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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/July 1884/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE SURVIVAL OF POLITICAL SUPERSTITIONS.

AS explained by the law of evolution, progress is the result of slow transformations in the parts of adaptable organisms under changed conditions. Still, influenced by the old ideas that things were once suddenly created and may be quickly changed, we fail to appreciate the slowness of the modifications that take place, and how tenaciously old things survive and live on in their essences, with only sufficient alteration to justify the introduction of new names.

We see this strikingly illustrated in the history of government. There is an enormous overvaluation in the import of their changing forms. It was, of course, a great event when we of this country, a hundred years ago, repudiated formal monarchy, and its aristocratic and hierarchical appendages, and adopted republican government in its place, but the real value and extent of the change have been in many respects much magnified. Fundamental ideas of the old order of things continue in vigorous operation, with but very superficial modification of character.

For thousands of years the conceptions of government and of king-craft were identical. Nations appeared and disappeared in the march of history; empires rose and fell, systems of religion and systems of philosophy succeeded each other, knowledge augmented and the literary arts were perfected in their different types, and great civilizations unfolded and passed away, and all this while the forms of government continued monarchical, and human society was governed by the superstition that kings represent the gods and are infallible. The overshadowing and persistent superstition was that government was supernaturally organized, and that kings ruled by right divine. We look upon this idea now as a mere curious vestige of an empty illusion of ages of ignorance, but it was an idea of living application and tremendous power. Men religiously believed in it and thoroughly acquiesced in it. It was broadly asserted alike by the occupants of thrones and by the classes authorized to teach the people, and they accepted it as fundamental and sacred political truth. The open avowal of this doctrine comes down to quite modern times. The standard of loyalty exacted by the sovereign was thus laid down by King James, the translator of the Bible: "As it is atheism and blasphemy in a creature to dispute what the Deity may do, so it is presumption and sedition in a subject to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power; good Christians will be content with God's will revealed in his word, and good subjects will rest in the king's will revealed in his law."

It is not yet two centuries since De Foe could write in England as follows: "It was for many years—and I am witness to it—that the pulpit sounded nothing but absolute submission; obedience without reserve; subjection to princes as God's vicegerents; accountable to none; to be withstood in nothing and by no person. I have heard it publicly preached that, if the king commanded my head, and sent his messengers to fetch it, I was bound to submit, and to stand still while it was cut off."

Now, it is not to be supposed that so deep and long-established a sentiment, by which the lives of generations were regulated, was to be extirpated from human nature, and dismissed to annihilation in any short period of time. Some features of it might fall away and be repudiated, and it might be thus transformed, but transformation itself implies the living on of the essential thing in modified shape. Nor can we say that that which has been eliminated and has passed away is simply the superstition, while the surviving element is some truth of reason which was disguised under the old expression. Under a less gross and palpable form the superstition itself continues, and for the divine infallibility of the king we have a superstitious belief in the practical infallibility of Congress and the political majority. "The king may do all things by divine right, and we are bound to obey," was the old formula; "the political majority may do all things in its sovereign pleasure, and everybody is bound to obey," is the derived formula of the present time.

The supernatural element in the case is undoubtedly gone, but the blind and unreasoning faith which is the essence of superstition is the survival which is still to be dealt with. What is the ground of the authority of government? In what does its sovereignty consist? Is it supreme and unlimited, or is it subject to restriction? And, if so, what are the principles of limitation? What may government do and what may it not do? What is the fundamental right and wrong of government action to which all legislation is bound to conform on imperative ethical grounds? These are questions that are forced upon the age with a steadily increasing urgency, and the answers to which are of transcendent importance to the future progress of society.

These questions are besides of especial and critical moment in this country, where the whole community is launched upon the turbulent sea of politics, and there is the highest possible need of distinct and trustworthy politico-ethical guidance. That the subject receives little serious attention on the part of our ignorant and self-seeking politicians, occupied with their paltry schemes of partisan rivalry, matters little except to impose graver obligations upon serious-minded people. The degradation of popular government in this country to the basest ends of demagogism, the tendency to rule out all questions of principle as disturbing elements in the great game of partisan success, the surrender of Legislatures to the promotion of sordid class interests, and the universal negelect of the true objects of government, while its illegitimate objects are everywhere vehemently pursued—all this is sufficiently notorious, and it marks out the definite work of our political reformers in the future. The present state of things is not a finality, and there is no justification for despair of salutary political progress. The passage from superstition to reason is slow and unsteady, but it is inevitable. Government is not to be run forever on fallacies and by political quacks. We are in a time of transition, which is always painful and discouraging, but tendencies are at work, and are slowly acquiring strength, which are certain to make headway against the errors and vices of the prevailing political system. It is of course very easy to be over-sanguine, and to form delusive expectations of good to be attained, and there is especial danger of this in politics, where it is expected by changing a vote or passing a law to get great results in a short time. But political renovation can come by no such superficial means; we must have a revolution of ideas, resulting in sounder views of the nature, authority, and scope of government; and that this will come in its proper time, and give rise to a new departure in politics, is no more to be doubted than we can doubt the continued activity of the human mind, the further growth of scientific thought, or the many improvements and ameliorations that have been already accomplished.

