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



THE reason most frequently given for the introduction of more or less of theological doctrine into public school-teaching is that, without this, there can be no effective teaching of morality. The Roman Catholic Church has always urged this point very strongly; and other communions, if less definite in their claims, have in general shown a disposition to give the teaching of morals in the public schools a distinctly theological basis. The question should, therefore, be fairly met, whether morals can be taught apart from theology. If they can not, then there is only one thing for state-directed schools to do, and that is, to leave the whole subject alone; seeing that the teaching of a privileged and undemonstrable theology in such establishments is something the people as a whole will never consent to—something, indeed, entirely inconsistent with the most elementary notions of intellectual freedom.

By morals we understand the science or art of human conduct—the science, when studied theoretically; the art, when practically applied. We believe that the end of conduct is the promotion of happiness in the widest sense. Happiness is the end that every individual instinctively seeks; and happiness is the only end that the philosopher can discover, toward which conduct in general can be directed. Happiness, again, if a definition of it must be had, can only be understood as fullness and harmony of life; and the things, therefore, that tend to render life full and harmonious are the things that tend to happiness, and the things consequently that morality, as a science, should teach. But life is essentially a thing of relations, and of ever-multiplying relations as it grows in complexity. No human being can be understood apart from his relations to the social organism to which he belongs. As well, to use Mr. Spencer's illustration, try to understand a human arm severed from the body and without reference to, or knowledge of, the body as a whole. The harmony of individual life is consequently, in the main, a matter of adjustment to its social environment. Only through society does the individual gain a true knowledge of, or empire over, himself. Only through society does he discover his true destination in the performance of social (including domestic) duties and the enjoyment of social privileges. Only through society are his thoughts so far widened as to enable him to take a rational view of the universe, unobscured by personal illusions and undisturbed by superstition. The action of mind upon mind and the shock of opinion upon opinion are the guarantees at once of our intellectual liberty and of! our mental sanity.

Now, we wholly fail to see why morality as the science of human duties, themselves considered as the foundation, the essential condition (demonstrably so) of human happiness, could not be taught very efficiently and satisfactorily in our public schools, without any reference to supramundane facts or theories. What we all have to do is to adapt ourselves to the conditions of life here; and some respectable theologians are to be found who hold that, if we succeed in doing that, we shall occupy a very good position for entering on any future life that may await us. Be that as it may, the business of adapting ourselves to our earthly environment is one that depends on a knowledge of mundane truths. Let our school-teachers be at full liberty to expound the laws of human life and well-being to their pupils. Let them show them what they are and what they are adapted for, and how each kind and grade of happiness—physical, intellectual, moral, personal, domestic, social—l attainable by human beings, depends on the wise and patient exercise of specific faculties and powers, on the steady pursuit of specific courses of action. Let him appeal less than has hitherto been done to the coarse and often hurtful stimulus of individual ambition, and more to the sense of comradeship and mutual good-will which is never wholly lacking in children. Let him exhibit civilization, as we now enjoy it, as the joint product of unnumbered minds and hands co-operating, often unconsciously, toward a common end; and let him point out that greater triumphs still are to be wrought in the future when the thought of the common good shall be present to every mind, and more or less sweeten every day of toil. The trouble with multitudes of men and women is that their true self-respect has never been properly aroused. Dreams of ambition may have been presented to their minds, but they have not been sedulously taught to consider themselves as capable of good things. They have heard in all probability that they have souls to be saved (or the reverse), but it has not been sufficiently impressed on them that they have characters to be refined, that they have the germs of a hundred good qualities which a little generous nurture would quicken into vigorous and beautiful life. From this point of view the old Socratic maxim, "Know thyself," acquires a new and powerful significance. To know one's self is to know one's own best capacities, and to know these is to desire to exercise them. To know one's self is to know one's weaknesses, and to know these is to be more or less on one's guard against them. In one aspect, therefore, the teaching of morals is simply the unfolding of the actual facts of human life. When the facts are once exhibited in their proper order and relation, the inferences to be drawn from them hardly require pointing out.

Far, therefore, from the teaching of morals in this sense being unsuited to the public schools, we conceive that it is precisely this that they should most earnestly concern themselves with. The system of state education is upheld on the ground that the stability of the state depends on the character of its citizens, and that this in turn depends on education. We do not now discuss that theory; we only say that a prime inference to be drawn from it is that whatever bears directly on character and conduct should take precedence, in state education, of what only bears indirectly thereon. And we hold not only that morals can be taught apart from theology, but that the less moral teaching is complicated with theology, provided only it is delivered with conviction, the better effects it will produce. We want to know the reactions that different courses of conduct produce in this world, not to speculate as to the reactions they may produce in a world of wholly different constitution. In all probability it may be difficult for a long time to come to obtain a generation of teachers capable of expounding a scientific morality with intelligence, conviction, and enthusiasm; but none the less is it clear that the only morality that can gain a permanent footing in the public schools is one capable of demonstration, one founded on the laws of life.


In looking over the various departments of special scientific study mapped out in the organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one searches in vain for any recognition of psychology. In the various sections provided for by the Constitution, the nearest approach to the psychological domain is found in biology and anthropology. We suspect that no student of mind would he content to allow his chosen science to be treated as an appendage to either of these sections, and yet it appears that he must find its place in one of them, if at all.

It can hardly be that this omission occurs because there are so few who are engaged in psychological study. The editor of "Mind" asserts that, of the contributions submitted for publication in that journal, the American articles indicate in our country a very deep and widely diffused interest in that subject, and have specially attracted his attention both for their quantity and for their excellence. American psychological students have recently demonstrated the existence of the temperature-sense as an independent sensibility. Every college has its department of mental science, and there are many well-known workers in this field. Even if such were not the case, still it may reasonably be supposed that one of the objects of the Association is to encourage labor in neglected branches of science by calling attention to them.

The probabilities are, that the old prejudice against "metaphysics" has survived and causes a reluctance to concede any scientific value to psychology. If this be so, it is certain that the feeling in question ought to be abated by a more just estimate. Time was, of course, when psychology meant speculation; but that time has passed away. Psychology to-day has just as definite a scientific character as has biology. Its study is pursued by strictly scientific methods, and by scientific tests its results are measured. True, indeed, this can not be said of all study that calls itself psychological. But then we have plenty of people terming themselves biologists whose methods and purposes are absolutely empirical. Yet there is a science of biology, and in as high a degree there is also a science of psychology, notwithstanding that there are sometimes empirics concerned in both. The latter has its distinct province, its subdivisions into various important departments with specialists in each; and the substantial additions it is constantly making to human knowledge are abundant enough and of sufficient consequence to entitle it, upon the most modest claims, to an honorable position in the circle of the sciences.

We think the American Association at its coming meeting would act wisely in creating a Psychological Section. Even if there be danger that psychology will sometimes run mad from the poison of metaphysical virus, it is well to reflect upon the truth in John Stuart Mill's remark to the effect that without philosophy we can never be really sure that we know anything.