THE article contributed by President Eliot to the December Forum, under the title Wherein Popular Education has Failed, is one of the weightiest utterances on that subject that have fallen under our notice in recent years. It is weighty in its moderation, in the clearness and force of the indictment it formulates, and in the precision with which it indicates the remedial measures to be taken. Need we add that it is weighty also through the recognized eminence of its author in the field of education? It would be hard to mention any voice in this country that speaks with more authority upon any educational question than that of President Eliot.
The opening statement of the article is terse and pointed: "It can not be denied that there is serious and general disappointment at the results of popular education up to this date." During two whole generations State-supported schools have been in full operation. These have been devised and maintained on such a scale as to bring the whole, or nearly the whole, population under their influence; and yet, with elementary education almost universal, we do not seem to have a wiser, a more virtuous, or a happier people. President Eliot admits that some important improvements have taken place during the last two generations: penal codes have been reformed; prisons are better ordered; hospitals, asylums, and reformatories have been provided on a much larger scale than formerly; the general condition of the working classes has improved; the average duration of human life has been increased; and education, he is disposed to believe, has had some share in bringing about these ameliorations. In saying this the writer of the article goes perhaps as far as can be done with safety. Prison reform and the abolition of the slave trade were burning questions before any great movement for popular education had set in, and the same might be said of other humanitarian and socially useful movements. At the same time there is no doubt, as President Eliot suggests, that, where the population in general can read, there is formed a public opinion which renders the retention of abuses more difficult.
Still, notwithstanding all that education and other agencies of an enlightening character have done, the condition of things as regards popular intelligence is far from satisfactory. To quote from the article before us: "In spite of every effort to enlighten the whole body of the people, all sorts of quacks and impostors thrive, and one popular delusion succeeds another, the best-educated classes contributing their full proportion of the deluded. Thus, the astrologer in the middle ages was a rare personage and usually a dependent of princes; but now he advertises in the public papers and flourishes as never before. Men and women of all classes, no matter what their education, seek advice on grave matters from clairvoyants, seers, Christian scientists, mind-cure practitioners, bone-setters, Indian doctors, and fortune-tellers. The ship of state barely escapes from one cyclone of popular folly, like the fiat-money delusion or the granger legislation of the seventies, when another blast of ill-informed opinion comes down on it, like the actual legislation which compels the buying and storing of silver by Government, or the projected legislation which would compel Government to buy cotton, wheat, or corn, and issue paper money against the stock."