Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/April 1885/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search



HARVARD UNIVERSITY is to be congratulated on its leadership in the important work of liberalizing the traditional college education. It has ended—or is on the way to ending—the narrow and intolerant policy of forcing upon all its students an old study not required by them, and the imperfect general acquisition of which has become a reproach to the institution, and the standing scandal of college education. Harvard has at last begun in earnest the work of putting Greek where it properly belongs, on the same basis as other studies. She has divested it of its arrogant claims, withdrawn the compulsion that has so long given it factitious consideration, and left it to be taken up and pursued like other subjects by those who value it. This is called waging war against the noble study of Greek; desecrating classical ideals, and destroying liberal education. It is quite the reverse. It is giving freedom to Greek; it is putting classics on their rightful foundation, and giving to education the liberality of greater liberty. But there is wailing in the classical camp. The newspapers are talking of the "fall of Greek," of "perilous experiments," of "momentous revolutions" and the sordid encroachments of the money-making spirit! And what has happened? Why, Harvard University has consented to accept of its candidates for admission a certain thorough and well-defined preparation in physics in place of the Greek formerly exacted. This is surely moderate, for they are not "fanatical iconoclasts" who have carried this reform to its present result in Harvard University. It is not true that this venerable institution has got on a useful-knowledge rampage and ordered all its dead-language books to be thrown into Boston Harbor. Those who desire to study Greek can still do so, but, by leaving it upon this basis, if there are fewer Greek students they are certain to be better ones. One would think that this consideration would weigh with the classicists, and that they would not distress themselves because their favorite study is to be elevated and yield more creditable results in the future. But, if they will be miserable over such a manifest step of improvement in dealing with their own subject, we can not help it. Our ground of satisfaction is, that a formidable obstacle to the study of science has been got out of the way in an influential university, and that now it will be a good deal easier for other collegiate institutions to do the same thing.



Mr. Frederic Harrison was perhaps not very far wrong when he spoke the other day of the position of comparative isolation which Mr. Spencer occupies, so far as his views on the proper sphere of government are concerned. There is probably no living philosopher, not the mere mouth-piece of a sect or school, whose general philosophical views command as wide assent as those of Mr. Spencer, but multitudes, who are willing to follow him when he discourses of evolution and of the relativity of knowledge, hold back when they are asked to accept the application which he makes of his general principles to practical questions of government. If, however, Mr. Spencer's philosophy rests on a sound foundation, as so many are prepared to admit, and if his views on the conditions of political and social well-being are legitimately deduced from the cardinal principles of that philosophy, then sooner or later the world must accept them or—suffer the consequences of rebellion against the teachings of right reason. Mr. Spencer can afford to wait for his vindication better, perhaps, than the world can afford to wait to adopt the plan of political salvation which he points out.

It may help to clear no the subject a little if we endeavor to show what the actual condition of things is, and what are the difficulties with which government, in the present unduly comprehensive sense of the term, has to contend. We speak in the heading of this article of "the Scylla and Charybdis of administration." By Scylla we wish to signify the "spoils system," that under which the public offices are bartered for party services; by "Charybdis" we understand bureaucracy. Mr. Spencer says, "Steer away from both of these devouring monsters, by reducing the functions of government to a mere fraction of what they now are"; but the advice is not heeded. Our modern statesmen make straight for one or another of these sources of danger, or else try to steer between them—an experiment which generally results in damage from both sides.

The "spoils system" is too well known in this country to need much description. It consists essentially in making the hope of office, or of control in connection with the disposal of office, the mainspring of all political effort. What kind of political class this system tends to breed we know only too well. The type is the same, from the bar-room rowdy who trusts to his usefulness at election-times to secure him immunity from punishment when arraigned for assault or murder, up to the millionaire who buys himself a seat in the Senate, We see representatives of the system hanging round our city halls, waiting for their share of plunder, and meanwhile defiling rooms which ought to represent the decency and order of a great community with their rude and unsavory habits. We see them in the lobbyists and the pension agents, the men who advertise to procure situations for money, and all the other harpies that congregate at our national and State capitals. We see them in those members of Congress, not a few, whose whole idea of statesmanship is to watch, in the interest of their several localities, the progress of appropriation bills. We see them in influential journalists who make no effort to conceal the rage and scorn with which they are inspired by the very idea that office should be bestowed otherwise than as a reward of political services. One of these, a year or so ago, bluntly expressed his innermost thought on the subject by saying that the effect of such civil-service reform as the Pendleton bill aimed at was to leave nothing for political ambition but—we must be pardoned if we quote the words exactly as given by the energetic editor—"a damned barren ideality." Another editor, not less energetic or able, sums up his objections to the present civil-service reform movement by calling it "pot-book reform," holding it apparently beneath the dignity of a spoilsman to know anything about pot-hooks, or any other elements of a decent education. Enough that he should have known how to drum up a score of votes on election-day.

We see the results of the system, further, in the extreme inefficiency of legislation upon matters of national as opposed to matters of local consequence. An appropriation bill can always be put through. There are never wanting hands to roll that particular chariot along. Everybody seems to understand voting money. Everybody, with few exceptions, is ready to echo the cant phrases, the bogus formulas, about the importance of having the national Government represented in remote localities by costly public buildings, and extravagant mail services. Wherever a contract can be scented, it is easy to excite interest; but, when it is a simple matter affecting the national credit, the improvement of extradition treaties, the acquitting of a debt, the regulation of the consular service, the investigation of frauds on the republic, the case is very different; then it seems as if nobody could do anything, and matters are laid over from year to year. Anything more abortive or Inane than a discussion on the tariff nobody could imagine. The advantage generally rests with the men who want high taxation, for the simple reason that they know what they want, and show an admirable consistency of purpose in laying burdens on the country at large for the benefit of themselves and their friends. The name this kind of thing goes by, strange to say, is not "plunder," but "protection." Until, however, those who believe in free trade have the courage to say so, the plunderers, who never lack for audacity, will have the best of it.

