Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/Editor's Table



WE publish elsewhere a letter calling in question the opinion expressed in these columns last month that education was properly a matter for the family rather than for the state for private enterprise rather than for governmental control. The arguments used by our correspondent have, we need hardly say, long been familiar to us; and therefore their restatement does not affect our conclusions on the question at issue. It is, however, due to our correspondent, and perhaps also to our readers, to deal briefly with some of the points raised in his letter.

He says that the alternative to state education is the "laissez-faire, or go-as-you-please system." We ask whether everything that is left to private enterprise can properly be said to be left to a "go-as-you-please system." If so, all we can say is, that the system in question, call it as you will, produces some very good and marvelous results. Laissez-faire has made the railway systems of this country and of England; it has made great steamship companies and telegraph companies and life-insurance companies; it has organized the most gigantic industrial and commercial enterprises, and provided in the most wonderful manner for the whole material life of the community. To say that a social function not controlled by the Government must necessarily fall into disorder (which, of course, is what the term "go-as-you-please" is meant to imply), is to go further than our correspondent probably meant to go, or than any sensible man would go; and yet the contrast he seeks to draw between governmental methods and the go-as-you-please system involves this as a general principle. But is there no go-as-you-please in governmental methods? Is our public-school system free from the intrusion of vicious political influences? Are not teachers in different states agitating at this very moment for some greater security in their positions than can be enjoyed under existing laws? And do not they feel that their usefulness is continually being impaired by their dependence on the favor of trustees who are themselves dependent on the political machine? We know of no go-as-you-please that is more destitute of all moral impulse or direction than the go-as-you-please of municipal politics. It is really go-as-the-boss-pleases, and the boss goes for the offices and the plunder by the most direct road! "We attach the educational interests of the community to precisely the faultiest part of our whole political system, and then exult that we have rescued it from the régime of go-as-you-please! Well, when we say "we," we must be allowed to exclude ourselves, for we don't.

Our proposition is characterized by our correspondent as "revolutionary." We think the word too strong; call it radical if you like, seeing that it goes to the root of things; but we think it a mild form of revolution to propose that people should not look to the Government to educate them. We should like to see the people educating the Government; and the people could do this if they would only first educate themselves.

Our correspondent has the true democratic spirit, and does not want to see classes formed in this free country; nevertheless, he talks of "the poor" as people whose children ought to be educated at the expense of the "wealthy tax-payers." If this is not establishing classes with a vengeance we don't know what is. We hold that nothing would tend more to raise the spirit of the poor and enhance their sense of citizenship and of social equality than to feel that they did not depend on the rich for the education of their children, but that they provided for that all-important object by their own labor, and, if necessary, self-denial. If the rich are to contribute of their substance to the poor under legal compulsion, why should education in particular be the thing for which they are called to pay? Why not provide shoe-leather or blankets, and let the poor have the benefit that assuredly would come to many of them from having a direct interest in their children's education? But the whole idea of the rich being bound to contribute to the maintenance of the poor is a vicious one. If such an obligation, properly enforcible by law, exists, then—let us not hesitate to say it—there must be something rotten in our economics; and we can not too soon apply ourselves to finding out what that is, instead of dealing in weak and ineffectual palliatives.

But, we are told, the public-school system educates the people more rapidly than private education could possibly do—educates a greater number in a given time. Does that settle the question? Does the quality of education, do the moral influences accompanying it, count for nothing? Whether would it be better to give five hundred an education destitute of moralizing and idealizing influences, or three hundred an education penetrated by those influences, trusting to the action of the smaller number to promote social order and harmony? We ask these questions not as advancing assumptions, but merely to show that all is not said when it is alleged that the state can educate more rapidly than private enterprise. If private enterprise and family effort can educate better than the state—better on the whole, taking both intellectual and moral development into account, and also the reaction on the elder generation—the higher value of the work may more than atone for its narrower range.

It is a singular thing that, in spite of his strong faith in state education, our correspondent does not seem to believe that any extension or continuance of it would have the effect of making the people at large so intelligent and self-helpful that, in the future, they would he willing and able to look after the business of education for themselves. He seems to look forward to the perpetuity of the system under which the "wealthy tax-payers" provide funds for the education of the children of the poor; at least he drops no hint that the system is ever to cease. Now, supposing we were to address "the poor" in these words: "Well, good people, we are educating your children for you gratis or nearly so, because we don't imagine you have either the ability or the inclination to educate them without our help. At the same time, please to understand that we don't expect, by any education we may give your children, to make them self-helping when they come to have children of their own. A few of them, of course, may rise, while others, more advantageously situated at present than they, and getting the same education, will fall; but the bulk of them will remain as you are to day, unable to educate their children without the benevolent help of the rich. But don't be afraid for your posterity; the rich will help, as usual. There are no classes in this country." How would all that fall on the ears of the poor? Would it be extraordinary if some one on their behalf were to reply: "If we or our children are not to be educated out of our poverty—a poverty so deep as to draw down upon us your insulting patronage—we see but little good in it. Better not to sharpen by knowledge the edge of our misery!"

