Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/January 1874/Editor's Table
THE first part of Mr. Mill's autobiography gives an instructive account of his early education. He had before propounded his general views upon this subject in a celebrated address delivered at the University of St. Andrew's in 1867. Mr. Mill had won the enviable distinction of possessing "the most elaborated mind in Europe," and this, together with the confessed ability of his argument, gave it wide influence with the public. But there were many who thought that Mr. Mill, on that occasion, reasoned too much from his own exceptional experience, and that, as an argument addressed to the times, the performance was misleading and injurious. The record of Mr. Mill's mental history, now published, throws important light upon the view promulgated at St. Andrew's, and, as the question involved is of great practical importance, the present is a fitting occasion to offer some remark upon it.
There has grown up a grave conflict between ancient learning and modern science as means of educating the human mind. It originated in the rise of a new order of knowledge derived from the extensive study of Nature in recent times. The old system was, however, strongly intrenched in the field of education; it was interwoven with the world's literature, and all its venerated traditions; it appealed to the generations of the great that it had trained, and it was in possession of the old institutions of learning, fortified by rich endowments, and backed by state and church. But, as modern knowledge has grown in extent and influence, and institutions have been liberalized, and the idea of general education has become a part of civilization, there has been a growing demand for the right of science to have a more decisive voice in education, and this demand has been partially yielded to by the modification of old methods and the establishment of new. Such changes have only resulted from long and earnest conflict between opposing views, and, whatever may be the merits of this controversy, one thing would seem to be certain, that it has been a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the progress of events.
At the outset of his address, Mr. Mill recognized this struggle as "the great controversy of the present day, with regard to the higher education, the difference which most broadly divides educational reformers; the vexed question between the ancient languages and the modern sciences and arts." But, from Mr. Mill's point of view, the antagonism is unreal, and the controversy futile and groundless. Between the two systems of culture he acknowledged no rivalship, but said, "Why not both?" To the obvious answer that average students have neither capacity nor time for such extensive mental conquests, he indignantly replied: "I am amazed at the limited conception which many educational reformers have formed to themselves of a human being's power of acquisition." Mr. Mill, accordingly, proceeded to outline a system of study more consonant, as he thought, with the powers and possibilities of the human mind. The limitations of capacity assigned by experience and embodied in practical plans of education he gave to the winds, and offered an ideal of scholarship and a range of acquisition of most majestic proportions. But it was so grandly his own, and so out of all relation to the hard workaday facts of college and university life, that it practically served little other purpose than to confirm a bad state of things, and to put a new weapon into the hands of the educational obstructives. Let us see how this result was effected.
Mr. Mill began by enforcing the largest claims of ancient learning. He outstripped all contemporaries in the extent and rigor of his classical exactions. He refused a place to modern languages in the collegiate course, saying that these can be best studied in the countries where they are spoken, while three or four of them can be easily picked up after the classical tongues have been secured. With the modern languages modern literature was also ruled out. "The only languages, then, and the only literature," says he, "to which I would allow a place in the ordinary curriculum are those of the Greeks and Romans, and to these I would preserve the position in it which they at present occupy." The reasons which he offered for studying Greek and Latin were far from being the stock-reasons that we are accustomed to hear. These languages are to be acquired for the purpose of mastering their literary contents. Not for any such slight considerations as the bearings of the classical languages upon English, or to be able to understand current quotations, or for the mere discipline of lingual study, are they to be acquired, but that the student may enter into the spirit and breathe the atmosphere of ancient life. He is to be at home in Greek and Roman thought as he is in that of his native speech. "We must be able in a certain degree to think in Greek if we would represent to ourselves how a Greek thought; and this not only in the abstruse region of metaphysics, but about the political, religious, and even domestic concerns of life." Translations are not to be accepted. Though the profoundest scholar, after life-long preparation, renders an ancient author into English, the student of the "ordinary curriculum" must be able to translate it better for himself. He must not trust to other person's impressions, but must have every thing at first hand, and go directly to the fountain-head. Greek and Latin must be studied, that the student may get at the original materials of history, so as to check and correct the historians. The modern classics, English, German, and French, are insufficient as models; those of Greece and Rome are more perfect, and therefore the student must use them to form his style and perfect his literary taste.
