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

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Editor's Table.


MORE than once have we hinted in these columns that the only thing which can render State education successful, and enable it to accomplish the ends which a system of education ought to accomplish, is the earnest co-operation of the more intelligent portion of the public. The trouble is that the public do not in general see the matter in this light. They not unnaturally think that one of the advantages of State education is that all responsibility in connection with the matter is taken off their shoulders. When the government of a country establishes a postal service the individual citizen does not feel called upon to devote his time or his ingenuity to the task of perfecting it. Of course, if he is a reformer born, and his thoughts happen to run in that direction, be will favor the Post-Office Department from time to time with suggestions which may or may not be of value; but in general the feeling is that such volunteer assistance is not needed. Somewhat similar—very similar indeed—is the feeling which the average citizen entertains in regard to the educational system of his State. It is something he need not interfere with: he pays his taxes, and he has a right to have his children educated; and there the matter ends.

What the average citizen must wake up to some day is the perception that there the matter must not end. It is one thing to ask the State to arrange for the conveyance of letters or parcels; it is quite another to intrust it with the education of youth. For the former purpose a few business arrangements, such as are within the compass of ordinary practical intelligence, fully suffice; for the latter something more is wanted than any government, as such, has it in its power to supply. What, for example, is education without an ideal? Can the State supply an ideal? Individual teachers—the more conscientious ones—may have their ideals; but do they derive these from their contact with or relations to the State? Or is their position as State employees precisely the thing which makes it hard for them to have or maintain ideals?

Let us, however, make it quite clear what we mean when we speak of the importance of an ideal in education, and of the utter incompleteness of education without an ideal. By an ideal we simply mean a conception of life worthy of a moral and rational being—such a conception of life as shall develop and strengthen, not weaken and wither, his or her moral and intellectual powers. The first lesson which should be taught to the child is the lesson of its actual, and yet more its potential, worth. "If," says the heathen philosopher Epictetus, "a man should be able to assent to this doctrine as he ought, that we are all sprung from God, I suppose that he would never have any ignoble or mean thoughts about himself." Now, education without an ideal is an education in which a child is never taught to think nobly of himself, and in which, by inevitable consequence, he is almost precluded from having any noble thoughts about anybody or anything. It is consequently an education without any large or worthy aim, an education in which the child is treated simply as a piece of mechanism which has to be put in order for certain definite and servile ends. The idea which dominates State education is the idea of the struggle for life, human being pitted against human being in the scramble for material goods. We do not blame the State for this, for we do not hold it to be capable of organizing education on any higher plane. It can keep an intellectual machine shop, but it can not in any systematic manner provide for the higher needs of growing souls. It may go so far as to enunciate bald moral precepts; but it can not pronounce the master words which speak to the conscience and dominate the life.

So, as we have said, when the citizen pays his taxes and packs his children off to the public school, all is not done. If the citizen thinks the education of his children has been sufficiently provided for, there is a large chance that he will before very long be rudely awakened to a sense of his error. He will find that character is something the proper formation of which demands more care and pains than either he or the public school had thought of bestowing, and that for want of the necessary attention in this direction his children are showing a serious lack of any power of self guidance or self-control. Thousands of parents are to-day precisely in this position, with children on their hands to whose moral cultivation no proper attention has been paid either at school or at home, and who consequently show alarming signs of making shipwreck of life. The parents thought—so far as they thought about it at all—that the schools would see to the matter, and the schools threw back the responsibility on the parents: between the two stools the children have come to the ground. What parents should be made to understand once for all is that if they leave the moral interests of their children wholly in the hands of the public school, those interests will not and can not be adequately provided for. Teachers may individually do their best, but the public school as an institution can not strike the note that is necessary for complete education. It can not strike the note that Epictetus struck in the sentence above quoted; and yet, as we have said, unless the child can be taught self reverence, he will never learn to reverence anything, and his whole life, aimless in any noble sense, will drift among the shoals of circumstance.

