Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/February 1890/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 36‎ | February 1890



MR. HERBERT SPENCER, in a well-known essay, has discussed the question, "What knowledge is of most worth?" It is perhaps time to begin the discussion of the question, "What ignorance is of most value?" There is a story told of the great philosopher whom we have just named that, on one occasion, in reply to a question upon some rather minute point of history or archæology, he expressed a devout thankfulness that he knew nothing whatever about it. The capacity of even the greatest minds is limited; and the man who would make the best use of his powers of memory must exercise a wise discretion as to the things he undertakes or tries to remember.

If any principle in education ought to be clear, it is that there should be no overcrowding in the mind of the pupil, but that each portion of knowledge imparted should have room to define itself, to assume distinctness and to grow. Where there is overcrowding there will be no sense of order and no healthy development of ideas. All educators acknowledge this, just as men in general acknowledge the moral law; but how many of them live up to it? How many of them are willing to leave in their pupils' minds liberal tracts of ignorance, acknowledged as such tracts which might be cultivated, but which are left fallow simply in order that the mental powers may not be overtaxed nor imagination unduly restrained? We venture to say that the cases are rare in which an effort is not being made to cultivate, as it were, every square inch of mental territory, and call all the strength of the intellect into exercise. Each school or academy must teach so many "branches"; it would never do for one to omit what another has in its curriculum; and every pupil, if not compelled, is urged to take up just as many subjects as he or she can possibly grapple with. The general, at least the frequent, consequence is—congestion, confusion, enfeebled memory, impaired judgment, lowered intellectual vitality. Better far, in many cases, would it have been if the child, with no education beyond reading and writing, had lived in a concrete world and picked up, gradually, verifiable notions about real things. There is nothing fortuitous in the fact that so many men, eminent in various departments of life, have had but the most meager "educational advantages" in their youth. It would seem as if the one great "educational advantage" they had was in getting free from so-called education at a very early period and betaking themselves to the school of active life—a school that leads up to abstract truths only through multiplied concrete examples; that leaves ample space in the mind for useful ignorance, and consequently makes all the better provision for useful knowledge.

There is much sound philosophy in regard to education abroad in the world to-day. What is needed is, that educators should be as wise in practice as they are in theory. The labor of the gardener, every one knows, consists, to a large extent, in "thinning out" his crops. If a similar process could be practiced on the minds of the young, and if it were practiced, the evils of too copious sowing would not be so great; but, as the method is hardly applicable to intellectual growths, teachers should educate themselves up to the point of sowing sparingly in order that they may reap abundantly. The evil of too thick sowing attains, we believe, greater proportions in academies for young ladies than anywhere else. There, nearly everything that is taught to boys enters into the course of instruction, while music and other "accomplishments," together with an extra language or two, are generally superadded. As if this were not enough, a special acquaintance with the literature, history, and institutions of the ancient Jews, untinged, however, by any touch of "modern criticism," is frequently also insisted on. The effect of all this may be easily imagined—a spindly growth of rootless ideas, habits of intellectual indifference, a medley of incongruous notions in regard to ill-apprehended facts; in a word, a seriously injured, if not a fatally ruined, intelligence.

The intellectual signs of the times, it should be remembered, are not all favorable. We have such an educational apparatus, for extent and scope at least, as the world never saw before; but the results—it is not easy to be enthusiastic over the results. Where is the quickened sense for evidence that we might have expected to see? Where the seriousness of intellectual aim? Where the refinement of popular taste? Cant seems to stalk abroad through the world as potent an enslaver as ever of the minds of men. Credulity is wide-spread. Superstition still occupies its strongholds and rules over vast multitudes. Faction controls our politics and legislation is made a plaything. We have, perhaps, expected too much of education in the past; but at least, if we understand its true principles, we should try to apply them. One of the first of these principles is not to teach too much, not to congest the mind, not to overtax its powers. Our effort should be to whet curiosity, awaken a certain variety of interests, develop the natural powers of the mind, and leave room for the imagination to work. It is the spontaneous effort of the mind, not its forced labor, that yields the best results. Hitherto we have been fighting ignorance so hard, and have been so afraid of it, that the idea of knowledge in any degree being dangerous has seldom occurred to us. But knowledge may be as dangerous as food, if given in wrong quantities and under wrong conditions. When we realize this as fully as we have heretofore realized the danger of ignorance, a new era in education will have dawned.



The discussion on the land question in the London "Times," a further installment of which is given in our present issue, will have, we may hope, one or two good results. It will tend to produce in the public mind a more vivid sense of the difficulty of dealing with the land question on any abstract principles, and it will help, perhaps, to bring home the lesson that social progress is more a matter of individual improvement than of political reconstruction. Mr. Auberon Herbert, in the letter which we print this month, calls attention to the fact that the whole drift of Mr. Spencer's philosophy is toward individualism, and suggests that the social dangers of the present time arise precisely from the fatal disposition of men to invoke state action as a remedy for all evils. It is indeed a serious fact that so few of those who seek to catch the public ear lay any emphasis on the need for individual reform, or have anything to say about individual responsibility. Institutions are wrong, laws are wrong, social organization is wrong—all general forces and agencies are wrong; but rarely does any one discover that this or that man is wrong. Such a discovery, if made, would perhaps not be thought worth announcing, or perhaps might not be considered safe to announce. It is more popular to abuse institutions at large than to attempt to fix the responsibility for their defects; and no prudent orator would think of suggesting to his audience that the true starting-point of reform would be in the habits and dispositions of just such people as themselves.

