Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/July 1885/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
A PERNICIOUS POLITICAL TENDENCY.

THERE is no more important subject for consideration in the present day than that which is involved in the question whether the powers of government ought to be extended or restricted. The tendency, as every one must be aware, is toward extension, not restriction, and one of our contemporaries, the "Christian Union," snubs a correspondent who suggests restriction by telling him that he is "about half a century behind the times." The earliest form of government, it proceeds to say, is military despotism, the next is one of police regulation; while the happy dispensation under which we now live is one of industrial cooperation. Government is "organized to do for the community, by community action, whatever it can do better in that way than in any other." This is a little enigmatical, suggesting as it does that "government" might proceed in a great many other ways than by community action; but we may perhaps assume the meaning to be that government is organized to do for the community whatever can be better done through its agency than by any form of private effort or enterprise.

The first objection we make to this position is, that a great deal of ambiguity attaches to the word "better" as here employed. The resources of the Government are practically boundless; and that the Government, with boundless means, should do a particular work "better" than it would be done by private individuals with limited means, is not quite decisive of the question whether the Government should undertake the work or not. Anything can be done well if money without stint is applied to it; but the question remains, Are government methods of doing work really beneficial to the people? If the Government undertook to manage all the private gardens in the country, on the understanding that it might levy whatever taxes were necessary for the purpose, no doubt there might be a considerable improvement, on the average, in the way in which lawns and flower-beds and vegetable patches would be kept. It would take time to organize the necessary army of gardeners and laborers; but the thing could probably be accomplished in the end. There would be fat places for the politicians and clerkships without number, in addition to the actual outside workers; but the vast machine would sooner or later be brought into motion; and then no doubt some people, carried away by their admiration for the greater uniformity of government work, would proclaim that the principle of state management had scored another triumph. But meanwhile where would the money come from? Would the whole question of expediency be decided by pointing to the fact, if it were a fact, that, on the average, gardens were kept in better shape by the Government gardeners than they had been by the private owners? Would not the question of economy call loudly for consideration? And would it not be a further question whether Government was not doing more harm by diminishing the power of individual initiative than it was doing good by keeping hedges, and borders, and walks in superior trim?

When, therefore, we hear of Government doing this or that thing "better" than private enterprise would do it, we should like to go below the surface of things and examine a little into underlying questions, economical and moral. Every one seems to admit that a benevolent despotism would do certain things "better" than they are done by oar republican Government. Why is it, then, that we will not hear of any kind of despotism—that our repugnance to a benevolent despotism is scarcely less than our repugnance to a purely selfish one? Because we hold that the word "better," as applied to the work of a despotism of any kind, is a very shallow "better"; and that, while certain superficial aspects of the national life might be improved under such a régime, the deep and abiding interests of the country would suffer. Well, what people have to learn is that something despotic attaches to all government action outside of the sphere which peculiarly belongs to government, the protection of the community from foreign, and of individuals from private, aggression. All government action is of a compulsory character; all takes away something from the liberty of the individual; all stands in the way of the spontaneous development of the agencies for doing what the Government unnecessarily undertakes. Social bonds are not knit by what the Government does, but social bonds are knit by every development of private enterprise, by every spontaneous development of means to ends for social purposes. If government managed everything for us, society in the true organic sense would cease to exist. The individual would find himself at every turn face to face with a great mechanism, and would no longer have the sense of belonging to a living and growing system. It is easy to sneer at these ideas as being "half a century behind the times"; but whoever does so should remember that at least one illustrious name stands associated with them, and that it is not usual to cite the author of the "Synthetic Philosophy" as a man left in the rear of the world's intellectual march. "Democracy," we are told, has left these notions behind, and will never take them up again. What democracy will or will not do in the future it is rash to assert; for our own part we venture on no predictions. We should just wish, however, to remark that it settles no question of right or wrong, truth or error, to say that "democracy" has done so and so. Democracy, we presume, is not infallible. These abstractions, however, are most misleading. Tell us the exact truth: that a certain community living under certain institutions, and at a certain stage in its intellectual and moral development has turned its back on a particular set of ideas; and we shall not only know precisely what you mean, but shall also be able to estimate the importance and value of your statement. But tell us that the abstraction "democracy" has done the same thing, and we are entitled to reply that no abstraction is capable of any such action.

