Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/Correspondence



Editor Popular Science Monthly:

THOUGH usually reading with approbation the "Editor's Table" in "The Popular Science Monthly," I can not refrain from expressing a decided dissent from the position taken in the latter part of an editorial in the March number entitled "Functions of the State." The opinion therein advanced is that "education is no part of the functions of the State, and that it would be better, therefore, to leave it in the hands of the family, even though the result were to show in the course of a few years a larger proportion than now of that kind of illiteracy which consists in not being able to read or write." In other words, as I understand the editor's meaning, he would do away with our present public-school system, now regarded by educators and tax-payers generally as the most effective means of promoting popular education, and substitute therefor a laissez-faire or go-as-you-please system of private education. That is certainly a revolutionary proposition. Is it logical or tenable?

The theory of the common-school system, by which the wealthy (tax-payers) are made to bear the burden of educating the children of the poor, is, of course, that under this system more children are taught the rudiments of knowledge, and that this teaching is, as a whole, more effective than would be the case if the matter were left to individual action; that is, that more knowledge is imparted to the people in a given time than would be possible by any other means. Back of this is the more fundamental assumption that knowledge is good; that as the antagonist of ignorance it is also the enemy of crime and disorder. Can the truth of either of these propositions be successfully disputed?

It needs no figures to prove that ignorance is the mother of crime. It is a part of the common experience of every man. The patrons of bar-rooms, the criminal classes in city and country, the inmates of prisons, are, as a rule, the uneducated. Educate the children of these people, teach them the great lesson that happiness, prosperity, and success depend upon right living (to the establishment of this truth all true education tends), and you decrease crime.

Again, can it be denied that anatomical and physiological ignorance is the parent of disease? Or that ignorance of political economy gives birth to financial heresies, to the enactment of unjust or unwise laws, to mistaken ideas concerning real-estate tenure, to socialism, communism, and anarchism?

If it be admitted, then, that the spread of knowledge is conducive to the public weal, the only question remaining is as to the efficacy of the present school system to that end. And here, again, it is not necessary to appeal to statistics to prove that a large majority of the people in any country would be pecuniarily unable to educate their children without some form of State aid. And of those who could afford it a large fraction would lack the disposition to do so. It must be evident to any observer that were all laws relating to instruction at public expense to be repealed, and the entire matter left to the individual, popular schooling would become a thing of the past. Illiteracy among the masses would be the rule, and education would be confined to a comparative few among the well-to-do. A well-defined educated class would gradually be formed, and a class spirit would be fostered contrary to the central idea of a democratic society. The brotherhood of cranks would increase and multiply, all kinds of isms would flourish and become powerful, and especially the "labor element," with its demands, would assume the proportions of a national danger, and perhaps succeed in time in bringing about revolution and anarchy.

I think I have not put the case too strongly. That our present educational methods are in many respects faulty, and that there is urgent need of reform in the manner in which the theory of public education is put in practice, I do not deny. The wisdom of compulsory educational laws may be questioned. But it seems to me plain that the theory itself is based upon correct scientific principles. If there is any public function which an organized society is justified in performing, it is to take measures for the elimination of elements within itself inimical to its own existence. And the surest and cheapest way to accomplish this is to disseminate the simple branches of knowledge among its young, to an extent that will inspire them with a desire for higher truth, and furnish them with a sufficient mental equipment for its acquirement and digestion.

E. S. Marsh.
Brandon, Vermont, February 28, 1887.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: In your March issue you say, referring to my article on socialism, in the January "Scribner": "He apparently approves of the exemption of church property from taxation, in so far as the practice is grounded on a belief that the interests of public order will thereby be subserved."

I do not see why you should say this. There is nothing in my article to justify it. That article was written, not to discuss church exemption, but to define and illustrate socialism. Church exemption was only referred to so far as to answer the inquiry, Is it socialistic? Now, my definition of a socialistic measure—say, a legislative act—makes the motive and the objective a part of the act, equally with the positive provisions thereof; and by that definition, the exemption of church property from taxation, with a view to the promotion of good order, the reforming of vice and violence, the security of property, is not socialistic. It may be unwise; it may be monstrously foolish. On that point I had nothing to say, because I was writing on socialism. You express ,l surprise" that I should mention the argument in favor of church exemption, without denouncing it as hollow, unscientific, and a manifest begging of the question. Pardon me for suggesting that, whatever may be true of journals of art or theology, a journal maintained in the interests of science should encourage writers in sticking to their subjects, for the time being, and not going off erratically to discuss much less, to denounce views which regard matters wholly outside their chosen field of inquiry. Having decided that the measure in question was not socialistic, I had nothing more to do with it in an article on socialism.

It was perfectly competent to "The Popular Science Monthly" to reject my definition of socialism; but it should not blame me for adhering closely to that definition, when once adopted.

Respectfully, yours,
Francis A. Walker.
Boston, March 18, 1887.

We publish the above letter as a matter of simple justice to its author. It seems that we put a wrong construction on that portion of his article in the January "Scribner" dealing with the question of the non-taxation of church property. All we can say is that we gave his article a tolerably attentive reading at the time, and understood him to give at least an implied approval of the policy of non-taxation, provided only the claim made for it that it was favorable to the preservation of public order was urged in good faith. We are now asked to observe that all he said was that the policy in question—the proviso in question holding good—could not properly be described as socialistic. We accept the correction; but we think that so practiced a writer as General Walker might have guarded more effectually against misapprehension if he had tried. These were his exact words:

"The prevention of violence and crime is the proper function of the state, according to the lowest views that can be taken of it; and, if a certain amount of encouragement and assistance is extended to religious bodies genuinely in this interest, no invasion of individual initiative and enterprise can properly be complained of."

Our correspondent thinks that it would have been highly unscientific on his part to have dropped so much as a hint as to the completely unverified character of the claim supposed to be put forward on behalf of the policy referred to. It strikes us that the case is one in which Science might have sacrificed a little of its dignity for the sake of a public benefit. However that may be, we are glad to have it on record that General Walker does not commit himself in any manner, or to any extent, to the doctrine that church property ought to be exempt from taxation. It is more important and satisfactory to know this than to know that he does not regard the doctrine as a socialistic one; especially when we consider how little difference it makes, from General Walker's point of view, whether a doctrine is socialistic or not.—Editor.