Mr. Frederick Greenwood's letter, published by us last month, furnishes a striking illustration of the readiness with which the principle of personal responsibility is overlooked by even thoughtful writers. Mr. Greenwood reads a lesson to Mr. Spencer for having, as he considers, put forward certain radical theories as to land tenure without sufficient qualification, and so given occasion to men like Mr. Laidler to quote him in support of their revolutionary schemes. The true view of the matter, however, is that Mr. Spencer acquitted himself of his duty to society by giving expression to the opinions which, at the time, commended themselves to his acceptance. He did not force them upon the world, or upon any one. He did not offer them as infallibly inspired; he gave them simply as the views of Herbert Spencer, guaranteeing nothing, even by implication, save their sincerity. What was the nature, then, of his responsibility in the matter? We answer that he staked, to a certain extent, such literary or philosophical reputation as he had, at the time, acquired, and made himself a mark for the criticism of all who differed from him in opinion. On the other hand, he did not render himself responsible for all who might adopt his views simply because they were his, or for those who, under any circumstances, accepted them without sufficient examination, possibly without possessing the qualifications necessary for giving them any examination deserving of the name. Nor did he make himself responsible for the inertness of those who, having examined the views in question and found them unsound, failed to demonstrate the fact to Mr. Spencer himself or to the public. When thirty valuable years, in which certain (let us assume) erroneous speculations might have been combated, have been allowed to slip by unimproved, so far as that object is concerned, it seems late in the day to turn round on the author of the speculations and read him a lesson on the responsibilities of a philosopher. The true way in which to have enforced his responsibility was to criticise his views with the utmost rigor, misrepresenting nothing, but omitting no argument that may fairly tell against them. It should not be forgotten, however, that Mr. Spencer showed a further sense of responsibility in withdrawing from circulation the book in which his speculations on the land question were contained, as soon as he became convinced that the views enunciated by him upon that point and upon one or two others discussed in the same volume needed amendment or qualification, and in giving it to be distinctly understood that he no longer held to his former opinions on these matters. It is hard to understand, therefore, how the principle of personal responsibility could have been more fully recognized, or the duties flowing therefrom more scrupulously performed, than they were in this particular case by the eminent author of the "Synthetic Philosophy."

More to the purpose would it have been, in our opinion, had Mr. Greenwood dwelt with some force on the responsibility too little recognized which rests upon those who pin their faith to the authority of others. This is a thing which is too often done in a most reckless and irresponsible manner, with the result of rendering public opinion far less intelligent than it ought to be and might be. A sense of individual responsibility for opinions accepted would lead to a more careful examination of all theories and reasonings; and would, in a multitude of cases, abate the blind confidence with which ill-understood notions are now espoused. It is quite true that every one is not able to subject the views of a writer like Mr. Spencer to critical scrutiny; but those who can not do it should, at least, try to take the right measure of their own powers, and abstain from judgments for which they can not give adequate reasons. Very serious also is the responsibility resting upon those who recognize that an opinion which has been given to the world is erroneous. The duty of such persons is to proclaim what they hold to be the truth according to the measure of their opportunities and the urgency of the occasion. Because A has accidentally kindled a conflagration, shall B, who is passing by, and who has water at command, make no effort to arrest the flames? Upon whom, in such a case, does the heavier blame rest—upon the man who, without intending it, has set things on fire, or the man who, rather than take a little trouble, lets the fire gain headway? The doctrine of individual responsibility is the true leaven that will leaven society; for it comes home to each man and summons him to put the question seriously to himself whether he is making the most and the best of his own powers, whether he is really striving to be an efficient unit in the social body. Thousands, nay millions, to-day are waiting for some supernatural or revolutionary moving of the waters, in order that they may, in a moment, be healed of their infirmities. The doctrine of individualism bids them halt no longer by the pool, but go straightway about their business in a new spirit of duty and self-help.

We are glad to welcome the appearance of a book which promises to help in this direction, namely, Mr. Wordsworth Donisthorpe's "Individualism, a System of Politics"—a book which ably vindicates the sufficiency of individual initiative in a vast number of matters that have been laid hold of by the state. The present mania for legislation Mr. Donisthorpe attributes to the inexperience and want of historical knowledge of the classes who now control the suffrage. Errors which the more thoughtful and instructed members of the community have outgrown still look like truths to the less thoughtful and less instructed. The watchword of the hour is individualism, which simply means personal liberty and personal efficiency carried to their highest point. Let all who believe in this do their utmost to make the truth prevail.