Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/January 1891/Correspondence


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

IT has been again and again stated, by good authorities, that the American people are the most wasteful upon the face of the earth; they do not utilize to any extent their health, strength, money, or talents. To any thoughtful mind there is evidence of this on every hand.

We might naturally suppose that our many excellent modes of teaching, from pulpit and teacher's desk, would eradicate this evil; but, on the contrary, the accessories of our churches and schools become more extravagant every year, and there is less to be hoped from them. There are many ill-balanced minds among the youth attending our schools. These, with their intellectual tastes aroused, leave school very poorly equipped to battle with the exigencies of modern life; consequently, many of our so-called educated youth become stranded as embezzlers in State prisons or patients in insane asylums.

When we study the causes which lead to the great amount of wretchedness, poverty, and crime in our land, it is evident that good effects would result to our people if every child could be taught to see the wisdom of properly economizing health, strength, money, and talents. In order to do this, public opinion must first be converted. People must realize that such men as George Bancroft, the historian; Robert C. Winthrop, the statesman; and William W. Corcoran, the philanthropist, and other noble octogenarians, could never have attained their great age and to such positions of honor among their fellow-men save by great self-denial and economy. To be sure, the law of heredity comes in to aid some persons; but do you not think, if the principles prevailed which governed the early life of Whittier and the frugal homes of New England, that each succeeding generation would reach a higher plane in social life? We expect certain intellectual results from public-school methods; why not expect moral benefits to the child's character as well? There are many teachers who strive for this, like wise Mark Hopkins; but the field of education is so extensive, and the attention of educators is so absorbed in other matters, that little attention is given to individual economics. Do not understand me to desire the inculcation of penuriousness among our young people, but simply wisdom and moderation in all our affairs. It has been customary at some boarding schools to have printed upon the plates from which the pupils eat such sentences as "Waste not, want not." Such are not the means that I would urge for teaching economy, but that our leaders in society, on the press, in the pulpit, and all teachers, should unite to enforce the great principles of economy and moderation by example and throughout all their teachings. Even teachers of natural history can bring their instruction to bear upon this point, from the innumerable instances of economy in nature.

When a colored girl in Washington replied to a reprimand for being late at school that the cook was absent and her mother was sick, and of course she could not get the breakfast, it showed the lack of thrift and right management in that household. She would have been ashamed to make that reply if the influence of her home and her school had not left her blind to the dignity of labor and the honor to be derived from doing one's duty.

We very well know that college life is the hot-bed of extravagance, and that no great and united effort has been made to repress this wasteful tendency. It is to be hoped that when our great institutions of learning have become financially endowed so that they are perfectly independent, they may be able to take some means to turn the tide and set a fashion of economy and moderation.

Investigation shows that our poorest classes are the most extravagant. On market-days we find that those persons who carry their entire fortunes in their hands will purchase the highest-priced provisions, which are often the least nourishing. If we could have savings-banks in our schools, as in England, our people who earn good wages could learn to accumulate. Millionaires tell us that it is the first thousand dollars which is the hardest to earn—interest then increases of itself. Have we not all had the experience of helping people who would not help themselves, but would, by lack of self-denial or even moderation, keep open some leak by which their misfortunes were continually on the increase?

Would there be so much temptation to anarchism and crime if our working classes understood the right principles of living?—if they understood that fortune and success are generally to be obtained only through systematic living and often great self-denial?

It is probable that our workingmen would not spend so much time and money in restaurants if they could obtain well-cooked food at home; therefore, cooking schools are a great help to economy.

That early training in thrift and moderation is much needed by our girls we have fair evidence among women in Washington, where so many are stranded without homes, friends, or fortune. Sixty women have been known to apply at a private school as teachers during the summer months, and most of them ill fitted for earning their living in any position. The political changes in Washington conduce strongly to this state of affairs. It is well known that great improvidence exists among the families of the male and female clerks in the departments in Washington as to their manner of living. Many a clerk receiving eighteen hundred or two thousand dollars a year will die, after twenty years or more, without having saved a cent, even for his own funeral expenses, leaving a family with extravagant habits to battle with the world as best they can. This is no uncommon case; to be saving and buy a home is the exception.

I can only give out a few hints on this great subject; but I venture to hope that reflective minds may be impressed with its importance, and may exert their influence to encourage the teaching of the underlying principles of economy and moderation to our children in the public schools.

Laura Osborne Talbott.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: I have read Herbert Spencer's The Data of Ethics, and, if I have not misunderstood the work, it teaches that the object to be gained by pursuing morality is happiness, and that a nation's happiness increases as does its morality. If by the term happiness we mean surplus of pleasure over pain, I think that the happiness of savage nations is greater than that of civilized ones. The former are certainly healthier. By our definition this fact alone indicates greater happiness. But savage nations are notoriously immoral. People, whether religious or not, when they argue against immorality, generally give reasons for its avoidance which issue from the heart and sentiment rather than from the mind.

Here are some instances: We say that a man who has been a miser all his lifetime is wretched and unhappy; yet he may have been in perfect health, bodily and mental, which we must assume to indicate that he has been able to exercise all his faculties: and the exercise of faculties, according to Spencer, constitutes pleasure. Persons unable to stick to one occupation for any length of time are often spoken of in terms of pity, yet they also may have led lives of perfect activity. In the former case the means by which the miser accumulated his fortune are held up to us as directly causing pain to the user of them, and we are warned not to follow his steps, for he must have suffered. In reality, however, he could not have suffered so terribly, for if he had he would not have been left in the possession of the power to exercise all his faculties. By similar reasoning we can come to a like conclusion in regard to the vacillating kind of people I have spoken of. People make a mistake in looking at such things through only their own eyes.

An instance of the opposite kind in behalf of the pursuit of morality is as follows: After hearing the biography of two persons, one of whom led a long, healthy, selfish life, and the other, having all the advantages of education, was possessed of a sympathetic and an emotional nature which recognized and met the wants of others, and who during his lifetime was universally loved but constantly suffered, most of us would prefer the life of the latter.

With the idea of happiness in mind we started with, I think the above instances show that the cultivation of morality is not necessarily accompanied by increased happiness. Now, if what I have said is true, it seems to me that the logic of the book in question is destroyed, and that all those who are interested in the furtherance of morality and the scientific discussion of ethics are obliged to face a disagreeable conclusion. It is this: Philosophic thinkers can really give no adequate reason for the pursuit of morality, and they, too, as well as professed believers in other-world motives for doing right, must often argue from the heart and according to their ideals and not as inexorable reason and logic demand; and must be content to live somewhat under a contradiction. I use the word professed not unthinkingly, as I believe that most really honorable people find their motives for rectitude in the present life.

To the possible objection to my argument that I have forgotten to take into account the increase of complexity of the pleasures which takes place as an organism becomes more moral, I may say that so do the pains become more complex.

I might also ask the question, Which pleasures are the greater, the simple ones of childhood, or the complex pleasures of maturity? It seems to me that there is no difference.

Somerville, Mass., November, 1890.