Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/May 1900/Science Study and National Character
|SCIENCE STUDY AND NATIONAL CHARACTER.|
UNTIL very recently it had come to be a commonly accepted view in America that the civilization of a nation is directly proportional to the amount it expends for education, and inversely proportional to the amount it expends for war. The budgets of European countries have given Americans good reason to accept this standard, since its application gave the most gratifying evidence of our great intellectual and moral advancement. Less than three years ago the President of the National Educational Association proudly exclaimed: "England, six to one for war; Russia, thirty-eight to one for war; America, four to one for education!" Since that time our country has become involved in war projects, from which we can hardly hope it will withdraw, that have increased our expenditure for war four times, and a policy has been inaugurated which, if persisted in, will certainly almost at once reverse our boasted ratio, making it "four to one for war"! This course has been supported by a great body of our people. Even our Christian ministers have committed "The White Man's Burden" to memory, and breathe never a whisper of the sixth commandment. If, as has been held by all wise and good men, the victories of peace are more worthy to be sung than those of war; if the ability to avoid quarrels or to settle them without force of arms is nobler than that which achieves military success; if true enlightenment and education make for peace and not for war, then our law of direct and inverse proportion has lately been scandalously dishonored.
If we have expended so much for education and at the same time have lowered our ideal of national greatness, something must be wrong with that education. If the sharpening and quickening of the intellect are accompanied by a blunting and atrophy of the moral sense, the best and the worst thing that can be said of our school system is that it gives daily rations to hundreds of thousands of teachers. Evidence of disease of the national conscience must raise in the minds of thoughtful men grave doubts as to the sufficiency of our education to "insure national progress, prosperity, and honor," whether because of inherent weakness of the system or because of the strength of the forces opposed to it.
Has our system of education, then, failed to elevate our national character? He who would answer this question in the affirmative would be a pessimist indeed: Incalculable "general good" has come to us, we think, by the agency of our schools. Without them our civilization could not be so far advanced as it is; our national life might have ended long since. In every crisis, however black has been the storm, however fierce and ominous the lightning flash, there has followed in good time the gentle rain, soothing and allaying our fear, and giving renewed promise of prosperity and peace. It is the sober second thought, we are in the habit of saying, which saves us, which takes the helm and sheers us away from the half-hidden reefs in our first mad course. It is not. It is the sober first thought which has redeemed us from destruction time after time—the sober first thought of the few who are truly educated, who have looked below the surface of things and considered the hidden and obscure results, who have weighed the right and wrong and stood immovable for the right. It is the counsel of such men which has fallen like the rain that follows the first bursting of the storm, and has given us courage and power to restrain ourselves and to face our hardest duty. For such men in our national affairs we may reverently offer thanks, and for an educational system which is partly, at least, responsible for them we may have sincere praise. But our safety must always depend upon the presence of such men, strong enough in numbers and in influence to control each difficult and dangerous situation which may threaten us. Our work as teachers is not faithful if we do not increase this number and strengthen this influence. And if such men have been overpowered in the important events of the past two years, if they have been entirely ignored, or if they have been taunted and ridiculed, we have reached a dangerous crisis, and our sacred duty is to stop and take our bearings. If we have manifested certain national traits hitherto scarcely suspected, and now unwillingly confessed, every motive of patriotism and of prudence should impel us to study our case, that we may effectively prescribe for it.
Are there not, then, certain signs which we may all agree are discernible? Have not the waves of powerful feeling which have swept over us, the storms of acrimonious debate which have raged in our papers and forums, the paeans of praise which we have chanted at our "peace jubilees" and hero parties, revealed the prevalence and rapid growth of certain sentiments which we may all, without regard to political belief, clearly recognize? I do not in this place raise the question of the political wisdom or simple justice of the course which the country has taken in its international relations. I do not now challenge any belief as to these matters which has been formed thoughtfully, honestly, manfully; but I do maintain that the past few months have left lessons for thoughtful, honest men to unite in studying.
