Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/February 1910/The Knowledge of Good and Evil

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THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL
By Professor T. D. A. COCKERELL

UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO

IN an ancient story, it is told how primitive man ate of the tree of knowledge, and thus lost his original simplicity. "And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil." In later years, we have reason to suspect, our ancestors returned at frequent intervals to the fateful tree, and took therefrom cuttings to plant in their own gardens. The universities, if I mistake not, had their origin in this manner; and it is even possible that the faculties within them have a distant relationship to the serpent of Eden. The modern Adam and Eve are perhaps not so easily beguiled; but, on the other hand, the fruit has been improved by selection and cultivation, and it is no longer necessary to go to the trouble of picking it off the tree; it is served up in dainty dishes, cooked, flavored and predigested. Even those who will not taste acknowledge that it pleasantly stimulates the olfactory nerve.

For all this, the curse has not been lifted. Our animal ancestors were, under ordinary circumstances and for vast periods of time, strictly orthodox. They traveled the straight and narrow path, turning neither to the right nor to the left. Life to them meant the performance of certain acts as their fathers performed them, under conditions such as their fathers enjoyed. Mediocrity—the middle line—was the true standard of excellence. They were not conscious of sin, for they sinned not.

Man, with his dawning self consciousness, found himself in possession of a new power. From this moment he must choose and judge; and thereby usurping the functions of God, be to a considerable extent his own creator. His whole history is a story of how well or ill he played this part, his whole future depends upon his ability to face this responsibility. The ancient curse of failure serves but to spur him on; it is the whip which awakens him from the constantly recurring tendency to sink back into mere animality.

This is the truth at the bottom of the doctrine that all men are evil, and must become conscious of the fact before attaining salvation. Progress depends upon a "divine discontent," and this, like charity, may best begin at home. It has been well said that he who has reached the age of twenty-five without at any time holding himself to be a fool, is indeed one, with small chance of cure. It is a common error to suppose that all great men, standing upon a pedestal above the common herd, are serenely conscious of their perfection; whereas the fact is that these, of all others, are at war, day and night, with their own shortcomings. Just so far as their judgment of good and evil is developed, to that extent must they suffer from a sense of failure. This is true not merely of men, but also of communities; it has been pointed out that the most civilized societies are those which recognize most crime. Acts which our ancestors would have regarded with cheerful tolerance, stir us to spasms of indignation, accompanied by a growing sense of responsibility.

Are we, then, becoming more and more uncomfortable, and is education merely fanning the flame of our discontent? There are, of course, various kinds of so-called education, comparable to the various diseases in their powers of infection. For the purpose of discussion we may assume the view, which I have known to be entertained by children, that genuine superiority depends upon the number of diseases one has had. Develop this idea a little, and suppose universities established for the purpose of giving young people smallpox, scarlet fever, measles and the like. It would be held, of course, that one who had had smallpox was much more educated than one who had merely acquired measles; the latter undoubtedly would be offered in the freshman year. Ostensibly, every one would be anxious to acquire these diseases; but still, it would be privately recognized that they were a lot of trouble, and even sometimes positively dangerous. Hence there would be a strong temptation, when the infection did not take, to sham sickness, and no doubt there would arise agencies selling substances which, placed upon the skin, would produce rashes simulating those of scarlet fever or measles.

Within the university itself, these influences would have their silent potency. Some would come forward with attenuated virus, which though producing scarcely any—or perhaps no—effect, would be declared to be in reality just as good educationally. If one did not believe it, there was proof in the fact that the recipient was subsequently quite immune to the genuine thing. Others would urge, with much show of reason, that the more violent diseases, heretofore offered to seniors, should really only be taken by a small minority of exceptionally talented persons; and anyhow it was not the proper thing to send men out to serve as centers of infection in communities where these particular affections, though undoubtedly of great merit in the abstract, were not at all desired.

All this is absurd, of course; but after all, is there not a similarity between such an educational institution and those which at present grace the land? Is there no tendency to evade the things which "take," no temptation to simulate an attack while yet in perfect health? I am not going to be so indiscreet as to specify any of the courses which seem to me relatively or absolutely innocuous; but I am going to assume that our present opinion is, that the knowledge of good and evil is what the university really seeks to impart, and that it accepts, frankly and fearlessly, responsibility for creating shadows as well as light. In a certain sense, it may be said to produce evil as well as good; what it really does is to create judgments, whereby these ideas enter the field of human consciousness, in response to the stimulation of objective realities.

The university standard of success, as we must now regard it, is the ability to recognize values. In order to do this, it is necessary to heighten the consciousness of objective reality, and to develop especially a sense of that stability in things which we call truth. It is essential to cultivate imagination, controlled by reason, so that the value of the flower may be seen in the seed, the value of the soul in the form of clay.

Scholarship, culture, judgment, can not be bought at the secondhand store, "a little soiled, but as good as new." They must be created by the fiat of that divinity which we have assumed, re-made from the fruit of the tree in a process of transcendental assimilation.

It is for this reason that I think every university—some day perhaps every high school—should be a center of productive scholarship; not merely of some such, but should glow with the ardor of scientific, literary and artistic creation. Only so may the judgment of fitness be properly established; only thus may the divine gifts be widely received. True it is that comparatively few have strong creative power, such as attracts the attention of the world—but my proposition is that all have some, and that whatever there is, it is the true function of education to develop and sustain it.

This will be more apparent when the scope of recognized scholarship has grown broader. If one may be "a scholar and a gentleman," why not "a scholar and a merchant," or "a scholar and a farmer"? We are beginning to find out, indeed, that these latter professions call for a good deal more scholarship than was necessary for the dilettante gentleman of the old school. When the avenues for creative effort have grown wider and more numerous, and we have learned better to recognize this form of activity under its various aspects, it will no longer be said that all forms of original scholarship are the monopoly of doctors of philosophy.

To those who have tasted of the fruit of the tree, there has never been any doubt of the value of the experience. Whatever the disadvantage, the advantages are enormously greater. The curious point is, that this does not admit of argument, because it is exactly the power of judgment which decides the relative values. So well assured are we of the precious character of our value sense that we would not exchange it for the whole world; which, without it, would be robbed of all esteem.

It must be confessed that a purely materialistic philosophy—if such a thing were possible—would know nothing of values. It would regard our judgments as it regards all other phenomena, and would point to their endless diversity as proof that they have no special sanction. What it would offer in defense of its own judgment upon this matter, is perhaps not evident.

For ourselves, the diversity of opinion which we find among men is in part the necessary and desirable result of the different angles from which things are viewed, and otherwise the product of that imperfection which is the price we pay for progress. Most of us, perhaps, do not trouble ourselves overmuch about the ultimate sanction, and yet I think that deep down in our hearts we all have some of the feeling embodied in the saying that "One man, with God, is a majority." Without such a philosophy, I am afraid we could not take ourselves quite seriously.