Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/May 1892/Editor's Table
THE question of the just distribution of material wealth is one which to-day is engaging many minds, and which in some quarters is being discussed with no small amount of passion. We are not aware, however, that there is any theory now before the world in the light of which any material change could hopefully be made in the existing structure of society. The only theory or doctrine, so far as we can see, that is at all hopeful is that which proclaims that governments should not, by arbitrary interferences with the course of trade, do anything to promote inequalities of fortune. It seems to us possible, however, and not only possible but probable, that if we would concern ourselves more than we do with the question of a better distribution of culture or intellectual wealth, some of the difficulties that beset the other question might be sensibly diminished. If culture means anything, it means adequate knowledge and orderly thought, and it is difficult to see how, if there were a marked improvement in the general intellectual condition of a community—a raising of the level of its culture—there should not also be an improvement in its economic condition. An increase in culture of the right sort would mean an abatement of the feverish thirst for wealth which is a characteristic of our time, and a more or less general adoption of more rational modes of life. It would mean the development of a higher public opinion and the purification of political methods and principles. It would mean an elevation of social manners, and would call into existence a finer individual self-respect. It would make people intolerant of abuses that admitted of remedy and more sensitive to every form of social injustice. In a word, as the inner man was renewed from day to day, so he would renew his environment, justifying anew the words of the poet Spenser:
"For of the soul the body form doth take,
For soul is form and doth the body make."
What are the means of culture at our disposal at the present day? We have first of all the public schools. Of these as instruments of culture in any high sense it is impossible to speak enthusiastically. It is not because they deal only with the elements of knowledge, because much of true culture could be imparted in connection with "the three r's." It is simply because they are not to any wide extent dominated by the spirit of culture, but on the whole tend rather to antagonize culture by attaching vulgar ideas of mere personal gain to the acquisition of knowledge. In saying this we are fully prepared to make all needful exceptions. Here and there, no doubt, teachers are to be found who, with high aims, throw their whole soul into their work, and thus confer a benefit on the community which, in most cases, is far from being adequately recognized or compensated.
Then we have our high schools, colleges, and universities. Here, no doubt, much excellent work is done, along with much that is altogether inferior and inefficient. The result of the Boston Herald's prize essay competition of a couple of years ago is probably still in the recollection of some of our readers. Two hundred and twenty youths of both sexes taken from the graduating classes of New England grammar schools competed for two prizes, one of six hundred dollars and one of four hundred dollars, and with what result? Let the judges who examined and pronounced upon the compositions answer:
"Two hundred and twenty compositions of all sorts and sizes, the work presumably of the best boys and girls of the schools of literary New England! What anticipations the first sight aroused! What originality, what fresh sincerity of thought and expression must lie in all this new work of new minds, unconfined by any narrow limitation of subject! Yet the end was almost absolute disappointment. The faults are greater than of mere immaturity. There is a painful constraint, a self-consciousness almost invariably present. There is an effect of insincerity, an inability or disinclination to write out real thought, that gives to the whole work a wearisome, perfunctory appearance. It may fairly be claimed that these compositions are typical. This, then, the best work that the best scholars of our schools can accomplish fails so completely of its object that the fault must be essential either to system or subject."
The general result was that, of the two hundred and twenty who competed, the vast majority simply made themselves ridiculous. What, then, may we infer of those who did not compete—the remaining members of the graduating classes, whose number must have been to that of the competitors as at least ten to one? We can only suppose that their average condition of culture would be markedly below that of the competitors. It is evident, then, that our grammar schools, indispensable as their work is, are not adequately providing for the culture even of the comparatively limited class attending them. It would indeed be making an altogether excessive demand upon them to require that they should. As to our universities, they are all doing useful and many of them excellent work, and if we looked only at the ever-extending recognition which our scholars and savants are receiving in the centers of learning of the Old World, we should have every reason to be satisfied with the intellectual progress of our country. More than this is wanted, however, for the object we have now in view—the spread of true culture throughout the mass of the community. As lately noticed in these columns, a hopeful attempt in this direction is being made by the university-extension system, which we can not doubt has a great and useful future before it; but, in view of the very recent articles we have published on this subject, we need not dwell specially on it to-day.
