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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/May 1878/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 13‎ | May 1878


NEW-YORKERS are somewhat exercised over the question what to do with their college, a problem which it ought to be easier to solve, by remembering how they came by it. What on earth New York City wanted with a college, when there were two good ones already in the town, not half full of students, might be a perplexing inquiry, did we not know that corporations, as well as individuals, often find themselves possessed of things which they don't want and never intended to have. The people did not say, "Go to, let us have a college, cost what it will, and teach Columbia and the University how to manage a higher institution of learning." The city has been drawn into running an opposition line to these establishments in a very different way, and the case is instructive as showing that education can be "managed" as well as other public interests.

What the people of New York did propose, upward of thirty years ago, was to organize a sort of polytechnic or practical high-school, connected with the school-system of the city, to give a little extra preparation to boys, who expected to devote themselves to some form of mechanical industry, and not to the learned professions. If we are not mistaken, such was the explicit object of the institution, and it was so stated upon the ballots by which the citizens voted to establish such a school. This was done by a very large popular majority, and it was set agoing under the name of the "Free Academy." But the movement was premature for New York, or its direction fell into incompetent hands, as nothing efficient was done to stamp it with the character it was designed to have, or to carry out intelligently its distinctive purpose. The plan of education wanted had to be theoretically shaped, and should have been then cautiously carried into practice, by the selection of a faculty in thorough sympathy with the idea, and as well qualified for the work as could anywhere be found. But the parties chosen failed in these respects. That they were unfit to be intrusted with the responsibility, was shown by their work, and by the fact that they were dissatisfied with the status of the concern, and wanted it turned into a "regular college." They complained that their graduates did not stand well at a distance from home, as a "Free Academy" was regarded as not amounting to much. They accordingly set to work to change it, and, by quiet, persistent effort, they at length lobbied a bill through the Legislature at Albany, abolishing the "Free Academy," and creating in its place "The College of the City of New York." How completely the original purpose of the institution was abandoned in this transformation, and the old idea of a classical college substituted, was well shown by the official and authoritative address of Judge Larremore, President of the Board of Education that voted the supplies, and also President of the Board of Trustees of the new college. He proclaimed that the "Free Academy" was dead, that he knew nothing of it, and curtly brushed aside as no longer of interest the objects for which it was founded, and the policy by which they were to be secured. He went back and expatiated on the mediæval origin and classical ideal of colleges and universities, defended the scholastic conception of culture in contrast with modern innovations, eulogized Latin and Greek, and went in for old-fogyism generally. How entirely the spirit of the original undertaking was ignored and disavowed was well illustrated by the fact that when somebody quoted, in behalf of modern scientific culture, an authority whose work upon education has been translated into a dozen languages, and has exerted an immense influence in modifying plans of study, Judge Larremore contemptuously dismissed the matter, by saying that the authority was of no weight, as the author of the book had never been through college, and was nothing but a railroad engineer. Even a railroad engineer might have counted for something, on the theory by which the "Free Academy" was established; but in the policy of the new classical institution this sort of men seemed to get but little consideration.

And thus it came about that New York finds itself the proprietor of a "regular college." The people proposed to have a high-school, free for poor boys who had attended its common schools, to get some adequate preparation for industrial avocations, and which it was supposed could be carried on for $20,000 a year; and they now find themselves cheated out of their intentions, and saddled with an ordinary college, costing $150,000 a year, more or less. Of course, the repudiation of the original school, and of the ideas which led to its establishment, was not submitted to a popular vote, and it is equally certain that, if the projected change had been thus submitted, it would have been overwhelmingly rejected. And yet, by all the reasons at present urged for the continuance of the college, the people would have been in duty bound to establish it. Indeed, the controversy which has been going on in the newspapers of late, as to whether the city of New York shall abolish its college, is chiefly significant as affording a sort of register of public sentiment on the policy of State education. The college has this use, that it forces the extreme issue in regard to the educational functions of government, and it is noteworthy that the contest has elicited strong expressions in favor of committing the whole business of education to the State. Having affirmed the voluntary principle in religion, and denied the right of the State to meddle in this most important concern—having affirmed that the individual is a better judge in this matter than the State can be—when it comes to education, we deny the voluntary principle, deny that individuals here know what is best for themselves, and that the State—that is, the politicians who happen at any time to be in office—is better than the people to be intrusted with the absolute control of the subject. The history of the New York College is merely a sample of the manœuvring by which jobs will be carried, with no reference to the popular will, just in proportion as education is given over to political management.



