Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/February 1884/Editor's Table



THE following paragraph has been circulating through the newspapers: "The Lord Mayor of London, in welcoming Professor Huxley to the city recently, suggested that the position of President of the Royal Society was really one of even greater importance than that of Prime Minister; Mr. Gladstone is chief Minister of England, but Professor Huxley was 'the head of the intellectual life of the world.'" The complaisant utterances of eminent officials, who are ever expected to say the agreeable thing that shall put their guests at ease, are not to be taken too seriously; yet there is considerable significance in this declaration of the Lord Mayor of London, both from its implication of the vast changes that have been wrought by science in the views of human affairs, and from the open recognition of these changes by so conspicuous a party.

The advance of science is evinced in numberless ways, but our weightiest proof of it is found in the gradual acceptance of enlarged in place of narrower views of the subject. New discoveries are important; the widening of the ranges of research is important; the extension of generalizations and the better organization of positive knowledge are important; but more important still is the growing general recognition that science is the grand agency in modern times for reshaping the common opinions of the community.

By the narrower view of science, we mean what may be called that professional conception of it by which it is restricted to certain definite experimental results. Our literary and theological friends are especially solicitous that the term science should be confined to physical science merely—laboratory science, observatory science, manipulatory science of any sort that can be regarded as belonging properly to specialists. But they grow jealous of it when it takes on that wider and deeper meaning which has been given to it by the growth of ideas in these later times, and when it is seen to involve a new method of thought, of the most comprehensive application, and bearing upon the whole circle of human interests. They are very commendatory of science, so long as it is busy establishing new physical facts and extending new physical truths, but they regard it as an impertinent usurper when it interferes with that old order of conceptions which pervades the common life.

But it has long been seen by the more discerning that one of the great results of the striking advance and widening influence of modern scientific knowledge must be a sharp revision of the ancient and current valuations of great men. The old standards can not continue to be accepted, and the declaration of the Lord Mayor of London is a clear admission of it. He represents the position of Professor Huxley as President of the Royal Society not merely as the head of an eminent body of English investigators, distinguished as that position would be, but as "the head of the intellectual life of the world," and he gives greater emphasis to the statement by affirming that Huxley's position is "really one of even greater importance" than that of Gladstone, Prime Minister of England. This is in no sense a comparison of the talents or genius of two distinguished personalities, but a comparison of their positions as representative men, and an affirmation of the superiority of the illustrious scientist to the illustrious politician. The deeper meaning of this averment is that it brings into contrast two types of character—that formed under scientific influences and embodying its spirit, and that formed under political influences and embodying its spirit. The immense import of the statement arises from its recognition that a new order of men has arisen in these times and worked its way to acknowledged supereminence as leaders in "the intellectual life of the world." This means a great deal.

Undoubtedly the great changes of modern thought which threaten to displace an old ideal of great men, and to substitute a new ideal, have far-reaching consequences, which may turn out to be of the most practical kind. It would be folly to deny that in recent years there has been a rapid decline in the respect generally entertained for eminent political men. The world has always worshiped successful politicians, and will no doubt long continue to worship them as the embodiments of power in society; but, as the possession of political power becomes more and more a matter of accident, there will be increasing hollowness in the homage rendered to those who have had the good luck to get possession of official places. Already political success has altogether ceased to imply greatness of character; the machinery of partisan politics may give prominence to a wary and skillful manager—the tricky manœuvring of a convention may furnish a President but nobody is deceived into supposing that distinguished merit is thereby disclosed, or that genuine greatness has met with the honor to which it is entitled. Incontestably, there are no such shams and humbugs in modern society as successful politicians. "We do not expect them to be men of solid acquisitions, to have mastered the knowledge that is needful for statesmen, or to exemplify anything like manliness and independence of character. These traits are all in the way of political success. Transparency and uprightness of mind are not wanted, insincerity and crookedness of mind are indispensable to the political manager. He views all things with reference to immediate results, and holds any expedients justifiable that will enable him to win in partisan conflict. The school of politics, in short, gives us men that are not entitled to public respect, and this scandalous fact is universally understood.

But are we to regard this as the hopeless finality of things in the political and public sphere? There are strong reasons for taking a different view and indulging in better anticipations. Agencies are at work which will form men of more elevated character. We look to the extension of science and the deepening of scientific influences to give us minds capable of improving the existing state of things. It is impossible to overestimate the good that may be hoped from this scientific influence, as it becomes strengthened and organized and brought to bear upon public affairs, because science is allegiance to truth, while current politics is little else than allegiance to lies. No man expects that a politician will be honest, or candid, or truthful, or make a bold and honorable avowal of principles; nor is there any possible ground to hope that our politics will purify themselves by any working of their internal elements so that men of probity, high character, and real greatness will be put in the positions of power. The regenerative influence, if it comes at all, must come from other sources, and we expect it to come sooner or later from the great movement of modern science, which must bring with it a new training in the intellectual virtues. It is to the new conceptions and new culture of science that we look for the production of men of a higher quality for public use to replace that lower quality which has ceased to command the admiration of intelligent and honorable-minded people. Our politics is to-day the despair of our most earnest citizens, and we can see no possible escape from its corruption and its degradation but by the supply of new men animated by higher ideas, qualified by superior intelligence, and trained in reverence for truth, and these men are to be produced by the slowly ripening influence of science, as it comes gradually to pervade our educational systems. Of course, no great change of this kind can be suddenly precipitated; it must be a slow growth, to work effectual results; but science advances with its work, and gives us some ground of hope even in the most discouraging of all the fields of human effort.


