Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/Editor's Table

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Editor's Table.

 
"THE NEW WOMAN" AND THE PROBLEMS OF THE DAY.

AS there is a new everything in these days, we suppose it was inevitable that there should be a "new woman"; though why a new woman more than a new man it might not be easy to explain. For our part we believe but faintly in "new" woman; we believe in woman. We believe in progress; we believe that new times call for new measures; we believe that these are new times, and that it behooves both men and women to prepare themselves to meet the demands which the age is making on them.

What is really new in the world is knowledge. We see the practical outcome of the new knowledge in the transformation that has taken place in the arrangements under which the life of society to-day is carried on. With the new knowledge there has come a vast enlargement of human power in all directions and a vast development of human individuality. Custom, though still powerful, is no longer such a ruler of men's lives as it used to be. Men and women everywhere have been roused, we might almost say stung, into a sense of individual existence; and, looking round on their changing environment, they are asking a thousand questions to which as yet no very certain answers can be vouchsafed. Woman is awake because man is awake; the keenness of the times has roused them both; and from both we seem to hear the inquiry made by the jailer at Philippi, when startled from slumber by the trembling of the earth and the flashing of a strange light: "What must I do to be saved?" The difference between the so-called "new woman" and woman without that qualification is that the latter would wish to be saved with man and the former apparently without him. The new variety emphasizes the fact that she is a woman, and in that capacity is going to do wonderful things; whereas woman without the "new" is content to know herself a woman and to feel that with her it rests to accomplish her equal part in all the best work of the future.

The great change, as we have said, is that there is more knowledge in the world and that the rule of custom is to a large extent broken. Things that once had all the authority that convention and routine could give them are now open to every one's criticism. Morality no longer rests in absolute security upon dogma. The time has come which Voltaire predicted would be the end of all things, when the people have taken to reasoning. Fortunately, there is no need to agree with Voltaire; but it is necessary to recognize that something is needed to give wise direction to the emancipated thought and action of our time. The dogmatic morality of the past was in the main sound; and the problem of to-day is to secure a sufficient sanction for whatever rules of conduct are necessary to the well-being of individuals and of society. That much in the way of wise counsel and true inspiration may be expected from the increased reflectiveness of women we most gladly recognize; but we do not feel disposed to call a woman who thus responds to the needs of the time a "new" woman, seeing that for generations past, and particularly in times of emergency, women have more or less fulfilled the same rôle.

The two principal questions which to-day confront society relate to the future relations of men and women and the education of the rising generation. The allegation is freely made in many quarters that marriage is a failure; and no doubt frequently it is. None the less, however, is it the case that no scheme that has ever been proposed as a substitute for marriage merits a moment's consideration. It is easy to provide theoretically for the gratification of passion and impulse, but not so easy by any means to show how by any union less solemn and abiding than marriage the higher natures of men and women can be duly developed and their lower propensities kept in check. We do not look to any new woman for light on this question; but we do look to the best women of to-day, those who to purity and soundness of instinct add a trained capacity for independent and intelligent judgment, to join with the best men in indicating the higher path which the generations of the future may tread. We may be sure of this, that the path is one not of less but of greater self-control, and that redemption from the miseries which attach, in too many cases, to marriage as it is will be found in an elevation and purification of the whole idea of marriage. Not that the idea has not been held in its highest purity by many in different ages; not that the world has ever lacked examples of ideal marriage, but that there has never been a sufficiently wide recognition of its true nature and possibilities. There is a gospel on the subject which has to be preached and, so far as individual action can do it, enforced—the gospel that the true happiness of a man and woman united in marriage bonds consists in learning, as years go on, to love and respect one another more and more, and in aiding and stimulating one another more and more to right and noble action, each gaining strength through the other, each finding in the other the means of achieving a true individual completeness. The true gospel is that there is more in marriage than for the most part poets have sung or romancers dreamed, and that the failures of which we hear so much haye been, in the main, failures to grasp the true conception of it and to make a right preparation for the duties which it involves.

Does not all this mean, it may be asked, that many are unfit through defect of character, and others through ignorance and general inferiority of thought and sentiment, to make the best of marriage? It certainly does, and here the no less important problem of education comes in. In these days we look too much to the state to solve our problems for us. There are some problems which the state can not solve, and one, we do not hesitate to say, is the problem of a true education. The state can levy taxes and employ agents and make regulations; but it can not speak with the voice of father or mother; it can not speak confidentially to the young of their deepest interests. It can enjoin rules of conduct, but it can not guide aspiration; it can not meet what, in a broad sense, we may speak of as spiritual needs. If the rising generation is to be adequately educated, the best men and women of the day must come together and consider how it is to be done—how the work, of the state is to be supplemented by individual endeavor, so that growth in character may keep pace with growth in knowledge and intelligence. There are two main ways in which, at first sight, it seems possible this might be done, or at least more or less hopefully attempted: first, by an improvement of the home, and, secondly, by the action of a higher public opinion on the schools. We quoted, some months ago, an eminent French writer of our own day as saying that it was necessary to put more "soul" in the public schools. That is precisely what they want, as all the best teachers are fully aware. But you can not make an appropriation for "soul." It is not quoted in the catalogues of school supplies; it is not among the prescribed subjects in teachers' examinations. It is a very real if not a very tangible thing; and it is a communicable thing. There are those who have it and can impart it; indeed, those who have it can hardly fail to impart it. If there is enough of it outside the schools, it will leak in; and our hope is that the best men and the best women of the day will so join forces as to create, especially around the public schools, an atmosphere of higher sentiment that shall affect for good the working of the state machine, and greatly strengthen the hands of all who, within the schools, have set for themselves a certain standard of spiritual as distinct from merely intellectual accomplishment.

