Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/February 1874/Science, Education, and Aristocracy

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THERE could be no doubt that, in the age in which it was their lot to live, the tendency of education ran toward science and abstract science, and every man who was interested in the fortunes of his generation would naturally ask himself the question what the effect of such scientific teaching was likely to be, what it would be still more likely to produce, if it rose to absolute predominance, and whether it would raise or lower, soften or harden, those upon whom it was brought to bear. As he said before, no reasonable man could doubt that the tendency of the age was to make scientific teaching the predominant study. The greatest of philosophical writers would admit that was so. That which followed the main teaching of former times—the great arts of sculpture, painting, writing, oratory, and the like—all comparatively sank before the abstract science of the present day. Compare for one moment the range of teaching in the middle ages with the present circles of learning. In the tenth century Pope Gebert was said to embrace within himself all the knowledge of the time; but let any one contrast his attainments, great as they were, with the correlation of arts now practised, and the enlarged field over which modern science ranged. There was undoubtedly a vast difference between the two states of things. When they looked at the present state of scientific education they might fairly distinguish three different classes of persons to whom it might be applied. First, there were those like the late Mr. Brassey, great captains of labor, who led men not only over Europe, but over every quarter of the globe, and changed the whole face of the earth by their vast engineering power and skill. Secondly, there were those among them at the present day who saw only through the eyes of material philosophy, who accepted that material philosophy and scientific teaching as their surest and safest standard and guide, who reduced most things to it and judged most things by it, but whose minds were nevertheless open to other considerations, and who did not feel that it was the sole and exclusive standard of their lives. To both those classes what he was about to say did not apply. There was, however, a third class who were tempted to reduce every thing to the one standard of science—who knew no other law and applied no other rule, not only to science itself, but to all the other conditions of life and action. To such a class, though he alluded to no one in particular, his observations would, he thought, apply. When science was pushed to that extreme its professors would not be the best rulers for mankind, and he, for one, should regret to see the affairs of men regulated solely by such a standard as they would apply. If suck views as they held were pushed to an extreme, he could scarcely imagine a Pharisee more arrogant, a Sadducee more self-opinioned, a fanatical monk of the middle ages more intolerant than they who practised them were likely to be.

He might be asked the reason for all this. Some might say it was a reaction from the extreme dogmatism of past times; and it was undoubtedly true, as every careful student of history would admit, that there had been an excess of dogmatism in former days. Theology, for instance, had encroached upon the fair and reasonable domain of science, had sometimes thrown obstacles in its way, and had subordinated science to most mistaken and unreasonable interpretations of Scripture. On the other hand, there was now a risk that science might possibly encroach a little on the domain of theology. At all events, it seemed to him there were reasons why what he had just now said should be the case. In the first place, unlike other studies, it must always be remembered that the conclusions of abstract science were demonstrable. Those who dealt in them were so satisfied of their certainty that they could not accept any conjecture or doubt on the point. There were branches of science in which that was perfectly true, as in the case of mathematics, where in certain propositions no reasonable man, applying the ordinary laws of thought, could doubt certain results—such, for instance, as that two and two were four. There were other branches to which that did not equally apply, but one thing was certain—that those who would carry that frame of mind into the complex relations of human life, into political and social philosophy, and into all the relations which affect men one toward another, were applying a standard which was wholly impracticable, and which would ultimately lead to mere confusion.

In the next place, he would again say that, unlike other studies, mere hard, abstract science did divorce itself from literature, and almost repudiated religion; and he thought no man who looked back over the varied course not only of the middle age history, but of the whole history of the world and of mankind, could doubt that, whatever might have been their shortcomings, defects, and excesses, men owed to the influence of literature and religion far more than they could express, far more than they were likely to admit, and far more than he could attempt to describe on that occasion. At all events, they had exercised the softest and most refining influence upon mankind. Undesirable as it was for men that any one intellectual power, so to speak, should exert an exclusive rule over them, or enjoy a monopoly of authority, he freely admitted that he would prefer the authority of literature and the arts to that of mere pure, hard, abstract science. Art had been well termed "the handmaid of religion," and literature had formed a republic of letters; and their rule, though variable, unjust, and even unequal, would not be the grinding, rigid despotism, and would not impose that yoke, which hard, abstract science would.

