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

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE SCIENTISTS AT MONTREAL.

THE Montreal Congress of British Scientists, which was at first thought to be a very dubious experiment, turned out a success. Some nine or ten hundred members of the British Association crossed the sea, and, with the accessions from Canada, and a strong representation from the United States, the meeting became very large, and a great deal of excellent work was done. The address of the president-elect, and the inaugural addresses of the presidents of the several sections—of Sir William Thomson in Physics, of Sir Henry Roscoe in Chemistry, of Professor Blanford in Geology, of Professor Moseley in Biology, of Sir J. H. Lefroy in Geography, of Sir Richard Temple in Economics and Statistics, of Sir F. J. Bramwell in Mechanics, and of Mr. E. B. Tylor in Anthropology—were all productions of high, if not exceptional, ability. Many important papers were contributed to the several sections, while the attendance upon their meetings was large and the interest well sustained. Of course, the Canadians were delighted, as they had a right to be. They were proud of the compliment paid to the Dominion by the coming of so dignified and distinguished a body of scientific men to hold one of its customary meetings in Montreal; and were especially pleased that the Queen should have graciously conferred the honor of knighthood upon their leading man of science, Principal Dawson. Of course, there were inconveniences accompanying so large a gathering in a city not provided with accommodations on the largest scale. The reception at the Redpath Museum, given by McGill University, was a painful crush, productive of far more discomfort than pleasure, but the accommodations for the practical work of the sections iq the university were more satisfactory. Every hospitality was extended to the strangers by the citizens of Montreal, and the press of that city manifested a creditable enterprise in reporting the proceedings and publishing important papers. The Governor-General, in his address of welcome, as was natural for a politician, used the occasion to magnify Canada as an important constituent of the British Empire, and appreciated the immense advertising that would come from this visit of the home scientists. Altogether, it was a memorable occasion; everybody was gratified, and its influence will, beyond doubt, be most favorable to the cause of science.

 

 
THE ELEVATION OF PHRASES ABOVE THINGS.

The inaugural address of Professor Lord Rayleigh at Montreal, which we push in full, is an able discussion. As a review of the recent progress of physics it is very instructive, full of practical suggestions, and fair to the workers of aU countries. But there is one feature of it which we think deserves especial commendation, and that is the independent and common-sense way in which it refers to the issue between the dead languages and scientific education. He might easily have evaded the subject, and, being a Cambridge man, it was rather to be expected that he would lean toward the side of tradition. But he did not shrink from his duty to recognize the importance of the question on this conspicuous occasion, and to represent decisively its scientific side. The position which he took was moderate but firm, and he indorses with emphasis the main propositions advocated by the friends of scientific education. He says: "To them it appears strange, and almost monstrous, that the dead languages should hold the place they do in general education; and it can hardly be denied that their supremacy is the result of routine rather than of argument." After declaring his doubts whether an exclusively scientific training would be satisfactory, he adds: "But it is useless to discuss the question upon the supposition that the majority of boys attain, either to a knowledge of the languages (Latin and Greek) or to an appreciation of the writings of the ancient authors. The contrary is notoriously the truth." This is a broad indorsement of the assertion that the study of the dead languages is generally, as a matter of fact, a failure. He further observes: "I believe that French and German, if properly taught, which I admit they rarely are at present, would go far to replace Latin and Greek from a disciplinary point of view, while the actual value of the acquisition would, in the majority of cases, be incomparably greater. In half the time usually devoted, without success, to the classical languages, most boys could acquire a really serviceable knowledge of French and German. History and the serious study of the English literature, now shamefully neglected, would also find a place in such a scheme."

We put these unsolicited and responsible declarations of an English university man, who has had both a classical and a scientific training, against the one-sided expressions drawn by the classical party from Lord Coleridge and Matthew Arnold while in this country.

But it is not this aspect of the matter—a mere question of conflicting authorities—that chiefly concerns us here. Lord Rayleigh had previously made an incidental observation which strikes deeper into this subject than anything he said in his formal reference to it. He was speaking of the character of his celebrated instructor, the late Professor Clerk-Maxwell, of whom he said, "As a teacher and examiner he was well acquainted with the almost universal tendency of uninstructed minds to elevate phrases above things." This goes to the root of the antagonism between literary and scientific education, considered as means of mental cultivation.

Literary education is carried on in the world of words; scientific education, truly such, goes on in the world of things in which words, though indispensable, are subordinate, and not the substantive objects with which the mind is engaged. Literature, as a method, stops with the words, makes the things for which they stand of little account, and is occupied with the arts of expression. In science, things are uppermost, they are what the mind really has to deal with, and their verbal representatives are merely matters of convenience in dealing with them. But the literary mind exalts the symbols to the higher place, and makes education consist in loading the mind with languages, with but little conception of those higher ends to which all language should be made tributary. Of course, it is easier and more pleasant to become interested in words and pay little attention to things, and, where the object is only light intellectual gratification, literature answers the end.

But we have here to do with the subject of education, with the true and best mode of developing the powers of the mind, and for this purpose the difference between words and things is wide and fundamental. Both are important, but the question is, which is to be held supreme? Science as a new force in education relegates words to the subordinate place, and it clinches the case by affirming that knowledge of things is the true test of intelligence, and that the mere knowledge of words is but highly respectable ignorance. Unless there has been a grapple with some subject in its actual facts, elements, and relations, and some considerable degree of mental discipline in the search for truth, the observation of objects, and the study of principles, there has been no genuine education. For it is with facts at last that we have concern in experience, and the education of him who has not learned to study them is futile. The dictum of Clerk-Maxwell and Lord Rayleigh that there is an "almost universal tendency of uninstructed minds to elevate phrases above things" has all the effect of a new definition of ignorance. This idea has been long fore-shadowed in a vague recognition of the ignorance of mere book-worms, and in all the exigencies of a practical life the worthlessness of simple book-knowledge is proverbial. The antithesis of ignorance is not learning but knowledge. Thinkers undoubtedly get help from books, when they know how to use and subordinate them so as not to become their victims. One of the profoundest English thinkers, Hobbes, who has impressed himself powerfully upon the thought of the last two centuries, read but few books, and Aubrey remarks that "he was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men he should have continued still as ignorant as other men." Mere reading is not mental discipline, but rather mental dissipation, and one of the worst features of our popular education is the superstitious supremacy it gives to naked book acquisitions. The radical work of scientific education must be done here: "The almost universal tendency of un-instructed minds to elevate phrases above things" must give place to the more rational and enlightened tendency to elevate things above phrases. It was inevitable that the verbal should be in the ascendant in ancient times, and in the mediæval ages, when but little was accurately and profoundly known of the relations of things; but science has given us a new dispensation of knowledge, and this has created a new education in which knowledge is no longer a matter of phrases, but a familiarization of the mind with the verities of nature and of truth. In this new education, language, conceded to be of great importance, is not an end in itself, but is to be made tributary to the higher end of understanding the nature, order, and constitution of things.