One would think that the advocates of the classics, as the one superior system for the unfolding of the human mind, would have long ago abated their exclusive pretensions in face of the fact that such multitudes fail with it, and that so many succeed without it. It is not found difficult to evade the force of the first objection that great numbers of dead-language students come to nothing with their classics, because it is said that they neglect their opportunities, or get far more good from this source than they are ever aware of. But it is not so easy to escape the objection to the wonderful worth of defunct speech in the cultivation of the human faculties with such multiplying evidence as we have of great intellectual power acquired by a mental cultivation into which the dead languages have never entered. That these studies have declined in consideration, and are put upon the defensive, and fall back upon tradition and authority for backing, is simply because other instruments of culture in these modern times are not only competing with them but are beating them everywhere. Accompanying the decline of the classics, there has arisen an outside education, irregular in form, unguided by institutions, self-inspired and self-shaped, which is full of great results. The past generation has abounded in men who have either turned their backs upon the universities, after trying them, or who have never gone near them, but who have become leaders of thought in all departments of intellectual activity. The unfortunate creatures who have been enticed to college, and there loaded down with a knapsack of dead languages have found, as was very natural, that they were overweighted in the competitive race of practical life, and left behind by those whose acquisitions are better adapted to the new requirements of the age. Charles Darwin went to the university, neglected the classics, and made what he could out of it for the promotion of his natural history studies; and Herbert Spencer refused to be lured there at all. Yet these are the men who are guiding the mind of the age, while for twenty years we have been afflicted with the pitiful protestations of classical graduates (with their incomparable "mental discipline") that they could not even understand the epoch-making books of these great thinkers.

From this point of view, the English experience with classical studies is especially rich in instruction. Every public influence in that old, aristocratic, tradition-ridden country has favored the ascendency and the perpetuity of dead languages in all grades of education. Whatever benefits could be got from them have been there obtained in abounding measure. Modern knowledge has been hindered and repressed that the classics might have free course and undisputed sway; and yet, as we have before observed, the system worked out such miserable and scandalous results that the state was compelled to look into the subject and do what it could to expose if not to correct the abuses. The Government reports on the condition of education in the universities and great public schools revealed a state of things which will be the wonder of all future ages. Some twenty years ago, Prof. W. P. Atkinson, of Boston, printed a very valuable pamphlet devoted to these English educational reports. We regret to say that it is now out of print, for it would be an invaluable contribution to the discussion now going forward upon this question. As its contents will be new to many, we reprint some passages illustrating the extent to which, even at that time, the classical university education had been practically superseded by forms of culture more suited to the necessities of the times:

