Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/December 1885/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
PRESIDENT LESLEY’S ADDRESS.

THOSE of our readers who carelessly pass by the recent discourse of Professor Lesley before the American Association for the Advancement of Science without reading it will make a bad mistake. There is not much danger of this, for the address is sufficiently attractive and brilliant to engage general attention. Professor Lesley enforces many wholesome truths upon the students and devotees of science, and maintains a high ideal of the great purpose that should govern scientific pursuits. On these points we can have nothing to add. But there is a bearing of the whole discourse on common education which should not be overlooked. His address, in one of its chief aspects, is a counterblast against "cram" in science—against the mere accumulation of scientific facts—and it is a ringing demand for more persistent and concentrated labor in small and unobtrusive fields of investigation. His plea for what is called "dead-work" in science, as contrasted with more showy performances, is especially effective. But his observations on "the over-accumulation of scientific information" have an application outside the limits of strict research. "The science of learning and the science of knowledge," ho says, "are not quite identical; and learning has too often in the case of individuals overwhelmed and smothered to death knowledge. The average human mind, when overstocked with information, acts like a general put in command of an army too large for him to handle. Many a vaulting scientific ambition has been thus disgraced. Nor is this the only danger that we run; for the accumulation of facts in the treasury of the human brain has a natural tendency to breed an intellectual avarice, a passion for the piling up of masses of facts, old and new, regardless of their uses." "Not only the avarice of facts, but of their explanations also, may end in a wealthy poverty of intellect for which there is no cure." "How much we know is not the best question, but how we got what we know." Professor Lesley touches upon the subject of general education from this point of view as follows:

I do not intend to discuss the subject, to define the quantity and quality of knowledge adequate for the various classes of human society, or to propose any plans for its distribution. All I wish to say about it is, I that it seems to mo Nature limits both the responsibilities of teachers and the rights of learners more narrowly than is commonly supposed. The parable of the sower is a good reference for explanation. Most of the surface of the globe is good for little else than cattle-ranches or sheep-farms, and the large majority of mankind must in all ages be satisfied with the mere rudiments of learning. What they want is unscholastic wisdom with which to fight the fight of life, and they must win it for themselves. Only a limited number of persons in any community can acquire wealth of knowledge, and the only thought on which I wish to insist is this: these few must also pet it for themselves, and, moreover, must work hard for it. It is a hackneyed aphorism that there is no royal road to knowledge, although an incredible amount of pains has been taken to make one. Nature in this affair, as usual, has been a good, wise mother to us all; for it is not desirable to make the acquisition of knowledge easy, for the main point in scientific education is to secure the highest activity of the human mind in the pursuit of truth—an activity tried and disciplined by hardship and nourished on hardy fare. The quantity of food is of less importance; everything depends on establishing a good constitutional digestion. The harder the dinner is to chew, the stronger grows the eater. Canned science as a steady diet is as unwholesome for the growing mind as canned fruits and vegetables for the growing body. The wise teacher imitates the method of Nature, who has but one answer for all questions: "Find it out for yourself, and you will then know it better than if I were to tell you beforehand."

The great vice of current education is here squarely hit. As Huxley says, it is "spoon-victuals"; acquisition made easy by elaborate simplification and explanation which leaves wholly out of view the fundamental truth that mental power can only be acquired through the effort of active exercise. This is the supreme requirement, but it is this which is everywhere, and by all pretexts and devices, evaded. We are still in the lesson-learning, print-worshiping stage of education, almost as much as they were when children were taught from the catechism—

"My book and heart
Shall never part."

But the true purpose of education, as can never be enough enforced, is not to learn lessons and get explanations from teachers, and to accumulate information, but to develop power in the minds of the young to observe carefully, to reason correctly, and to think independently about the things that are important and vital in the experience of life. The minds of the young require to be cultivated and trained in this kind of activity; but all the mighty apparatus of books, teachers, superintendents, and boards of education, backed by millions of money, instead of loading to this result, stand in the way of it. The two methods are incompatible. Listening to explanations and cramming the contents of books are radically antagonistic to thinking things out, and to that self instruction the sole condition of which is mental effort, and that should be kept in view as the essential thing to be secured in all education of children and youth.

 

 
THE EPIDEMIC AT MONTREAL.

