Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Editor's Table



AMONG the hopeful signs of the times we may reckon the increased attention that is being given in our higher schools to the study of "civics," a term which includes the general principles of government, the Constitution of our own country in particular, and the duties of citizenship. It is somewhat extraordinary that the importance of instructing our youth in these subjects was not earlier recognized; but we may hope that, now that they have been introduced pretty generally into our educational courses, they will assume the prominence to which they are entitled. If the State undertakes to educate, it should be mainly and primarily with a view to producing good citizens; and the instruction which specially pertains to this object should in all public schools have an honored, if not indeed the foremost, place.

What is government? is a question which must spontaneously occur to the mind of every young person, and the teacher is fortunate who has a subject to deal with in regard to which his or her pupils are already prepared to ask questions. Government, it can be explained, in the first place is control. Control may be exercised either for good or for evil—either in excess of requirements, or in due proportion to requirements, or in measure inadequate to requirements. Control exercised for evil is tyranny, and should, wherever possible, be rested; control exercised for good is government in the best sense and deserves loyal acquiescence and support. Control in excess of requirements again is tyranny, even though exercised not by a monarch but by a majority of the citizens; control in due proportion to requirements is government in a good sense; control inadequate to requirements means a greater or less degree of anarchy. It should not be difficult to interest the minds of the young in deciding or trying to decide for themselves certain practical questions to which these definitions would naturally give rise. Take the government of a given country at a given time: was it tyrannical or was it reasonable government? Did it deserve resistance or support? Such and such laws, are they in excess of requirements, or are they such as circumstances demand? What are we to understand by "requirements"? Requirements for what? Here is the opportunity for pointing out how purely meddlesome and intrusive a great deal of legislation is—the mere mandates of majorities who want to have their way in everything, and are not content to win others over by persuasion, but insist on forcing them into conformity by legal measures. The "requirements" it can be shown, beyond which political control should not go, are the requirements of national cohesion. Whatever tends to enforce uniformity of practice or habit or opinion beyond the demands of national unity partakes of the nature of tyranny, whether the authority that imposes it has one head or a million heads. The necessity for government in the true sense can be made evident to the weakest understanding, and from this will obviously flow the duty of every citizen to aid in the maintenance of law and order. What kind of a society, it may bo asked, would that be the sole foundations of which were force and fraud? What would become of human industry if the laborer could not depend on receiving his honest wages, or any worker on protection in carrying on his employment? Law, it will be seen, is no restraint upon the good, but is their shield against the aggressions of the evil; to the latter alone is it a terror, and they alone can have any interest in weakening its authority. Yet even they would suffer were there no law, and consequently the ideal condition of things for a bad man would be one in which others obeyed the law while he succeeded in evading it. The habitual criminal is thus no better than a beast of prey or a parasite.

Teaching of this nature addressed to a class in which some kind of public opinion was capable of being evoked would, we are persuaded, do much to create in the minds of the young a sense of the interest they have in upholding the institutions of the country, both national and municipal. We incline to the opinion that this interest should first be awakened by means of general considerations upon government before detailed instruction is given in the national Constitution. When the time has come for the latter, the different purposes which each power in the State is intended to serve should be carefully explained, and the pupils should be invited to exercise their own independent judgment upon the Constitution as a whole and upon its several parts. They might be freely asked whether they could suggest B anything better, and the whole subject should be commended to them as one in which they have an interest that can not safely be neglected. It should be impressed upon them that, if honest people do not take an interest in politics, dishonest people are sure to do so, and that the only way to nullify the influence of the bad is for the good—those who have the welfare of their country at heart—to occupy the field in overwhelming numbers themselves.

Modern writers note a decline in the sentiment of patriotism; but we can afford to let the old patriotism go, if we can get a better patriotism in its place. The old patriotism involved hardly less of hostility and ill-will to other countries than of attachment to one's own. The new patriotism calls upon us to serve our own country first, and no less in peace than in war, but to be desirous that other countries should be equally well served by their sons. The old patriotism formed easy alliances with selfish and unworthy interests, so that the trade of patriot became one of the most suspected of vocations—so much so that the sturdy old Tory, Dr. Johnson, denounced it as "the last refuge of a scoundrel"; but the new patriotism which can not commend itself by loudmouthed denunciation of other countries can only make itself known and felt by useful activity in the public interest at home.

The complete instruction of our youth in civics will have to embrace, we regret to say, a description of the principal evils which dog the steps of representative government. We have just glanced at the evil of indifference in political affairs, but in a course of instruction it would merit much fuller treatment. Then there is the opposite evil of excessive partisanship leading to the gravest abuses of administration, and through the frauds which it introduces into the working of the political machine threatening even the stability of the State. There is the evil of excessive taxation, resorted to in order that the party in power may have more money to distribute for political purposes. There is the evil of corrupt understanding between the party in power and business men whose pecuniary interests that party can promote by legislation—so much tariff (for example) meaning so much money to be contributed at election times. The celebrated letter in which the chairman of a certain committee threatened to "fry the fat" out of certain manufacturers who, after having been put in the way of enriching themselves at the expense of the public, had failed to respond with due liberality and gratitude when the hat was being passed round for a great political campaign, should be printed for an everlasting remembrance and illustration of "how it works." As regards the thieves and pirates who obtain government contracts and enrich themselves by furnishing inferior articles, it would be easy to rouse against them the fierce indignation and reprobation of any class of ingenuous youths; and it would not be hard to show that many other frauds upon the Government, such as charging undue prices for things, obtaining by collusion contracts at figures beyond what would afford a fair profit, and so on, are all of an infamous nature and utterly unworthy of any man pretending to be a good citizen. Great care should be taken not to deal with any of these subjects in a cynical spirit or to create the impression that the evils indicated are more widespread than they really are. It ought to be a paramount object to promote respect for the country in which we live, and while the evils and dangers which beset our system of government should be plainly pointed out, stress should also be laid upon the vast amount of faithful service and unselfish devotion which the country receives from its worthier sons. The spirit to cultivate is not one of despondency, but one of hope, of confidence, and of resolute endeavor. Let our young people but have the right kind of teaching, and they will respond to it, and in less than ten years the effect for good upon the public opinion and public life of the country will be very apparent.