Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/January 1897/Editor's Table

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Editor's Table.


WE are all familiar with the troubles of the hen that, having hatched duck's eggs, sees with dismay her foster progeny betaking themselves to the water. Very similar, it seems to us, is the distress of mind which ecclesiastical authorities now and then display over the evident determination of the modern world to betake itself to the truths of science rather than to the dogmas of theology. From the ecclesiastical point of view the latter constitute terra firma; the former are nothing but a heaving sea of uncertainty—a treacherous element which threatens to ingulf all who trust themselves to it.

A conspicuous exhibition of this state of mind is furnished by an article in the Church Standard of Philadelphia from the pen of the Right Reverend Hugh Miller Thompson, D. D., LL. D., Episcopal Bishop of Mississippi. "The scientists," it appears from Bishop Thompson's article, have been professing that, in certain cases of hopeless disease, a period should mercifully be put at once to life and to suffering. This is perfectly terrible. It is true Bishop Thompson does not tell us who the scientists are who have made this inhuman proposition; but that is all the better, as the odium can thus be spread evenly over all of them. Neither does he give the exact terms of the proposition; and that again is all the better, as it enables him to expand and vary it at will—to give us such versions of it, for example, as the following: "When a man's father becomes toothless and childish, the son will lovingly give him the happy dispatch, and enter on possession of his estates. When the mother becomes feeble and old, the loving daughter, with her own gentle hands, will drop into the spoon and carry to the lips that kissed her baby face the precious dose that will put the dear old soul out of the way of troubling her longer." In a word, the right reverend bishop has a good time of it banging away at "the scientists" through a four-column article made up almost wholly of just such inconsequent verbiage as we have quoted.

The broad fact which writers of this class all seek to ignore is that it is precisely since science began to be a power in the world that there has been the most notable improvement in the manners and morals of mankind. The bishop tells us that, "if man be a development from the primeval slime, an improved oyster or ape," he fails to see "where there is any room to talk about the sacredness of human life." It seems to us that, far more important than talking about the sacredness of human life, is it to treat human life as sacred; and if the bishop will pretend that there is any comparison between the practice of the present day in this respect and that, say, of the eighteenth, seventeenth, and sixteenth centuries, not to go further back, we shall be very much surprised. What science, or, in other words, the progress of knowledge, does is to give the human mind scope and verge for the exercise of its faculties; and it is this enlarged intellectual activity which leads to the improvement of life in general. If it is impossible to-day to read any history of past ages without shuddering at the butcheries and cruelties which form so large a part of the record, it is not because those ages were not in possession of a well-established and firmly believed theology; it is not because any modern scientific views had arisen to weaken the sense of the sacredness of human life. It was simply and purely because a very inferior degree of sacredness—all theoretical reasons to the contrary notwithstanding—was in reality attached to human life. Men's minds had not then been expanded and enlarged, nor had their sympathies been quickened, as they have been since knowledge began to grow by leaps and bounds. Certain theological doctrines, moreover, which then universally prevailed, had a direct tendency to deaden sympathy and pervert all natural standards of right and wrong; we refer especially to that conception of hell which was the fundamental motive of all persecutions for heresy and witchcraft. The sum of human misery which must be attributed to this one cause baffles calculation. On the other hand, no fact in history is more overwhelmingly attested than that an increase in humanity has accompanied, and continues to accompany, a relaxation of the rigors of theological belief.

In that whimsical book, The Green Carnation, there is a parson introduced who, on the word science being mentioned, immediately remarks, "Indeed, I have no opinion of science." Our bishop, however, is not content with having "no opinion of science"; he goes further and has "no opinion," or, to be more accurate, a shockingly bad opinion, of Nature. Let us listen to this episcopal teacher: "There is nothing sacred in Nature. Certainly she treats life with very scant reverence, be it vegetable or animal. Nature's forces ruthlessly trample out and trample down life in all its forms. She is the bloodiest-handed of all murderers. She ravens in beak and claw." A little while ago it was Prof. James who was describing Nature as a harlot; to-day the Bishop of Mississippi finds that the most appropriate epithet he can bestow on it is "the bloodiest-handed of all murderers." What says Matthew Arnold?

"And patiently exact,

This universal God,
Alike to any act,
Proceeds at any nod,

And quietly declaims the curses of himself."

