Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/Editor's Table



THE progress of popular education is gradually bringing into prominence a class of questions of fundamental importance, the existence of which was hardly recognized in its earlier stages. It seemed at first a very simple affair to organize a common-school system, and nobody anticipated that any very serious difficulties could arise in carrying it out. Children were to be taught the rudiments of knowledge—chiefly reading, writing, and ciphering. There was but little trouble in finding teachers competent for this work, and no trouble at all in finding any number of men held abundantly qualified to be directors, trustees, managers, and superintendents of such education.

But the system was no sooner entered upon than it began to undergo a series of changes which were, of course, characterized as improvements. There were at first much crudeness, laxity, and irregularity in the schools, and these were to be replaced by better order and closer and more methodical work. The scope of instruction began to widen, and new subjects were introduced. Courses of study were laid out requiring years to complete them. The pupils were classed and graded, and this necessitated the gathering of larger numbers in the same establishment. Lesser schools were absorbed under the policy of expansion. With more diversified study, a complicated system of examinations, markings, and promotions grew up, which required a special apprenticeship of the teachers to work in it. The department of normal schools was instituted to meet the new demands on teachers, and, as the system was regulated by State authority, it was reduced to constantly increasing uniformity in all details of management.

In this way the public schools underwent a radical change, by which what had no existence at first gradually came to be of supreme importance. Liberty on the part of both teacher and pupil disappeared, and they became the passive subjects of inflexible regulation. Rules grew sacred, and there was no sin so great as to be absent from school a day, or not to be promptly on hand at the moment for starting. The officials directed everything, decided what and how much to study, hours of attendance, recesses or no recesses, and put as much or as little pressure as they pleased upon school operations. As a consequence, a gigantic mechanical system was created, the perfection of which consisted in the mechanical element. There are many who think that the system is now essentially perfected, and that, to gain its highest advantages, nothing remains but to augment its resources, and drive it with increasing vigor. Yet experience is disclosing grave difficulties in its working, and difficulties, moreover, which spring out of the alleged perfections of the method. That which characterizes it is the completeness of organization for dealing with pupils in masses; and the vice which is now widely recognized in its operations is, that the individuality of pupils is sacrificed to the perfect working of the mechanical arrangements.

Of course, in the nature of the case, the greater the number of children operated upon, the less is the consideration that can be given to each personality. Children are treated by a plan which implies that they are alike, but the assumption is not true. They are unlike, the differences among them are great; and, when it comes to the processes of education, these differences are fundamental. The fact which is neglected in machine education is the most important fact of the case. The palpable differences in physical aspect by which each is known as an individual extends through the whole nature. Children differ widely in their mental faculties, in their capacity of apprehension and retention, in attitude for different kinds of mental effort, in quickness of perception, in moral sensibility, and power of self-restraint, in organic soundness, and the capability of endurance. To cultivate them all alike is to do violence to those peculiarities which make up the individuality. They can neither be taught m the same way with the same results, nor plied by the same motives with equal effect, nor subjected to the same degree of strain without injurious consequences. Say what we will, there in an undoubted antagonism between the necessities and rights of individual children and the inexorable grind of the great educational machine; and experience testifies that the policy of ever-increasing stringency of requirement to which the mechanical system tends only aggravates its evils. In this respect there is nothing self-corrective in our educational methods.

It is not to be denied that a main root of this evil is the incapacity of teachers and of those intrusted with the management of schools to judge intelligently of the results of their system upon the varying natures of children. This is a complex and extensive branch of knowledge to which the normal schools give little attention. Our teachers as now prepared, and our school-officers as now selected, are left in ignorance upon this subject. Instructors are trained in the matters they are to teach. They are drilled in all the petty niceties of preordained school-room studies, and disciplined interminably in all the technical processes of the school system. Superintendents, inspectors, and boards of education are frequently mere business men, often men who have failed in some profession, and sometimes promoted teachers, and that they should know nothing of those physical, mental, and moral characteristics of the children subjected to their charge is inevitable.

And obviously, under the present policy, they can never possess this knowledge. The time is all taken up with other things, the machine is in the ascendant, and the results aimed at must be such as will commend themselves to an ignorant public sentiment. The thorough scientific study of the natures of children, which would qualify a teacher to judge of their differences, and the unequal influence of the system upon them, whether for good or for evil, could only be brought about by a radical reconstruction of the whole method, and the rejection from it of a great deal which is now held of supreme importance. No such profound change is to be expected. There is, therefore, little hope of relief from existing difficulties by any special preparation of teachers for the purpose. And, even if the policy were entered upon, it is extremely doubtful if it could be developed and carried out for many years in any adequate way; and it may be probably laid down as wholly impracticable to qualify the mass of teachers to judge intelligently of the effects of their educational system upon children, even in the single particular of over-pressure, and its influence upon mental and bodily health. Perhaps a few teachers could be specially trained in this direction, so that some degree of intelligence might be brought to bear upon the school-room regimen; but even this is impracticable in the present state of thought upon the subject.

What, then, remains to be done? Is the most important measure of improvement in school management to be given up as forever hopeless? We have said that this defect of our school system is attracting serious attention, and calling forth sharp criticism, but is this to avail nothing for future relief? We are not driven to this alternative, for the sufficient reason that there are men in the community well prepared to deal intelligently and efficiently with the subject. It is the especial business of medical men to understand the human constitution, and all their knowledge relates to what the school system ignores—the peculiarities of the individual. Diagnosis, critical personal observation, is the basis of all medical practice. Moreover, there is an especial branch of medical study that bears directly and immediately upon the questions here involved. There are physicians who give their lives to the investigation of mental science with reference to its corporeal conditions and its problems of health and disease. They are the students of insanity, and all the causes which tend to undermine mental soundness and produce feeble-mindedness in its innumerable forms. These are the men prepared to judge of the working of a school system upon the natures of children, and it is impossible to see that any reason can be offered for not invoking their services to this important end. Yet, strange to say, our school authorities are the first to resist this reasonable policy. They resent the idea that their system is not already working in perfection, and they virtually maintain that the ignorance of teachers and school officials is just as good for practical guidance as the knowledge and experience of men especially cultivated to deal with cases which are constantly arising, where pupils become the victims of an undiscriminating high-pressure system of school-work.

An illustration of the subject has recently arisen in London, which is attracting public attention in the shape of a controversy between an eminent medical man and a prominent Government official. Dr. Crichton Browne, a distinguished authority on nervous diseases and the treatment of the insane, pointed out some of the evils attending prevalent school practices, and advocated school inspection by competent physicians. Mr. Mundella, a manufacturer, a philanthropist, and Vice-President of the Government Council, who has large direction of the school, took issue with Dr. Browne, and there came a public contention upon the subject. The London "Lancet" reviewed this controversy, and gave reasons for maintaining that Dr. Crichton Browne had the right of it. The subject is so important that we reprint the "Lancet's" remarks in full:

Leaving the personal issues involved in the regrettable dispute which has been raised by Mr. Mundella's equivocal mode of traversing Dr. Crichton Browne's report on the subject of "over-pressure of work in public elementary schools," we turn to the main question: Is it, or is it not, the fact that over-pressure exists, and that it is doing mischief? The case seems to us to lie in a nutshell, and it would be difficult to cast the underlying hypothesis in a more terse form than that embodied in one of Dr. Crichton Browne's concluding sentences. No one alleges, or for a moment supposes, that the Vice-President of the Council, or any influential member or official of the Educational Department, is either willful or careless in the matter. It is simply a question of policy; and the most that need or can be justly said is said in these words: "It is quite possible that a scholar, whose body is twelve years old, but whose brain stopped growing at eight, might by his pleasing exterior and superficial sharpness impress the inspector with the idea that he is rather clever, while all the time he is childish, not to say babyish, in intellect, and ineducable beyond the first standard." If this be conceded, as we think it must be, then it follows that the inspector is not in a position to determine whether a particular pupil is or is not physically able to do the work required of him or her, and fit safely to be pressed through the educational curriculum. This seems to us to cover every contingency. It is not necessary to argue closely or warmly as to the question of experiences. It is conceivable that not a single case of injury may actually have occurred, and yet the system which makes a non-medical inspector—however humane and competent for his, proper task—the judge of physico-mental fitness, whether of pupil or pupil teacher, must be indefensible. What are we doing? Simply this: applying a uniform pressure to a vast multitude of brains, some of which must, in the nature of things, be too weak or too ill-developed to bear the strain thrust upon them. It is a monstrous and inexplicable blunder this insistence on a level code of education for all. Why, even as regards the muscular and general organism of the soldier and the sailor a medical examination precedes the commencement of drill, and medical inspection from time to time keeps the question of health in view. Muscular weakness is not half so serious a bar to physical training as mind weakness is to intellectual exercise. How comes it to pass, then, that without any medical examination or supervision whatsoever the brains of a multitude of children, the majority of whom are under-bred and ill-fed, should be subjected to the same discipline and required to do the same task? It is not considered enough to know the age of a recruit for the army or navy; means are taken to ascertain whether his heart, lungs, and organs generally are healthy, and medical officers are specially appointed to examine him from time to time with a view to determine whether he is bearing the strain healthily; but no provision whatever is made for testing or watching the immature cerebral orgasn upon which the public pedagogue is not only left free, but required, to operate. The mere fact that this obvious measure of individual scrutiny, from the health point of view, is omitted, puts the case for the department out of court.