Meantime, the work to be done is simply to diffuse among the more intelligent classes of the community those deeper social truths and sounder political principles which have been worked out by patient and powerful intellects who have prized and sought the truth above all other things, trusting implicitly that better knowledge will at length yield the desirable fruits of better practice. This has been the policy of "The Popular Science Monthly." We are interested in politics, but only in that regeneration of politics which will make its pursuit more honorable, its objects more noble, and its influence upon society less corrupting and debasing, and more elevating and beneficent. We have frequently published articles animated by this spirit and purpose; and have been led to the foregoing remarks by a desire to call attention to the instructive and valuable article which opens the present number. We commend this discussion of the important but neglected subject of political ethics to the careful perusal of all who are interested in the solution of the most pressing political problems of the time.

 

 
PRESIDENT ELIOT ON LIBERAL EDUCATION.

The address of the President of Harvard University, entitled "What is a Liberal Education?" delivered in February, before the members of the Johns Hopkins University, and published in full in "The Century" magazine for June, is a contribution to the subject so able, advanced, and independent that it deserves to be carefully read by all who are concerned in higher educational reforms. The article has great and peculiar value, because it has been produced under the pressure of grave responsibility, and presents views which have been subjected to every critical test preparatory to carrying them out in the eminent institution of which the author is the distinguished head. It is easy to talk at random, and indulge in exaggerated statements, but we have here the cautious and measured conclusions of a wise educational policy to be reduced to actual practice. But caution here does not mean timidity. There are a firmness of tone and a boldness of treatment in this paper which show that the author appreciates the urgency of the situation, and has perfect confidence in the strength of his case. This address is therefore to be commended to all the friends of educational improvement as having the force, weight, and seriousness of an authoritative document, and for this reason we are glad to observe its appearance in a magazine of wide circulation and large influence, and we hope it may soon be separately issued and extensively distributed for effective use in the quiet campaign of collegiate reform. It is a fitting sequel and supplement to the Harvard address of Mr. Adams last year, which proved so efficient in arousing public attention to the deficient working of our American colleges, but it is a broader and more philosophical discussion of the defects and requirements of the higher education at the present time, and grapples with the wide question of there organization of the university curriculum, and the necessity of making the so-called liberal education more thoroughly liberal than the traditional system that has come down to us from the past.

President Eliot opens his argument with the remark that the degree of Bachelor of Arts, which is the customary evidence of a liberal education, needs to be defined anew, with an enlargement of its signification; and he shows, first, that, so far from being a settled, permanent, and unchangeable ideal for all time, as the devotees of the classics are so fond of maintaining, it has already undergone change after change with the progress of learning, so that the studies essential to the bachelor's degree, both in their subject-matter and in their disciplinary influence, have been radically different in the centuries that have succeeded after it was instituted. Even mathematics, which seems to be the very type of unchangeable method, he shows to have undergone nothing less than a revolution, so that that form of it, which Dr. Whewell defended as "a permanent study," has disappeared, and been replaced by another mathematics of a totally different sort. The modern analytical mathematics, "the only mathematics now in common use in the United States," is thus characterized by the Master of Trinity in contrast with the earlier geometry. He says: "We must hold also that the geometrical forms of mathematics must be especially preserved and maintained as essentially requisite for this office (the study by which the reason of man is to be educated); that analytical mathematics can in no way answer this purpose, and, if the attempt be made so to employ it, will not only be worthless, but highly prejudicial to men's minds."

