Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 11.djvu/116

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exhaustion, brought on by steady, prolonged, and severe mental application, and giving rise to the morbid condition of melancholia. His vigorous constitution, however, rallied and carried him through, although he had several relapses afterward. His education had been conducted as if his mind was a chamber to be packed with knowledge, rather than a force or activity dependent upon an organ of exquisite delicacy, which is liable to be strained, overworked, impaired, and broken down.

The tragical result in the case of Schwerdtfeger was due to two causes, from the operation of which Mill was comparatively exempt: he had slender health, and he was exposed to the artificial, high-pressure competitive system which is now so much in vogue in the sphere of higher education. He was a poor boy, of a highly-sensitive nature, intellectually precocious, and with an unhappy home, from the trouble of which he had only been able to escape through absorption in books and study. At fourteen or fifteen he was employed in an office to translate German works, and displayed such remarkable faculties that a wealthy gentleman thought he would give him a chance by sending him to college. He went to Cornell, at the age of sixteen, and, though not prepared to enter the university, took up his residence with one of the professors, and was quickly qualified for admission. No sooner had he got in than he began at once to be plied with the dangerous stimulation of the competitive prize system. A pecuniary reward was offered for the best essay on the "English verb." Our slender lad went in for it and won the prize and the honor, while yet a freshman, with abundant plaudits for his remarkable production. The distinction thus early achieved had of course to be sustained, and an extrinsic and artificial pressure was thus brought to bear upon the young man, who was thereafter expected to be an honor to the institution. He threw himself with all the premature ambition of a precocious nature into lingual studies—a class of studies that stands highest in the rank of collegiate scholarship, and that, therefore, brings most applause. It must be remembered, also, that the ascendency of these studies has long been defended on the ground that they afford the most available standards of acquisition, or the sharpest means of marking the student's progress; in other words, are best fitted of all subjects for racing and winning honors. Language after language was rapidly acquired. Schwerdtfeger bought a Greek grammar and stuck to it for ten hours a day, as we are informed, getting on with such proficiency that a distinguished Greek professor, from another institution, happening to be there, was set to examining him. After three or four hours of it, the professor declared that he was well prepared to enter the classical course of any college in the country, and was confounded when told that Schwerdtfeger had only begun Greek three weeks before. In languages he was ahead of any student who had ever been in the university. He gave lessons as tutor in Latin, Spanish, German, Greek, French, and Portuguese. Under this intense strain his health, originally poor, grew worse, and he ought then to have at once left the place. There is a moral discipline in such institutions which, if violated, entails expulsion; and it is a serious question whether there ought not to be a sanitary discipline, equally stringent, for the exclusion of students who damage themselves by over-study. But when the boy's health quite gave way under the stimulation of college influence, instead of being sent away, he was struck by a baneful agency from without. The Intercollegiate Literary Association offered prizes before the whole country for the best essay in Latin. The sick boy of Cornell entered into the competition, beat all his rivals, and won the