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



DR. McCOSH has published an argument on freedom in the higher education. He had discussed the subject with President Eliot before the Nineteenth Century Club, and he has since issued a pamphlet, entitled "The New-Departure in College Education, being a Reply to President Eliot's Defense of it in New York, February 24, 1885." The traditional collegiate system which has descended to us from old mediaeval and monastic times, so little impaired in its essential method, is now brought to the test of modern ideas. Not only is it a question of introducing and organizing modern studies in place of the classical studies, that are losing their hold upon the cultivated mind of the age, but this involves an inquiry into the theories and principles of the older and the newer education as to how far we should go in the direction of a more pliant, adaptive, and liberal system, and how far students are to have liberty of choice among the subjects of collegiate study.

Dr. McCosh argues against freedom in the higher education, taking the ground that has ever been taken against the progress of liberty—that it will be abused and run into license. As political liberty was resisted because it would destroy government, and lead to anarchy; as religious liberty was resisted because it would destroy the Church and put an end to religion; and as the liberty of the press was resisted because it would subvert public order—so the liberty of study is now opposed because it will degrade education and destroy the colleges. To all this, the reply dictated by the world's experience is simply that, while there are undoubted objections to liberty, its advantages outweigh its drawbacks. Dr. McCosh maintains that, if the students are left free to elect their subjects, they will choose those which are easiest, and therefore most worthless for purposes of mental cultivation. But this is contrary to both reason and experience. President Barnard, of Columbia College, in a passage appended to this article, testifies that students left free do not choose the easier subjects. But the reason of the case is, that what is hard to one student is easy to another; and this fact, with its implications, is the key to the movement in behalf of greater liberty in the choice of studies. Dr. McCosh makes little concession to those rights of individuality which originate in personal aptitudes and diversities of mental constitution, and which impel students to different lines of effort. He would enforce a common method upon all under a theory of mental discipline, rejected by reason and experience, and fortified only by long tradition. Dr. McCosh protests that he is not behind the age or an obstructive, and is "for freedom quite as much as Dr. Eliot is," and he allows "a certain amount of choice of studies," but this is in strict subjection to the classical ideal and the old college practice.

There is talk in this option controversy about a great number of things, but the issue is over compulsory Greek and Latin. It is a fight of the classicists, and, so long as they can force the dead languages, they care very little what else comes or goes. Classical education knows nothing of this modern spirit of liberty. It has ever been closely associated with priestly domination, with religious intolerance, with despotic collegiate authority, and arbitrary state regulation. In the old and powerful English universities the dead languages are the one thing that has been forced for centuries. They have been legislated as the tests of scholarship, the credentials of culture, and the badges of gentility. That the classical spirit should be one of arrogance and tyranny, and adverse to liberty, is sufficiently explained by the history of the old universities. There is much talk about the freedom of the German universities; but, so far as classics are concerned, their policy is one of simple, unmitigated despotism. Students, of course, are left free to attend lectures and recitations or not, as they please, and to study much as they like; but what does that amount to when they can not get into the universities with any chance of success except through the gymnasium, where they are subjected to years of unrelenting classical drill; and, if they do not graduate in conformity to high classical standards, are unable to get places under the state in either the church, the army, or the civil service? The educational system of Germany is an iron despotism of a military state. Dr. McCosh understands this; and, true to his classical instinct, would be willing to concede the utmost option to Harvard University if Massachusetts would but adopt the German plan. He says:

I know that in Germany they produce scholars without requiring a rigid attendance, and I rather think that in a few American colleges they are aping this German method, thinking to produce equally diligent students. They forget that the Germans have one powerful safeguard which we have not in America. For all offices in church and state there is an examination by high scholars following the college course. A young man can not get an office as clergyman, as teacher, as postmaster, till he has passed by that terrible examining bureau; and, if he is turned by them, his prospects in life are blasted. Let the State of Massachusetts pass a law like the Prussian, and Harvard may then relax attendance, and the State will do what the colleges have neglected to do.

The following passages, from a paper read before the Regents of the University of New York by President Barnard. of Columbia College, is a sufficient answer to the objections urged by Dr. McCosh:

Every new subject of study which has been admitted in the college course since the century began has been admitted in acknowledged violation of the theory on which the course is assumed to have been originally founded. Chemistry has been admitted, for instance, into the course, on the ground that it is important that every well-educated man should know something about the elementary composition of the matter which surrounds him; anatomy and physiology, because he ought to understand the structure of his own frame and the functions of its several organs; and mineralogy, geology, botany, physics, etc., for similar utilitarian reasons. So great is the multiplicity of subjects at present taught as to destroy altogether, especially in later years, the character claimed for the collegiate course as a system of mental discipline.

