Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/February 1892/The Nationalization of University Extension

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I HAVE read with attention the editorial comment on university extension, published in the November number of this magazine, and I am glad to see the subject given so much prominence. The movement has still much of the plasticity of youth, and any discussion regarding its proper ends and aims, or of the means by which these are to be gained, can never be more helpful than now. The present opportunity, it seems to me, is a very large one, and we need the fullest and most impersonal play of thought upon all questions connected with the extension scheme. It is with this feeling in mind that I welcome most heartily the editorial dissent from the proposition to make the work a national activity. The proposition is assuredly a grave one, not only as regards university extension, but even more because it involves a distinct principle of governmental policy, which is either to be courted or to be shunned.

If I may ask for a little further space, I should like to add a word concerning this proposition, which, it is needless to say, was not lightly made. And I should like to speak again, not so much in defense of the proposition—for one must not, in such an inquiry, allow one's self the attitude of an advocate—as to point out that there is another way of looking at national co-operation with university extension than as a subsidy for the movement. And I am the more ready to speak, because it seems to me that perhaps the editorial dissent is not so much against the proposition actually made in the article under discussion, as against a proposition which might have been made, and was not, but which presented itself to the mind of the critic as he read.

It is objected that university extension must depend for its success upon individual zeal and public spirit—to which, of course, I fully agree—and that government aid would defeat this purpose. But such a result is by no means necessary. It would depend entirely upon the way in which the aid was given. At present, university extension centers are established quite by private action, and the societies for the extension of university teaching simply co-operate with the local center in providing lecturers, issuing syllabi, and the like. The local center, be it remembered, meets all its own direct expenses. But the central office must meanwhile be sustained. At present this is done in most cases by private subscription. It is a benefaction, and bounded by all the limitations of a benefaction. Under this arrangement it is quite clear that a center can only be established where there are people of means willing to make themselves responsible for the local expense in case the sale of lecture tickets does not provide sufficient funds. The freedom of the individual to avail himself of university extension is, therefore, limited by the double contingency of local conditions and the facilities possessed by the nearest central office. In no case, it is to be observed, does the central office suggest courses, or pay for them.

Now, it was not proposed that Government should assume the paternal duty of establishing lecture courses in the arts and sciences here and there over the country, like so many intellectual post-offices. But it was proposed that the establishment of local centers should be left, as now, to private initiative and enterprise, while the Government should simply assume the duties of the central offices on a larger and more liberal scale. The work promises to be much too large for private enterprise, and since it does not pay for itself, it can not, in private hands, be thoroughly and systematically done with regard to the country at large. The movement would not be pauperized or degraded by such nationalization. There would be the same play for individual zeal and public spirit as now. But there would be this difference: it would everywhere find established and adequate co-operation where now it finds only special and metropolitan co-operation.

I think that the experiment would not be very dangerous, and it need not be very expensive. Once established, these district central offices of the Department of Education might with perfect propriety go a step further, and provide, under suitable conditions, for part of the expense of an extension course where the proceeds from the sales of lecture tickets were not sufficient. With the people themselves directly creating each center, electing their own subject, choosing their own lecturer, and paying for all or part of the local expense, I really do not see how the movement could become commonplace or mercenary in its character by being systematized under national auspices. There would be room here for an enthusiasm which could be followed by performance.

Like most lovers of freedom we are often too jealous of it to use it. The chief incapacity for greatness in republican administrations is that we are at heart cowards. We make our own government, and are then very much afraid of it. It is as if we feared that this thing which we have ourselves created should turn and devour us; and this distrust is everywhere fostered by the current belief that American politics is very corrupt. Undoubtedly it is corrupt, but it will well bear comparison with the activities of private life, with banking and mining enterprises, with railroads and telegraphs, with buying and selling. An impartial review of American history during the decade just passed will disclose a remarkable result, and one which deserves emphasis here and elsewhere:

The sum of American public infamy is neither absolutely nor relatively so great as the sum of American private infamy.

