Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/April 1894/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search



WHEN a condition of things supervenes in which a considerable percentage of the population is cut off from the means of support by lack of work, we need not hesitate to say that something is wrong. We are not much in the habit of attributing purpose to Nature; but the language of teleology is sometimes convenient, and we shall perhaps not be misunderstood if we say that the apparently enforced idleness of thousands of men, with all the poverty and distress thence resulting, can not be part of Nature's plan, or at least can not illustrate the normal working of natural law. Nature, we know, is severe in her methods, and little of human life when she sets her forces of lire and flood, of storm and earthquake in motion. There is nothing analogous to these catastrophes in the social phenomena before us to-day. What we see is not the sudden extinction of human lives by uncontrollable physical forces, but the prolonged misery of human beings through lack of adaptation to their circumstances or through the existence of artificial conditions of purely human production. To our mind the question of the hour presents itself in this shape: Why is there so terrible an amount of maladjustment in social relations today? Why are such multitudes so fatally out of harmony with the conditions of life? The symptoms, as we interpret them, all point to man's tinkering with natural laws in a futile effort to amend them, or with the shameful object of benefiting the few at the cost of the many. We wish briefly to indicate one or two of the ways in which, as it seems to us, social misery is caused.

It is recognized the world over that republican institutions are the definitive form of government for civilized countries; but when our forefathers struggled for liberty they probably bad little idea of the form which popular government would in these latter days assume. They did not foresee the unrest that would be introduced into every section of the country through the desire to share in the emoluments which government has the power to bestow. They did not foresee the creation of a class of professional politicians who, reaping pecuniary rewards themselves for their political services (so called), would be empowered to dangle minor rewards before the eyes of scores of others by way of securing support for themselves. They did not foresee the greedy passions and the aversion to steady employment which all this would arouse, or the numbers of half-employed and unemployed men whom it would throw upon the community to live more or less the life of adventurers. They did not foresee the paralysis that would overtake both law and legislation through the balancing of selfish interests, or the deadness to large views of policy which the constant study of all political questions from a local standpoint would entail. While curbing the power and curtailing the privileges of a territorial aristocracy, they had no prevision of a moneyed class which, allying itself with the dominant party in the state, would wield a power more dangerous to national welfare than any aristocracy had ever done. We, however, see that all these things have come to pass, for we live in the midst of them and feel the burden of them every day. The remedy lies not in any reversion to outworn institutions—though diseased commonwealths have many times taken refuge in tyranny—but in the sedulous cultivation of a higher sense of citizenship. How is that going to be done? some one will ask. Do you believe in it yourself? we rejoin. Do you believe that the average sense of citizenship, or, to express it otherwise, the average sense of duty to the state, is low; and, if so, are you personally willing to set a higher example and courageously and strenuously uphold a higher doctrine? If so, you need not ask how the thing is going to be done, for you see the way yourself. If not, we do not wonder at your skepticism as to that being possible which you are personally unwilling to undertake. There are a hundred ways in which higher views of citizenship might be inculcated. The country is fairly riddled and honeycombed and worm-eaten with secret societies, the object of each being to confer special advantages on its members, the object of none being to raise the political and moral tone of the whole country. Could not some of the leaders of these move in the matter? Then there are schools, public and private, where ample opportunity exists for forming the minds of the young aright on this most important subject. Then there is the pulpit, which might be an enormous engine for good if rightly used.

The question just now, however, is how the dislocations which are causing so much misery have been brought about, rather than what specific measures are necessary to mend them. If we see whence our trouble has come, we shall not be at any serious loss as to remedies. The faults of our political system, or rather the vices which attend its practical working, are closely connected, in our opinion, with a defective system of popular education. The public-school system is a gigantic creation of law. It did not grow any more than the tariff; it was made, and made under the influence of arbitrary conceptions as to what a school system for the whole people should be. Being made for the whole people, special adaptations could not be thought of. Consequently, the work it does is like mill work, and all who come out of it show one uniform pattern. There is no cultivation of individuality, and, broadly speaking, all ideal elements are banished from the education imparted. The result is that the one really dominant trait in the swarms of youths sent out year after year from the public schools is a consuming desire to make money, and to make it in the easiest way possible. What the state has done is not so much to educate in any worthy sense, as to increase the keenness of competition by promoting an unnatural uniformity of tastes and aims. And, as the universal ambition is not only to make money but to make it fast and easily, it is not surprising that those who do not see how they are going to do this by honest means betake themselves to means that are not honest. It would be an interesting and instructive thing to know how many school-bred young men are at this moment engaged in various forms of "fake" business. What these individuals learned at school was that education was chiefly useful as a means of making money, and now they are trying to turn their education to such account as they find possible.