In regard to another unalterable element of the disciplinary curriculum, President Eliot remarks: "It is obvious that the spirit and method in which Latin has been, for the most part, studied during the present century, are very different from the spirit and method in which it was studied in the preceding centuries. During this century it has been taught as a dead language (except, perhaps, in parts of Italy and Hungary), whereas it used to be taught as a living language, the common speech of all scholars, both lay and clerical. Those advocates of classical learning who maintain that a dead language must have more disciplinary virtue than a living one would hardly have been satisfied with the prevailing modes of teaching and learning Latin in any century before our own." Even Greek, so lauded as "an instrument for the perpetual training of the mind of the later generations," has not always been a constituent of the accepted scheme of liberal education. "It took two hundred years for the Greek language and literature gradually to displace, in great part, the scholastic metaphysics, which, with scholastic theology, had been for generations regarded as the main staple of liberal education; and this displacement was accomplished only after the same sort of tedious struggle by which the new knowledges of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are now winning their way to academic recognition. The revived classical literature was vigorously and sincerely opposed as frivolous, heterodox, and useless for discipline; just as natural history, chemistry, physics, and modern literatures are now opposed. The conservatives of that day used precisely the same arguments which the conservatives of to-day bring forward, only they were used against classical literature then, while now they are used in its support."

The sticklers for traditional immutability being thus disarmed, by showing that "new learning has repeatedly forced its way in times past to full academic standing, in spite of the opposition of the conservative, and of the keener resistance of established teachers and learned bodies, whose standing is always supposed to be threatened by the rise of new sciences," President Eliot proceeds to point out the imperative necessity of still further important changes that shall bring university and college studies into completer harmony with the present state of knowledge and the demands of modern life. The ground taken is thus broadly stated: "To the list of studies which the sixteenth century called liberal, I would therefore add as studies of equal rank, English, French, German, history, political economy, and natural science, not one of which can be said to have existed in mature form when the definition of liberal education, which is still in force, was laid down. The claims of these studies are taken up separately; it is shown how widely and grossly they are neglected, and their right to coequal recognition with older studies is argued with great force and entire conclusiveness. As an example of the vigor with which the claims of these several subjects are presented, we quote what President Eliot says about the study of English:

|The first subject which, as I conceive, is entitled to recognition as of equal academic value or rank with any subject now most honored, is the English language and literature. When Greek began to revive in Europe, English was just acquiring a literary form; but, when Greek had won its present rank among the liberal arts, Shakespeare had risen, the English language was formed, and English literature was soon to become the greatest of modern literatures. How does it stand now, with its immense array of poets, philosophers, historians, commentators, critics, satirists, dramatists, novelists, and orators? It can not be doubted that English Literature is beyond all comparison the amplest, most various, and most splendid literature which the world has seen; and it is enough to say of the English language that it is the language of that literature. Greek literature compares with English as Homer compares with Shakespeare—that is, as infantile with adult civilization. It may further be said of the English language, that it is the native tongue of nations which are preeminent in the world by force of character, enterprise, and wealth, and whose political and social institutions have a higher moral interest and greater promise than any which mankind has hitherto invented. To the original creations of English genius are to be added translations into English of all the masterpieces of other literatures, sacred and profane. It is a very rare scholar who has not learned much more about the Jews, the Greeks, or the Romans through English than through Hebrew, Greek, or Latin.

And now, with all this wonderful treasure within reach of our youth, what is the position of American schools and colleges in regard to teaching English? Has English literature the foremost place in the programmes of schools? By no means; at best only a subordinate place, and in many schools no place at all. Does English take equal rank with Greek or Latin in our colleges? By no means; not in the number and rank of the teachers, nor in the consideration in which the subject is held by faculty and students, nor in the time which may be devoted to it by a candidate for a degree. Until within a few years the American colleges made no demand upon candidates for admission in regard to knowledge of English; and, now that some colleges make a small requirement in English, the chief result of the examinations is to demonstrate the woeful ignorance of their own language and literature which prevails among the picked youth of the country. Shall we be told, as usual, that the best way to learn English is to study Latin and Greek? The answer is, that the facts do not corroborate this improbable hypothesis. American youth in large numbers study Latin and Greek, but do not thereby learn English. Moreover, this hypothesis is obviously inapplicable to the literatures. Shall we also be told, as usual, that no linguistic discipline can be got out of the study of the native language? How, then, was the Greek mind trained in language? Shall we be told that knowledge of English literature should be picked up without systematic effort? The answer is, first, that, as a matter of fact, this knowledge is not picked up by American youth; and, secondly, that there never was any good reason to suppose that it would be, the acquisition of a competent knowledge of English literature being not an easy but a laborious undertaking for an average youth—not a matter of entertaining reading, but of serious study. Indeed, there is no subject in which competent guidance and systematic instruction are of greater value.