Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/September 1905/Nature and Man

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IT is the pride of our ancient universities that they are largely, if not exclusively, frequented by young men of the class who are going to take an active part in the public affairs of the country—either as politicians and statesmen, as governors of remote colonies, or as leaders of the great professions of the church, the law and medicine. It would seem, then, that if these universities attached a greater, even a predominant, importance to the studies which lead to the knowledge and control of nature, the schools would follow their example, and that the governing class of the country would become acquainted with the urgent need for more knowledge of the kind, and for the immediate application in public affairs of that knowledge which exists.

It would seem that in Great Britain, at any rate, it would not be necessary, were the universities alive to the situation, to await the pressure of democracy, but that a better and more rapid mode of development would obtain; the influential and trusted leaders of the community would set the example in seeking and using for the good of the state the new knowledge of nature. The world has seen with admiration and astonishment the entire people of Japan follow the example of its governing class in the almost sudden adoption of the knowledge and control of nature as the purpose of national education and the guide of state administration. It is possible that in a less rapid and startling manner our old universities may, at no distant date, influence the intellectual life of the more fortunate of our fellow citizens, and consequently of the entire community. The weariness which is so largely expressed at the present day in regard to human effort—whether it be in the field of politics, of literature, or of other art, or in relation to the improvement of social organization and the individual life—is possibly due to the fact that we have exhausted the old sources of inspiration, and have not yet learnt to believe in the new. The 'return to nature,' which is sometimes vaguely put forward as a cure for the all-pervading 'taedium' of this age, is perhaps an imperfect expression of the truth that it is time for civilized man not to return to the 'state of nature' but to abandon his retrospective attitude and to take up whole-heartedly the kingdom of nature which it is his destiny to rule. New hope, new life will, when he does this, be infused into every line of human activity: art will acquire a new impulse, and politics become real and interesting. To a community which believes in the destiny of man as the controller of nature, and has consciously entered upon its fulfillment, there can be none of the weariness and even despair which comes from an exclusive worship of the past. There can only be encouragement in every victory gained, hope and the realization of hope. Even in the face of the overwhelming opposition and incredulity which now unhappily have the upper hand, the believer in the predestined triumph of man over nature can exert himself to place a contribution, however small, in the great edifice of nature-knowledge, happy in the conviction that his life has been worth living, has counted to the good in the imperishable result.

If I venture now to consider more specifically the influence exercised by the University of Oxford upon the welfare of the state and of the human community in general, in view of the conclusions which have been set forth in what has preceded, I beg to say that I do so with the greatest respect to the opinions of others who differ from me. When I say this I am not using an empty formula. I mean that I believe that there must be many here present who are fair-minded and disinterested, and have given special attention to the matter of which I wish to speak, and who are yet very far from agreeing with me. I ask them to consider what I have said, and what I have further to say, in the same spirit as that in which I approach them.

It seems to me—and when I speak of myself I would point out that I am presenting the opinions of a large number of educated men, and that it will be better for me to avoid an egotistical attitude—it seems to us (I prefer to say) that the University of Oxford by its present action in regard to the choice and direction of subjects of study is exercising an injurious influence upon the education of the country, and especially upon the education of those who will hereafter occupy positions of influence, and will largely determine both the action of the state and the education and opinions of those who will in turn succeed them. The question has been recently raised as to whether the acquirement of a certain elementary knowledge of the Greek language should be required of all those who desire to pursue their studies in this university, and accordingly whether the teaching of the elements of this language should form a prominent feature in the great schools of this country. It seems to us that this is only part of a much larger question; namely, whether it is desirable to continue to make the study of two dead languages—and of the story of the deeds of great men in the past—the main if not the exclusive matter to which the minds of the youth of the well-to-do class are directed by our schools and universities. We have come to the conclusion that this form of education is a mistaken and injurious one. We desire to make the chief subject of education both in school and in college a knowledge of nature as set forth in the sciences which are spoken of as physics, chemistry, geology and biology. We think that all education should consist in the first place of this kind of knowledge, on account of its commanding importance both to the individual and to the community. We think that every man of even a moderate amount of education should have acquired a sufficient knowledge of these subjects to enable him at any rate to appreciate their value, and to take an interest in their progress and application to human life. And we think further that the ablest youth of the country should be encouraged to proceed to the extreme limit of present knowledge in one or other branch of this knowledge of nature so as to become makers of new knowledge, and the possible discoverers of enduring improvements in man's control of nature. No one should be educated so as to be ignorant of the importance of these things; and it should not be possible for the greatest talent and mental power to be diverted to other fields of activity through the fact that the necessary education and opportunity in the pursuit of the knowledge of nature are withheld. The strongest inducements in the way of reward and consideration ought, we believe, to be placed before a young man in the direction of nature-knowledge rather than in the direction of other and far less important subjects of study.

