the narcotics upon the human system opens one of the obscurest, and we may add, the most unsettled, of all questions. But little, in fact, is known of the modus operandi of these agents upon the nervous system, where they take such special and disastrous effect. School-teachers can not explain it—doctors can not explain it; no two will agree about it. The theories of the behavior of alcohol in the human system have undergone change after change within a generation, and we are probably but little nearer the final solution of the problem than when the first experiments were made upon cats and dogs to solve it.

In the next place, the amount of physiology that is or that can be taught in common schools, and by all the teachers under State control, is grossly insufficient to make intelligible what is known of the physiological effects of alcohol. The crude smattering of physiology got in such schools under ordinary teaching is absolutely worthless as a preparation for understanding the subtile influence of narcotic agents upon the nervous constituents and the nervous mechanism. What is taught will not be science, which must explain things, only sham science; will not be real knowledge or anything understood, but only the words of a lesson.

No doubt something will be gained by calling attention to the subject, but the question is, if the method proposed is the best that could be adopted. We doubt if the appeal to science through such teachers as we have, and such books as most of those that are now appearing, to meet the new emergency, is the best way of securing the end desired. What is wanted is to make the deepest and most indelible impression upon the minds of youth in regard to the bad effects of indulgence in alcoholic beverages. But the attempt to expound the physiology of the subject is not the best way to accomplish this object. The evils of intemperance are evils which openly appear in conduct. The incontestable facts of the injurious influence of drinking are direct, palpable, conspicuous, observed by everybody, and open to no question. Science can not make them more clear, or add vividness to the painful facts which are seen by all. Good may come, as we have said, but it is a question if more good would not come from the dogmatic statement of facts, that are free from doubt and obscurity, and that are based upon unquestionable and established experience. The subject in its scientific aspects is beyond the grasp of pupils in common schools, but maxims and rules can be stamped upon their minds in a way that will exert a salutary and permanent influence. And if it is desired to teach the young to think upon the subject, then let the victims of alcoholic indulgence be taken as object-lessons in which what the pupil sees himself becomes the basis of the opinions he forms. Every community is full of examples of the effects of drinking, and these effects are seen in all possible degrees. Let the scholars be directed to observe for themselves, and see how much truth they can find out on all sides of the subject; the exercise will at any rate be an excellent means of mental improvement and practical education.