Mr. Mill then went on to argue the claims of the sciences, but his work was superfluous. Methuselah might have listened to him with interest, but practical men knew that the demands he had already made were far beyond the possibilities of realization by general students in the usual period of study. Already he had laid out a scheme of professional scholarship not attainable in its completeness by one in a hundred of those who give their lives to it. Mr. Mill's words, to be sure, were hot with scorn when he referred to the "shameful inefficiency," and "wretched methods," and "laborious idleness," of current classical teaching—the constant fruits of the system for centuries, as testified to by similar denunciations of the most eminent men. But he did not say, "Improve these methods or get them out of the way." On the contrary, he indorsed unqualifiedly Greek and Latin studies in "the position which they at present occupy;" and, to carry out his views, nothing remained but to give them a greatly-increased attention. The practical effect of his argument was, to lend renewed and powerful support to the classical system as it now exists, and this was the general interpretation given to the address. It was universally hailed as a triumph of the classical party, and thrown in the face of the friends of scientific education as a final refutation of their case. It was a victory of the classicists simply because it gave them every thing they asked. If they could have classical studies assured on such a scale as Mr. Mill proposed, there was no longer any fear of scientific encroachment. Already in possession of the appliances of education in existing institutions, if his programme is accepted, they will always remain in possession. Mr. Mill said, "Why not both?" But his argument was a practical surrender to one side, because, on his scale of study there is not time for both, and the party that comes first gets all.
The question now arises, Was this exalted estimate of classical studies the result of an impartial survey of the field of knowledge and an equal appreciation of science, or of an overwhelming bias produced by a one-sided training, of which Mr. Mill had been the victim in his youth? The Autobiography here comes to our assistance, and we learn from it the following extraordinary facts:
Mr. Mill's father was a man of great intellectual vigor, and a disciplined scholar, and he determined to make his son an example of the most thorough and perfect form of education. Critical, vigilant, and exacting, he took entire charge of the boy's studies. Fortunately, the lad had great native capacity, and a fine, tenacious organization, and his proficiency equaled his father's efforts and expectations. At three years old he commenced the study of Greek, and only faintly remembers going through Esop's "Fables" in that language. He then read the "Anabasis," and, before he was eight years old, he had read all the nine books of Herodotus, the first six "Dialogues" of Plato, all Xenophon's "Cyropædia," the "Memorabilia" of Socrates, and portions of Diogenes Laertius, Lucian, and Isocrates. During this time he also learned arithmetic, and read the histories of Robertson, Hume, Gibbon, Watson, Hooke, Rollin, Burnet, Langhorne's Plutarch, Millar's "Historical View of the English Government," Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, and various other ponderous books; nor were these merely cursory or desultory readings. His father required every day a full account of what he had read. Notes, abridgments, and synoptical statements, had to be made, and in their daily walks the father enforced the lessons, and gave him explanations and ideas on various questions of civilization, government, mental philosophy, and morality; and all this the son was required afterward to reproduce in his own words.
Amazing as was the work done up to his eighth year, it increased, in a most oppressive ratio, in the next four years. English and Greek being not sufficient, he now went into Latin, and, as he acquired it, taught it to his brothers and sisters. Between his eighth and twelfth year, he read Virgil, Horace, part of Livy, the whole of Sallust, parts of Ovid, Terence, Lucretius, Cicero, the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," one or two Greek plays, the whole of Thucydides, Aristotle's "Rhetoric," Tacitus, Juvenal, Quintilian, and the principal "Dialogues" of Plato. From ten to eleven he wrote a "History of Rome" that would have filled an octavo volume. He also learned elementary geometry, algebra, the differential calculus, and other parts of the higher mathematics. Logic, and the "Organon" of Aristotle, had not been neglected; and, at thirteen, he corrected the proof-sheets of his father's "History of India," and went through with him a complete course of political economy, being required to correct "the more superficial views of Adam Smith by the superior lights of Ricardo." Of course, the boy was kept to the inexorable drill, upon subjects selected by his father; but, in his spontaneous reading, he says that his strongest predilection was ancient history. "A book which, in spite of what is called the dryness of its style, I took great pleasure in, was the 'Ancient Universal History,' through the incessant reading of which, I had my head full of historical details concerning the obscurest ancient people; while, about modern history, except detached passages, such as the 'Dutch War of Independence,' I knew and cared comparatively little."