What the demands of the spoils system are upon the energies of cabinet ministers and others who ought to be attending to important duties, for which they are paid by the public, need hardly be dwelt upon. Those who have most experience in such matters will not contradict us if we say that three fourths of the time, and a larger proportion still of the energy of the heads of departments, are taken up, in one way or another, with questions of patronage, and that only the residue goes to considering how the public business can best be done. The office seekers were a greater terror to Abraham Lincoln than the Southern armies, and, if the whole truth were known, it would be found that many a man has been hounded by them into his grave. Guiteau was but an extreme example of the audacity and shamelessness of the tribe. All the intermediate grades are kept full, and probably men are now known to the heads of the executive, not less impudent than Guiteau, though, happily, lacking his murderous fanaticism.

That relief should be sought from the terrors and horrors of the spoils system, in what is known as civil-service reform, is not surprising; and yet some of the arguments of those who oppose such reform are not without weight. They say that it is not desirable to form an official class; that it is not desirable to introduce into this country the stereotyped methods and the deadly routine of European officialism. They say that, where bureaucracy has thoroughly established itself, the office-holder has great difficulty in realizing that the country was not created for him to govern and regulate; that he is a servant of the public is not in all bis thoughts. Thay say that when men are virtually irremovable, save for gross misconduct, they generally become sluggish in the performance of their duties, and that in the higher officials this sluggishness becomes rank obstruction. They point to such an institution as the English post-office, which, during the régime of Rowland Hill, a man who was forced on it from without, exhibited a great degree of life end energy, but which, under his successors, shows the bureaucratic spirit in perfection, and is becoming as noted for its dullness and lethargy as once it was for intelligence and the spirit of progress. They say: Carry out the examination system consistently, apply it, as is done in England, to all branches and grades of the public service, and "we shall in due time have here, not a flexible and self-adapting governmental machine such as we need, and as, to some extent, we have at present, but a vast and comprehensive mandarinism existing apart from, and (with the most benevolent purposes no doubt) presiding over our national life. They point to the intolerable airs which the official classes give themselves in most European countries—airs implying a definitely established superiority on the part of messieurs the functionaries over the citizens with whom they come into contact. They add that, however great an evil office-seeking may be to-day, it is after all confined to a small percentage of the people, those who, by reason of the political services rendered by themselves or their friends, conceive themselves entitled to some consideration in the distribution of patronage; whereas if commissioners and examiners are employed to perambulate the country, advertising the public service more or less in every city, town, and hamlet, the number of those whose minds will be more or less unsettled by the thought of perchance obtaining a government situation will be vastly greater. In such terrible colors is the Charybdis of bureaucracy painted by men who, for their own part, have no dread of the Scylla of the spoils system. Well, the picture they draw is not very unlike the reality. We have as yet in this republic but a partial measure of so-called civil-service reform; but, if the time should ever come that the English system should be adopted in its entirety, there can be no question that, in the course of half a generation, we should have among us an official class such as we do not wish to see—men to whom the traditions and usages of their several departments would be of much greater moment and weight than the requirements of the public, or than the dictates of practical common sense. The public business would not be done on business principles, but on "departmental" principles—something very different. And, just as the governmental machine grew in size and complexity, would it more and more begin to constitute, in the eyes of those operating it, an end in itself. To master the technique, so to speak, of a department would take some years of application; and nothing would be easier than for the permanent officers to persuade political heads, who might wish to introduce reforms, that the machine was working as well as could be expected, and that to try and make it work otherwise than it was doing would throw everything into confusion. Of course, it would seem like great temerity on the part of a man of no experience to combat the views of a most respectable and apparently intelligent gentleman, who had perhaps grown gray in the performance of his departmental duties; and thus many an enterprise of pith and moment would turn its course awry, and lose the name of action, as the Prince of Denmark once thoughtfully observed. It would not, however, be "the pale cast of thought" that would "sickly o'er" the good resolutions of reformers, but simply stall-fed obstruction that would crowd them aside. That things will come to such a pass in this country we are not prepared at present to predict. It is by no means certain that the "reform" principle will gain any more victories. There is much impatience at present of the difficulties it interposes in the distribution of patronage. We have, however, with our present ideas of the functions of government, just the two evils to choose between—the Scylla of the spoils system and the Charybdis of bureaucracy. Of course, we may try to combine the two, so as to have some experience of the evils of both; but the probability is, that sooner or later one or other will decisively carry the day.

Now, Mr. Spencer says: The whole trouble arises from your having so many offices to dispose of, and that comes of your having crowded so many functions upon the Government. You have brought on a condition of things dangerous to the peace and stability of the state. Had you left to private initiative and responsibility a very large part of what you now place on the shoulders of the Government, the office-seeking nuisance could never have grown to its present dimensions, nor could bureaucracy ever have been the incubus it now is on the life and energies of many communities. The time has come to unload, to repeal laws rather than to enact new ones. The organic growth of society is checked when you resort to what may, by comparison, be called the mechanical methods of legislation and governmental control. It is under the régime of freedom, not under that of compulsion, that social bonds are knit. If you would have virtue to grow strong, you must let it have its full value as virtue in the world; you must not try to equalize all varieties of character by repressive laws. If, however, you are determined to abandon organic methods, and to operate exclusively by means of the policeman's truncheon, more or less politely concealed, prepare yourselves for great convulsions, for the condition you will induce will not and can not be one of stable equilibrium.

The warning has been uttered. It remains to be seen whether it will be as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, or whether it will prove the signal for anew awakening of political intelligence, and the formation of a new and higher conception of the social state.