Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/May 1885/Editor's Table
ILLITERACY AS A SOURCE OF NATIONAL DANGER.
A GREAT deal of attention has lately been drawn to this subject, and in certain quarters an attempt has been made to "boom" it in a manner that can hardly be pronounced entirely disinterested. In certain educational journals, for example, teachers are urged to petition the national Legislature for the passing of the "Blair Bill," on the ground that it will improve their own remuneration. One form of petition, which we find printed for the convenience of teachers, states that "ignorance among the masses of the people now exists to such a degree as to threaten the early destruction of the free institutions of the republic," and that therefore a system of free schools "should be in part established and, temporarily at least, supported by contributions from the overflowing Treasury of the United States." The word "temporarily" here will raise a smile on the lips of those who remember how often temporary protection for "our infant industries" has been applied for, and how invariably the protection so accorded has become a permanent thing. Infant industries that are nourished on "protection" never emerge from the infant condition. However they may extend and expand, they never voluntarily forego the leading-strings or the pap-bottle; and so we shrewdly suspect it would be with the schools "temporarily" assisted by the Federal Government. If, in the course of a few years, they demonstrated their ability to dispense with such assistance, they would do what has seldom been done in this world. It is a most unusual thing for any organism to close an easy channel of alimentation, in order to depend exclusively upon one more difficult. Let the Treasury of the United States once begin to overflow in the way of aid to education "on the basis of illiteracy," it may go on overflowing. The "basis" is not likely to contract, but rather to widen out from year to year.
The question, however, deserves careful consideration. Is the stability of our institutions threatened by the ignorance of the electorate? By "illiteracy" is understood the condition of being unable to read or write; and we are asked to believe that our system of government stands in peril on account of the extent to which illiteracy as thus defined prevails. The language used would point to the conclusion that illiteracy is now a more serious evil than at any previous period of our history. The facts, however, do not support any such conclusion. The census of 1870 gave the total number of white males of voting age unable to write as 748,970. From 1870 to 1880 our population increased thirty per cent. Had the number of illiterates remained, therefore, relatively stationary, we should have had in 1880 not less than 973,661 white voters unable to write; instead of that, the census for that year shows the number to be 886,659 only, a decidedly reduced proportion. It is true, on the other hand, that, among the colored population, education is not keeping pace with the natural increase of numbers, but this fact alone does not justify the interference of the Federal Government to supplement the educational work that is now going on.
What has not been shown as yet, so far as we are aware, is that the so called illiterate classes are a specific source of danger to our institutions. If we review the several crises of our history, we shall probably find that those who have done most to bring on these crises have been, for the most part, men quite able to read and write. The Tilden-Hayes imbroglio could not certainly be traced to the ignorance of the electorate. Maine is a highly educated State, and yet it was precisely there that a few years ago a condition of war almost supervened in connection with the State elections. The false returns which kept this city, and in a less degree the whole Union, in a condition of fever-heat for days together last fall, had nothing to do with illiteracy, quite the contrary. Even the Cincinnati riot was not the work of men who could not read or write, but rather of citizens quite competent in these respects, but who had momentarily lost their heads. The fact is, the citizens who can read and write have everywhere the power in their own hands, and if they are only willing to discharge their duties, private and public, in a proper manner, the non-reading and non-writing element in the population will give them comparatively little trouble.
There is, however, another view to be taken of the matter. If our schools are not as efficient as they should be, and if an undue proportion of the whole population escapes the civilizing influence of education, what is the cause? We do not hesitate to say that the chief cause is one which no Government action, State or Federal, can ever reach—viz., defect of home discipline. The boy who will not attend school, or who, attending school, learns nothing, is the boy accustomed to rebellion at home, or the boy whose parents are themselves too negligent and vicious to care whether he learns anything or not. It is no doubt the case that a certain portion of the population of these States is being brought up in partial or total savagery. Not for want of schools, however, for schools abound. The evil is deep-seated, and can only be reached by the vigorous action of public opinion, and by wise measures of reform in connection with the administration of justice. When we explain why it is that our educational systems fail altogether to reach a certain element in the population, we explain, also, why the work of education is in many cases so shallow, and why it even seems at times to do more harm than good. Everything depends on the spirit with which it is approached. A well-known figure in contemporary fiction—Maud Matchin—well illustrates the work of the high school or academy on the mind of a vain and vulgar girl, who sets no value upon education, save as it may help her to a position in the world, and the vices of whose character are therefore brought only into stronger relief by her wretched varnish of accomplishments. And here we see the folly of all schemes that would set the Federal Government at work to repair the weak places of education throughout the States and Territories. All that is proposed is that reading and writing should be made universal accomplishments, so as to remove the reproach and danger of technical "illiteracy." But there is absolutely no guarantee that the voter newly instructed to read and write would be any better man than he was before. If our high-schools are turning out Maud Matchins by the score and hundred, and if youths by the thousand leave school to pursue a career of "smartness," without one thought of social responsibility, it is evident that the mere extension of educational facilities is a much less pressing need than the moralizing of the whole business of education. Philosophers have told us that it is perfectly possible to educate in an intellectual sense without touching one single moral chord; and daily experience confirms the truth of the statement. Instead, therefore, of engaging the Federal Government to establish more schools, we would engage the whole community to place the schools that now exist upon a higher moral plane, and to render them more effectual in their working by a higher quality of home influence. It is in the home above all that reform is needed; but, unhappily, the school has of late years so dwarfed the home, so interposed between the parent and his natural and proper responsibility toward his child, that to preach "home influence" to-day is almost like raising one's voice in the wilderness. Things are badly complicated; one thing only is certain, and that is, that more State interference will not help to clear up the complications, or to put things on a sound basis.