If habits of industry were taught in the schools, that alone would be a great gain; but in general it is not so. The idle have ample opportunity to idle, and even those who have no natural propensity that way are more or less habituated to idleness, owing to the simple fact that the teachers are not able to keep their classes fully occupied. That much moral harm is thus wrought to thousands of boys we have no doubt whatever. Then education is not valued, simply because it is apparently so cheap; and this again has a vulgarizing and demoralizing effect. Education ought to be valued, and, if it is not, it will be lacking in the moral virtue which it ought to possess. It may further be asked whether the drill of school renders those who are subjected to it more resourceful or less resourceful. Is there not a danger lest a habit be formed of looking for direction and not exercising individual powers of thought and will? We have no wish to dogmatize on such a question, but the conclusion to us is irresistible that the public-school system, as a whole, is a vast attack on the individuality of the rising generation, and that by destroying natural dissimilarities between the units of the population, and thus making competition fiercer, it throws a great number out of adjustment to their environment, either as destitute of employment or as in a manner compelled to some more or less criminal means of making a living.

It is a most unpopular thing, we are aware, to hint at the possibility of "over-education," but might we venture to suggest that there may be, and is in a multitude of cases, misplaced or superfluous education? A man not only does not need a university degree to enable him to drive a street car, but the possession of a university training is not likely to sweeten for him that particular kind of toil. We hold it to be entirely possible to supersaturate a community with university "advantages"; money liberally, vigorously, and unwisely applied will do it.

We fully believe that other elements than those we have indicated enter into the problem of the unemployed. It is probably true, as hinted by Herbert Spencer in the address delivered by him in this city in the year 1882, that the pace set by the stronger and more competent members of the community is faster than the weaker ones can keep up with. "In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king," and many of the "failures" of a civilized society might be brilliant successes in a society of a more primitive cast. So far as an unrestrained use by the strong of their superior abilities in competition for wealth and all that it represents may be an evil—and that it is an evil Mr. Spencer has again suggested in the last volume of his Principles of Sociology—we can only hope to check it by promoting the growth of higher moral and social sentiments. This will, in any case, take time; but meantime we should earnestly and sedulously consider in what directions and to what extent we are interfering with the operation of those natural laws the tendency of which is to produce a condition of social equilibrium. We need to open our eyes to the mischief we have done by a crude political philosophy, by unwise legislation, by indiscreet philanthropy, by the application of untried abstract ideas to the regulation of social questions. We need to awaken to a sense of the extreme liability of the human intellect to go astray when it attempts constructive work of any kind. That things have gone wrong we have the proof before our eyes, and where is the chief blame to be laid if not on our own short-sighted views and meddlesome policies?


It happened that just as we had finished the above article the Fortnightly Review for February was placed in our hands. The first article in the number is one by Herbert Spencer upon the late Prof. Tyndall; the second is by Goldwin Smith, and bears the title of Oxford Revisited. From the first, which will be found entire elsewhere in this number, we extract the following passage: "A conversation with him [Tyndall] some years since made it manifest that personal experience had greatly shaken his faith in public administrations, and made him look with more favor on the view of state functions held by me. On the other hand, my faith in free institutions, originally strong (though always joined with the belief that the maintenance and success of them is a question of national character), has in these later years been greatly decreased by the conviction that the fit character is not possessed by any people, nor is likely to be possessed for ages to come."

From the second article we take the following: "It may be said without reference to university extension or to any educational movement in particular, and it is to be hoped without incurring the charge of illiberality or obscurantism that people will have presently to consider the economical as well as the intellectual effects of pressing on everybody what is called high education. The good founder of Cornell University once confided to a friend his hope that the day would come when there would be five thousand students in his institution. His friend replied that if that day did come the institution, instead of being a blessing, would be in danger of being a curse, since there would not be a market for anything like such a number of graduates, and the residue would be without suitable work, unhappy, discontented, and probably dangerous to the commonwealth."