On the principle our contemporary has laid down, it is impossible to say at what point state action should cease; for the more the state undertakes the more it is impelled to undertake. To add one new function to-day is to prepare for the addition of a dozen within a few years. Take the case of the English Government. Having the post-office under its control, it was led to make use of the post-office organization for the issue and payment of money orders. Then followed the establishment of post-office savings-banks; then the absorption of the telegraph system; then the establishment of a parcel-delivery and general express business. On the Continent the post-office collects debts, pays newspaper subscriptions, and carries money in very much the same way as the express companies do here. Where is this kind of thing to stop? The larger the organization, the greater the temptation to apply it in some new way, or to accomplish by means of it some new object. There are those, no doubt, who think this increasing influence and interference of government a hopeful sign, and who look forward to the day when government will seize upon all the great lines of industry and forever break the power of private enterprise; hut few intelligent persons in this country are of this turn of mind. We would therefore say to those who wish to preserve upon this continent a society alive in all its parts and full of individual initiative and resource, to beware how they give heed to the seductive doctrine that government should undertake whatever it can do "better" than private individuals. We might pay too dear for having our garden-walks rolled by government rollers, and too dear in many other ways for the alleged benefits of official rule.

 

 
BEECHER ON EVOLUTION.

The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher has worthily crowned his splendid career as a liberal religious reformer by announcing and entering upon a series of discourses to his congregation in exposition and defense of the doctrine of evolution in its religious aspects and hearings. The taking of this noble stand in a formal way at the present time is undoubtedly the most momentous act of his intellectual and professional life. At a time when most men are worn out and ready to retire, when enthusiasm is usually chilled and opinions become hardened and unadaptive, Mr, Beecher strikes into a new field with the fire of youth, and takes the leadership in a movement of religious reform of quite incalculable moment. He commits himself boldly and broadly to the most comprehensive, far-reaching, and revolutionary truth yet established by science, and which carries with it a total reconstruction of the relations of science and religion; and this he does in opposition to the narrow-mindedness and dull indifference of the community, and more especially to the organized ignorance, the sacred traditions, the inveterate prejudices, the bigotry and the intolerance of the theological world. We confess to unaffected admiration for the sagacity, the independence, the courage, the loyalty to conscience and to truth, that have prompted Mr. Beecher to take this brave and significant step.

Undoubtedly he has undertaken a very difficult task, and he is aware that he has not much child's play before him. But there are important advantages in his position; and the first of these is, his independence of religious organizations: he has to reckon only with his congregation. In various respects, no doubt, his audience is but poorly equipped to appreciate the value of facts and the force of reasoning on the subject of evolution. For it must be remembered that the proof of that great principle is not of a kind to be given to an uninstructed person at a sitting. It is the diversity, and wide concurrence, and cumulative confirmation of the evidences that give the overwhelming force of demonstration to the theory. It must be assumed that Mr. Beecher's congregation has not been very well prepared in the philosophy of evidence, any more than they are familiar with the sciences from which the proofs are derived. It consists of bright, intelligent people, whose mental cultivation has been chiefly in literature, politics, and theology; while in proportion to their proficiency in these will they rank low in science knowing little of its facts and less of its spirit and method.

Nevertheless, Mr. Beecher's congregation has had a very valuable and important preparation, which will be pretty sure to carry them with him in the present movement. Evolution is by no means a thing of yesterday with Mr. Beecher; he has long been on the road to it. The doctrine of progress has been one of the favorite and most powerful elements of his preaching for a quarter of a century. It has been the key to his theological philosophy, and his people have been trained into thorough familiarity with the conception as an all-interpreting principle in both theology and politics. Yet evolution is only the expansion and full scientific elucidation and wider sweep of application of the idea of progress. Nor is there anything now in evolution more fatal to orthodoxy than there was a generation ago in the first vague divergence from the old rigid dogmatic systems in recognizing a progressive element in religion. Mr. Beecher and his people have been themselves evolved into their present position, and might furnish an object-lesson in the law of development. There will probably be more trouble in accepting the newer name appropriate to the later stage of growth than there has been in assimilating the underlying truth.

We congratulate Mr. Beecher on his intrepid course, and his determination to bring his pulpit into harmony with those revelations of science that a re-reshaping the thought of the age; and we commend his example to the numerous clergymen who give their private assent to evolution doctrine, and then go on promulgating the old beliefs from desks sacred to antiquated error.

 

 
SPREADING IT TOO THIN.

