Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/Editor's Table
THERE is a decided improvement in this country in favor of what is known as "culture." Between summer schools of philosophy, Chautauqua courses of study, and various other schemes of similar nature, we have an almost embarrassing choice of means for intellectual improvement. Young people all over the country are studying the great masterpieces of literature, ancient and modern. Now it is Dante, now it is Chaucer, now it is Victor Hugo. There is no doubt at all that this is useful work; at the same time there is just one caution, as it seems to us, to be given. In all this study what is supremely wanted is an objective point; otherwise we shall have, as the result of it all, a lot of people taking pride in their literary bric-a-brac, and yet with minds ill furnished for everyday purposes—destitute, that is to say, of a vigorous practical intelligence. We might, perhaps, without danger of falling into serious error, go so far as to say that some of the tasks prescribed by the organizations to which reference has been made are not in every case suited to the minds that attack them. A person of naturally comprehensive mind, capable of taking a wide survey of things, and with daily occupations that tend to promote mental balance, may undertake an exhaustive study of Dante without throwing the general structure of his or her thought and knowledge out of all symmetry; but we should not feel like guaranteeing an equally harmless result in the case of some of those whom we see bending over such tasks, and who, if they take possession of Dante in any real sense, will have something on hand out of all proportion to the volume and mass of all their other mental acquisitions put together. In cases such as we have in view there is Just this alternative: Dante is either learned in some effective fashion, or he is not learned to any purpose worth mentioning. In the former case there ensues a certain lop-sided development of culture, in the other we have a mind more or less spoiled by a mere show of knowledge and the affectations to which superficial acquisitions seldom fail to give rise.
The main point, however, to keep in view, and that toward which our caution is directed, is that all knowledge should be rated in exact proportion to the effect it has in promoting a sound practical intelligence. In so far as the studies to which we refer make for intelligence in the true sense, they are to be commended and valued; but, in so far as they stand in the way of the acquisition of knowledge or of practical arts better adapted to develop the judgment, and in a general way to produce a robust intellectual constitution, they are to be deprecated. We are rather of opinion that the training which the majority of people chiefly require, is one that will enable them to pronounce sure judgments on questions of limited range, leading them on gradually to efforts of wider scope just as their knowledge and experience are enlarged, A lack of common sense goes very ill with pretensions to superior culture; yet the two are not unfrequently associated. A fine appreciation of Dante's poetry seems like misplaced intellectual luxury, when we find that the person possessing it is unable to say yes or no to some comparatively simple question, or unable to help himself or herself in some very slight intellectual difficulty, or to throw off the thralldom of silly and misleading phrases. "C'est magnifique" one is tempted to exclaim, "mais ce n'est pas la vie!" Splendid, no doubt, but not real life! We should, therefore, propose that those who engage in these fine studies—capable, under suitable conditions, of yielding most valuable results—should check their progress from week to week and month to month by asking, and trying to ascertain, whether their judgment is being developed, whether in the common things of life they are moving with a firmer step, whether they more readily put aside flimsy pretenses and specious seemings, and pierce more truly to the heart of the matters with which they have to deal. What we all want is better order in our daily thoughts, a clearer vision, a firmer courage. True culture of course implies progress in these directions; but much that passes for culture does little or nothing either for the mind or for the character. Much depends on the end we keep in view. If we study great authors for the sake of having, as it were, an elaborately furnished drawing-room in our minds, we shall get about the same amount of benefit as people commonly get from elaborate drawing-room furniture; but if we study them so as to gain a wider outlook on the world through understanding their thought and duly estimating the conditions under which they wrote—if, moreover, we prove ourselves from time to time, to see whether we are really gaining in mental power—the benefit to us may be very great. We rejoice at every sign of increasing intellectual activity throughout the country, and only ask that it may all be dominated by practical ends and made subservient, not to individual vanity, but to the best interests of American civilization.
We noticed quite a ripple of discontent some time ago in educational quarters, particularly over certain remarks of ours tending to show that education was a matter for the family and for private co-operation, rather than for the state. One respected correspondent asked if we wished to deliver education over to the haphazard of private competition, and we replied by suggesting that there was rather more of haphazard in the politics that necessarily entered into state education than in the methods of the business world. Well, it so happens that public attention and criticism have lately been directed to the public-school system of our own highly-favored metropolis. And with what result? Why, that the system in question, which had often been lauded to the skies as a model of efficiency, as a shining example of what state authority, coupled with the taxing power, could effect in the field of education, has been found wanting at almost every point, vitiated through and through by the methods of the politician, and half-strangled in the bonds of routine. So great has been the dissatisfaction—we might almost say, dismay—at the discovery, that we hear of the formation of a committee of citizens who propose to charge themselves with the duty of watching the action of our educational authorities, and, if possible, bring the working of the state machine into measurable accord with the reasonable demands of the community—demands predicated upon a knowledge of the results which well-directed private enterprise is made to yield. So, then, we first of all arm the state with full power for all purposes of public education, and then, when the business falls—as fall it must—into the hands of the politicians, and these proceed to act according to their natural instincts, we organize volunteer committees to infuse a little of the breath of life, a little of the vigor of private enterprise, a little of the true spirit of science into the unwieldy organization we have called into existence. We abandon private effort through a conviction that it will not meet the case, will not educate the people fast enough, and then we resort to it again in order to make the governmental machine move. Surely, under the circumstances, we are entitled to ask why private effort and enterprise should ever have been abandoned, why education should ever have been mixed up with politics at all. If we have so many prominent citizens prepared to act as a kind of Vigilance Committee to keep the politicians, to whose care our educational interests have been committed, from violating or mismanaging their trust, surely the same citizens might do much toward organizing a system of education for the people, and making it work for the general advantage. We know it is taken for granted to-day that parents will not pay, directly, for the education of their children. In less enlightened days they were prepared to do so, and to make considerable sacrifices for the purpose; but in these days, having tasted the sweets of free schools, they regard education as something which should not entail any visible or appreciable sacrifices. The assumption, no doubt, is largely based on fact, but can it be claimed that the change is a happy one? If not, if it is an unhappy one, can we too soon set about turning the current of people's feelings in another direction? We do not propose to discuss the question at any length at present, but merely wish to point to the fact, which recent events in this city have rendered notorious, that all is not for the best in the nominally and reputedly best possible system of education. Here, in New York, the system has, to a large extent, broken down. It is seen not to be a system of education in the true sense, but a system the main elements of which are political, and which, consequently, feels no impulsion toward improvement. The committee of citizens are no doubt armed with good intentions, and we highly applaud their action in coming forward at this juncture; but we fear their zeal will wane before the steady persistence of the enemy. To hand over education to the state is a step easier to take than to retrace; and the evils of the political management of education are very much easier to protest against than to cure.