Whether we agree with these sentiments or not, let us ponder them. Of both writers it may be said that they are men of strong practical instincts.



In a criticism of Mr. Spencer's Principles of Ethics in the January number of Mind, Prof. S. Alexander asks a question which, it seems to us, admits of an easy answer. Referring to the position taken by Mr, Spencer that justice should, but that beneficence should not, be enforced, he asks why this should be, if the warrant for beneficence equally with that for justice lies, as Mr. Spencer seems to admit, in the public good. The answer we conceive is this: that while beneficence, wisely practiced, is a public benefit, the enforcing of it would not be a public benefit, inasmuch as it would tend to kill the sentiment itself. If, for example, the moment a beneficent action became possible for us some power should seize us and force us to a performance of the action, we can hardly imagine any other result than that the very instinct of beneficence would die out. Another answer is that whereas justice is essentially of the nature of non-interference, beneficence is essentially of the nature of interference. The motto of the one is "Hands off!" For the other we would have to coin the motto "Hands on!" Now, the difference between establishing in government the principle of "Hands off!" and establishing that of "Hands on I" is obvious. The former is not only workable, but is the necessary condition of all free individual effort; the latter is unworkable in any consistent manner, from its absolutely indefinite and unlimited character. If beneficence is to be enforced, where are we to begin and where can we possibly end? Again, imagine the effect on weak individuals of knowing that beneficence toward them will be enforced. What interest have they henceforth in ceasing to be weak? Finally, beneficence administered by the state is not beneficence in the true sense, and can have none of the effects of true beneficence; for the state can only properly take what it has a right to take and give what it has a right to give, and the beneficiaries in the case supposed would be quick to draw the inference that they were getting no more than their due. Thus would the limits of justice be obscured and social stability endangered. On many grounds, therefore, we think the distinction Mr. Spencer draws a sound one.



The report of the Library Committee of the Public Library of Cleveland, Ohio, for the year ended August 31st last, has come into our hands. Two remarks made in it have arrested our attention. One is to the effect that "it is a singular and deplorable fact that, of all the money so lavishly expended by the many rich men and women of Cleveland in various benevolent and charitable enterprises, not one cent has ever been given either toward the erection of a library building or to help to support the library." Elsewhere it is stated that "our library has never had the use of any money except such as came by taxation."

Well, whether or not there is anything "deplorable" in this, we can not say that we find the fact at all "singular." Taxation and benevolence are two things that do not naturally mingle. The Cleveland Public Library seems to have been in operation since 1869, and it has doubtless come to be looked upon as a department of the city government. Had taxation not been resorted to for the formation of a library, there is no knowing what private beneficence might not have done ere this. When the State takes up a function, it is a kind of hint to private enterprise to drop it. Why should a private individual subsidize a tax-supported library any more than a tax-supported post office?

The other remark above referred to is that "the plan of permitting free access of patrons to the shelves, adopted some time since with some misgivings, continues to give increased satisfaction to those using the library. . . . Not only," the report continues, "has this new method given great satisfaction to those desiring and drawing books from the library, but it has also enabled us to issue more books with very much less labor and expense than under the old conservative system which previously prevailed. Nor has this free access to the shelves resulted in loss of books or damage to the same." This statement is very satisfactory. Many of the restrictions which surround public institutions and which hamper the work of government are general rules adopted to meet very limited evils. Instead of meeting the limited evil and overcoming it by watchfulness and such special measures as may be called for, a general rule is adopted which operates as a burden on a large number of persons for whom no such rule is necessary. Such is the stupid instinct of governments always and everywhere, we might almost say; and it is also one of the chief ways in which government is rendered expensive, as the authorities of the Cleveland Public Library seem to have found out, We congratulate them on having made a useful discovery, and we trust that their experience will lead other similar institutions into the right path.

One little observation before we leave this topic. In the list of newspapers and periodicals on file in the reading room of the library we notice but one in the French language, and that is—what? The Revue des Deux Mondes, or the Nouvelle Revue, or the Revue Bleue, or even the Courrier des Etats-Unis? No, but the Mode de Paris. All that French periodical and newspaper literature contributes to this tax-supported institution is a fashion paper. May we suggest that, if a German one is wanted, Modenwelt is not bad in its way. Let literature flourish!