Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/March 1892/Editor's Table

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ONE of the most serious questions of the present day is as to where and how adequate moral instruction is to be imparted to the rising generation. In the olden time there was no question as to the full responsibility of the home aided by the Church for the moral training of the child. School education was obtained with more or less difficulty, and, when a child was sent to school, the connection between school and home was close. The parent paid for the teaching, and master and parent worked as a general thing on the same moral lines. Nowadays, owing to the vast extension of popular education through the agency of the State, and the abolition of all direct payment of school fees, there is a severance of the former relation between home and school, and the moral interests of the children seem to be slipping to the ground between two stools. The State takes from the parent nearly all initiative in regard to the education of the child, and does so much that the parent is easily led to imagine that it does everything—that it teaches the principles of right conduct no less than the rules of grammar and arithmetic, and practices the young in virtue as systematically as in handwriting. How far this is from being really the case any one can learn on inquiry; but the vague assumption that it is the case, or ought to be the case if it is not, does a great deal, we are persuaded, to diminish the sense of parental responsibility.

From the side of religion many protests have been made against the present system of popular education. The clergy of the different churches can not help thinking that at least the more important doctrines of the Christian faith should be officially taught; and they draw most discouraging pictures of what the moral future of the youth of this country will be if their counsels are not heeded. All sound and successful moral teaching, they contend, must repose upon a basis of theology, and to confine ethical teaching to the region of the natural is to deprive it of all warrant, of all authority, of all coercive power. If these views were correct, it would be difficult to see how the weakness of our schools on the moral side could ever be remedied; for nothing is more certain than that any attempt to teach theology in them would be predestined failure. The people (or some people) will pay for theology in the pulpit, but they are not willing to pay for it in the schools, and have shown in most unmistakable ways that they do not want it there. The question, then, is: Shall all attempts at moral teaching in the public school be abandoned, seeing that it can not be administered as an adjunct of theology; or shall a brave effort be made to give it an independent status of its own and a fair chance to show what it can accomplish when conducted on purely natural lines? The latter is the decision that some earnest minds have come to, and we have at this moment before us a book produced for the express purpose of aiding the good cause. This work, published by Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., bears the title Conduct considered as a Fine Art, and consists of two essays written in response to a call from the American Secular Union for "the best essay, treatise, or manual adapted to aid and assist teachers in our free public schools. . . to thoroughly instruct children and youth in the purest principles of morality without inculcating religious doctrine." Mr. N. P. Gilman, who writes the first half of the book, and whose essay bears the special title of The Laws of Daily Conduct, shows very plainly how unnecessary it is in dealing with children to do more than illustrate moral principles from the experience of daily life. Children do not call for metaphysics; and to refrain from teaching them the principles of morals because you are not prepared to discuss with them those ultimate questions as to the final sanction of morality which are debated by philosophers and theologians, is like withholding from a builder all knowledge of the practical applications of geometry, because you can not carry him into the calculus, or make him feel at home in the fourth dimension. Mr. Gilman states his position very well in the following passage: "When, then, we have in mind, as a subject for public school instruction, not the science of ethics, not the speculations of moral philosophers, but the orderly presentation of the common facts and laws of the moral life which no one disputes, we perceive how the religious or theological difficulty disappears to a large degree. . . . Let the relation of religion and morality be as it may be, the teacher is not called upon to decide an issue of this magnitude. He can teach the duties of ordinary life, showing their reasonableness and their interdependence in a consecutive, orderly manner, without appealing to religion; he can use the plain and usual consequences of actions good or bad without being open to a just accusation of irreligion. These consequences are admitted by all. He has then a right in reason to stop with them, because of the practical limitations imposed upon him by the time at his disposal, the immaturity of the faculties which he is training, and, most of all, because of the wide difference of men's minds as to the final explanation."

Mr. Gilman makes due allowance for the fact that a well-ordered school has "a necessary moral discipline of its own, which is enforced by every capable teacher"; but he does not think that this should be regarded as a sufficient substitute for all direct moral teaching. He considers that the school has some special advantages for effective ethical teaching which the home does not possess, and that a teacher throws away very valuable opportunities who does not find frequent occasion for bringing home moral lessons to the minds of his pupils. In this we wholly agree with him. The teacher has what the parent has not, an ever-present and more or less numerous body of hearers, to whose common judgment he can appeal; and he has the established order and discipline of the school as a means of commanding attention. Moreover, the teacher's judgment is already assumed by the child to be more or less the judgment of the outside world, whereas the parent's opinion, like his jurisdiction, is apt to be looked upon as valid only within the limits of the household. It is evident, therefore, that a vast influence for good might be exerted by the teacher, provided only he himself possessed the requisite intelligence and earnestness. The real weakness of our public schools for the purpose in view comes to light just here. Before any teacher could make a wise and effective use of such a manual as the one before us his heart would have to be in his work; he would have to possess a really apostolic zeal for the moral benefit of the children committed to his care. Are such teachers numerous? Is there anything in the conditions under which teachers are trained and selected to encourage the hope that very many of them would, under any circumstances, be earnest exponents of moral truth? We are really not aware that there is. In the vast army of public-school teachers there must be many superior minds and many noble souls; but those who have studied our school system seem to be impressed rather with the lack, than with the presence, of what we may perhaps call ethical vitality in both teachers and scholars. A teacher must outwardly bear a good character; but what examination has ever been devised to test his or her interest in ethical questions or principles, in the stimulation of virtue or the building of character?

