Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/November 1890/Editor's Table
AN exceedingly useful address was that delivered this year at Indianapolis, by Prof. T. C. Mendenhall, as retiring President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We publish it in our present number, and trust it may be widely read and carefully pondered. In Prof. Mendenhall's opinion the relations between the scientific few and the non-scientific many in this country are not as satisfactory as they ought to be. He finds that, though individuals here and there are disposed to be very liberal in the endowing of scientific schools and colleges, and though science is professedly held in very high honor, the community at large hardly seems to know how to distinguish between a true man of science and a dilettante or charlatan. In many cases the latter more easily secures attention and credence than the best qualified scientific specialist. He finds, too, that scientific methods of thought are not permeating the community to the extent that might be expected, considering all that is said in praise of science and the extensive provision that is already made for imparting a knowledge of its principles. What are the obstacles that stand in the way of more favorable results? That is the question which Prof. Mendenhall applies himself to answer. He thinks there are faults both on the scientific and on the non-scientific side; and not being able to deal exhaustively with the whole question, he properly confines himself to indicating the faults with which his own side, the scientific fraternity, may properly be considered chargeable.
The main fault all through, however its phases may vary, is that men of science, or many of them at least, are not sufficiently practical in their views and aims. They allow a great gulf to form between themselves and the non-scientific world, and regard the phenomenon with indifference or even with complacency. They have an infinite contempt for any science that aims at being popular; and we are not sure that the efforts we have ourselves made to interest the public in scientific subjects have not encountered in certain quarters a high disdain. Prof. Mendenhall, who may be trusted to know whereof he speaks, asserts that some men in their scientific disquisitions are "guilty of the crime of unnecessary and often premeditated and deliberately planned mystification." Think of it for a moment—a man of science aiming not at being as lucid as possible, at bringing his ideas within the comprehension of as large a number of persons as possible, but contrariwise trying to achieve the maximum of obscurity and the maximum of intellectual exclusiveness! The thought is really a painful one; and yet we may profitably dwell upon it, for it shows that scientific knowledge, like any other form of power, needs to be humanized if it is not to degenerate into a selfish and pretentious tyranny. One thing which must always be set to the credit of the founder of the Positive Philosophy is that he clearly saw the risk which pure science ran of losing itself in all kinds of refinements and specializations, and utterly ignoring social claims and interests. Many are the passages in which he has raised a note of warning on this point; and to-day we have the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science telling us how seriously the warning is needed.
How are we to bring down our speculations and researches to the level of popular comprehension?—some of the mystifiers referred to by Prof. Mendenhall will probably ask. Nobody wants you, we reply, to bring down to popular comprehension that which can not possibly be popularly comprehended; but we do want you to have, and show that you have, an interest in the general advancement of knowledge, and that you regard your specialty, whatever it may be, as simply a higher development of forms of knowledge that are within the popular grasp, and as being, if remotely, still vitally, connected with the practical concerns of life. If such is not the case, if, on the contrary, you are soaring in a region in which practical views have no place and no possible relevancy, then we make bold to say that your so-called science is merely a laborious and pretentious idleness. It is one thing to wander far afield in search of that which may at some time or another, if not immediately, prove of value to the human race. It is another and very different one to wander far afield for the acknowledged purpose of getting, not only beyond general comprehension, but beyond the sphere of all possible utility. The only condition on which science can claim the reverence of mankind is that it devote itself to human service, and it rests with the serious students of science to make good this claim. In order that the relations between science and the age may be what they ought to be, the world at large must be made to feel that science is, in the fullest sense, a ministry of good to all, not the private possession and luxury of a few, that it is the best expression of human intelligence and not the abracadabra of a school, that it is a guiding light and not a dazzling fog. Prof. Mendenhall's address testifies that things are not on a right footing at present, but we may hope that those who have it in their power to bring about the change that is desirable will be influenced by his appeal to exert themselves for that purpose. We hear a great deal nowadays about the responsibility attaching to the holders of wealth. It is often said that wealth needs to be "moralized." Prof. Mendenhall makes it plain that knowledge needs to be moralized through the awakening of the holders of knowledge to a sense of their social responsibility. Whether knowledge indeed is not more in danger than capital of throwing off social restraint is quite an open question.
Prof. Mendenhall touches a very important point when he speaks of the unfortunate absence of the scientific element from our political life. There may be, doubtless there are, causes for this for which men of science are not to be blamed; but still it is a fact that a man of science is commonly looked upon as a man inapt for affairs. In the British Parliament science is represented by such men as Sir Henry Roscoe, Sir John Lubbock, Sir Lyon Playfair; literature and philosophy by Mr. John Morley, Mr. Balfour, and Mr. Gladstone, to mention but a few names out of many; and no one will question that the presence of such men raises the intellectual tone of any assembly in which they sit. In this country we seem to have no use for men of science and not much even for littérateurs. The consequence is that with us political discussion shows a total lack of breadth and an almost total lack of conviction. A tariff bill is the occasion for a simple tug-of-war, not for discussion in the true sense. Time was, as Prof. Mendenhall points out, when our politics could show such names as Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton—men strongly tinctured w T ith philosophy and at the same time of high practical intelligence. Why should the Republic not have to-day the services of its most thoughtful sons? While the thought of the age is rising why should our politics grovel? When so many practical problems of the gravest moment are pressing for settlement, why should the very men whose habits of mind best fit them for social service retire, as it were, to a Sacred Mountain of their own and leave the field of civic activity to sentimentalists and adventurers? To answer these questions or to attempt to answer them would require more space than we command. Suffice it to say that these things should not be, and that much harm will result if they should remain as characteristic features of our civilization. Our chief hope lies in the adoption by the scientific class of that new and better view of their duties and functions indicated by Prof. Mendenhall. There is not much use in preaching to large masses, but small bodies may be more easily influenced; and it hardly seems an impossible thing that the corps of scientific workers should be penetrated by a new sense of social duty and should resolve to keep in closer touch with the people than heretofore. What gives the clergy of the several churches their undoubted influence? It is that they are with the people and of them. If they deal in mysteries, those mysteries are not their private property: whatever benefit or grace they yield is available for all. The mysteries of some of our scientists, on the contrary, far from being for all, are prized in direct proportion to the fewness of those who can take any part in them. The soaring specialist is never satisfied till he stands on a pinnacle so small that no one can get footing beside him.