And so young Mill became a prodigy of Greek, Latin, and antiquated learning. The dead languages and their contents were fairly burned into his organization. On his classical acquisitions were superinduced history, mathematics, metaphysics, and political ideas—studies which he might have pursued if he had been the son of Plato instead of James Mill. But of the sciences of Nature there was nothing gained worth the name. At the mental stage in which all the foregoing acquirements had been made he had received not the slightest scientific instruction, and had only read a little in experimental books by way of amusement. He says: "During this part of my childhood, one of my greatest amusements was experimental science, in the theoretical, however, not the practical sense of the word; not trying experiments—a kind of discipline which I have often regretted—nor even seeing but merely reading about them." Mr. Mill subsequently paid more attention to science by reading; he heard lectures on zoology and chemistry, and did something with botany as an observer and collector. But of science in the educational sense of the classics, as an agency to mould the mind by its special discipline, he was utterly destitute. He neither pursued it in its objects, nor mastered it in its principles, nor cultivated the habit of original and independent research. The whole spirit of his education, indeed, was different; it was for polemics rather than for discovery. The intellectual exercise in which he says he was most perseveringly exercised by his father was the old scholastic logic, which he thinks is "peculiarly adapted to an early stage in the education of philosophical students, since it does not presuppose the slow process of acquiring by experience and reflection valuable thoughts of their own." His training was fitted to make him shine in debating societies, of which he was a frequenter, and he organized one at the age of sixteen. And such was his proficiency that, it was said, "a university man, loaded with honors and preceded by a blazing reputation, having been induced, in an evil hour, to cake the chair at a discussion, crumbled to dust in the presence of our Titan, and passed out of count utterly."
The effect of neglect of science in Mr. Mill's education is seen in his remarkable judgment of himself. In his Autobiography he makes the astounding statement that in "natural gifts I am rather below than above par; what I could do could assuredly be done by any boy or girl of average capacity," and he assumes to have had the start of his contemporaries for a quarter of a century, simply from the mode in which he was instructed. Mind is thus dealt with as if it were a disembodied agency capable of being manipulated into any state; while organic conditions and limitations, and the influence of heredity, are discredited at a stroke. No allowance is made for the fact that he derived his fine organization from a father of great intellectual capacity; yet, nothing is better established by science than that traits of character are transmissible, and that this circumstance bears powerfully upon the problem of human educability. Physiologists well know that the children of cultivated parents not only inherit superior mental aptitudes and capacities, but that they have greater power of psychical endurance, and can stand far greater mental exertion without injury, than the children of uncultivated parentage. Such a discipline as young Mill underwent would have reduced most children to idiocy, or killed them outright. Mr. Mill was an eminent student of mind, but it is very clear that he dealt with it from the ancient point of view, and knew very little of or cared very little for what modern science has had to say about it.
And even he, with his tough and vigorous organization, barely escaped the consequences of such gross error reduced to practice. At twenty he passed into a cloud of gloom and despondency. He became indifferent to his pursuits, sleep brought no relief, and he had thoughts of suicide. He became painfully anxious, under the notion that, if all he had been striving to attain could be realized, there would be nothing left to live for. Brain-disturbance from overtasking was evinced by delusion, like that of Martyn, who, when he had come out Senior Wrangler, was taken with the crazy fancy that mathematics were an invention of Satan, and that he had been led into a net of destruction. Mr. Mill had evidently reached the verge of a cerebral break-down, when he changed the course of his mental action by going into emotional literature, and ascribed his escape to Wordsworth's poetry. Had he been as deep in physiology as he was in Greek, and made use of his knowledge, this dangerous state might not only have been better interpreted, but probably quite avoided.
When, therefore, Mr. Mill, some fifty years later, in chalking out a system of education for the students of St. Andrew's, said of ancient and modern knowledge, "Why not both?" he was himself a living refutation of its possibility. He had worked himself up to the very breaking-point in the enormous accumulation of classical and other acquisitions, while modern thought had not been correspondingly mastered.