On all sides we hear the reverse. It is preached to us from pulpit and from press, for the human mind has ever shown a willingness for that light gymnastic which consists in setting up a man of straw and then knocking him down. It is better to face the truth. Our Government is corrupt only because our society is corrupt, and it is less corrupt than society because vice is a mortal coward and never does its worst in the open. The electric light has much increased the morality of large cities. The necessary publicity of national action does not insure honesty, but at least it prevents much dishonesty. In those departments in which the Government does attempt to serve us in a positive capacity, such as the Post-Office, the Coast Survey, the Smithsonian, the Geological Survey, the Weather Bureau, the Department of Agriculture, and the like, the service is certainly truer and more effective than parallels from private corporations. I know that Mr. Gould says that the mails would be better administered as private enterprise, but the history of the Western Union Telegraph Company hardly bears out the remark. In view of the experience of the nation, I do not think that university extension need fear corruption should it be included in the portfolio of the incoming Secretary of Education.

Nor is it by any means a proved case that there is a paralyzing lack of vitality in our public schools. It is often asserted, but, taking America as a whole, it seems to me that they are very much alive. It is true that they are commonplace, so commonplace indeed that a conscientious educator will often ask himself whether he should consent to such a system, and will hesitate as to whether he should not withdraw from the public service. But if he will look around him he will see that they are the schools of a commonplace community, and are as good as the community will tolerate. Even in Boston, Alcott's Temple School could not live. One must admit that the public schools are in many ways deplorable tread-mills, and that there are serious scandals in their administration; but they also will well bear comparison with private institutions. They have, moreover, this great advantage, that they permit a freedom and honesty of expression not always tolerated in those institutions which hang for support upon private pocket-books and prejudices. In judging of our public schools we must always bear in mind their constituency. They are the schools of the populace as well as of the higher classes. If we take the attitude of mind of the average American citizen and compare it with the standards of life represented by the public schools, and then take the culture of the educated classes and compare it with the ideals set forth by private institutions, we shall find that, relatively speaking, the public schools are on much the higher plane; and surely no other mode of comparison can commend itself to our sense of fairness. Instead, therefore, of mistrusting the lesson of the public schools, I should be glad to believe that in five years—no, in ten years—university extension would be doing in its line as effective work as our poor commonplace public schools are doing in theirs.

I have tried briefly to answer the expressed objections to the nationalization of university extension; but these do not represent to me the gravest of the possible objections which might be urged, and I am also disposed to believe that under the editorial comment there was a more fundamental dissent in mind. The question, I take it, is essentially not one of experience as to what sort of a servant the Government has been in the past, but is the deeper question of the proper function of government. Had experience shown the public service to be relatively poor instead of being, as I believe, relatively good, I should still advocate its ministration if social studies led to the conclusion that public serving was desirable. The remedy would then lie, not in abolishing the service, but in purifying it. On the other hand, had experience been most favorable, more favorable by far than it has been, and could it be shown on sound theoretical grounds that such governmental activity was mischievous and likely to lead to encroachments upon ultimate personal liberty, it would be one's clear duty to set one's self resolutely against the public convenience and abolish such dangerous service.

Speaking in a large way, there are in America to-day two classes of political thinkers: those who believe in a paternal government, which shall say what one shall eat and drink, what one shall wear, how long one shall work, at what age one shall send one's children to school, what precautions one shall take against loss of life—in a word, a government which shall be a special if not always a very wise providence to each of its citizens; and there are those who, mistrusting this meddlesome paternalism, would go to the other extreme, and would limit the functions of Government to a minimum. The first class is apt to include those well-meaning but mischievous reformers who wish, like the prohibitionist, to cure society by medicine in place of hygiene, and that part of our professional class who have drawn their social ideals from bureaucratic Germany. The second class takes in those, perhaps, who have studied the political-writings of Herbert Spencer, and have translated his sturdy and wholesome demands for the largest possible individual liberty to require a perpetually negative attitude on the part of the Government.

It is difficult to say which class, if left to itself, would make America the more unendurable.

It is this question of our ideal of government which is involved in the proposed nationalization of university extension, and not a mere question of past or probable experience.