Then as to the home. Here is where we want women with new knowledge, but not—we speak with all due fear and trembling—"new" women. The "new woman" would set every one discussing rights; but the true woman with adequate knowledge would see what the best women have always seen, that the home requires a principle of unity and not a system of scientific frontiers or an elaborately arranged balance of power. Home life and home influence have, we fear, been suffering in our day through a variety of causes; but the home, like marriage, is an institution which only needs to have its possibilities developed in order to stand forth more than justified. Without entering into the question as to whether the wisest methods are being followed to-day in the education of women, it is beyond all doubt that women have gained a vast enlargement of their intellectual horizon, and that in many cases women are not only the peers but the superiors of men in the same station in life as themselves in knowledge and culture. Such knowledge and culture can nowhere be better employed than in the home, where the physical, mental, and moral development of children has to be watched over. The question is, How far will it be employed in this way, and how far made a means of mere personal self-assertion? The true woman will use it for the good of others, and, if possible, will make it available for the improvement of the home; while others—the new type—will use it to make themselves conspicuous in the world, and, as they vainly fancy, add glory to the female sex.

The hope of the future lies mainly in well-ordered homes—homes in which children are trained to be just, reasonable, and humane, in which they are taught to look with an intelligent eye upon the phenomena alike of Nature and of society, in which they learn lessons of industry and self-reliance, of honor, purity, and self-respect, and are guarded against the vulgar worship of wealth and worldly success. It is for the wise and noble women of our time to help to make such homes, and it is for men to see to it that they are worthy of partnership in so sacred a cause. It is no time for any silly rivalry or futile opposition between men and women, who are as necessary to one another now as at any previous age in the world's history—nay, more necessary. On the contrary, it is a time for earnest counsel and vigorous co-operation on the part of all who have the interest of the present and future generations at heart; and the less we hear of the separate and conflicting claims of men and women the better. There is ample scope to-day for the efforts of all, and if any stand idle in the vineyard it must be from lack of will, not from lack of opportunity.

 

 
AN ALMOST TOO SUCCESSFUL JOKE.

When a valued contributor and prominent man of science offered us for publication recently an article over his own signature intended to cast not undeserved ridicule upon the insatiable craving which so many have for marvels, and particularly for marvels that seem to possess the crowning merit (in their eyes) of casting uncertainty upon the methods and conclusions of physical science, we decided to publish it; and it appeared in our last number, under the title of The Sympsychograph. The result, to speak frankly, has almost caused us to doubt the wisdom of the step. Nothing, we know, was further from the intention of the writer. Prof. D. S. Jordan, than to hoax or mislead intelligent readers; and we need hardly say that no such purpose could possibly have commended itself to our approval. There is reason to believe, however, that the great weight attaching to Prof. Jordan's name threw many persons off their guard who would otherwise have scanned the article with sufficient closeness to perceive not only its lack of scientific coherence, but the mischievously sportive intent underlying it. To such, we feel like offering an apology: they read in good faith, as a serious article, what was written as a burlesque, and, doubtless in some cases, puzzled very unnecessarily over the incoherences and obscurities which naturally entered largely into its composition. Many a one doubtless said: "This does not read like an article by Prof. Jordan, yet his name is signed to it; it must be his, and there must be something in it." Well, there was nothing in it except a burlesque; and if any of our friends feel that they were unfairly entrapped into taking it seriously, we can only express our sincere regret.

It is worth while, however, for those who took it seriously to reflect for a few moments over what it was that they thus gave credence to. The statement was that photographs were produced in absolute darkness; that in the darkness a photographic plate became sensitive to thought; and finally, that the thought of a cat in the mind could so decompose the film on a prepared plate as to produce thereon the image of a cat. This was a feast of absurdities which our contributor doubtless supposed, and which, we must confess, we ourselves supposed would prove too rich for all but the most credulous; and if, on a review of the case, those who were taken in are led to draw the inference that a certain independent exercise of judgment is always in order, and that no name should be accepted as sufficient voucher for stark absurdity, the annoyance to which the incident has given rise will not be unmixed with benefit.