The law of mental limitations, by which one thing can only be had at the expense of another, was in as full force in his case as in that of inferior minds; and his classical surcharging involved a correlative deficiency in science which has unquestionably been an element of weakness in his own career. We do not deny that Mr. Mill had a very considerable acquaintance with science, and only insist that it was neither up to his own standard of thoroughness in other departments, nor was it sufficient for his own requirements as a thinker ambitious of controlling the mind of his age. His book on "Logic," undoubtedly a great work, would have been a greater if a part of the effort spent upon classical history had been given to the history of science. But, while demanding that students shall learn dead languages, to get at the originals of political history, he was content, or rather he was compelled, to take scientific history at secondhand.
Such was the deficiency of the work in this respect that, although, as Mr. Mill states in the Autobiography, Prof. Bain "went carefully through the manuscript before it was sent to press, and enriched it with a great number of additional examples and illustrations from science," yet it was exposed to the telling criticisms of Dr. Whewell, the eminent historian of science, for the faulty and ill-chosen character of the instances of discovery selected to exemplify and confirm his methods.
Mr. Mill was at the head of a school of thinkers which maintained what is called the Experiential Psychology; that is, in Mr. Mill's language, "there is not any idea, feeling, or power, in the human mind, which, in order to account for it, requires that its origin should be referred to any other source than experience." The problem of mind, as thus conceived, is one of the grandest openings of modern thought. Be the doctrine true or false, it brings the study of mental phenomena into more close and vital relations with the surrounding universe than had been possible with the older metaphysical views. James Mill was the author of the ablest exposition of this doctrine that had yet appeared; and his son, therefore, through his father's early and able teaching, had the rarest advantages for pursuing the inquiry and occupying the field. But another and a younger man came into that field, and took possession of it. At the age of thirty-five, Mr. Herbert Spencer published his "Principles of Psychology," of which Mr. Mill himself says, "it is one of the finest examples we possess of the psychological method in its full power." Subsequent criticism has strengthened this judgment, and assigned to that work an unrivaled position in the original psychological literature of Its time. Mr. J. S. Mill's greatest work upon mind is undoubtedly bis polemical criticism of Sir William Hamilton; but, after this was published, and the works of Spencer and Mill were left to their influence upon the British public, Prof. Masson, in a lecture before the Royal Institution, gave expression to the growing conviction concerning Spencer, that, "if any individual influence is visibly encroaching on Mill's in this country, it is his."
What, now, was the secret by which Mr. Spencer was enabled to beat Mr. Mill in the field where he was most at home, and had every apparent advantage? It was simply the difference in the education of the two men. Both were examples of great native power of mind; both were educated by their fathers, and neither went to the universities. But while Mill was sent back in childhood to the world of two thousand years ago, and spent his force in learning half a dozen languages, and in loading himself down with the erudition of antiquity, Mr. Spencer was content with his English, left antiquity to itself, and entered in childhood into the sphere of modern thought. Mr. Mill had spent his energies on his splendid scholastic preparation, and could give only the remnant of his powers to the profounder intellectual movement of his own time. Mr. Spencer broke freshly into the study of Nature and science, unperverted by ancient ideas, andby antiquated learning, and was thus enabled to make those extensive modern acquisitions by which he has attained such power over the thought of his own time. While Mr. Mill was drilling with the school-logic, which calls for no original thought, Mr. Spencer was making discoveries in experimental science, and forming his own opinions on the basis of the most recent knowledge; and while, in the study of mind, Mr. Mill sunk into little better than a mere commentator on his father's ideas, Mr. Spencer took up the great question from his own independent point of view, and has given his contemporaries, perhaps, the most original contribution of the century to the science of mind. Wherever the two men are brought into comparison, the enormous advantage of Spencer, through his mastery of scientific thought, is confessedly apparent. Mr. Mill wrote a formal work upon the woman question, as he might have written it two thousand years ago, and as if science had contributed nothing that is valuable in its elucidation: Mr. Spencer has lately crossed the field, treating the psychology of the sexes incidentally, and, as a contemporary remarks, his brief sketch makes the "Subjection of Woman" appear "obsolete and antediluvian" in comparison with it.
The question that Mr. Mill put to the students, "Why not both?" finds thus a sufficient answer in his own career. "Both" are impossible; and Mr. Mill gave himself to the past, at the expense of the future.