Another agency for the spread of culture is the public library, an institution existing in nearly every town of any size, and which might be turned to very good account. A generation ago the lecture system was in full activity, and was an important agent of popular education. In the present day it has been to a large extent supplanted by the newspaper and magazine press, the extraordinary development of which is one of the marvels of the age. The lecture had, however, one advantage which the magazine or newspaper does not possess, and that is that it drew people together and gave them a common interest in the subjects treated. This we consider to be a more hopeful foundation for culture, as far as it goes, than individual reading of books and papers; and here we are brought to the main point we desire to make on the present occasion which is that culture can only become general by being socially pursued. Every educated man and woman who has a living interest in the things of the intellect might and should carry on a kind of university extension work in a quiet way among his or her own friends. Let little informal societies be formed for mutual help—let us say, in the understanding and appreciation of works of literature, or in the comprehension of social questions, or in intellectual effort of any kind—and let it be understood that the ulterior object is to promote in some small measure the great end of right and rational living, and we are persuaded that much good will be done and much social enjoyment obtained. Of course, there is a good deal of this kind of thing going on in different places, but there might be a great deal more. Too many "cultured" people think of their culture mainly, if not wholly, as a valuable personal possession, and an enviable mark of distinction from the crowd. That is a wrong and selfish view to take of it. The world is full of people who are starving for the bread of intellectual life. They may not know they are starving, but they are, all the same. Their lives are poor, empty, frivolous, and wholly unideal. Yet the sources of intellectual wealth are at their doors, and those who could open up these sources to them are among their acquaintance. Such at least is often the case, and what we are anxious to do is to rouse the possessors of culture to a sense of their responsibility in the matter. Freely they have received, why should they not freely give? Why should they not institute a propaganda of culture, and strive to redeem here and there a mind from the slavery of ignorance and commonplace?
We take this opportunity of making a long-delayed apology to a correspondent who wrote to us some four or five years ago, suggesting that a portion of each Sunday should be devoted to purposes of intellectual improvement in a social way. His letter was an interesting one, and we had ordered it for publication, when an accident destroyed both the manuscript of the letter and the writer's name and address, a circumstance which we much regretted at the time and should have referred to in these columns. We are aware of cases in which what our correspondent recommended has been done with very good results. Friends have met on Sunday evenings at one another's houses for profitable discourse, sometimes of a spontaneous and sometimes of a prearranged character. In one group with which we are acquainted, each person is supposed to read during the week as much as he or she has opportunity for and to bring to the meeting an extract of from one hundred to two hundred words taken from some favorite author. In this way the little society gathers an anthology of its own of more or less memorable passages. Other readings are given in prose or poetry, and the various topics or thoughts presented are freely discussed. In this way a common proprietorship is created in ideas which would else have remained isolated in particular minds, and it is needless to say that much correction of individual errors is at the same time made possible.
Now, what is wanted for the popularization of culture is a great extension of work, if work it can be called where so much pleasure is involved, of precisely this kind. Where university extension classes are established, small social gatherings such as we have described would carry on their work admirably, and, where they are not established, would to some extent take their place. The signs are abundant that our people need more culture, and if those who possess culture were only animated with a little of the missionary spirit which very uncultivated people sometimes possess, they might turn their gifts and accomplishments to much better purpose than, speaking generally, they now do. What is wanted to vivify culture is a social aim an—aim of social usefulness: give it that, and it will become a power for the regeneration of the world.
An Index to Volumes I to XL of The Popular Science Monthly is well advanced in preparation, and will be published probably in the course of the coming summer. In the new Index the contents of the whole forty volumes will be entered both by author and by subject in one alphabetical list. It will possess all the best features of the most recent indexes, and will be a thoroughly practical guide to the store of information which the volumes of the magazine contain. The compiler is Mr. Frederik A. Fernald, of the editorial staff of the Monthly.