The Harvard professor curses in the interest of his pessimism; the divine, in the interest of his theology; and neither seems in the least alive to the humor of the situation. While they curse, the sun shines and the wind blows, the great processes of Nature go on, and the drama of human destiny develops itself just as if there was no such thing in the world as a pessimistic professor or a damnatory divine. Nature does not ask any one to admire or belaud her. She has given, or the power behind her has given, to countless tribes a share in what we call life. She guarantees nothing save the permanence of law; but she has set in operation certain principles of development which, in the case of man, have carried him, under favoring circumstances, to a high degree of eminence over the rest of the creation. Man thus finds himself possessed of self-consciousness and the power of adapting means to ends, of reading the secrets of Nature, and greatly increasing his resources for happiness and progress. At what point in man's evolution from "the primeval slime" which the bishop so dislikes to think about—though the scriptural "dust" would only require a little moistening to make a fair article of slime—at what point, we say, of man's evolution the social instincts began to emerge it is not necessary to determine. It is enough to know that they did emerge, and that, having emerged, they became capable of doing as much for his moral and emotional nature as the recognition of law, which also emerged at a given moment, was capable of doing for his intellectual nature. To-day, in moral and intellectual man—in other words, in the higher types of the human race the world begins to have a worthy tenant and master, one in whose eyes a "splendid purpose" may be read—the purpose of governing wisely and justly and mercifully the heritage into possession of which he has come.

The practical question then is just this: whether because the bishop's theology is not enjoying quite as much prestige as it did of old, and because the emancipated human spirit is seeking knowledge everywhere, even in regard to matters which the bishop thinks ought to be accepted as authoritatively settled, there is any reason to apprehend that the bonds of society and of the family are going to be loosed, that the humane instincts, which for generations have been gaining in strength, are going to fall into decay, and that man, under the influence of scientific teachings, is destined to become a mere cunning compound of cruelty and self-indulgence. Well, for our part, we don't believe it; there is nothing in past history to render such a result probable, everything to render it improbable. What the most distant future may have in store for our race, we know not; but of this we feel persuaded, that the future which lies immediately before us will be an era of greater justice, of greater humanity, and at the same time of greater intellectual liberty, than any the world has yet seen. All the signs point that way.


Where? Why, here, in these United States, and in that most favored portion of them which sends its youths to Eastern colleges and universities. But who talks of "growing illiteracy"?—surely some very ill-informed individual who does not know what splendid work our public schools are doing. By no means; but we may as well, without further ado, explain the matter.

For a good while past the colleges and universities of the country have been finding it harder and harder to put up with the very inferior preparation, particularly as regards knowledge of the English language, of the youths who go up from the secondary schools for matriculation. Harvard is in open rebellion against the annoyance; and a committee of the Overseers lately made the suggestion that it would be a good thing to print the papers of these ill-taught youths, and give the names of the schools from which they had come. At this the principals of a number of the leading schools took alarm; and it was in the protest which they published that the ominous words we have quoted appeared. "While we regret," they say, "the growing illiteracy of American boys, we can not feel that the schools should be held solely responsible for the evils, which are chiefly due to the absence of literary interest and of literary standards in the community." In other words, there is a growing illiteracy among boys, because, broadly speaking, illiteracy has taken possession of the country. The parents of the boys—who themselves had the benefit of public-school training—have, for the most part, no literary interests and recognize no literary standards. These high-school principals ought to know whereof they affirm; we do not know who would be in a position to gauge the acquirements of American boys, and the domestic influences which have guided their development, if not they.

If the universities, by bringing pressure to bear on the secondary schools, can do anything to remedy this state of things they certainly should do it. If the principals are right, however, the outlook is not hopeful. Our own impression is that they are right, and that there is throughout the country a growing indifference to correct speech and a growing lack of appreciation of the higher uses to which language can be put. The testimony of the principals is enforced by that of a Western teacher, who writes to The Nation to explain the peculiar difficulties under which the schools labor as regards the teaching of English. The pupils, he says, have, out of school, been studying English for fifteen or sixteen years before they reach the high school. "They suppose themselves to be entirely competent, their habits of expression are fixed, and no two of them are alike. . . . The home, the very cheap newspaper, the street, have furnished them with their common speech; and, although the first may sometimes be all that can be desired, very often the balance of power belongs to the others. . . . Under favorable circumstances the teacher of composition is allowed forty-five minutes a day, for three years, in which, besides teaching something of the history of literature, he is to counteract influences that have fifteen years the start of him, and fifteen times as great present opportunity. The only remarkable thing is that, under such circumstances, he accomplishes anything at all."