Still, we quite hold with those who consider that the schools ought to aim at the production of good citizens, and that, for this purpose, they should teach, with such resources as they can command, the principles of right conduct. The book before us will be useful to those who desire help in this direction. Mr. Gilman has excellent chapters on "Life under Law," "Obedience to Moral Law," "Self-control," "Truthfulness," etc., etc.; and Mr. E. P. Jackson, who contributes the second half of the book, throws his discussion of very much the same topics into the form of a series of dialogues between a teacher and his pupils. Each writer has done his work well, and the teacher who has the will to teach his or her scholars what is right will find the whole book very profitable.

We return, however, to the point with which we set out, that parental influence to-day in the moral education of children counts for too little. Mr. Gilman tells us that "numerous educators" object to giving any special instruction in morals, alleging that that is the parent's business. He might have told us, we are persuaded, from his own knowledge, that still more parents are disposed to shuffle off all responsibility for the moral education of their children on the schools. What the effect of the double disclaimer of responsibility is likely to be may readily be determined. If the clergy, instead of making futile demands for the teaching of theological dogmas in the schools, would try to rouse the minds of their adherents and followers to a sense of their personal responsibility for their children's characters, they might accomplish a more useful work. This is something which they should preach in season and out of season; and if they would do so with the earnestness which the occasion demands, the effect might in a few years be seen in the altered moral tone of a portion of the public-school teachers themselves; and thus, concurrently with the elevation of the home, we should have a notable improvement in the work of moral education as carried on in the schools. Reform the home, and the whole face of society will be reformed.


We publish in another column a letter from a correspondent who thinks that, in our article entitled Evolution and its Assailants, in the January Table, we cast a slur upon the intelligence of those who do not, in the fullest sense, accept the doctrine of evolution. The following is the statement to which our correspondent objects: "Every man within certain limits is an evolutionist, and we have little hesitation in saying that the limits within which each man is an evolutionist are the real limits of his intelligence." We hardly thought this would be misunderstood, but it evidently has been by one person at least. The word "intelligence" has two very familiar meanings. In one application it means the power a given individual has of comprehending things in general, and thus expresses a personal quality. This is the sense in which we did not employ the word. Again, it may mean the act or function of understanding, and this was the sense in which we did employ it. To say in this sense that "the limits within which each man is an evolutionist are the real limits of his intelligence," is to say that beyond those limits he ceases to understand. We wonder that a man who professes to be so widely read In philosophy and science as our correspondent should not have perceived that this was our meaning, and not that a man begins to be stupid just where he ceases to believe in evolution. The passages which our correspondent cites from some of his favorite authorities prove that we were exactly right in the position we took up, for they all go to show that, in the chain of events which make up the history of our globe, there are some which baffle comprehension. In a certain sense evolution itself may be said to baffle comprehension, since the human intellect can never fully understand how one thing can become anything else; but the general processes of evolution are at least illustrated by facts which long and repeated experience has rendered very familiar. On the other hand, there is nothing analogous to any well-established human experience in the miraculous interference which those have to postulate who either reject evolution altogether, or only recognize it to a limited extent.

Our correspondent also objects to our statement that "all persons with any pretensions to education or intelligence believe in evolution as applied to the physical history of our globe." At the moment we were thinking more of the globe itself than of its living inhabitants; and before objecting to our statement our correspondent might properly have raised with himself the question whether we meant more than we actually said. However, on points like these there will, of course, be differences of opinion, and we must only ask our correspondent to believe that we meant no disrespect in anything that we said to persons of his way of thinking. We believe in evolution because it has already explained so many things, and because its scope as a scientific theory is continually widening. If our correspondent declines to accept it on such grounds as he alleges in his article, he is quite within his right. What he has not shown us is what phenomena or events to which the doctrine of evolution has no application he really understands.