Probably the most striking phenomenon which we have witnessed has been the tremendous display of excited feeling. However careful our national leaders may have been, however honest in basing their actions on what they considered sufficient information, or however careless and dishonest, no man who has read any considerable number of our papers, who has listened to the clamor of the crowds, can doubt that the force of blind passion has been in hundreds of thousands of men the dominant force. If during the war with Spain you stood in the cheering, surging crowds before the bulletin boards, if you heard storms of hisses greet the name of the innocent boy-King of Spain, or noted the cheer of triumph which applauded the capture of a lumber scow by an armored cruiser, you will have no difficulty in agreeing with me. You will smile at the idea of imputing to such men the credit of serious thought. On the birthday of the greatest American, whose life was a message of liberty—"who," said a great Spanish orator, "laid down his life at the foot of his finished work"—our papers printed jokes about the mistake of the Filipinos in trying to fight Uncle Sam, and in our cities, at least, the report of their slaughter was received with exultation. Whether they were civilized or not, whether they were misled or not, whether they were ignorant of America's carefully concealed intention or not, the killing of thousands of men who thought they were fighting for their freedom, who faced machine guns, and who crawled away into the bushes to die for the cause for which they had fought, is hardly a subject for jokes or for exultation, when people are governed by reason and not by feeling alone. When the Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor her captain, in a notable dispatch telling of the disaster, urged a suspension of judgment until the facts should be known. Facts! In an hour our battle-cry was, "Remember the Maine!" Under that motto, within a few days, one of the great Chicago dailies (the Inter-Ocean) hung out the pennant of the wrecked battle ship and enlistment signs. Who was right—the Maine's captain or the paper? Which appeal meant safety, and which danger? Our own commission investigated the wreck. After an examination, which was kept entirely within our own hands, the commission reported that the ship had been destroyed from the outside, but that there was no evidence to fix the responsibility. Did we fix the responsibility? Though the investigation board could find no evidence, though reason said that the destroyer of the Maine, were he Spain's own king, was Spain's worst enemy, we forgot the cause of deliverance, and went into battle with the cry of vengeance on our lips. This is not a statement of sentiment but of fact. Your motives, or the President's, or mine may have been pure—your opinion may have been unprejudiced—but these things around us we all saw and all heard. We know that many men were carried away by their feelings, and did not think. We know that their feelings grew into a prejudice which was absolutely certain to distort the facts and to drive them far from the truth if they ever came to the point of thinking. The ears of the multitude have been closed to all counsels, however wise; their eyes to all consequences, however fatal; their minds to all logic, however clear and simple.
We may consider more briefly, but not less carefully, other tendencies which have been shown, seeing many of them in the facts which have already been referred to.
From the fact that passion has so largely supplanted reason in moving many of our people we have developed some wonderful instances of credulity. The sequence is most natural. When men become unwilling, or uncaring, to ascertain the truth for themselves they inevitably display a great willingness to swallow any statement which may obligingly be offered them by some one else. So, with half of the Spanish navy sunk and the other half accounted for, we spent hours of glorious, wild conjecture, in the dear dead days beyond recall, listening to the awful sound of cannonading in the Windward Passage, which reached us by the w T ay of Mole St. Nicholas. We believe what is sufficiently exciting to be true.
Related to the phenomena we have noticed is another—the evident loss of individuality—of moral and mental independence. How striking is it to compare some of our newspaper editorials of today with those of two years ago in the same papers, and to see how their writers have been dragged, step by step, into line with those whom they formerly opposed! They have not changed their faith; they have deserted it. For them there is the defense of business necessity; but if you will to-day talk to many men who gave you their opinions a few months ago, you will find that they have broken down and given up—surrendered to superior numbers. In our bulletin crowds we have all seen the spirit of the mob, which meets the newcomer indifferent or doubtful, thrills him with the mysterious influence of the men packed around and against him, and sends him away an irresponsible monomaniac.
With such forces at work, it is inevitable that we should act, or be ready to act, quickly. Why not? Reflection takes time. To learn the facts fully and certainly takes time. To feel—how long? To take another man's word—how long? To give way to a thousand other men—how long? We have all seen men cheering our war with Spain only yesterday. To-day Austria seems friendly to the queen regent. We'll whip Austria, too. Tomorrow Germany is impudent to Dewey. We shall be ready by night to whip Germany. If Europe combines against us, how long shall we consider the cost of such a war as that? Write it on the bulletin board—the crowd will be ready before the writing is done.