This opens one of the most profound problems in our American political life, and one which may be stated indeed but scarcely discussed within such brief limits as the present. Yet feeling that the issue under discussion has its solution in the solution of this larger question, I can not refrain from calling attention to the very doubtful character of the liberty which is to be enjoyed under a régime of social and governmental negations. Writers of the sentimental school of political economy—a school which oddly enough includes many prosaic labor agitators of the present day—fairly gloat over their picture of the ideal liberty enjoyed by man in his pre-social existence. But there are many who can feel no enthusiasm for this impossible picture. Place a naked man on an island in the Pacific, and, however generous Nature may be, however free he may be from the tyrannies of modern society, it would be the worst mockery to speak of him as enjoying liberty, for liberty, as a man of any imagination must perceive, presupposes not only the absence of restrictions upon individual action, but also the presence of certain conditions which will make those desired actions possible. In a word, liberty is a positive and not a negative condition. Again I venture upon the use of Italics to emphasize what seems to me a most important truth. When we contemplate the narrowing and annoying restrictions which the holders of the ideal of a paternal government would impose upon American life—the eternal thou shalts and thou shalt nots of prohibitionists and dictators of all classes—the temptation is to swing to the opposite extreme of the pendulum, and declare that absolute non-interference on the part of Government is the only safeguard. When, further, one reads Herbert Spencer's admirable volume on Justice—admirable, that is to say, excepting his unfortunate utterances on the status of woman in the state—one is, at first, confirmed in this negative retreat. The sole function of Government is to insure the greatest possible individual liberty consistent with the liberty of all. This is the conclusion which one of the most profound thinkers of the century reaches at the end of a long and thought-crowded life. And one could ask for no better definition. But how is this conclusion to be applied? That is the question. There is a tendency, it seems to me, on the American side of the Atlantic, to misinterpret this principle, and to discredit too much the immense power for good in proper governmental activity. And even Herbert Spencer himself, gazing too steadily upon the slavery of socialism and the mischief of protection and prohibition, warrants in a measure such a misinterpretation. It is true that governmental activity run wild is as harmful as a thunderbolt, but, when chained to the right sort of service, it is as useful as the electric current. It is possible to apply the salutary principle laid down in the volume on Justice in a manner that will avoid the evils of both paternalism and of too great passivity. Nor is this playing with fire. The line between legitimate and illegitimate governmental activity is easily drawn. What is mandatory in government must not much exceed the Decalogue, or it trespasses on that individual liberty which it is the sole function of government to promote. But the field of action is not so narrow as this. There is a large region of what may be called permissives, in which an intelligent Government may with perfect propriety make individual actions possible, which would otherwise be quite impracticable, and this is very different from the spirit of the Decalogue. Every free Government does at the present time extend a large measure of mere verbal permission to its citizens, but this is rather a gratuitous bit of graciousness, if it do nothing to see that adequate means are obtainable.

We have, then, an easily applied test of the propriety of any governmental action. If it compel, beyond the primal social necessaries—the prevention of murder, theft, adultery, and the like—it is mischievous, and is to be resisted as an encroachment upon individual liberty. But if it render intelligent assistance in making desirable individual action possible, it is to be hailed as a legitimate extension of individual liberty, and is to be utilized as a fruit of the progress of civilization in precisely the same spirit that we would utilize the inventions of Siemens or Edison. One is free, for instance, to write a letter to any one in any place, but he is the more free in that Government delivers it for him at a cost so small that the very poorest may write. There is much that is most desirable to be accomplished in America through national action, and it seems to me that we cheat ourselves sadly if we hesitate to use so powerful a means out of fear that it shall be misused. The more it is properly used, the better will its function be understood, and the less likely to be abused.

Viewing the function of Government in this light, I still believe that the nationalization of university extension is highly desirable, for I believe that, by supplying adequate means for the carrying out of a great idea, it would add immensely to that individual liberty which it is the special province of Government to conserve, and this, too, without any loss of individual zeal and initiative.

Let us repeat it: A governmental activity which compels, is mischievous; an activity which says: "Thou mayst; lo, here are the means," is helpful.