An interesting controversy has sprung up in Germany upon this subject, the most important utterances of which we have had translated and published for the benefit of American readers.[1] A part of the discussion has been made use of in England and in this country in a way that makes some comment desirable.

Prof. Haeckel, of Jena, gave an address last September at Munich, before the "German Association of Naturalists and Physicians," in which he took the ground that the doctrine of evolution should be made a part of the system of general education in that country.

Prof. Virchow replied to Haeckel in a speech before the same body, on the "Liberty of Science in the Modern State," and argued eloquently against the educational project. He said that the freedom of science now enjoyed in Germany is but of recent growth, and may be imperiled if men of science do not exercise moderation. He referred to the fact that the German socialists are Darwinians, and cautioned the savants against so lending themselves to the purposes of this dreaded party as to make it necessary for the state to interfere. But Prof. Virchow went further, and maintained that the measure proposed would be unjustifiable, because the theory of evolution is not yet sufficiently proved. He did not reason against it, and is understood to be himself an adherent of the doctrine. But, he said, it is not yet established. As an anthropologist he declared that no progress had been made in that branch of science toward the establishment of the theory of the descent of man from the lower forms of life. He did not object to it, and considered it a desideratum of science that might be realized at any time. But the proof, he affirmed, is wanting, and the burden of his speech was that what may be, or is merely probable, must not be taken as fact, or made use of in education.

It is not to be supposed that so authoritative a statement would be neglected by those who are troubled about the adventurous spirit of modern science. Ever since his Belfast Address there have been ominous whispers that the next number of the Quarterly Review would contain an annihilating attack upon Prof. Tyndall; and those interested in this serious result have waited curiously for the onslaught, until they began to fear that the editors had backed out. But the German professor has come to their rescue, and in the January issue they let fly their shaft, barbed with Virchow's address. Nor are the Americans behind the English in utilizing the authority of the Berlin physiologist. Prof. Gray, of Cambridge, introduces the main parts of Virchow's argument to the pages of the New York Independent, with comments designed to enforce its special lessons. He prizes the address as "a timely and earnest protest against what may be called platform science—not peculiar to Germany, nor to advanced evolutionists—against that form of scientific dogmatism which propounds unverified and unverifiable speculations as the conclusions of science." Now, we must think that Prof. Gray has here failed to make the most telling use of his opportunity. Dogmatism and undue license of speculation are undoubtedly bad things, to be always condemned, and nothing certainly could be more proper than for Prof. Gray to warn the readers of the Independent against indulgence in those easily-besetting sins. But would not the point have come out a little better if Prof. Gray had said something like this: "Dogmatism—that is, arrogance of opinion, and the disposition to pronounce confidently upon matters that are incapable of being known or verified—is a universal mental habit, inveterate in proportion to people's ignorance, against which education makes but slow headway, which has ever characterized theology, and is most fostered by those powerful agencies in society—churches, Sunday-schools, and religious newspapers? All of these agencies enforce the early and passive acceptance of dogmas that are beyond the sphere of verification, and teach that repose of belief is the great end to be sought, and doubt a heinous thing not to be tolerated upon pain of eternal retribution. Science, on the contrary, begins with questioning, and, by insisting upon evidence, has restricted the sphere of speculation, and made belief more a matter of reason, and in this way it has done much to destroy the dogmatic spirit. Yet this tendency to dogmatism is so deep and strong in human nature, as at present trained, that even scientific men often yield to it, and put their baseless speculations in place of science, and here is a German savant of great authority who says so." This is probably what Prof. Gray meant if he had explained himself more fully, for surely one cannot suppose he intended to encourage the bad habits of one class by telling them how bad are those of another.

Let us now glance for a moment at Virchow's test of what ought to go into the schools. Prof. Gray quotes the following passage: "From the moment when we had become convinced that the evolution theory was a perfectly established doctrine—so certain that we could pledge our oath to it—from that moment we could not dare to feel any scruple about introducing it into our actual life, and not only communicating it to every educated man, but imparting it to every child, . . . and basing upon it our whole system of education." To this the reply is, first, that the standard taken is impracticable, and, if adopted, would abolish education altogether; and, second, if it is lowered, as it must be, evolution cannot be kept out of the schools.