Near to this is the spirit of fickleness, of inconstancy, which has been frequently manifested. We have not only made up our minds on insufficient evidence, but we have unmade them in a hurry on no evidence at all, showing a startling lack of confidence in our own judgments and of respect for them. Attention might well have been called, in a former paragraph, to the small amount of our real knowledge of the character of Aguinaldo. On what petty and inconsequential evidence have we first called him a great liberator, and now a scheming politician! Men who could hardly read his most remarkable appeal to this country do not hesitate to call him an unprincipled, conceited, ignorant barbarian: what reliable information have they received with reference to his motives? They have found no trouble in changing their opinions. In the past few months we have been mercurial almost beyond mercurial Frenchmen. Think of the revulsion of feeling that followed Hobson across the continent; and, more recently, of our sad lack of self-restraint shown by the vicious and ungrounded attack upon Admiral Dewey, only a few days after he had been the object of the greatest display of hero worship America has ever seen. And how many important changes may we count, if we carry back our comparison to the time before the war?
But by so doing we uncover another significant fact. We find that many of the ideas so quickly thrown aside are those which have been the foundation principles, and bear the prestige of great names. We have held it our special mission to show to warlike nations that a power which stands for peace may be greater than theirs; and, alas! many of our leaders, and our people, too, are crying that the time has come—has now come—for us to take our place among the great nations of the earth. We have pitied the war-taxed peoples of Europe, and offered them a home where they would not have to buy powder and guns. And now we are eagerly rushing to take up the burden from which they have been fleeing to us. We have held that great standing armies are unnecessary and dangerous, and already we have quadrupled ours. We have declared our determination to avoid foreign entanglements, and now we are in the very heart of the sputtering coil in the far East. With those who have thoughtfully decided that these changes have been necessary or wise I have no wish to debate now, but we must all unite in recognizing the spirit which has been shown, and is now shown, in speaking of our past positions. The principles which for years have been our rules of national conduct have been thrown aside in a day, scoffed at, mocked. And we smile at the names of the great men who have announced those principles and defended them, or we flatly declare they are out of date. We once listened with reverent and full hearts when our wise men spoke to us of freedom, and recalled our national traditions and taught national righteousness. Now we laugh at swaddling clothes outgrown, , and smile at the innocent simplicity of our fathers. We lift our brows at the name of Washington: we say he was a fine old gentleman, and his Farewell Address, considering everything, was a very creditable paper, and well adapted to the exigencies of the time in which it was written. And this carnival of irreverence is holding not only in our streets, but in our newspaper offices, in our pulpits, and in some of our higher institutions of learning.
These are the phenomena of our recent national experience which I desire you to consider. There may be other unfavorable indications. There may be others, and many more, which are hopeful and encouraging. But these clearly warn us of danger. Furthermore, I insist that whatever may have been your sympathy with the Administration, or your opposition to it; however numerous the men of your acquaintance who have been free from such influences, you must have seen them at work in a dangerously large part of our population. Even if that part has, in your judgment, reached the right position, you must recognize the ominous character of their method of reaching it.
Now, what has this to do with us? What connection has it with our work? If science teaching has any educational value, the most definite and direct connection. I shall not do you the injustice of supposing that any tendency I have named did not at once bear to you its proper suggestion. If it has failed, the fault has been in the presentation of a very simple matter. For every perilous tendency I have mentioned has its life in direct violation of the essential principles of science study, and may be restrained by extending the knowledge and habitual use of those principles.
I do not wish to claim for science work an unwarranted value in this respect, nor to deny the influence of other subjects in bringing about a moral evolution. It is true that history warns us by examples, that it points us to the failure of free governments in whose steps to destruction many of us seem only too willing to follow. It is true that we can learn from Rome the results of imperialism; from France, of irreverence; from Spain, of tyranny. In other fields of learning we may find other lessons of present value. But to meet the dangers that just now assail us, the national weaknesses that I have enumerated, the scientific studies seem especially fitted.