If any reader should perchance ask whether there is anything more incredible in the alleged performances of the "Astral Camera Club" than in what we have learned this year in regard to the X rays, we answer: Yes, there is, on the surface, all the difference in the world between the two cases. In the case of the X rays. Prof. Rontgen made his announcement in a carefully worded memoir addressed to a learned body, and fully discussed therein the work done by predecessors in, if not the same, an adjoining field of research. In the second place, there was a known cause of the effect produced in a powerful electric disturbance of an attenuated gaseous medium. There was something here which might very conceivably possess an action resembling that of light upon a photographic plate, and, seeing that ordinary light rays can pass through various solids, it was not taxing belief unduly to state that the X rays could pass through solids impermeable to ordinary light. If intelligent persons will only use the full measure of their intelligence in discriminating between authenticated and unauthenticated announcements, between consistent and inconsistent statements, between alleged facts that have a history behind them, and appear in some natural order of development, and others that have as little previous history and as little in the way of development as "the shield that fell from heaven," they will be all the better for it. They will gain in intellectual power, and, as a result, will be less at the mercy of the manufacturers of the marvelous. It may be a little difficult to exercise discrimination to this degree, but who can deny that the effort to do so would be eminently beneficial? The late Mr. Bagehot once wrote an instructive article on The Emotion of Belief, in which he showed to how large an extent emotion is responsible for belief. It is so to altogether too large an extent: when people believe, they are very often indulging an emotion instead of completing an intellectual process. This emotion is continually demanding nutriment and stimulus; and we need to be on our guard if we would not be continually believing simply for the sake of the pleasure accompanying the act.

We therefore see a good moral associating itself very closely with Prof. Jordan's jeu d'esprit; and there is consequently reason to hope that, when the returns are all in, the balance will be on the right side.

 

 
FADING FADS.

A correspondent of The Nation, writing from Geneva, thus reports in regard to the Third International Congress of Psychologists lately held in that city: "The fact that the papers on 'hypnotism' were less than in earlier congresses, in proportion to the entire number, and that there were a bare half dozen on thought-transference and telepathy, shows the general tendency of psychology. The hypnotic period is past even in France. . . . As to telepathy, I think there is a real decay of interest in the subject, much as this is to be deplored." We must confess we do not feel like deploring the decay of interest to which the correspondent alludes. There would not be such a decay if facts were forthcoming of a nature and in sufficient number to sustain the interest. Telepathy is one of those things that appeal most strongly to popular credulity. The subject, or rather the alleged facts, might be studied without injury by a man of scientific training; but, handed over to the multitude, it is well adapted to become the fruitful source of every kind of intellectual mischief. There are hundreds of minds to-day that are perilously near the border land of insanity, and still more that are in a most unwholesome fever of unrest, simply on account of the obliteration, so far as they are concerned, of the boundaries of the possible and impossible. They do not know what to believe in or what to expect in the way of incursions from an invisible and intangible world, or what law of Nature they can safely regard as irreversible. Can any good come of this? We should certainly say No; and we are sorry that some people of more or less scientific competence, who, as we think, might be better employed, are devoting their efforts toward promoting this general condition of mental unsettlement. It is a comfort to learn that the assembled psychologists at Geneva were not disposed to give much countenance to the telepathic Will-o'-the-wisp.

 

 
THE ABUSE OF FREE LIBRARIES.

At its recent annual meeting in Cleveland, the American Library Association heard some candid criticism from its president, Mr. John Cotton Dana, Librarian of the Public Library of Denver. He feared that his enthusiasm for the free public library was born more of contagion than of conviction. In the public library, he said, you have stored a few thousand volumes, including, of course, the best books of all time—which no one reads—and a generous percentage of fiction of the cheaper sort. To this place come in good proportion the idle and the lazy, and also the people who can not endure the burden of a thought, and who fancy they are improving their minds, while, in fact, they are simply letting the cool water of knowledge trickle through the sieve of an idle curiosity. The more persistent visitors are largely men who have either failed in a career, or never had a career, or do not wish a career.

Mr. Dana charged the free public library with relieving the idle, the incompetent, and the indifferent reader from the necessity—would he have books—of going to work to earn them. It checks, he continued, the serious reader in collecting a library of his own adapted to the wants and tastes of himself and his family. It leads parents to regard with indifference the general reading of their children, just as the free public school may lead them to be indifferent to their formal education.

This and much more in the same strain was loudly applauded by Mr. Dana's large and representative audience of librarians. It is evident that the abuses of free public libraries have led to much searching of heart among their chief officers. They are feeling, as the teachers of the public schools also feel, that they can not take the place of the parent who abdicates from one of the primary responsibilities of parenthood. A child whose father and mother hand over its mental and moral culture to the teacher and the librarian virtually becomes an orphan. Neither public school nor public library can do its duty toward its pupils and readers without the hearty and intelligent co-operation of parents. Mr. Dana's address was clearly intended to traverse the easy optimism and self-gratulatory vein usual in presidential utterances. His criticisms will bear fruit in pointing to the abuses and losses inevitable when the form of gratuity is impressed upon a comfort or a luxury which each should buy for himself. The form of gratuity is a form only; at great and increasing cost a service is proffered which should be rendered, not in the free public library but in the home; or, if a compromise must be made, then by the free public library watchfully directed from the home.