Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/February 1892/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
UNIVERSITY EXTENSION AND THE STATE.

THE writer of the able article on university extension which appeared in the November Monthly, does well to come forward in the present number and further develop his views as to the best means of securing the success of the university-extension movement. He does not agree with the opinion we expressed in the "Table" for November, that the movement in question should be carried on in entire independence of Government assistance. He thinks, on the contrary, that, unless the national Government comes to its aid with a grant of money, the work which is proposed "can not be thoroughly or systematically done as regards the country at large"; and he takes occasion to indicate what he considers to be the true theory of the state. The arguments of our valued contributor, we must say, have not convinced us; and, considering the importance of the subject, we feel sure that we shall be excused if we say a few more words upon it from our own point of view.

The university-extension scheme, we must assume, has been called into existence to meet a public demand. Prof. Henderson says: "The work promises to be much too large for private enterprise." We interpret this to mean that there is a great and growing interest in the extension movement—that the public are, to an encouraging extent, alive to its importance; but, if such is the case, instead of saying that the work promises to be "much too large for private enterprise," we should say that private enterprise bids fair to cope most successfully with the work. If public interest has not been awakened in an encouraging degree, we fail to see the force or propriety of the word "promises" as used by Prof. Henderson; if it has been so awakened, we say, let us wait and see what public interest and private enterprise will do before we dream of asking for a share of the taxes to support the movement. We are strongly of opinion that people should pay for the bread of intellectual life. If they pay for it they will value it, and not scatter it by the roadside, as beggars do bread given in alms. There is invariably far more intellectual interest in a class all the members of which pay the full amount of their own fees; the attendance is more regular, the attention is more keen. Every one can verify this from his own experience. A traveling teacher or professor visits a town or village and offers to teach a class of so many some particular subject at so much a head. If the class is formed, every one, as a rule, does his or her best to get the most out of it. Nobody goes there to trifle, nobody cares to miss a lesson. Now, what university extension has got to do is to offer the people what they want in the way of instruction and invite them to pay for it. If it offers the people what they do not want they will not take it; and here we see one of the mischiefs of Government interference. Why have the old universities of the world been so slow to move out of their ancient ruts, so slow to adapt their teaching to the new requirements of a new age? Simply because they have had large endowments and have been to that extent independent of public opinion. If a certain subject declined in interest, the university could go on teaching it to all but empty benches. The endowment was there, the chair was provided for, and why should any change be made? Precisely so with our university-extension movement: backed by Government money it would inevitably be less swayed by considerations of public utility, and more by the established conventions, not to say fictions, of the teaching profession, than if it were wholly dependent on the free response of the public.

Another objection that we make is that the idea of using the proceeds of taxation in aid of the movement gives it too indeterminate a character. Prof. Henderson's own language shows this. "Once established," he says, "these district central offices of the Department of Education might, with perfect propriety, go a step further and provide, under suitable conditions, for part of the expense of an extension course where the proceeds from the sale of lecture-tickets were not sufficient. With the people themselves directly creating each center, electing their own subject, choosing their own lecturer, and paying for all or part of the local expense, I really do not see how the movement could become commonplace or mercenary in its character by being systematized under national auspices." The words we have italicized are significantly vague. Will it be pretended, besides, that the agency disposing of the Government grant would not have a great deal to say as to the mode of its application, and would not, in many cases, override local choice as to subjects and lecturers? If of two localities, both aspiring to the grant, one fell in with all the views of the district center, while another stood out for some plan of studies of its own, can any one doubt that the tractable locality would have much the better chance of getting it? Another point is that as soon as it became a matter of distributing Government money, all kinds of local jealousies would arise; and politicians would appear upon the scene to demand that their special localities should not be neglected. We incline to think that, if Prof. Henderson could only be brought into contact with two or three average Congressmen wrangling over what they would regard as a division of the spoils, his confidence in the beneficent influence of a subsidy would be somewhat shaken.

We do not know how our contributor arrives at the induction he puts forward with so much confidence that "the sum of American public infamy is neither absolutely nor relatively so great as the sum of American private infamy"; but we must be allowed to question the value of the formula. We are told that the Government is corrupt only because the people are corrupt. There is doubtless some general truth in the statement; but it ought not to be forgotten that one way in which the corruption of the people shows itself is in taking money in taxes which they could not get in any other way, and to which they have no right. Appropriation-hunting has long since been reduced to a science, and no one who has carefully watched the politics of this or any other democratic country can doubt that every additional appropriation made by the Legislature becomes to some extent an additional corruption fund. Granting even that the appropriation once voted is honestly expended as a matter of account, the very granting of it in many cases was an act of theft viewed from one side and an act of bribery viewed from another. The locality or interest that clamors till it gets what it wants, without regard to the general welfare, virtually steals; and the combination of politicians that procures the appropriation aids in the theft for purposes of bribery. To say, therefore, that such money does not stick to the hands of the officials who expend it is not saying much. They doubtless, as Prof. Henderson hints, are more or less compelled to be honest—the dishonesty was perpetrated in the passing of the vote by which the money was obtained in the first place. When Prof. Henderson tells us that our officials are not so bad, and that we should not be afraid of the Government which is our own creature, he misses the mark. We are not afraid of the officials, whose functions are largely analogous to those of employés in private firms or corporations; what we are afraid of is the really irresponsible action of our legislators who are sent to Congress almost solely as representatives of local interests, wholly unembarrassed by local consciences. Our real Government is not the executive—it is the Legislature; and if Prof. Henderson will take the responsibility of stating that the private business of the country is carried on on less honest principles than the business of legislation, we think he will surprise most well-informed readers.

We must demur altogether to Prof. Henderson's identification of liberty with power or faculty. If a man can not swim, we do not say he is not at liberty to swim. If, on the other hand, a boy can swim, but is not allowed to by his parents, we say he is not at liberty to swim. The business of Government, according to Herbert Spencer, to whom Prof. Henderson refers, is to protect individuals in the exercise of already acquired faculties and powers, not to take measures for enlarging their faculties and powers: that, he holds, they should look after for themselves. Liberty means nothing else than freedom from external restraint; and to assume, as Prof. Henderson seems to, that a man free from external restraint is not truly free unless he has also a wide range of action is about as logical as to say that a man can not be truly sane unless he has a very wide range of knowledge. Yet it is on the strength of this apparent confusion of thought that Prof. Henderson asks us, in the name of liberty, to intrust the Government with a great diversity of functions for the purpose of "making desirable individual action possible"! We sincerely trust that university-extension lecturers will not be found teaching this doctrine, and arguing that a man's freedom is increased when he gets cheaper postage, or any other added facilities for action. In the sense in which Prof. Henderson is using the word "liberty," it would surely be the duty of the Government to see that every man was well supplied with pocket-money, since nothing so circumscribes action as poverty.

Finally, we fail to see much force in the paragraph in which our contributor sums up his case: "A governmental action which compels is mischievous; an activity which says, 'Thou mayst; lo! here are the means,' is helpful." Surely it is obvious that before the Government can say "Thou mayst; lo! here are the means," it must have taken those means from somebody else. The one great form of compulsion which governments nowadays have it in their power to exercise is this one of taxation. The business of Government is not to say "Thou mayst" to any one, but to say "Thou must not" to every one who shows a disposition to encroach on the liberties of his neighbor. "Thou mayst" in the mouth of the Government is almost, if not quite, an impertinence. "Thou must not," if uttered in the right quarter, is the watchword of individual liberty.