It is time, as it appears to me, that we should revise our theory of collegiate education, with a view to make it conform a little more nearly to our actual practice; or that we should modify our practice to make it harmonize more nearly with our theory. The most judicious course, apparently, would be to admit, to some extent, both species of change at the same time; and with this would necessarily follow the introduction into the system of instruction of the element of plasticity, permitting it to be varied in its character to accommodate the exigencies of different minds. The doctrine that all varieties of mind may be profitably subjected to the same educational regimen is a doctrine which it is not safe to admit, unless we confine its application to the most elementary stages. The true theory of education is not that theory which aims professedly to secure for all minds identically the same description of development and to force every mind into absolutely the same mold; but that, on the other hand, which anticipates, as inevitable, differences which no external influences can ever compel effectually to disappear, and which adapts its culture to these ineradicable and irrepressible differences.

The first business of education is, therefore, to find out what the individual is fit for; the next is to make the most of him in that for which he is fit, and, according to this true theory of a subject which plausible speculation has done very much to obscure, a special system or training, adapted to the idiosyncrasies of the individual, is just as distinctly indicated for the latter years of a liberal educational culture as a general one, equally enforced on all, is for the earliest. And it further follows that, if at this later period the student is permitted to follow the bent which his previous training has served to develop, his choice will fall upon those studies which are in harmony with his bent without any reference to the question whether they are, in the common sense of the word, "easy" studies or "difficult." For these terms "easy" and "difficult" as applied to matters which concern the understanding, admit of two quite different modes of definition.

No mental pursuit is easy if it be distasteful, no matter how small the labors its prosecution demands; and no similar pursuit is difficult if pleasing, even though to follow it may exact the severest and the most persistently sustained exercise of the faculties. And, in corroboration of the truth of this proposition, it may here be stated that, in Columbia College, under the system which permits the members of the senior class to select, for the most part, studies which they prefer to pursue, there is no lack of volunteers for a subject commonly reported to be so difficult and forbidding as the calculus, or as obscure as the metaphysics; nor is there, on the other hand, any observable predominance in the number who select a branch so fascinating as physics, or so practical as technology or chemistry.

The distribution has been, in fact, approximately equal among all the studies presented for option. And this result is one which we may reasonably look for when parallel courses of study are offered to the choice of the student during the later years of the academic course, whatever might be true if the offer were made at the beginning. For the effect of the early years of training is to bring out the character of each individual mind, and to determine what are its native idiosyncrasies, and what it is possible to make of it. And though the doctrine that all the faculties of all minds should be developed as far as possible by appropriate educational exercise and discipline is a true doctrine, yet the doctrine that all faculties of all minds are equally capable of development is a fallacy which no enlightened educator will think of maintaining.

That every faculty should receive its fair amount of fostering attention is certainly just and right, but to expect that this fair amount or that any amount of individual culture, however laborious, will secure to every individual an equal power or chance of success in any given direction—as, for instance, in poetry or mathematical research—is as unreasonable as to expect that every sapling in a nursery may, by proper care, be made equally prolific of fruit. After all that has been said about the desirability and the importance of symmetrical mental development, and of the duty of shaping the educational culture with a view to secure such a development, the simple fact is that all minds develop themselves unsymmetrically, just as certainly as that different minerals crystallize into different geometrical figures; and that it is just as hopeless for the educationist to look for that ideal conformity and perfection of mental proportion among his pupils which has been so much insisted on as the end at which education should aim as it would be for the chemist to attempt by his science to compel all his salts to crystallize into spheres.

The great evil of the invariable curriculum of study in our colleges at the present time is that it makes it impossible, at least after the end of the second year of the course, to teach any subject with satisfactory thoroughness. From an examination of the programme of instruction in Columbia College for the junior and senior years—I select my own college rather than another that my remarks may not seem invidious—it appears that if every student were compelled to take every subject, and if to every subject should be given an equal proportion of the available time, no single subject, if pursued continuously, could occupy a longer period than about a month. How is it possible to expect results satisfactory either to instructor or to learner from such a state of things as this? There is no remedy for the evil but that of permitting the student to concentrate his attention upon those subjects which are most in harmony with his native bent, and to leave the others to those to whom they in turn may be more acceptable.