Dr. Crichton Browne insists that, "in a great number of cases of dullness of intellect, a medical man could at once recognize the physical defects (which are often distinctive enough, although imperceptible except to the medical eye) which accompany mental weakness, and would support the judgment of the teachers; and in many cases of bodily disease and debility he could interefere to protect the children, even against the teachers, by preventing scholars who, although quick-witted and eager to learn, are certain to suffer in the process from being unduly pushed forward." The profession will indorse this statement as one of fact, and with that indorsement the dispute ought to end. Dr. Crichton Browne has undoubtedly proved his ease. It is not to the point whether the victims are many or few; the system extant is radically bad; and, that being so, the magnitude of the mischief wrought is of secondary importance. The blunder of striving to enforce a uniform code ought to be repaired without more ado. It may be strictly true, as Lord Shaftesbury has remarked, that "there does not live on the face of the earth a man who is more opposed to tyranny and oppression than Mr. Mundella, or any one more earnestly desirous of putting down all over-pressure as regards women and children." Then why, in the name of common sense, does not the vice-president adopt the suggestion made to him, instead of fighting what must needs be a losing battle against his own moral and states-manly consciousness of right?

Headaches, short-sightedness, neuralgia, and sleeplessness are not normal contingencies of youth, either for pupil-teachers or children, yet it is a fact which Dr. Crichton Browne has demonstrated, and which men "engaged in the ordinary practice" among the humbler classes, and who, according to Mr. Fitch, are "able to know something of the children of the poor, their pursuits and their ailments," can substantiate, that these troubles—the direct fruits of over-pressure of work—largely prevail. Nothing can be gained by denying this fact, and certainly a lay inspector is not the person to contradict an able and experienced practitioner on the subject. Dr. Crichton Browne modestly says: "I can not doubt that many of the facts which 1 have brought before you in this letter will be disputed, and that many of the principles which I have incidentally laid down will be challenged; but the former admit of verification, and in the latter I shall, I believe, have the support of the medical profession." We accept the facts and support the principles. If Mr. Mundella is not satisfied with one of the best professional opinions obtainable, let him appoint a small commission of physicians and surgeons, men of mark, in whom he and the public will have confidence, but who are in no sort of way connected with the public service or the department, and let the issue be left in their hands. It is not for Mr. Mundella and his lay inspector to impugn the judgment of a qualified physician. The presumption of so doing does not beseem these gentlemen: it goes better with the crass heartlessness—to use no stronger epithet—of the school manager who, when a wearied mistress ventured to sit while teaching her class, ordered all chairs to be removed from the building! While the administration of our educational system rests in hands like these, there is little hope of success or safety in its operation. For the sake of children and teachers alike, the schools ought at once to be placed under medical supervision. In an able and interesting paper on "The Brain of the School-Child," read before the Social Science Congress at Birmingham, Dr. Francis Warner has insisted on the urgency of the need which exists for medical inspection. We cordially indorse and support his argument. It is the cry of common sense. If the reasonable demand be not met fairly and fully, there can not fail to be disappointment and regret when the inevitable issue of a mistaken and futile policy is fully worked out.