Let us ask a question. As education spreads in this country, are social distinctions becoming less marked? Are inequalities of fortune becoming less striking, not to say portentous? Our correspondent dreads the spirit of socialism and anarchism, and thinks it may grow if the state does not push popular education vigorously. But the state has been pushing popular education as vigorously as it knew how; and, precisely when our educational status, so far as figures can show, is at its best, do socialism and anarchism, in forms unknown to an earlier generation, raise their misshapen and scowling heads. Might not this have something to do with the quality of the education imparted? Might it not have something to do with the withdrawal from the poor of one of the best of all moral influences, that which comes from a direct interest in the education of their own children? Our correspondent wants to have political eonomy taught in the schools so kindly provided by the rich for the poor. Whose political economy—Marx's or Mill's? Henry George's or President Walker's? It is precisely because they know that the rich not only provide, but in a large measure control, public education, that the poor have such an aversion to all the more orthodox forms of political economy. They want no official doctrines on that subject.

No, the more the matter is looked into, the less reason (we believe) there will be found to congratulate ourselves on the overthrow by the state of the old system under which parents planned and contrived and economized in order to get their children taught the rudiments of knowledge. Private education, it is true, has not been entirely destroyed, for well-to-do parents—those who so generously provide public schools for the children of the poor—often prefer private schools for their own children; but it has been destroyed precisely where it used to do most good, namely, among the poor. It may be "revolutionary," but we confess we should like to see the "laissez-aller," the "go-as-you-please," if it must be called so, of private enterprise—backed as no doubt it would be by the full force of the modern pulpit—applied to the business of education, without the least help or interference from the political machine, and without any legally enforced contributions from "wealthy tax-payers." Education would then rest on a natural basis, and would have a force and a tone that now it almost wholly lacks. Instead of tending to build up social distinctions, the change would have a directly opposite effect by cultivating among even the poorest a manly self-respect. The intellectual and moral effort which it would impose upon society at large would be in itself an educative influence of the first importance, and would probably go far to arrest a growing vice of the age a tendency to frivolity. It is not by taking away objects of thought and care from the poor that we are to create a stable society; it is by giving them worthy objects of thought and care. Lastly, by leaving education to be provided for by the direct contributions of the beneficiaries, we should probably raise the general level of wages for the poorer classes, seeing that this is governed more or less in all countries by the general standard of living. At present the general standard of living among the poor does not include provision for education; but does any one who understands anything of economic laws imagine that wages have not adapted themselves to that condition? It appears, therefore, that what the rich give with one hand they take away with the other, and, as a reward for their generosity, are allowed to control in considerable measure the education of the poor. Who gains by that arrangement?

We are glad our correspondent has given us the opportunity of making these remarks. As he is evidently a man of much intelligence, we commend the whole matter anew to his consideration; and, in connection therewith, would urge him to read what Herbert Spencer has written on the subject in the fifteenth chapter of his "Study of Sociology."


New York, we understand, is this year to have the honor of entertaining the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the thirty-sixth annual meeting having been appointed to be held in this city, for the second Wednesday in August. There are many reasons why our people should give the Association a hospitable and hearty welcome, and spare neither effort nor money to make its visit pleasant and its meeting a success. While this is the largest city on the continent, it enjoys the unenviable distinction of being one of the very few that have never entertained the Association, although that organization is now nearly fifty years old. This is in strange contrast with the well-known liberality and intelligence of our citizens, who have been unstinted in their hospitality to numerous other bodies, with certainly no greater claims to attention; and the omission is made all the more conspicuous by the fact that several towns, not one tenth the size of New York, have already had the Association two or three times. There is, moreover, no community on this side of the Atlantic which is under a larger indebtedness to Science than this one. By virtue of our position we enjoy, far more than any other city, the fruits of the immensely extended commerce of the country, and of the enormous development of its manufacturing and productive interests, all of which have been carried to their present high state of efficiency by the applications of Science. Our close relations and rapid intercourse with foreign nations, the constant interchange of objects of use, art, and thought, involving incessant improvement in all departments of human activity, have been fostered and perfected, either directly or indirectly, through the investigations and discoveries of the workingmen of this and kindred associations; and all the results thus achieved, whatever their form, pay tribute, in one way or another, to the prosperity of the metropolis. Then we have a right to count upon the social and educational advantages of the presence of the Association among us. By its very character it must elevate the aspirations and tastes of the people among whom it meets, in a way that, though the effect is diminished as the circle extends, is nevertheless very widely felt. Those charged with the care of our educational interests can not fail to be helped by its coming. Above all things, they need the spirit of free and independent inquiry encouraged by its meetings, and a little of which, applied to existing educational methods, could not fail to result in marked improvement. That we have something to learn in this respect, and that these visiting Associations may be able to give us material aid, was shown by the incident of the School Industrial Fair, held under the auspices of the "Industrial Educational Association of New York" in this city last year. Many schools out-side of New York were represented by exhibits showing the skill of pupils in the useful and ornamental arts, and reflecting great credit on the management I of those schools. Our city, with its boasted "system," was wholly unrepresented. But a direct result of the exhibition was to wake up the school authorities, and next time they are not likely to be found so far behind their country confrères.

It is to be regretted that the appointment of the meeting was so long delayed. Even a full year's notice is not always enough; indeed, in this respect, the example of the British Association, which fixes its place of meeting two years in advance, is to be commended. But while the time is short for the preparations necessary to make the reception one that shall be wholly worthy this great city, enthusiasm issuing in prompt and energetic action may do much to compensate for this; and it is clearly due to our self-respect, and the reputation we have for liberality abroad, that we set to work with a determination to make the meeting a notably successful one in the history of the Association.