It is important to remember here that Virchow is an evolutionist—not, perhaps, an "advanced" evolutionist, but, as Prof. Gray recognizes, a "pronounced evolutionist," like himself, we suppose. And, if so, it must be because there is a certain amount of truth in the doctrine. But, for the purpose here contemplated, the question is not whether evolution is completely proved—it is simply whether there is sufficient truth and value in it to make its introduction into the schools an improvement upon their existing practice. Now, if evolution is true at all, as admitted by Virchow and Gray, and by the leading thinkers of the time, it must, by the very nature of the idea, be a verity in regard to the great method of things around us—how they come, and how they go, and how they are related to each other in the genetical order. Evolution must embody a truth to this extent, from the very necessity of the case, or it contains no truth at all. It is, by its definition, an unfolding in the course of Nature. That there are numerous imperfections in it, matters nothing, for no science is perfect. Astronomy, based upon physics and mathematics, has ranked as the most perfect of the sciences; but, if any one wishes to understand how imperfect it really is, let him read Prof. Newcomb's new book upon the subject. Chemistry is in a state of revolution, and physics is full of unsettled theories. What, in fact, is science but imperfect sciences getting rid of their errors and limitations?

As to evolution, it is enough that it is a mental view which answers to a great reality. Whether it is to be recognized, is not an open question; it is already in the field as a power that is modifying almost every branch of knowledge. It is guiding investigations in the pathway of successful research; it is the broadest principle of unification in Nature that the human mind has yet reached. Can so comprehensive and all-harmonizing a truth be without value as a means of mental culture? Whether Haeckel was wise or not in demanding its formal introduction into the schools, it is certain that the powers which control the German Empire cannot keep it out of the schools. Nothing would be more futile than to demand the teaching of the development theory in the schools of this country, except, perhaps, the attempt to prevent it. Already it is taught in the test-books of geology, and it will be more and more seen in the manuals of zoölogy, botany, psychology, philology, and history, when these are revised, and adapted to the advanced condition of knowledge.

With such tendencies predominant, how grotesque is the spectacle of a man like Virchow planting himself at the doors of the German schools, and flourishing his test of what is to be admitted there! As the scientific men approach with their subjects, they are stopped by the question, "Can you make oath, gentlemen, to the truth of what you offer?" And so we have a scientific man ruling out science from the schools by a standard not recognized in education, and which, if rigidly applied, would shut up every schoolhouse in Germany. For what would become of history, philology, geography, political economy, and the whole round' of studies that are already pursued, if this swearing-test were to be applied to them? The question, as we have said, is whether something can be got that is better than what now exists, as this is the way all progress is secured. In an address of great power, by Prof. Du Bois-Reymond, of Berlin, on "Science and Civilization" (which we shall soon have the pleasure of publishing), the professor says of the religious instruction given in the German schools: "In the semi-official plan of studies, more than half a page of fine print is expended in setting forth the subject-matter of this instruction, while five lines suffice to dispatch the mathematical programme! On reading this half-page, and the corresponding half-page for the upper second class, one imagines he has before him the programme of a theological seminary." So there is a body of dogmatic divinity already in the schools, including, of course, a cosmogony, or theory of creation, and traditional hypotheses without number. To all this Prof. Virchow does not dream of applying his test; but, when the representatives of modern knowledge demand that the teaching shall better reflect the existing state of thought, the admonition comes: "No dogmatism! Winnow your work, gentlemen—nothing but facts are to be admitted here, with their certainties, up to the swearing-point."

Considered educationally, what else is this but the old, exploded policy of pouring facts into mental pitchers? What are facts good for if not interpreted, and what is science without explanation—that is, theory? Would Prof. Virchow swear the atomic theory out of chemistry, and the wave theory out of optics, and the nebular theory out of astronomy; and what would become of his own science of physiology if nothing could be taught of it but what he can make oath to? The highest object of education is to rouse mental activity, to set pupils to thinking, to encourage them to make their own observations and their own independent reflections; and this can in no way be done so effectually as by linking educational methods to the great movements of thought that are absorbing the world's attention, outside of the schools. To deal only in culture with demonstrated facts, and thus to reduce the process to one of bare acquisition, is a deadening and paralyzing process, not suited to prepare students to use their minds to the best advantage in the conduct of practical life.

Nothing can be clearer than that the liberty of science and the liberty of education, the progress of science and the progress of education, are indissolubly linked together. Whewell has shown us how, in the development of the human intellect, the great steps of culture have followed and resulted from the great steps of discovery that have successively enlarged the sphere of human knowledge. And it was not because certain new facts were poured in at each epoch of discovery, but because new ideas, new methods, new modes of mental activity, were introduced. These are invaluable in education, and if shorn away, so that nothing but direct results are imparted, the quickening, arousing influence of science is lost to culture. Karl Grün well observes: "Science either enjoys perfect liberty, or she is not free at all. Setting up hypotheses and tracing their ultimate consequences are part and parcel of science, and of the liberty of science;" and we may add that its use in this form is a part of the liberty of education.