In fact, we should wish to see the classical and historical scheme of education entirely abandoned, and its place taken by a scheme of education in the knowledge of nature.

At the same time let me hasten to say that few, if any of us—and certainly not he who now addresses you—would wish to remove the acquirement of the use of languages, the training in the knowledge and perception of beauty in literary art, and the feeding of the mind with the great stories of the past, from a high and necessary position in every grade of education.

It is a sad and apparently inevitable accompaniment of all discussion of this matter that those who advocate a great and leading position for the knowledge of nature in education are accused of desiring to abolish all study of literature, history and philosophy. This is, in reality, so far from being the case that we should most of us wish to see a serviceable knowledge of foreign languages, and a real acquaintance with the beauties of English and other literature, substituted for the present unsuccessful efforts to teach effectively either the language or literature of the Greeks and Romans.

It should not be for one moment supposed that those who attach the vast importance which we do to the knowledge of nature imagine that man's spirit can be satisfied by exclusive occupation with that knowledge. We know, as well as any, that man does not live by bread alone. Though the study of nature is fitted to develop great mental qualities—perseverance, honesty, judgment and initiative—we do not suppose that it completes man's mental equipment. Though the knowledge of nature calls upon, excites and gratifies the imagination to a degree and in a way which is peculiar to itself, we do not suppose that it furnishes the opportunity for all forms of mental activity. The great joys of art, the delights and entertainment to be derived from the romance and history of human character, are not parts of it. They must never be neglected. But are we not justified in asserting that, for some two hundred years or more, these 'entertainments' have been pursued in the name, of the highest education and study to the exclusion of the far weightier and more necessary knowledge of nature? 'This should ye have done, and yet not left the other undone,' may justly be said to those who have conducted the education of our higher schools and universities along the pleasant lines of literature and history, to the neglect of the urgently-needed 'improvement of natural knowledge.' Nero was probably a musician of taste and training, and it was artistic and high-class music which he played while Rome was burning: so too the studies of the past carried on at Oxford have been charming and full of beauty, whilst England has lain, and lies, in mortal peril for lack of knowledge of nature.

It seems to be beyond dispute that the study, firstly of Latin, and much more recently of Greek, was followed in this university and in grammar schools, not as educational exercises in the use of language, but as keys to unlock the store-rooms—the books—in which the knowledge of the ancients was contained. So long as these keys were needed, it was reasonable enough that every well-educated man should spend such time as was necessary in providing himself with the key. But now that the store-rooms are empty—now that their contents have been appropriated and scattered far and wide—in all languages of civilization, it seems to be merely an unreasoning continuation of superannuated custom to go on with the provision of these keys. Such, however, is the force of habit that it continues: new and ingenious reasons for the practise are put forward, whilst its original object is entirely forgotten.

In the first place, it has come to be regarded as a mark of good breeding, and thus an end in itself, for a man to have some first-hand acquaintance with Latin and Greek authors, even when he knows no other literature. It is a fashion, like the wearing of a court dress. This can not be held to justify the employment of most of the time and energy of youth in its acquirement.

A second reason which is now put forward for the practise is that the effort and labor expended on the provision of these keys—even though it is admitted that they are useless—is a wonderful and incomparably fine exercise of the mind, fitting it for all sorts of work. A theory of education has been enunciated which fits in with this defence of the continued attempt to compel young men to acquire a knowledge, however imperfect, of the Latin and Greek languages. It is held that what is called 'training the mind' is the chief, if not the only proper, aim of education; and it is declared that the continuation of the study of those once useful, but now useless, keys—Latin and Greek—is an all-sufficient training. If this theory were in accordance with the facts, the conclusion in favor of giving a very high place to the study so recommended would be inevitable. But the facts do not support this theory. Clever youths are taken and pressed into the study of Greek and Latin, and we are asked to conclude that their cleverness is due to these studies. On the other hand, we maintain that though the study of grammar may be, when properly carried out, a valuable exercise, yet that it is easily converted into a worthless one, and can never in any case take the place of various other forms of mental training, such as the observation of natural objects, the following out of experimental demonstration of the qualities and relations of natural bodies, and the devising and execution of experiment as the test of hypothesis. Apart from 'training' there is the need for providing the mind with information as well as method. The knowledge of nature is eagerly assimilated by young people, and no training in mental gymnastics can be a substitute for it or an excuse for depriving the young of what is of inestimable value and instinctively desired.