"The great peculiarity of scientific training," says Huxley, "that in virtue of which it can not be replaced by any other discipline whatsoever, is the bringing of the mind directly into contact with fact, and practicing the intellect in the completest form of induction—that is to say, in drawing conclusions from particular facts made known by immediate observation of Nature." "The bringing of the mind into contact with fact." This means the recognition of the existence of incontrovertible truth. The dawning knowledge of such truth must bring with it the consciousness that much that we have always accepted as truth is open to question. Thus every belief, no matter what its nature, is in time subjected to examination. If it stand, it stands because it is able to bear this searching scrutiny and to answer fairly the questions of honest doubt. Honest doubt may be the result of honest reasoning; it must absolutely demand honest reasoning to satisfy it. This exercise of the rational faculty, then, depends upon and results from an awakened love of truth. How directly do these most obvious principles of scientific investigation bear upon the facts we have been considering! How flatly do they forbid us to be carried away into excesses! Let us apply them briefly, point by point.
If love of truth and appeal to reason mean anything at all, they mean, first of all, eternal opposition to the power of unthinking passion—of blind feeling. They mean that every sentiment should have a rational cause and a reasonable object. They do not forbid feeling, but they require thinking.
Secondly, they defy prejudice. They call for the open court, the fair trial, the impartial judge. They say "No" to worthless witnesses and to packed juries.
Thirdly, they demand a sufficient amount of evidence. True science is the enemy of wildcat theories and reckless generalizations. "The United States has always come out on top in every war!" cries one. "There's no danger that we'll ever be whipped." "I don't like foreigners," says another. "I had a Frenchman for a neighbor once, and he was dishonest. I'm in favor of shutting out foreigners." Such reasoning as this—and how astoundingly common it is!—must be cut down at the root by the habit of trained induction.
Fourthly, the love of truth and appeal to reason, which are in the very grain of the scientific mind and heart, laugh at credulity. They do not scoff at authority, or reject it. But they say: "We must know. If we learn from you, we must know that you know. Who are you? How do you know? If you know, you will not offer us absurd contradictions of reason and accepted truth."
Again, they make their abode with the man who can receive them at his own intellectual fireside. They require that his mind be his own, that his opinions be his own, that his acts be his own, and that he defend his property in them, have pride in them, and stand by them.
Again, they demand sufficient time for care, for securing the evidence and for weighing it, and for considering its effect. They demand the completed work, and they reject all results which do not come from time employed, but are hasty guesses.
And they are not tossed about like a wave of the sea. They do command to prove all things, but they also exhort to hold fast that which is good. First, to what is good of our own and in ourselves. It is well enough to throw away our guesses, quickly made and often wrong. But the fruit of honest investigation, the conclusions of careful reasoning on sufficient information, these are the science student's riches. He may add to them or replace some of them by better, but he will not throw them away at a suggestion, or trade them to the first speculator who offers something else. He will not have a supply of new beliefs for every day, or for every month, or for every year. Second, we should hold fast the proved good which we have received from others. And we should honor and revere those who have opened the way for us to the truth—those who have above other men possessed the power of reason and beneficently used it for the world. The spirit of science, which sets infinite value on knowledge, can not fail to teach reverence for those who have made it possible for us to know.
At every point, then, the scientist opposes the tendencies I have deplored. Against them all he must stand, by training and by instinct. Against them all he would teach others to stand, by giving to them his own training. Against them all we science teachers may arm our countrymen if we are faithful to our duty. But this end of our work is defeated if our students are allowed to indulge in careless statements of what they see and do; if they are permitted to use exaggerated description or inaccurate terms. Right here is the crucial test of the teacher's honesty of purpose. The careful examination of written descriptions and reports, the enforced correction of every inaccurate detail, the personal consultation—all require untiring labor, and time never allotted in the schedule. But such work carried out has its own reward. The student first respects the truth, then learns to love it. He conscientiously avoids the vague, the doubtful, the unsubstantiated. If in our schools we might insure to every boy and girl this attitude of mind, this desire for strict veracity, we should have started him well on the way to correct judgments and wise conduct; we should have implanted in his nature the first elements of good citizenship. As Tennyson says:
"Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.
Yet not for power (power of herself
Would come uncalled for) but to live by law,
Acting the law we live by without fear,
And because right is right, to follow right
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence."