Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/May 1876/Editor's Table
WE print the report of Commissioner Beckwith on the plan that has been adopted for the distribution of awards to exhibitors at the Philadelphia Exposition. In this matter the Centennial Commissioners have taken a new and very important step in advance of previous practice. The report is significant, as indicating a departure from the precedents of all former international exhibitions in a fundamental and perhaps the most important feature of their management. The system of gold medals and special prizes heretofore adopted has been abandoned, and articles of exhibition are to go upon their merits, as determined by competent judges from this country and abroad, and who will be responsible to the public for the opinions they give by signing their names to the published reports. This is a victory of honest good sense over former bad practices, which is most encouraging, and deserving of the heartiest commendation.
International expositions are new things in the world's experience. That is, they are new, as enormous extensions of local fairs and exhibitions which have been long in vogue. The primary idea was to bring all kinds of products together for public inspection and purchase. The show-element gradually became predominant, and the fair grew into an exhibition. The collection of rival commodities naturally led to competition, and this to committees of judgment or juries, which gave premiums for articles of the greatest excellence. Medals of gold, silver, and bronze, were assigned as testimonials of excellence in the articles approved. When the exhibitions grew into their great international proportions, this old method of awards was continued. But it was a very imperfect method, and its evils came out conspicuously in the great shows of London, Paris, and Vienna. The plan of granting graded medals is necessarily crude and inadequate; for, even if the awards are made upon the best judgment of the juries, they tell nothing, and are besides arbitrary and misleading. The differences among competing articles, in most cases, will not be as marked as the gradation of medals implies; so that their award will necessarily work injustice. There may be a score of products of the same kind, each, perhaps, with special merits, and none conspicuously preeminent; so that a gold medal awarded to one will greatly exaggerate its claims, and grossly wrong its rivals.
But this is not all, nor the worst. Medals become valuable and are eagerly sought because of the very injustice they work. To crown a single article, casts virtual reproach upon all its competitors; and hence the gold medal which exalts one thing and disparages all in rivalry with it is striven for with desperate eagerness by exhibitors on account of the commercial advantages that follow. The door is thus opened to every form of illegitimate influence that can be brought to bear upon the judges. The prizes to be won, being of enormous value, are fought for with such a reckless disregard of the means employed that men of integrity often quit the juries in disgust rather than be implicated in their corrupt proceedings. How great the strain must be, in many cases, is apparent when we reflect that, if the old system were in operation at the Philadelphia Exposition, there would probably be many exhibitors who could afford to pay, each a million dollars, to secure the gold medal that would place their articles in advance of all competitors. Nor is there anything in recent American experiences that would justify us in expecting an incorruptible administration of the duties of jurymen. Even where the distribution of medals is supplemented and corrected by written reports the results must be unsatisfactory, for it is of small moment to the public that the award has been qualified or contradicted in a printed document. The verdict of the medal itself will be held as the important and decisive thing. Mr. Beckwith, who has not only had experience of the old practice, but has carefully studied its general workings, points out in his report the inadequacy of the European jury system and the defectiveness of its results. Profiting by these failures, the Philadelphia plan has been organized to avoid them, and give us more valuable and trustworthy work.
The first purpose of such a collection of the products of art, science, and industry, as will be displayed in Philadelphia, undoubtedly is, that its objects may be seen and inspected by the public; yet the mere gratification of curiosity by staring at new and strange things is certainly its lowest advantage. Such exhibitions are only put to their best and proper use as means of public education, in which observers become inquirers, and get a knowledge of the true qualities and characters of the things exhibited. The value of the display will be in proportion to its intelligent appreciation, and the management of the affair must be judged by the efficiency and completeness of the means adopted to instruct the public in regard to it. To this end, the first step was to get rid of the misguiding and vicious system of medals, and then to secure capable men to furnish discriminating and responsible reports. It is well for the national honor and for wholesome public influence that the most efficient measures have been taken to put things for once upon their naked and sterling merits. The selection of a hundred able experts from abroad, with a hundred more to be furnished by this country as judges, who are to be paid their personal expenses, and who are committed by their reputations to give honest and competent verdicts on the intrinsic and comparative merits of objects exhibited—the reports to be published for the use of visitors at the earliest practicable moment—is a measure on the part of the commissioners at once so sensible and so just that it raises some perplexity as to how it has been brought about. The old method of proceeding is so rooted in universal usage, and so congenial with the fierce competitive spirit of American business, that we cannot for a moment suppose it has failed to make its best fight against this innovation. That it should have been beaten, and a greatly superior method adopted by the commissioners, is alike unexpected and a cause of devout gratitude.
But the policy initiated at Philadelphia has a still further significance. It is not merely a transient expedient in the tactics of a great show, but it declares a principle of wide and permanent application in society. Its adoption strikes a blow at the all-prevailing habit of offering prizes as artificial stimulants to effort, instead of making the intrinsic excellence of work and its intelligent appreciation the true impulse of exertion and enterprise. Competitions are inflamed in all directions by sordid and selfish temptations, but it is in education that the system of extrinsic rewards and factitious provocations is carried to the greatest extent, and leads to the most mischievous results. The practice of giving prizes in schools is vicious as substituting spurious and unworthy motives to exertion, where the very object is to form the character by bringing generous and ennobling incitements into habitual and controlling exercise. To beat an antagonist, and win a medal or a purse, is a vulgar and sordid inducement to study, and convicts the school that resorts to it of inefficiency in its legitimate and most essential work. It is, moreover, an injurious agency in education, as it is constantly used to stimulate students in false directions, and to the excessive cultivation of unimportant subjects. Our education is in a state of chaos in regard to the relative values of different kinds of knowledge. The waste of time and effort over comparatively worthless studies is something quite appalling, and it is everywhere aggravated by plying scholars with premiums for special attainments. Rich blockheads, with narrow notions and tenacious crotchets, smitten with the vanity of becoming public benefactors, go into the schools and found prizes and medals which set the students to racing in any direction which the whim or caprice of the donor may indicate. This evil is confessed, and has become so glaring that some institutions have wisely put a stop to such interference. But, as it is driven from the schools, it is taken up by outsiders, as we have seen in the intercollegiate contests that have lately come into vogue. Against this whole system the Philadelphia policy, as presented in Mr. Beckwith's report, is a tacit but powerful protest. To get things upon their real merits is a victory anywhere—to do this upon a great, unprecedented national occasion is a triumph—but there is no reason for adopting the principle in an exhibition of the products of manufacture that will not apply with increasing force to the management of educational establishments.
It is not easy to deal with the annual presidential addresses of Charles P. Daly before the Geographical Society. They are so fresh, readable, and full of novel and instructive matter, that there is a temptation to reprint them bodily. We have formerly spoiled them by summarizing; this year we publish in full the introductory portion, in which he glances at the achievements of geographical explorers during the third quarter of the nineteenth century ending in 1875, and shows what the state of things was at the beginning of that age, and what it is now. The main portion of the address, however, is devoted to an account of the researches, discoveries, and geographical work, of the past year. We are tempted to make some further use of Judge Daly's labors, which may incite our readers to procure the full address and read it themselves. Beginning with what has been done in our own country, President Daly sums up the results of the various exploring expeditions and surveys undertaken or aided by the Government, in the great Western, Northwestern, and Southwestern tracts of the continent. The results are varied and interesting. In the prehistoric section, on the ancient inhabitants of America, the evidence has been much extended in regard to the life of the old race of mound-builders. In reference to the antiquity of man on this continent, it is remarked:
The work of arctic exploration continues to be vigorously pushed, and with promising results. A point of interest is, that the English and German geographers have abandoned the routes they formerly advocated, and have, with great unanimity, united in recommending that the English expedition which left last June, under the command of Captain Nares, should go through Smith's Sound, following up the track of Kane, Hayes, and Hall—the route that has been uniformly urged by the American Geographical Society as the best. At a crowded meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, at which the officers of the expedition and most of the distinguished arctic explorers were present, the American theory of polar approach was heartily commended:
To show that, in this boasted scientific age, geographical notions are still entertained as crude as those held five hundred years ago, Judge Daly gives an account of some of the theories that are still seriously advocated. One of these is described as follows:
Meteorological and earthquake disturbances of the past year are noted; and, with an account of the voyage of the Challenger and the important results attained by it, Judge Daly passes to the progress of geographical work in Europe, and gives an instructive account of the drainage of the Zuyder Zee now undertaken by the people of Holland, who have become masters of hydraulics by necessity, as their whole country lies twelve feet below the level of the sea. They drained the Haarlem Lake, twelve miles long, seven miles wide, and fourteen feet deep, and covered it with thriving farms and villages, and were so pleased with the speculation that they have now undertaken to drain off the Zuyder Zee, which embraces an area of 759 square miles, and by which they propose to add six per cent, of fertile land to the total area of the country. It is a dull waste of half-navigable waters with low, marshy borders. They are first to construct an immense dike 164 feet wide at the bottom of the sea, and rising to a height of twenty-six feet above it, making a total length of wall, near the narrow opening of the sea, twenty-five statute miles. The inclosed area will be divided into squares, and pumped out at an expense of $48,000,000, or about $100 an acre. Our Yankees, who are being drowned by the score in the overflow of their ponds, might learn something about dams from these Dutchmen.
The president next attacks Asia, and gives us a great deal of valuable information of the results of geographical inquiry in various portions of its immense area, of which the following has a very human interest:
Africa is, however, now the great point of assault by geographical explorers, and there come the most wonderful revelations regarding the fertility and beauty of various of its extensive regions, with curious descriptions of its government and peoples. Dr. Nachtigal, describing Wadai, in Northeast Africa—
Judge Daly quietly compares our own "best Government on the face of the earth" with one of these African governments, and finds the comparison "not complimentary to our intelligence." Here is the passage:
We had occasion some time ago to refer to the unscrupulous critical spirit which animates a London weekly called the Academy, a periodical established and conducted on the principle of bullying itself into notice by copying and exaggerating the most arbitrary features of British journalism. A special effort has been made to push the circulation of the Academy in this country, which makes it proper to point out the policy it has adopted toward American as well as English authors. A little American book on botany was republished in London, and attacked by the Academy in the most vicious way. The criticism was a string of the grossest misrepresentations, by which the whole character of the book was falsified and libeled. Its author happened to be in London at the time, and wrote a letter to the editor of the Academy, exposing the character of its criticism. The editor refused to print it, and the author was compelled to seek another channel to get the true state of the case before the public. The letter declined by the Academy was printed by the Examiner.
A similar thing has just been done again. Max Müller was allowed to use the Academy columns to abuse and misrepresent Prof. Whitney, of Yale College, in matters of philology. The American linguist replied to these assaults in a letter to the Academy, which again its editor refused to print, and it found publicity, as before, through the hospitable pages of the Examiner. And this difference of fairness between the two journals goes along with other differences which will be of interest to American readers; for, while the Academy is characterized by the amount of its pedantic rubbish and scholarly trumpery, suited to the learned drones of Oxford and Cambridge, the Examiner addresses itself more to the living questions of the day, and discusses subjects of universal interest, with an ability and independence that may commend it to American readers desiring an English weekly.