Deeply interested as we are in this view of the question, it was with great pleasure that we read a few weeks ago a letter in The Nation from Mrs. Elizabeth Burt Gamble, President of the Detroit Educational Union, describing what had been done in that city toward supplementing the work and influence of the schools by the concerted efforts of the mothers of the pupils. The problem, as Mrs. Gamble expresses it, is to carry more of the home into the school and more of the school into the home. The plan of action was to invite the mothers of each school district, "regardless of creed, color, nationality, or environment," to meet periodically—once a month—for the discussion of "topics best suited to aid in the proper development of the child." The co-operation of the teachers of each district was invoked, and the meetings were as a rule held in the school house after the regular school work for the day was over. Each district league conducted its proceedings in view of the needs and peculiarities of the particular neighborhood, but the central union prepared a syllabus of work for general use. In this syllabus were suggested such topics as the following: "Proper food and clothing for children; care of the body, cleanliness, the way to prevent the formation of injurious habits; the rights of children; proper reading in the home; how to teach the children self-control and to have a proper regard for the rights of others; the duties of true citizenship; and various other subjects to be taken up by the mothers in the home."

Now, nothing could be better than this, except that we do not see why the movement should have been confined to the mothers. Why were the fathers not thought worthy to take a share in the good work? Mrs. Gamble states that in Detroit the movement has received a check. "At the very outset it was observed." so she tells us, "that petty jealousies and a fear of the growing influence of women would make it difficult for the work to continue." We do not see why there should be any dread of the growing influence of women so long as the latter are working judiciously toward good ends. We can imagine, however, that an exclusively feminine movement might perhaps be conducted upon lines or might become committed to positions that would excite not wholly unreasonable opposition. Zeal for reform is a noble thing, but to be successful it requires to be tempered by tact and a sense for the practicable. The matter is not one in which women solely are interested, and if the best results are to be achieved there must be a co-operation of the sexes. If the ideas of men lag behind those of women in some particulars, compensation may be found in the assistance which the former are able to lend in carrying certain limited reforms into actual practice and so preparing the way for further advance.

Mrs. Gamble raises a serious question when she asks, "Has society reached that stage where such results (those, namely, contemplated by the Educational Union) are desired?" There is, unfortunately, room to doubt whether some parents really desire the best training for their children. A parent, for example, who has no worthy ideal in life would not care to have his child indoctrinated with the idea that worldly success is not everything. Such teaching is looked upon as harmless in the pulpit; but many parents, if we are not mistaken, would be disposed to object if their children were taught anything like this at school. It is very desirable that we should know just where as a community we stand in regard to this matter. If all parents do not desire the best moral teaching for their children, all the greater need is there for an educative campaign that shall embrace parents as well as children. Certain it is that the children have a right to the best teaching—the most rational, the most humane, the most inspiring teaching—that can be given them, and no effort should be spared that could in any way tend to put the instruction given in our public schools on a right level or to supplement it by suitable home influence. The subject is one upon which too much public attention can not be concentrated, and we are glad to find from Mrs. Gamble's letter that she and her fellow-workers have no intention, despite some discouragements, to intermit their efforts. It is satisfactory to think that whatever may be done with right motives in the direction indicated must have some good effect. To interest even one mother or one father in what—using the words not quite in their usual sense, but in a sense more important than the usual one—may be called the higher education of their children is so far a gain; but to interest, as by proper measures might easily be done, hundreds and thousands of parents throughout the country would be to initiate perhaps the most important reform movement that our century has witnessed.