He might be asked why he entertained that great dread of scientific men as the ultimate rulers of a community. He was not blind to their great merits, or to the vast intellectual power which they wielded daily more and more, and he was neither out of sympathy with them nor were their subjects uncongenial; but, as he dreaded a monopoly of power by any one class, so he especially dreaded it in their hands. He believed that abstract science, so to speak, was very often devoid of the milk of human kindness and sympathy, and he would quote an illustration of what he meant from one of the most remarkable and touching books he had ever read—"The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill." He should be sorry to take Mr. Mill as a representative of hard, abstract science, for throughout his nature there ran veins of feeling softer and more tender than he was willing himself to allow. But he quoted that book for the moment as one of the fairest illustrations of the action of the philosophical mind in these matters. Those who had read it would remember how carefully Mr. Mill, partly under the influence of his father and partly through his self-education, endeavored not merely to suppress but to trample down and to crush out every thing approaching to feeling in his nature. In that respect he was utterly unlike Bishop Butler, who held that the feelings were of the best and most indispensable parts of the human system. He remembered that so far did Mr. Mill carry his theory into practice that he took the opportunity of stating that in his opinion it would be indefensible for an educated man to enter the same room as an uneducated man except he were the apostle of some creed that he was about to propagate. He could conceive nothing more selfish or more subversive of all the principles on which all society existed than that doctrine. He remembered the story of a conversation related by Southey between Sir Humphrey Davy and Faraday, in which the latter, then a young man, told Davy that he was anxious to join in the pursuits of science because its professors were more likely than others to be of a liberal cast of mind. Davy smiled mournfully, and replied that, whatever science might be, it did not of itself convey that liberality of mind which Faraday so fondly imagined for it. Lord Carnarvon objected to the application of those rules, which naturally and rightly governed abstract science, to legislation, morals, social life—in fact, to every thing which concerned the existence of man. Some would remember that in the years 1848 and 1849, when all the Continent was disturbed, when thrones were laid in the dust and kingdoms shaken, a group of all the most eminent philosophers of the time met in Frankfort to review the condition of affairs, and they would recollect the very unsatisfactory conclusions at which they arrived.

Auguste Comte, whose name was so great abroad, founded a philosophy which contemplated the transfer of all those powers hitherto exercised by priests and sacerdotal parties to the philosophical class, but he was obliged, in constructing his theory, to form a sort of corporate hierarchy and invest them with the very powers taken from those whom he had so strongly denounced. In so doing, as Mill in an early book had said, he had furnished "a monumental warning" to those who dealt with such matters. Science itself, however speculative a range it might take, could not naturally be pregnant with the tender and softer feelings unless it was coupled with altogether different principles, which would enable it to be applied to the affairs of mankind. Look back for a moment on the different forms which science had sometimes taken. In the middle ages "Italian cruelty" was a proverb. Italy, which could then count more men of science than the rest of Europe, was not hindered on that account from also claiming a monopoly of cruelty. Chaucer threw out the same sneer at scientific men of his day, and during that time there arose that curious and mysterious combination of poisoners in Europe who united science with no tenderness of heart. Science, therefore, he thought, was no safeguard or guarantee of itself for tenderness and affection, but when joined with something higher in the human system it would call into play all the highest qualities of the mind, and assert an intellectual and moral domain in which the greatest of men could serve.

The speech delivered on December 6, 1873, by the Earl of Carnarvon, at the Birkbeck Institution, is a very significant indication of the progress of public opinion, at all events in one direction, during the last half-century. Fifty years have passed away since the late Dr. Birkbeck, aided by a small band of the ultra-Radicals of his day, founded the Mechanics' Institute in Southampton Buildings. The work was begun and carried on amid the howls, and execrations, and sinister prophecies of those "upper" classes whose lordly representative came down, a week ago, to smile his approval upon its success, and to hallow it with a patrician benediction. No words were too hard for the revolutionist and heretic whose profanity had reached such a pitch that he dared to encourage working-men to learn something besides the Church Catechism. Here was a man—and, strange to say, a gentleman—acting on the assumption that the horny-handed and ill-smelling laborer had a mind which ought to be cultivated, had a life which ought to be lived for some other purpose than that of making his "betters" comfortable. Worse still, he did not hold it as a theory to be dilated upon on Sundays from a pulpit, and to be realized on the other side of the grave; but, to the horror of the Newdegates and Tomnoddies of 1823, he actually went and set up an institution in which science—"hard, abstract science"—might be taught to the "great unwashed." No wonder that a noble-minded aristocracy held their faces half averted and their eyes half closed at the contemplation of such enormity. No wonder that our established clergy raised their smoothly-shaven chins in meek abhorrence of such impiety, and displayed their white neck-cloths, the emblems of the pure sentiments which surged beneath. Perhaps the strangest thing in the whole of this history—and it shows that there must be something radically wrong in the constitution of the universe—is that this wicked enterprise weathered the storm, and that the parent institution is by far the most important educational establishment for adults in the metropolis, while its progeny may be found thriving in almost every provincial town of any size throughout Great Britain. Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon. Here is an educational institution which, without any help from nobleman or priest—save that which they conferred by staying away—is not only succeeding, but getting over the "religious" difficulty by leaving theology to be taught elsewhere, and solving the problem of female education by simply opening its doors on equal terms to men and women. This "godless" college is now educating 2,712 students of both sexes; its curriculum is as wide and its teaching as thorough as that of any institution with which we are acquainted; and so completely have the bogies which frighten the outside educational world been exorcised, that even a thought of them never seems to cross the minds of the students who, after their day's toil, come down to instruct themselves in literature, science, and art, and to take part in the management of their alma mater.