It is one of the chief glories of science that it has first taught men the supreme value of truth, and the disciplines of character that the earnest pursuit of truth involves. Truth on its own account and for its own sake is its one great object, and, in proportion as it can be incorporated in education and made the incentive of mental activity, will education attain its highest and noblest object. A writer in the German periodical Kosmos, replying to Prof. Virchow, thus gives effective expression to this idea:

"Scientific research aims at the discovery of truth, never inquiring who is to be benefited thereby. The question, Qui prodest? (Who is benefited?) is fortunately of as little account in science as the other question, Cui nocet? (Who is hurt?) Hence whether the evolution doctrine favors the Socialists or the Ultramontanes, the high and dry Conservatives, the Moderates, the Liberals, the Radicals, or any other party, must be a matter of entire indifference to the earnest investigator, and must not be permitted for a moment to lead him astray in his researches. The truth must be established for its own sake, and for no other purpose. Any other consideration, even though it were urged by a Virchow, must be absolutely rejected. Ever since science first began there have been heard authoritative voices calling 'Halt!' to the restless spirit of speculation, and it were a grave injustice not to recognize the value of such admonitions. They who warn against danger, and they who engage in scientific speculation, are both indispensable for the development of science; but we must ever bear in mind that scientific progress always, almost without an exception, has come from the labors of those who dared to give expression to thoughts which were as a leaven to the minds of their contemporaries, and who were persecuted for heresy, and laid under a ban by the authorities. The most splendid triumphs of science are the fruit of the empiric demonstration of ingenious hypotheses. Even in cases where these hypotheses have proved untenable they have caused men to think, and that in itself constitutes a new advance of science. We could as little dispense with them as with the leaven in bread. All honor, then, first of all to the men to whom we are indebted for hypotheses which have given a stimulus to research; which, so to speak, constitute a landmark in the history of science; finally, in the mastering of which, in one sense or the other, a full generation or more has been employed! Honor, again, to those intellectual princes of whom the German proverb is true that, 'when kings build, there is work for cartmen!' "


And, while we happen to be on the subject of evolution in Germany, we may refer to another episode in relation to this subject. Prof. Max Müller, well known as a philologist, has written an ambitious paper on "The Origin of Reason," in which he follows Prof. Ludwig Noiré, a German philologist, and called a "rank evolutionist." Müller points out how Prof. Noiré has laid under contribution Spinoza, Descartes, Leibnitz, Kant, Locke, Schopenhauer, and Geiger, for materials to construct an evolution theory, his own contribution being that the development of mind is to be come at through the study of language. Noiré does not think much of Darwin, but prefers Cuvier, and works up his scheme out of metaphysical materials, rather than the results of modern science. This Müller indorses, saying, "Every system of philosophy which plunges into the mysteries of Nature without having solved the mysteries of the mind, the systems of natural evolution not excepted, is pre-Cartesian and mediæval." It is somewhat curious to characterize as mediæval that new spirit which arose and put an end to the mediæval period—the giving precedence to the study of Nature. The truth of the case seems to be that Noiré perceived that evolution has come to be the great basis of philosophy, and therefore accepts it and applies it in the study of the interactions of psychology and language; and yet Max Müller tells us that "Noiré's philosophy rests on a most comprehensive theory of evolution; it is the first attempt at tracing the growth of the whole world, not only of matter but of thought also, from the beginning of things to the present day." This is certainly a remarkable claim, and we are at once interested in the intellectual career of the party in whose behalf it is made. It turns out that Noiré's first book, "The World as an Evolution of Spirit," was published in 1874, and the last in 1877. As he subsequently repudiated that first book, the gestation of his system, involving an analysis of the "Growth of the Whole World," took less than three years. Prof. Müller says this was the "first attempt," etc., although he was perfectly aware of the fact that Herbert Spencer is the only man that has ever dealt with the subject comprehensively, and also that he published the complete prospectus of his system fifteen years before Noiré issued his first book. Mr. Spencer, in his last volume, on Sociology, has no doubt seriously damaged Muller's favorite theory of myths; but it would be more creditable to the Oxford professor, either to answer him, or acknowledge the defeat, rather then to vent his resentment by such absurd misrepresentations.


  1. See the addresses of Profs. Haeckel and Virchow, in the Popular Science Monthly Supplement, No. X., and Hellwald's paper in No. XI.