A few months ago there appeared in France a French translation of Mr. Balfour's work on The Foundations of Belief, with an introduction by the well known editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes, M. Ferdinand Brunetière. In this introduction M. Brunetière took occasion to repeat many of the arguments already used by him in his article of a year or so ago on The Bankruptcy of Science. He was greatly pleased to think that Mr. Balfour had shown that science could not lay claim to any greater certainty than theology, and he quoted with much satisfaction Mr. Benjamin Kidd's disparagements of the reasoning faculty and exaltation of the irrational or suprarational as the source of everything good and excellent in human society and in the history of the race. It is a little wonderful that men of the general intelligence of M. Brunetière and Mr. Kidd do not recognize the futility of such intellectual exercitations as those in which they indulge; but the former of these gentlemen can at least see how his attitude strikes a common-sense observer in a very sprightly article published in La Nouvelle Revue of the 15th of January last.

The writer, M. Gustave Téry, begins by observing that M. Brunetière only a few years ago was one of the most severely scientific writers of the time. In physical science he was an evolutionist and in literary criticism as rigid and inflexible as Sarah Battle over her game of whist. One fine day he turned round on evolution, and shortly afterward he declared war on science. Now there is no knowing where to find him. He is here, there, and everywhere, showing different colors at different angles, and taking pride in nothing so much as an infinite flexibility of mind and conviction. His present condition seems traceable in the main to an interview he had a couple of years ago with the Pope, who showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and, if he did not convert him outright to Catholic orthodoxy, filled him with a holy zeal for persuading the world that science is the one thing least worthy of trust. In pursuance of this mission he has charged science with having undertaken to "explain the universe" and with having egregiously and shamefully failed to do so. But, as M. Téry says in the article before us: "What savant ever claimed to explain Nature in the ontological sense that is to say, to reveal the nature of Being? All that science undertakes is to connect phenomena with one another, to relate them to their causes and formulate their laws." If, he further observes, M. Brunetière will only make this elementary distinction, he will not be so scandalized as he appears to be at the reply attributed to Laplace when some one—the pious Napoleon Bonaparte, was it not?—asked him what place God occupied in his speculations. The reply was that he did not need that hypothesis, by which he meant that a speculation as to a first cause had no place in a series of inquiries relating to secondary causes.

One of the amiable remarks of M. Brunetière apropos of reason is that while it is easy enough to see the ruins it has wrought, it is by no means so easy to see what it has constructed. This in face of the fact that day by day all the solid and enduring work in the world is done by the aid of reason and in accordance with, its rules. Do we employ lunatics as architects, as engineers, as analysts? Do we ask them to plead cases in court, to write books of science, to manage business affairs? Or, passing over lunatics, do we seek out persons of confessedly mean intelligence for these purposes? Is not all work good precisely in proportion to the amount of correct and rational thought that is embodied in it? If a bridge breaks down, or a house collapses, or a ship is lost at sea, or a railway disaster happens, or a fire sweeps through a town, or an epidemic gains headway, do we ever say that an excess of reason was chargeable with the calamity? Or do we, as we investigate the causes, say that here or here there was some defect of knowledge, thought, attention, vigilance, common sense—some defect of reason, in short? The question does not call for an answer, seeing that every one knows that what we need to get into human affairs is more and more reason, more and more intelligence, more and more of the spirit of science. But if, M. Téry says, we are in spite of everything to trust to the irrational or Mr. Kidd's supra-rational, who is to interpret it for us? There are many brands of the irrational, and doubtless just as many of the supra-rational. Who is to pick out the particular one that suits our circumstances and needs? Surely, reason is not to be called upon to decide in what direction we are to forsake its guidance and what precise species of unreason we are to surrender ourselves to. We should be able to look to the gentlemen who tell us how unsafe a guide reason is; but there is nothing they so pointedly decline to do as to give us any practical help whatever. The conclusion of the matter seems to be that of all the fads of the present day the weakest and silliest is that which prompts men otherwise intelligent to disparage reason and its realized outcome, science. A fitting punishment, were it possible, would be to confine such persons for a certain period to an exclusive diet of the irrational and the supra-rational. If their wits survived the ordeal, they would return to ordinary conditions with a devouter thankfulness for the gift of reason, and for all the works of reason, than they probably ever experienced in their lives before.