While Rome was burning, it is said, Nero fiddled. The merry crackle of the flames, the glaring and tossing of the fiery sea, stirred the irresponsible tyrant to mirth as he heard and surveyed it all from his lofty tower. The story may or may not be mythical, but in either case it has its value as helping to complete in our minds the true type of the tyrant. The tyrant is he who uses public power as a private possession—uses it for his own gratification and not as a trust—and who can, therefore, stand apart in the hour of public peril, and laugh at commotions which, fraught as they may seem with possibilities of general disaster, he gayly hopes will not dislodge him, personally, from his position of vantage.

The old doctrine was, that there could be but one tyrant in a state, one usurper of power; but if it be agreed that the essence of tyranny consists not in the extent of power usurped and abused, but in the fact of usurpation and abuse, we may perhaps be led to see that there may be as many usurpers or tyrants in the state as there are depositaries of power. lie that is unfaithful in a little would be only too likely to be unfaithful in much, if he had the chance; at any rate he is in the same position morally and socially as though he had been unfaithful in much: he has done evil to the extent of his ability.

Let us look at the word "usurp" for a moment. The common and, as we think, correct etymology represents it as compounded of the two words usui and rapere, "to snatch for (one's own) use." Certainly a very happy mode of expressing the essential characteristic of tyranny. We load with opprobrium the monarchies of the past because they snatched to their own use and advantage powers which they could only righteously have wielded for the general good. We exult over the successive revolutions by which personal rulers have been shorn of their powers; and we look forward to the time when democracy in the fullest sense shall be coextensive with civilization. Then no man will be the depositary of any wide powers except strictly as a matter of delegation. Then the whole people everywhere will cooperate in the making, and largely control the execution, of the laws; and tyranny will forever be at an end.

The prospect is a cheering one, but the subject will bear a little closer looking into. Let us suppose that a certain monarch of past times—an Alfred let us say, an Edward III, a William III, or, going further back, an Antonine or a Trajan—finding himself in the possession of supreme power in the state, had faithfully endeavored, according to his best lights, to use that power for the benefit of his subjects, regarding himself as responsible to some higher power enshrined in his own conscience—could such a ruler, acting on such principles, properly be called a tyrant? His reply to the charge, were it made, would be: "I have not made a selfish or irresponsible use of power; I have not sacrificed others to myself, rather have I sacrificed myself to others; I have done my duty to the best of my knowledge and ability." Now the question arises. Can the individual citizen, who disposes of his ballot and his social influence, always say as much? If not, what are we to say of him? Are we to say that, because political power which was once possessed in the lump by one man has been broken into fragments and distributed to all men, all need for responsibility in the use of it has vanished? We fail to see it. Formerly one man had much, and he was required to be faithful in much; now each of us has a little—of the very same thing be it remembered, power, power not over ourselves only, but over others as well—and surely we are required to be faithful in the exorcise of that little. If we are not, what are we but each a petty tyrant in his way—fragments of one big tyrant, disjecti membra tyranni, if we may be allowed to alter a well-known Horatian phrase.

The man who sells his vote for money, what is ho but a usurper in the strict sense—one who snatches a public function, and applies it to his purely private advantage? What is he, again, but a traitor, seeing that, for money, he hands over the government, so far as he can do it, to a public enemy—the purchaser of votes being of absolute necessity a public enemy? Well, every man will not exchange his vote for hard cash; hut many a man, who has a soul above that particular form of transaction, sees no harm in taking an office as the equivalent of his franchise. Another wants his particular line of industry protected, and subordinates everything to that, without so much as a qualm or a misgiving. If his vote was not given to him that he might use it for the advancement of his business interests, he does not understand anything about the matter. Others give their votes as a matter of private favor; others, again, under the influence of private spite. Most have no better reason to allege than that their party has set up this or that candidate, and that they mean to support the party nomination. The candidate may be a man they would not trust with their private cash, or put at the head of any financial institution in which they had a stake, but at the bidding of party they will vote him into any public position, district. State, or Federal. The party caucus gives a consecration more potent than any holy oil, wiping out scars, tattoo-marks, and every species of blemish, and making the nominee "good enough" to represent the nation in the very highest seat of power. A vote so used is not treated as a public trust; it becomes merely the means of gratifying the selfish spirit of faction.

