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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/May 1886/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | May 1886

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
CHARITY AND SENTIMENTALITY.

AN apostle once wrote, "Let love be without dissimulation." Had he lived in our day, he might have thought it quite as important to say, "Let love be without sentimentality." In looking over the reports of charitable institutions—especially purely voluntary ones—we are frequently struck by the utter absence of any attempt to deal in what might be called a scientific manner with the facts that come within their scope. Instead of this, we have any amount of sentimentality and gush, pious ascriptions of thanks to Providence, considerable laudation of the officers engaged in the work of the institution, and long lists of donations, with the names of the donors, of course. Now, we would cheerfully exchange all this for a little information likely to be servicable in a scientific point of view. Say it is an "orphans' home." What we should like to know in connection with the operations of such an institution may be roughly indicated under the following heads: 1. In regard to each inmate, whether he or she is really an orphan or not. 2. If so, how the condition of orphanage and dependence arose. 3. How it happened that private aid from friends or relatives was not forthcoming—whether, for example, the existence of a convenient asylum into which the orphan could be put had anything to do with the child's being placed there rather than otherwise provided for. 4. What moral effects seem to flow from the absence of parental affection and influence. 5. What the special influences of the home or asylum seem to be in different classes of cases. 6. What the subsequent course in life of children released from the home has been.

It is too much the habit of the present day to think that, if things are done from a right motive, they must be done well. One evil effect of this is to discourage criticism of motives apparently good; yet the interests of society as a whole call for nothing more strongly than for a stringent criticism of motives as well as of actions. Take the case of our orphan asylum again. In some small town, a lot of benevolent people, chiefly of the more emotional sex, will decide that an orphan asylum is wanted. There may be only three or four cases within their knowledge at the time that in any way call for such an institution; and probably no very great amount of private effort would be required to dispose of these satisfactorily in a private way. Still, the idea of an orphan asylum, managed by a society of ladies, is a very taking one. It will make room for a lady president, two or three lady vice-presidents, a lady secretary, a managing committee of ladies, and, of course, lady visitors. So the asylum is ushered into existence. Though modest in its beginnings, it is still beyond the real wants of the locality. The few known orphans are gathered in; and then the ladies, hungry for objects of benevolence, look round for more; rather than have empty rooms and a half-employed matron, they "rope in," on one pretext or another, children who are not orphans at all. Then they challenge public attention by annual reports and annual collections. Of course, every man in the community who wants to be credited with even a fragment of a soul must subscribe to the orphan asylum. It would be as much as one's social existence was worth to so much as hint a doubt as to whether an institution with a name so redolent of charity was really performing a useful office in the community. So the funds come in freely. The ladies, finding how prompt is the response to their benevolent appeals, conceive large and daring schemes. They are going to have a building now that will be a credit to the town, and that will not only rob orphanage of half its terrors, but widely advertise the willingness of the community to shoulder everybody's private burdens in the matter of children needing protection through the loss of parents. So a ridiculously large building goes up, to the infinite pride and satisfaction of the lady managers, and the silent wonderment of the meditative citizen with a gift for arithmetic and averages, but perhaps no experience as to how the orphan business like other businesses can be "boomed."

Now, the hard, bottom fact is, that fuss and vanity enter very largely into many of these schemes of so-called charity. They reek with sentimentality; and therefore it is no wonder that those who work them content themselves with reports at once jejune and nauseating—jejune in facts, nauseating in phraseology. The best possible way to check these flabby imitations of real charity would be to summon them somewhat peremptorily to give such facts as might furnish material for a really scientific study of their operations. They could not in decency refuse the demand, if made by a certain number of their respectable supporters; and yet we are convinced that, to comply with the demand in anything like an honest and thorough fashion, would be to show that their work was, in part at least, hollow and even hurtful. We believe that a vast amount of harm is being done, not only by thoughtless private charity, but by ill-organized, ill-directed, and over-ambitious corporate charity. However, let scientific thinkers, men who have taken to heart all that is implied in the great truth that two and two make four, settle right down to work on the reports of some of these pretentious concerns; and, where they find information lacking that ought to be given, quietly ask for it. The world would be none the worse for the puncturing of a few of the bubbles blown by vanity and floated by sentimentality; and the way to puncture them is to bring the "scientific method" to bear on their very unscientific operations.

"We are glad to see that the views expressed in these columns a year ago, in regard to the inexpediency of giving Federal aid to education in the South or anywhere else, are gaining ground among the most intelligent representatives of public opinion. The "Boston Herald," one of the most progressive papers in the country, which at one time favored the scheme, now opposes it. There is altogether too strong a disposition in certain quarters to bring the Federal Government into play for the redress of all kinds of wrongs. The ideal should rather be to reduce its functions to the narrowest limits in order that all the more life may reside in our local institutions, and all the more scope be left to private initiative. It is easier to stereotype a civilization than people imagine, and the way to do it is to look to the Government for everything.

To show how easy it is to make a fallacious use of figures, we may mention that in the alarming statistics frequently published in support of the Blair Bill for Federal aid to education in the South—statistics intended to show what an overwhelming mass of ignorance existed in the Southern States—no account was taken of the fact that a very large proportion of the illiterate blacks belonged to a class—the adult population—whom educational measures could never reach, however liberal might be the appropriations made therefor. A recent writer has pointed out that when we come to compare the percentage of children attending school in the South with the percentage so attending, say, in New England, the difference is by no means very striking. The South is evidently doing well, and will yet do better, if no intrusive and demoralizing aid is afforded to it out of the national treasury.