The terrible pestilence, which, for several months, has been raging in the beautiful city of Montreal, carrying away thousands of its inhabitants, teaches a painful lesson of the malign consequences to a community of ignorance and superstition when strong enough to set at defiance the resources that intelligent experience has furnished to arrest its progress. It is not as if the people had been struck by some new and mysterious disease before which they were powerless. It is not as with the plagues of former ages, when nothing was known that could be done to arrest them. The saddest aspect of the Montreal calamity is not that multitudes have been swept into unripe graves, but that this vast mortality could have been avoided. That small-pox is practically a preventable disease is established; but to what purpose, when all the apparatus of self-defense in a civilized community is completely paralyzed? A comparatively small element of the population, ignorant, prejudiced, and pious, makes a blind and desperate resistance to the only measures that can bring relief; and they resort to penance, invocation of saints, prayers to Heaven, and solemn processions, to arrest the course of contagion, over which these have no more influence than they would have to arrest the course of the St. Lawrence I The chief ravages of the disease have been confined to that portion of the French Canadians who were unvaccinated; but such has been the passion of religious fanaticism, and the intensity of race-hatred, that this small minority made a fight stubborn enough to defeat all effectual public action. There have been defiance of authority and constant danger of mob violence which have intimidated the controlling officials and so diminished their effectiveness. The authorities in charge of the leading hospital of St. Roche are said to have favored neither vaccination nor sanitation, and such was the inefficient and horrible condition of that old establishment that many advocated burning it down. The efforts to isolate cases of small-pox have been also desperately resisted, and, worst of all, the officials have misled the people as to the progress of the malady, and by inducing a false security have prevented that energetic private action which must be the main reliance in the last resort. A writer in a Montreal newspaper puts this feature of the case very forcibly. He says: "In the prevailing murmuring and complaint by people with their faces turned toward the City Hall, let us say that, had every man and woman in this city done his or her plain duty about small-pox, there would be no small-pox. It is one of the vices of our age, which Montreal manifests in a marked degree, that 'authorities' are expected to do for individuals what individuals should do for themselves. So far as laws or by-laws lead people to imagine that they can properly or safely divest themselves of any part of their personal responsibility, just so far are laws or by-laws only evil. There is a disastrous superstition abroad which leads people to believe in enactments and legislation. These things can not execute themselves, they can only be put into effect by deputies, often listless or ignorant, and nearly always much less interested in the execution of their work than the men who have thoughtlessly handed to them tasks which should never have been deputed. Whoever may be chargeable with the dire calamity upon us, grumbling will do no good now, and, if the reader wishes to aid the officials and other citizens who are busy fighting the plague, let him add himself to the Citizens' Committee. Work will be given him, and in its difficulty and importance he will have little leisure for complaint."

 

 
PARTY GOVERNMENT.

A newspaper brings us the fragment of a speech by Senator Hawley in which he ventures for a moment upon the ticklish ground of defending partisanship, or the necessity of two parties. He had been previously glorifying one party—his own—with, of course, the due condemnation of the opposite party. One would suppose that he could spare the utterly wrong political party, and rejoice in its annihilation, so that the right party could have its perfect way; but he says we must have both, and in enforcing this idea he gives expression to the following curious bit of political philosophy: "It would be a lamentable day indeed for this country, or any other enjoying a free government, when it could be said that there were no parties—that lovely time that some long for, when there should not be enough of moral or intellectual life among the people to get up a single difference of opinion upon political affairs."

Senator Hawley seems here to think that the evidence and the measure of "moral or intellectual life" are seen in the power of "getting up differences"; while we have always supposed they were shown rather in the power of reaching agreement. Differences of views and opinions are certainly indicative of want of intelligence on the matters of disagreement; while "moral and intellectual life" is displayed in that activity of inquiry which loads to the attainment and acceptance of truth. and to consequent agreement. We are here, however, speaking from the scientific point of view, in which agreement in truth is the supreme end; while Senator Hawley is speaking from the political point of view, in which the errors of difference for partisan purposes are the supreme end. Nor would he have the higher step taken which leads to agreement, for that would end partisanship, and, according to his logic, if parties should come to an understanding on political principles, it would be fatal to free government. "Free government," then, depends upon ignorance, and must be destroyed by the progress of knowledge. Senator Hawley is a politician, and with him partisan politics is the end, with its fruits of office and power. Elections and campaigns are his means, and his sole condition of success is to be able to arouse voters to hot political strife. So he wants differences, because men will fight over differences but never over agreements. Differences in politics there certainly are, and must long continue to be: what we object to in Senator Hawley's political philosophy is, he demands that this low partisanship which he so enjoys shall be eternal, and that it would be a "lamentable day" when it comes to an end.