This view [that the English universities have lost the hold they once had on the educated classes] will be corroborated if we consider how many of the most influential minds of the century, in science, literature, art, and politics, have either had no connection whatever with the universities, or are under small obligation to them for any connection they may have had. In politics, and political economy, we might name, among others, Romilly, Bentham, Ricardo, Bright, Cobden, Stuart Mill. Though the government of England is monopolized by the aristocracy, the political thought which governs her governors comes daily more and more from the people. The list of "uneducated" men of science—if I may be allowed the absurdity of such a phrase—is far longer, as, after what has been said, might reasonably be expected, than any the universities can show—Davy, Wollaston, Dalton, Faraday, Wheatstone, De la Beche, Murchison, Hind, South, Fitzroy, Playfair, Carpenter—it might be indefinitely extended; and we shall find that the most eminent of her college-educated men of science are the foremost in denouncing her university system. Of course, all her great engineers, inventors, and builders, are uneducated men—Watt, Telford, Smeaton, Rennie, Brindley, the Brunels, the Stephensons, Sir Joseph Paxton—it is with these names that that sad but glorious volume, "The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties," is filled. Her great artists are all "uneducated" men—Flaxman and Gibson, Landseer, Turner, and Stanfield, Kemble and Macready, and all the rest. And, when we turn to literature itself, the greatest English historical work of this generation—a work on classic history, too—was written by an "uneducated" London banker. The greatest, I might almost say the only, English attempt at a philosophy of history, a work which, with all its errors and paradoxes—and I shall not deny that they are many and great—is still one which can not be matched by any similar academic performance, was the work of the "uneducated" son of a London merchant. Her novelists—Dickens, Thackeray, Jerrold, Marryat—come from all quarters save the banks of the Cam and the Isis; not to mention so many of that sex which is excluded altogether from their sacred borders. Bulwer is, indeed, a Cambridge man, but I think Cambridge will be slow to put forward that pretentious charlatan as an example of the fruits of her classical training. Even of her poets, critics, and essayists, what a long list are among the wholly "uneducated," or must be classed among those who derived no benefit from their stay at a university, save that (undoubtedly great) one which comes from mere residence at a place of learning! The names at once occur of Crabbe, Rogers, Lamb, Moore, Montgomery, Hunt, Gifford, Hazlitt, Hood. Who would hesitate to say where Scott's real education lay? Who has criticised the education of Oxford so wittily as Sydney Smith, or so grimly as Carlyle? Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their short stay at the university, owed little or nothing to the studies of the place. Southey says he only learned to swim there—badly; Byron was ruined there; and the beautiful genius of Shelley found there, instead of the help and guidance it so much needed, only cruel and ignominious abuse. Keats, some of whose exquisite poems breathe the very spirit of classical antiquity, was a stable-keeper's son, and never studied at public school or university. England's eminent surgeons and physicians are not university men; and what is it that in that country keeps theology so far behind all other sciences, but the fact that the clergy are the only profession who are compelled to subject their minds to the full "dementalizing" power of Oxford training? What power less potent could produce the bigotry of an English High-Church bishop? I am not forgetful of the eminent names that may be produced on the other side; but, even in regard to these, the question must always he asked, How far was their eminence due to their education? The real relation in which the English schools and universities stand to her greatest minds, even in the past, and the share which university teaching really had in training them, is a problem that still needs elucidation. "We are not sure," says the present Lord Brougham, writing in 1826, "whether the result of the investigation would be so favorable as is commonly supposed to Oxford and Cambridge. And of this we are sure, that many persons, who, since they have risen to eminence, are perpetually cited as proofs of the beneficial tendency of English education, were at college never mentioned but as idle, frivolous men, fond of desultory reading, and negligent of the studies of the place. It would be indelicate to name the living; but we may venture to speak more particularly of the dead. It is truly curious to observe the use that is made, in such discussions, of names which we acknowledge to be glorious, but in which the colleges have no reason to glory—that of Bacon, who reprobated their fundamental constitution; of Dryden, who abjured his Alma Mater, and regretted that he had passed his youth under her care; of Locke, who was censured and expelled; of Milton, whose person was outraged at one university, and whose works were committed to the flames at the other.

It may, perhaps, be argued that many of the "uneducated" men whom I have been enumerating would have been the better for a university training. For a true university training, no doubt they would—one that would have developed all their powers harmoniously, while it gave full play to their special genius. With the advocates of such a training, I have here no controversy; I will even grant that many of these writers, in spite of their genius, betray the faults which are wont to mark the self-educated man. But would it have been better for Mr. Buckle himself if, by a long course of nonsense-verses, the attempt had been made to flatter and polish him down to the regulation standard of Oxford mediocrity? Mr. Buckle at least stimulates us to think; can as much be said of Oxford bishops? There is a passage in a recently published book of travels in Russia, by Professor Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer-Royal for Scotland, which bears on this question and records a somewhat surprising conclusion. Describing a conversation he had with that eminent astronomer, Struve, as to the results of their experience in university teaching, both agreed that on many points further inquiry was greatly needed; but Professor Struve said that "this conclusion had been drawn independently by so many differently circumstanced men in the Russian and German-Baltic provinces, from the general impressions which their recollections gave them, that there could be little doubt of its containing much truth—truth, too, of a startling character: the first boys at school disappear at the colleges, and those who are first in the colleges disappear in the world." I am not sure that a similar conclusion would not follow from a similar investigation into our own, as well as into English and German academical history, and that it would not be found that the men most useful and successful in after-life were not those who had placed themselves most fully under the influence of college training, or been stimulated to exertion by mere hope of college rewards, but those who had been most successful in escaping its narrowing influences, while, on the other hand, they had also escaped the still greater dangers of idleness and dissipation in the formative period of their history men who had cast from them the trammels of pedantry, and with independent energy marked out their own career.

We publish the first of a series of articles on some of the political tendencies of the times, by Herbert Spencer. The present paper, though treating of affairs in England, and therefore full of English illustrations, will be found to have a bearing upon urgent questions in this country, and to involve, indeed, some of the most radical problems of popular government. We have been told that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and the truth is far more pregnant than is generally supposed. But we require to learn a still more elementary lesson, that is, what liberty is. Our common notion of slavery has come to be negroes sold at auction, and our notion of liberty has come to be the privilege of locomotion and of voting. A people with such notions of the subject will hardly be very vigilant in paying the price of liberty by strenuously resisting all encroachments upon individual rights. Therefore, every discussion which makes the subject clearer, and calls attention to considerations which are apt to be generally overlooked and forgotten, is important; and nowhere is it more important to guard against the indifference of citizens and the fallacies by which they are misled on the subject of liberty than where government is popularly administered. Mr. Spencer's future papers will probably bear much more directly upon American political problems than the present.