"No apology is needed for printing the long article of M. de Laveleye in reply to Herbert Spencer, together with the latter's brief rejoinder. The Belgian state socialist is a man of mark, who believes in the extension of the powers of government for the general purposes of philanthropy; and it was natural that he should see the need of breaking the force of Spencer's argument. But, quite regardless of that result, his paper is of interest as revealing the condition of mind of a man admitted to be strong in politics and economics, but who shows such a want of familiarity with the elements of social science as gives confusion to his exposition. Notwithstanding its merits, looseness and inaccuracy in important parts of his paper must go far to impair our confidence in the integrity of his intellectual work.

What trust, for example, can we have in the information or the thinking of a man who says, "Darwin borrowed his ideas of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest from Malthus, from whom he also drew his theories of evolution and transformism"? Now, "the struggle for existence" is certainly not an idea belonging either to Darwin or Malthus, but is far older than both. And so also with the principle of the "survival of the fittest"; it is a formula of Herbert Spencer, adopted by him to represent the same idea that Mr. Darwin expresses by the term "natural selection"; but the conception is found in the writings of the earlier naturalists, and what the modern thinkers have done is simply to work out new and important views of their results.

M. de Laveleye constantly speaks in his article of "Darwin's idea," and constantly misconceives it. What Mr. Darwin did was to show how the ideas or principles or conditions of nature known as the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, together with heredity and variation, give rise to new species of plants and animals. It was an idea belonging strictly to the sphere of biological science, and aiming to account rationally for the great diversities of kinds among organic beings.

M. de Laveleye not only misapprehends "Darwin's idea," of which he is constantly talking, but speaks of it as something seized upon by Herbert Spencer and applied by him to human society. But, in the first place, Darwin had nothing to apply; and, in the second place, Spencer was in the field long before him. The struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest were ideas which Spencer had developed in their social applications, tracing out their results and assigning their limitations in his book upon human society, of 1851; while "Darwin's idea," belonging in quite another field, was not enunciated till 1859.

But this laxity of thought and misinformation affecting the fundamental conception of his argument go further. Not only does he misapprehend the "Darwinian idea," which is in fact entirely irrelevant to his argument, and not only does he constantly make Spencer the follower of Darwin, where Spencer was the actual predecessor, but he discloses an ignorance of the principles he professes to deal with, in their social bearings, which is somewhat surprising in a man who ventures to take issue with the leading sociologist of the age. He accuses Spencer of borrowing from Darwin, and applying to society an inhuman principle, which reverses all the equities of government and gives license to the worst of crimes. He says, "If it be really advisable that the law of the survival of the fittest should be established among us, the first step to be taken would be the abolition of all laws which punish theft and murder." And does M. de Laveleye really consider that it is optional with anybody whether the principle of the survival of the fittest shall be established in society or not? Are not the principles of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest simple demonstrated facts of nature, as old as men's observations of the economy of life upon earth,' and no more to be escaped than temperature, the atmosphere, or gravitation? Because the law of gravitation is destructive, and maims and kills people daily, and everywhere, and without remorse, is the question to be raised whether or not it is to be established among us? And will M. de Laveleye maintain that the only way "to establish among us this heartless and cruel law of gravitation" is to give everybody a license to kill? The law of gravitation is established, and, with all its deadly results, it is a law of infinite beneficence. Nothing remains for man but to accept it and heed it: if it causes wounds when he stumbles, it is, nevertheless, the condition by which he walks; he is to avoid its injurious effects and secure its useful effects. Nature, of which man is a part, is a mixed system, in which good comes out of evil, and suffering is made tributary to ever-increasing beneficence. The principles of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest are inexorable ordinances of Nature, full of violence and death, but through which the progress and improvement and elevation of life upon earth have been accomplished. They were in operation upon a vast scale countless thousands of years before man appeared. They have been in operation in his development many thousands of years before he began to take a conscious and intentional part in the work of his own elevation; and they must continue in operation as long as the present order of natural things prevails, and the movement is upward and onward toward greater good. The sole question is, whether these great laws are to be wisely recognized and made use of by man in furtherance of those ameliorations to which they have already so immensely contributed. Only gross inappreciation of the subject, or sheer intellectual perversity, could assume that these principles require the abolition of the penal restraints of crime in organized society.