At a meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers 1 Association, held a short time ago, President Eliot, of Harvard, spoke in strong terms of the unsatisfactory character of the great majority of the so-called high-schools of the Commonwealth. Out of a total of two hundred and twenty-eight such schools, seventy-two only had as many as three teachers, and the whole together sent only one hundred and ninety-nine students to the colleges of the State during the year 1884. The simple fact, President Eliot states, is that the majority of the schools are not fit to prepare youths for matriculation at college, though in the general system of public-school education that is a recognized part of their function. "It has been the policy of the Board of Education," we are told, "to encourage small towns to establish high-schools in order that as large a percentage as possible of the population may have a school higher than the grammar-school within easy reach." That policy has been so far successful that over ninety per cent of the population nominally enjoy the privilege in question. The result, however, is a thinning and impoverishing of the education just in proportion to its extension. Seventy-five of the high-schools are maintained in towns of less than five hundred families. Nearly half of the whole number existing have less than sixty pupils each. President Eliot naturally calls for such a change in the law as may enable two or three or four smaller towns to establish a joint school, and employ in rendering it really efficient the funds which now are more or less frittered away upon the maintenance of two or more weak and inefficient schools. He also suggests that the colleges should meet the schools half-way by establishing liberal systems of options, so that no student need be debarred from the higher advantages that the colleges afford by his inability to pass an entrance-examination in one or two subjects in which he feels no interest, and which he has no ulterior intention of pursuing.

We call attention to this matter because we have reason to believe that the practical evil which the President of Harvard describes is not confined to the State of Massachusetts, but is widely prevalent throughout the country at large. It is a result, no doubt, of our democratic ideas, and of the local jealousies which, it will hardly be questioned, democratic institutions bring in their train, that we try to bring to every man's door what we bring to one man's door. The thing can only be accomplished, however, at the expense of a marked deterioration in the article supplied. A good and well-equipped high-school can not, as things now are, be maintained in every village and township. We may have the name of the thing, but the reality we can not have. If the system could be worked at all it could probably be worked as successfully in Massachusetts as in any State of the Union; but President Eliot tells us that it does not work well there at all, and that, owing to the poverty of the great majority of the schools, a gap which ought not to exist, and which is inconsistent with the theory of the public-school system, has established itself between the so-called high-schools and the colleges. The schools ought to prepare their students for matriculation at the colleges; but the most of them neither do nor can do anything of the kind.

What applies to the high-schools applies also, generally speaking, to the colleges themselves. They are not what they ought to be, simply because there are too many of them. The consequence is, that there is a great deal of false and shallow culture abroad in the land. A college ought to be a place where a youth would be certain to come into contact with men of an altogether superior order of thought and attainment. It ought to be the center of a true intellectual life. Of all our colleges, how many answer this description? It is needless to say that the country does not possess a sufficient number of men of real intellectual mark to fill all the chairs in our innumerable "colleges." If it did, we should indeed be exceptionally favored. Now, the effect of shallow learning tricking itself out in the garb of real erudition is to confuse all intellectual perceptions and standards. We do not say that a little learning is a dangerous thing, but we say that a little learning that mistakes itself for great learning is apt to make more or less of a fool or a charlatan of its possessor. We do not know whether there is much to be gained by struggling against what seems to be one of the main currents of the time; but we are profoundly convinced that the cause of American culture calls for concentration not dispersion of effort, for centralization as opposed to localization, for the sinking of petty rivalries in the endeavor to found strong, permanent, and widely beneficial institutions. Let our common schools which penetrate everywhere be placed on as sound a basis as possible; let high-schools be established in centers where they can be vigorously and generously sustained; let our colleges and universities be proportioned in number to the need actually existing for the highest culture, and let them have such support as national and individual interest in such culture prompts—and we shall then have all the necessary means for making the American people the equals in education of any other nation in the world. At present we have a vast but somewhat disjointed apparatus, and the results, however soothing they may be in some respects to democratic pride, are, from the point of view of national culture, far from satisfactory.

 

 

We call particular attention to the weighty testimony of Dr. Edward Frankland, the eminent English chemist and sanitarian, to the claims of the Yellowstone National Park as a great American health resort in winter for invalids with chest and pulmonary difficulties. Dr. Frankland has investigated this subject long and carefully, and is especially familiar with the conditions and effects of the celebrated Engadine Swiss sanitarium in the valley of Davos. Dr. Frankland came to this country last summer, attended the British Association at Montreal, and, having heard much of the Yellowstone Park, he went there and spent considerable time in examining its claims as a great winter sanitarium for the American people. He contributes to the "Monthly" a valuable paper, giving the results of his observations, and the more valuable, as it is a comparative study of the health-merits of the two localities; the marked advantages being in favor of the Yellowstone Park over the celebrated Swiss valley. The article is most instructive, and the subject one of interest and moment to our people.