The principle we contend for is this: that the measure we mete to the rulers of the past, and to all sole depositaries of power, we should mete to ourselves. We have the power now in our own hands; the question is, What have we done with it—what are we doing with it? We know unfortunately that thousands and hundreds of thousands of voters would utterly spurn the idea of any responsibility attaching to their use of the suffrage. In this matter we can not be saved by any "remnant." If the majority go wrong here, the whole nation will go wrong; and its public policy may be determined to most lamentable issues. If it be asked what all this has to do with the scientific interests which this magazine is understood to advocate, we would answer, in the first place, that the function of science, in that broad sense in which we understand it, is to give a wise direction to the whole of human life; and, secondly, that the interests of science are intimately involved in the general condition of public opinion and public morality. Both of these considerations we shall continue to elucidate and enforce; meantime, we would press upon each individual citizen the consideration, which there is no evading, that the exercise of all political power and influence is a sacred trust, and that it is no less shameful a thing for the citizen of a free republic to give his vote under the influence of private motives apart from the sense of public duty, than it was for any of the despots of old to have made their larger powers mainly subservient to their own gratification.


One of the best contributions to the discussion of the Jewish question, that we have seen, is the article of Mr. Lucien Wolf, himself a Jew, in a recent number of the "Fortnightly Review." Mr. Wolf takes the ground that the chief reason why the Jews have been hated and persecuted is that they have possessed a form of religion and a system of morals and of self-government which have given them an advantage over all other races in the battle of life. Taking up an expression of Mr. Goldwin Smith's, he admits that Judaism is a system of "legalism"; but he goes on to say that "legalism" is what is wanted for this world—method, adaptation of means to ends, of effort to conditions, careful preservation of all that tends to superiority, and equally careful removal of all that makes for inferiority, whether physical, mental, or moral. He admits that Judaism is materialistic in this sense, that it concerns itself exclusively with the present life, and he maintains that, just because it does so limit the scope of its calculations and efforts, do things, so far as this world is concerned, go well with it. "The substantial difference," he observes, "between Judaism and Christianity is, that the one desires to teach us how to live, the other how to die. Judaism discourses of the excellence of temporal pleasure, the divinity—if I may be permitted to use the expression—of length of days; Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes the excellence of sorrow and the divinity of death. It is no wonder, then," he continues, "if, when competition arises between a race trained and hardened for worldly conflict and communities who have been taught to regard it as a duty to lay up their chief treasure in another world and to despise this, success should fall to the former rather than to the latter."

There is probably a measure of truth in these views. The Jews have, on the whole, been objected to because they have been too thrifty. The complaint has not been that they could not keep up with the pace of the rest of the world, but rather that they had a pace of their own, with which the rest of the world found it difficult to keep up. It is true also that a great bane, perhaps the chief bane, of the Christian world, has been a want of adaptation of means to ends, and a certain indisposition to take the laws of life—particularly its physical laws—seriously. Whence, if not from this cause, the huge pauper population with which Christendom has ever been burdened? Whence the failures of every kind with which the whole extent of society is strewn? There are people by the thousand who do not know a fact when they see it. There are thousands who dash themselves against the irresistible, or seek to flee the inevitable, instead of recognizing that what must be must be, and that the part of wisdom is to bow to inexorable law and seek to make with it the best terms possible. The world abounds with incapacity arising apparently from a kind of fateful wrongheadedness. We have thinkers who can not act, and actors who can not think, and people overflowing with sentiment who do more mischief with their good intentions than others with their bad. We have nothing to do with any of the theological implications of Mr. Wolf's article—which we need hardly say was not written with any theological purpose—but we incline to think that the main lesson which it contains is one which even those who would repudiate those implications most strongly might well consent to learn. That lesson we take to be this: that so much of "materialism" as consists in taking a clear view and firm grasp of facts, and in looking to facts rather than to fancies or sentiments for guidance, constitutes an important element of success in life, and should be so recognized in every scheme of education. To organize education, indeed, on any other basis, is but to invite failure, defeat, and misery. Whatever superiority may be assigned to the spiritual nature of man as contrasted with his physical part, the dependence of the former on the latter can hardly be questioned. When the bodily estate sinks into wretchedness, the moral character too often finds the same level. On every ground, therefore, we want a system of teaching that will help a man to help himself, thus providing at once for his physical comfort, his self-respect, and his intellectual and moral development. Mr. Spencer has said all this, as well as it can be said, in his treatise on education; and Mr. Lucien Wolf, following a very different path, and with very different objects in view, brings us again face to face with truths which we can not take too seriously to heart.