The important thing is to have a right understanding of the situation, and the remarks we have just quoted are very much to the point. Large masses of people are apt to be rebellious in matters of grammar, and, in general, indifferent to established laws of speech. Language which they use for everyday purposes is, in their opinion, "good enough" if it serves those purposes. It is the coin of thought, and so long as it passes current they are satisfied, however clipped or debased it may be. There are no great literary monuments in the background, as it were, of the national consciousness which tend to keep language to a classic form. There is nothing, for example, which exercises at all the same influence upon us as a people as the Homeric poems and the works of the great dramatists—but particularly the Homeric poems—did upon the ancient Greeks. Even if we had any works which stood in something like the same relation to our national life, the printing press has made it unnecessary for us to enrich or burden (as we may consider it) our memories with any portions of such literature. When books were scarce, people had to make books of their minds, but in these days of public libraries no such drudgery as that is necessary; we want our minds for other things.

How powerless the public school is to hold the nation together in the matter of speech is proved by nothing more than by the fact that an ever increasing number of novels and tales of domestic production are written in "dialect." Occasionally we witness learned and most academic discussions as to whether a particular writer has got the "dialect" of a particular region in perfect shape. Poets of considerable note have labored to give currency to very degraded forms of speech. Children are encouraged to slur their words by having the conversation of other children who do likewise served up to them in story books. Public-school teachers themselves in many cases give evidence in their speech that all the scholastic training to which they have been subjected has not sufficed to counterbalance the influence of their everyday surroundings: they will recite a rule of grammar and violate it in the same breath.

Now, we do not belong to the school of those who think that the ultimate appeal in all questions of language must be to the usage of the past, and who contend for the standard forms of speech as a man might for "the faith once delivered to the saints." We agree rather with a great historian and admirable writer, Sir Francis Palgrave, who says that few have done so much harm to literature as "the martinets of language"; adding that "whenever the era arrives in which artificial rules for style or language are accurately laid down and painfully obeyed, then literature is approaching her climacteric." We agree, too, with the more ancient author of The Art of Poetry, who says in effect that happy experiments in enriching a language, at one time with words recovered from antiquity and at another with new and expressive words struggling for recognition, are always in order. It is one thing, however, to do as Palgrave advises, and set the expression of thought and feeling above the mere observation of artificial rules; it is another to disregard all rules through simple indolence and lack of idealism—lack of respect for the vehicle of thought. It is one thing to do as Horace advises and strive to strengthen and enrich the speech we use, and another to throw the door open to every vulgar 'invention and conceit of the hour.

We can not better define the evil with which we have to contend than by describing it (in words just used) as a total "lack of idealism" in the use of language. Considering that articulate and significant speech forms the great line of distinction between man and the brutes, considering the infinite riches of thought and feeling, the treasures of experience, the varied presentments of human life that are stored up in language, it would not seem excessive if something of reverence toward language considered as an exalted power and prerogative of the human mind were imparted to the young and made through education a common possession of all normal human beings in a civilized state. That, however, would appear to be, in any broad sense, past hoping for. But what the many pass by with indifference, if not contempt, the few may if they like appropriate. The question which some at least ought to consider is whether there are not great and solid advantages connected with an accurate knowledge and practical mastery of the English language. Of course, we believe very strongly that there are, and it would not be difficult to discuss these advantages at length under the three heads of intellectual, moral, and æsthetic. Accuracy and precision of speech means, or at least tends strongly toward, accuracy and precision of thought. Many persons have but little distinct consciousness of the words they use, and to try to hold them to any precise meaning is hopeless. The way to remedy such defect of thought is through careful and strenuous drill in the verbal expression of thought—such drill as language studies properly conducted will bestow—aided by scientific drill in the observation of facts. To what extent mental dishonesty is favored by vagueness and indefiniteness of speech it is almost needless to observe. Taking finally the æsthetic view, if any value is set upon distinction of mind, upon purity of taste, upon sensibility to the harmonies of which language is capable, and sympathy with all the nobler phases of human thought and emotion which literature records, how are these to be secured and developed save through a careful cultivation of the language sense?

It might not be impossible, we think, through a proper setting forth of this aspect of the case, if not to stem the rising tide of illiteracy, to engage the interests and the sentiments of a respectable minority in favor of such a study of the English language and its literature as should confer the benefits we have mentioned. The word culture has been much abused, but it has a meaning with which we can not dispense; and, as an instrument of culture—of genuine emancipation and elevation of mind—there is no line of study which we can place before that which raises a mind fairly to the level of a great language and a great literature.