How was it that Lord Carnarvon cast his benignant smile on such an institution? Times, it is said, change; and we change with them. Has the leopard of obscurantism, then, changed his spots? His lordship's speech furnishes a complete answer to this. It shows that the Tory oligarchs are as thoroughly opposed as ever they were to the work of education. They are acting over again the old fable of the sun and the wind. Force has failed, and they are trying to gain the same end by persuasion. The difference is purely one of engineering. They have tried the granite wall of direct resistance only to find it shattered by the heavy artillery of the democracy, and their hope is now in the yielding earthwork of patronage. Lord Carnarvon and his compeers love popular education as the Duc de Broglie loves parliamentary government. They will resist giving it at all as long as possible; and, when this cannot be done, they will push themselves to the front and undertake the supply of the article, taking care to do as fraudulent tradesmen do with their milk, skimming as much of the cream off, and adding as much water, as they can without being detected.

The whole gist of Lord Carnarvon's address was an attack on scientific education. Not that he objects to science if kept within proper bounds. He does not find fault with "those like the late Mr. Brassey, great captains of labor, who led men not only over Europe, but over every quarter of the globe, and changed the whole face of the earth by their vast engineering power and skill." Not being a "materialist," this is the kind of science his lordship likes best. Next, there is a class of scientific men who accept "material philosophy and scientific teaching as their surest and safest standard and guide.... but whose minds were nevertheless open to other considerations, and who did not feel it was the sole and exclusive standard of their lives." As science tempered by "other considerations" would be acceptable to Pope Pius himself, we need not be surprised that to this Lord Carnarvon has no objection. It is for a third class of scientific men he reserves his denunciation. There is, it appears, a class—if, indeed, so small a body of men can be called a class—who carry the scientific frame of mind "into the complex relations of human life, into politics and social philosophy, and into all the relations which affect men toward one another." The influence of this little class is growing, Lord Carnarvon tells us; and we are convinced that he is right. Now, at this he is very much terrified. If only those naughty scientific men would keep to engineering and physics, his lordship would not care; but what he objects to is "the application of those rules, which naturally and rightly govern abstract science, to legislation, morals, social life." In other words, scientific men may settle the distance of the sun from the earth at what figure they like, and they may build bridges and construct railroads; but, if they apply the same logical processes which they have found serve them so well in the material world to the solution of social and political problems, this is really too much for patrician nerves. There is a hardness about the scientific method which Lord Carnarvon does not like. If it were not for this diabolical device, we might come to any conclusions on social matters which fit in with our predilections or interests; but, with the "grinding, rigid despotism" of logic, this is impossible. All that manly independence of our premisses which occasionally characterizes our conclusions on political matters would be gone forever, and "one intellectual power" would "exert an exclusive rule over" us.

Lord Carnarvon did not content himself with a mere depreciation of social and political science, but attempted to point out its shortcomings. It is, he thinks, "devoid of the milk of human kindness." This is quite true, and a much wider truth than stated. It is as true of the multiplication-table as of scientific politics. But, when Lord Carnarvon, showing a little of that individual freedom which he despairs of keeping, argues that, because science is "no safeguard or guarantee of itself for tenderness and affection," therefore, those who are thoroughly imbued with the scientific spirit trample on and despise affection and tenderness for their fellow-creatures, he is appealing to one of the most foolish of prejudices in support of one of the most disingenuous of arguments. The love of truth, for its own sake, which is popularly confounded with "hardness," is in no way bound up with want of sympathy or kindness; but people are so used to carry their sentiments into the decision of questions of fact, that when they find any one does not do so, they conclude that he is without feeling. Nothing could be a clearer proof of this than the instance brought forward by Lord Carnarvon. Mr. Mill, he says, "endeavored not merely to suppress but to trample down and to crush out every thing approaching to feeling in his nature." That this should be said of the most tender of husbands, the kindest of friends, the man whose sympathies were as wide as the animal creation, whose depth of feeling was such that there was not a noble or a beautiful thing in Nature but it mirrored itself on his heart—is convincing evidence of the utter blindness of Lord Carnarvon in the discernment of sentiment in others which takes a different direction from his own. What Mr. Mill did with unequaled success was that which we have already indicated. He endeavored, when engaged in the investigation of truth, to avoid the bias of sentiment; but it needs no prophet to tell us that in this he was impelled by a loyalty to truth springing out of his conviction of its importance to the interests of his kind. Indeed, if thoroughly scientific men were as devoid of feeling as Lord Carnarvon represented them, his fear of them would be ludicrous. They are a mere handful of men. They have arrayed against them the prejudices of mankind, the interests of the ruling classes all over Europe, and a powerful and well-paid ecclesiastical organization. What reason is there to be in "great dread" that a few men without feeling or devotion will triumph over such great odds? The truth is, that what is making the wearers of coronets and mitres tremble is, not the absence of religious feeling from social philosophy, but the union of the two. Mr. Mill has done more than any one in modern times to effect that union. It shines through his works on even the most abstract of subjects as a halo, and deep in the hearts of the most powerful intellects of our country are to be found the sentiments which he did so much to rouse and to direct. Hence these tears.

  1. Extract from an address of Lord Carnarvon before the London Birkbeck Institution, with comments thereupon by "J. H. L.," of the London Examiner.