The prominence which is assigned to a familiarity with the details of history, more especially of what may be called biographical history, in the educational system favored by Oxford, seems to depend on the same causes as those which have led to the maintenance of the study of Greek and Latin. To read history is a pleasant occupation which has become a habit and tradition. At one time men believed that history repeats itself, and it was thought to be a proper and useful training for one who would take part in public affairs to store his mind with precedents and picturesque narratives of prominent statesmen and rulers in far-off days and distant lands. As a matter of fact it can not be shown that any statesman, or even the humblest politician, has ever been guided to useful action by such knowledge. History does not repeat itself, and the man who thinks that it does will be led by his fragmentary knowledge of stories of the past into serious blunders. To the fashionable journalist such biographical history furnishes the seasoning for his essays on political questions of the day. But this does not seem to be a sufficient reason for assigning so prominent a place in university studies to this kind of history as is at present the case. The reason, perhaps, of the favor which it receives, is that it is one of the few subjects which a man of purely classical education can pursue without commencing his education in elementary matters afresh.

It would be a serious mistake to suppose that those who would give a complete supremacy to the study of nature, in our educational system, do not value and enjoy biographical history for what it is worth as an entertainment; or further, that they do not set great value upon the scientific study of the history of the struggles of the races and nations of mankind, as a portion of the knowledge of the evolution of man, capable of giving conclusions of great value when it has been further and more thoroughly treated as a department of anthropology. What seems to us undesirable is, that mere stories and bald records of certain peoples should be put forward as matter with which the minds of children and young men are to be occupied, to the exclusion of the all-important matters comprised in the knowledge of nature.

There are, it is well known, not a few who regard the present institution of Latin and Greek and so-called history, in the preeminent place which they occupy in Oxford and the great schools of the country, as something of so ancient and fundamental a character that to question the wisdom of that institution seems an odious proceeding, partaking of the nature of blasphemy. This state of mind takes its origin in a common error, due to the fact that a straightforward account of the studies pursued in the university during the last five hundred years has never been written. Our present curriculum is a mere mushroom growth of the last century, and has no claim whatever to veneration. Greek was studied by but a dozen or two specialists in Oxford two hundred and fifty years ago. In those days, in proportion to what had been ascertained in that subject and could be taught, there was a great and general interest in the university in the knowledge of nature, such as we should gladly see revived at the present day. As a matter of fact, it is only within the last hundred years that the dogma of compulsory Greek, and the value of what is now called a classical education, has been promulgated. These things are not historically of ancient date; they are not essentials of Oxford. We are therefore well within our right in questioning the wisdom of their continuance in so favored a position, and we are warranted in expressing the hope that those who can change the policy of the university and colleges in this matter will, at no distant day, do so.

It is sometimes urged that Oxford should contentedly resign herself to the overwhelming predominance given to the study of ancient elegance and historic wisdom within her walls. It is said that she may well be reserved for these delightful pursuits, whilst newer institutions should do the hard work of aiding man in his conquest of nature. At first sight such a proposal has a tempting character: we are charmed with the suggestion that our beautiful Oxford should be enclosed by a ring fence and cut off for ever from the contamination of the world. But a few moments' reflection must convince most of us that such a treatment of Oxford is an insult to her and an impossibility. Oxford is not dead. Only a few decades have passed — a mere fraction of her lifetime — since she was free from the oppression of grammar-school studies, and sent forth Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren to establish the new philosophy of the invisible college in London. She seems, to some of us, to have been used not quite wisely, perhaps not quite fairly, in the brief period which has elapsed since that time. Why should she not shake herself free again, and give, hereafter, most, if not the whole, of her wealth and strength to the urgent work which is actually pursued in every other university of the world as a chief aim and duty?

The fact that Oxford attracts the youth of the country to her, and so determines the education offered in the great schools, is a sufficient answer to those who wish to perpetuate the present employment of her resources in the subvention and encouragement of comparatively unimportant, though fascinating (even too fascinating), studies, to the neglect of the pressing necessary knowledge of nature. Those who enjoy great influence in the affairs of the university tell us with pride that Oxford not only determines what our best schools shall teach, but has, as a main preoccupation, the education of statesmen, pro-consuls, leaders of the learned professions, and members of parliament! Undoubtedly this claim is well-founded, and its truth is the reason why we can not be content with the maintenance by the university of the compulsory study of Greek and Latin, and the neglect to make the study of nature an integral and predominant part of every man's education.

To return to my original contention — the knowledge and control of nature is man's destiny and his greatest need. To enable future leaders of the community to comprehend this, to perceive what the knowledge and control of nature are, and what are the steps by which they are gained and increased, is the duty of a great university. To neglect this is to retard the approach of well-being and happiness, and to injure humanity.

I beg, finally, for toleration from those who do not share my opinions. I am well aware that they are open to the objection that they partake more of the nature of dreams of the future than of practical proposals. That, perhaps, may be accepted as my excuse for indulging in them on such an occasion as the present. There are, and always have been, dreamers in Oxford, and beautiful dreams they have dreamed — some of the past, and some of the future. The most fascinating dreams are not, unfortunately, always realized; but it is sometimes worth while to tell one's dream, for that may bring it a step nearer to 'coming true.'

  1. Concluding part of the Romanes Lecture, delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, on June 14, 1905.