We need hardly say that we find in the address of Prof. Mendenhall an abundant justification of the work in which we have been engaged now for a long term of years—the work of bringing home the best and surest results of science to a popular circle of readers and of keeping up as active a connection as possible between true scientific workers and the public. To this work we shall apply ourselves in future with increased courage and determination—increased courage from the hope that the stirring words of the retiring President of the American Association will bring us new allies and helpers; increased determination from a quickened sense of the need of just such work. It is no new dogmatism that the times call for, but a new spirit of helpfulness and hopefulness guided by science. By this means, and this only, will the world solve its problems and outride the storms that threaten its civilization.
What the old proverb says of fire—that it is "a good servant but a bad master"—might with truth be applied to books. It was the great defect of the old-fashioned education that books were allowed to get the mastery over the pupil. But now, that the immediate study of things has gained the ascendency in the modern mode of teaching many subjects, care must be taken not to run into the opposite extreme, and disregard books altogether. How much aid a well-managed collection of books can give to the student in any field is clearly pointed out by Mr. George lies in an article on The Library in Education, published in The Week, of Toronto. He says that, "although deposed from the supreme station they once held, they now occupy a place but little lower, and a place broadened.by the scope of ideas new in education. Every important observation, experiment, experience in any of the unnumbered fields of science, or of teaching, soon gets itself printed in a book. Thus printed, it is in no sense a substitute for individual use of eyes, hands, and brain, but gives all these information, guidance, suggestion, of worth incalculable. . . . While in the study of architecture, geology, or engineering, the library is of increasing worth as an aid to work and practice, there are fields of research where it becomes the workshop itself. Research in law, history, philosophy, economics, literature generally, can only be pursued where books are gathered together and rightly ordered." The phrase "rightly ordered" is an allusion to the immense increase of value that librarians are now giving to the collections in their charge through improved organization. Formerly the librarian deemed his duty done if he faithfully guarded the books in his care from loss or injury, and the less they were used the less apprehensions he had for their safety. The librarian that is now coming to the front is a being of a different kind. He is trained for his profession, and he has a much broader conception of the work that belongs to him. "The new idea is," says Mr. lies, "that he shall so vitalize his library, that to make his books attractive and useful shall be his chiefest care. To that end he must know how to order them and indicate their contents, so that the whole capital intrusted to him shall be instantly available for any inquirer's purpose. He must be able to give seekers guidance, have the tact and sympathy to stimulate research, the kindly enthusiasm which promotes study by inviting it to helpful stepping-stones." A library under such management rises to the plane of efficiency occupied by the laboratory. A modern laboratory designed for students in one of the sciences, with its convenient desks, drawers, and lockers, its rows of bottles containing reagents, its apparatus especially devised for the work to be done, its arrangements for water, gas, and steam, its compartments set off to secure special conditions of light, air, or temperature, and its collections systematically arranged for the comparison of specimens, is a most satisfactory place to work in To say that the modern library is approaching this character is the highest praise that we can give it.
Mr. lies devotes the rest of his article to paying a well-deserved tribute to Mr. Melvil Dewey, now Secretary to the Board of Regents of the University of New York, and Librarian of the State Library at Albany, as being one of the leading spirits in bringing about modern reforms in library administration. Before going to Albany, Mr. Dewey was for five years Chief Librarian at Columbia College, during which time he produced there one of the finest examples of a modern working library. The Columbia College Library is open all day and in the evening throughout the year, except Sundays and Good Friday; it has a card-catalogue, which is the only kind that can be kept constantly up to date; in this catalogue the titles are arranged by subjects, so that the resources of the library in any field of knowledge can be seen at a glance; the books are arranged in the same way, so that the readers, who have free access to the shelves, can find the material relating to each topic of study all in one place; there is a large, light, and airy reading-room with an electric lamp on every table; the method of calling for books gives the least possible trouble to the reader; those lent out are charged under a system which enables the charging clerk to tell the whereabouts of every volume at any time; trained librarians are always at hand to give any assistance needed, and users of books are afforded other facilities too numerous to mention. The improvements in this library made by Mr. Dewey induced several societies to deposit their special libraries here permanently, and drew in so many gifts that the collection grew as much in five years as it had during the preceding century. In such a library we have the same thorough adaptation of resources to the work to be done that characterizes the laboratory. Similar methods are spreading widely among libraries designed for study, and promise to give books a higher value and a truer usefulness than they ever had when they were the objects of a sort of fetich-worship.