It is needless, we trust, in concluding these remarks, to say that we yield to none in the importance we attach to education rightly understood. By education, however, we do not understand merely the ability to read and write, and we are not fully persuaded that our institutions would be any safer than they are to-day if every child in the country over twelve years old could both read and write. What we know for certain is, that an individual able to do both may be in a condition of very unstable intellectual equilibrium, and so, we believe, might a whole community of such individuals. What we need to improve our intellectual state is not an increase of activity on the part of the Government, but deeper convictions of social duty throughout the community, and, above all, a livelier sense of parental responsibility. Let us have these things, and the republic will be safe, and education will begin to be truly humanizing and truly progressive.
A TEST OF PHILOSOPHY.
There is now a pretty decided agreement among the intelligent and unprejudiced that Herbert Spencer takes rank as the first philosopher of England, and G. H. Lewes many years ago declared him to be the only English thinker who has originated a philosophy. How much this may mean is well intimated by the remark of Mr. Lester F. Ward, that, "when we have reached England's greatest in any achievement of mind, we have usually also reached the world's greatest."
But there is still room to regard the compliment as equivocal, for the question remains, What is it to be "the first philosopher"? To be first and alone in a department of thought obviously means little or much, according to the grade of intellectual work involved. Philosophy is a vague term, and, as experience shows, may imply the lowest as well as the highest exercise of the mind. As applied to systems of speculation in pre-scientific ages, it no doubt represented the best mental effort then possible. But as applied in these times to similar speculations, with little reference to the rise of modern knowledge, it is not the highest kind of intellectual performance. True philosophy the deepest and largest understanding of things must be so far scientific in spirit and method as to place facts first, and work in subordination to them. The philosophy that is typified by the Concord school, which is most interested in the transcendental, which gives imagination the lead, leaves vulgar facts to the Gradgrinds, and is as jealous of science as theology, is not a very exalted form of mental exertion, and to be first in it is no great compliment. Philosophy, to achieve its highest objects, must now begin with the patient study of long-contemned realities; must discipline the imagination, must work in subordination to established knowledge, and aim to bring out profounder truth for the practical guidance of man in ordering the course of his life.
To be the first philosopher of the foremost nation of the world from this point of view is exalted praise, and this is the position that Mr. Spencer has undoubtedly won. His philosophy is based upon Nature, is limited to Nature, is subordinated to science, and is such a presentation of the laws and order of the world as bears immediately upon questions of human conduct. It is synthesis of the principles which become all-determining rules in the practical sphere of human action. It bears upon religion, upon politics, upon education, and upon social and domestic experience, with the authority of science and the full power of a verified system of natural laws. It was long a reproach to Spencer that he undertook to deal with so many subjects, but it is now perceived that this was but the inevitable consequence of that comprehensive method which the advance of modern knowledge had made possible and imperative.
We have been led to these remarks by a circumstance, not in itself of much importance, but which is yet significant as giving a new attestation of the worth of Spencer's philosophy in its practical bearings. Mr. Spencer has applied his philosophical views to the subject of education, and his little treatise upon the subject has been rendered into all the languages of the civilized world. And now, by an appeal made to the judgment of English teachers, the verdict has been rendered that the first of English philosophers is also the first of English educators. We see, by the London "Journal of Education," that an extra prize was offered for the best list of the seven greatest living educationists classed in the order of importance. A great number of lists were sent in, and the prize was awarded to "X. Y. Z." for the following list: 1, Spencer; 2, Huxley; 3, Wilson; 4, Thring; 5, Miss Buss; 6, Laurie; 7, Quick. Besides this premium list, in which the name of Spencer was first in importance, his name also appeared in seventy-two other lists, while Bain appeared in fifty; Huxley, thirty-eight; Thring, thirty-six; Miss Beale, thirty-four; Miss Buss, thirty-three; B. H. Quick, thirty-two; E. A. Abbott, thirty-one; A. J. Mundella and J. G. Fitch, twenty-nine; J. Buskin and M. Arnold, twenty-eight.
It has been said in deprecation of Spencer that "only the Seven Sages can understand him"; but it seems that practical teachers can sufficiently understand him to be able to form a very appreciative estimate of his position in the field where they are the most competent judges.