Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/May 1897/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


IF the word "socialist" could be defined as one who concerns himself with the interests of society, who makes those interests his own, then it would be well if we were all "socialists." So long, however, as it means a person who wishes to transfer to everybody the authoritative direction of everybody else's business and the control of everybody else's property, we must leave the use of the term to those who accept responsibility for the advocacy of such ideas. Meantime, it is a matter for the daily consideration of all men of good will what are the most pressing social needs of the hour, and how they can best be met.

Among the phenomena of our time in this country there is none, we think, more striking than the great development of our institutions of learning. Partly through public grants and partly through private donations, the means available for higher education have within the last quarter of a century, even within the last dozen years, been enormously increased; and, as has lately been remarked, there will shortly be little need for American youths to repair to foreign universities in order to obtain the latest and best results of research in almost any department of knowledge. In other words, this country is already well equipped for the formation of a cultured and learned class, and is yearly increasing its facilities and resources in that direction. This is true even in regard to branches of scholarship, such as the classical languages and philology, which might be thought less likely to awaken interest in a new and democratic community. Whatever advantage, therefore, can come to us from a liberal provision for the higher learning we may consider as already assured.

That culture and learning are delightful and profitable possessions no one, we think, but an extremely uncultivated and narrow-minded person would deny: but, taking what may be called a sociological view of the subject, we have sometimes been led to wonder whether the immense sums of money which have been appropriated of late to university purposes have really been bestowed in the manner most useful to the country at large. A day or two ago our eye fell upon the following observations in one of our most valued contemporaries: "In truth, one of the most startling things in connection with our collegiate education is its failure, as a rule, to prevent the graduate, when he enters politics, from sinking mentally to the existing political level. This has been the history of the larger number of what are called our 'gentlemen in politics.' They rarely spend a year with politicians without adopting their standards and their view of civilization." Most persons, we imagine, can confirm this from their own experience. But, if the scholar sinks through contact with the politician, how are we to explain the low level at which the latter lives? With whom is he in contact on the other side? There is only one answer: With "the people."

This makes us reflect. Millions are being given for the endowment of the higher learning—that is, for the creation of a learned class. What is that learned class going to do for the rest of the community? The members of it will make, no doubt, delightful society for one another; but, from the wider sociological standpoint, what function are they going to fulfill? Will they in any powerful and effective manner help to sustain and strengthen the ideality of less favored classes; or will they live their lives apart, each in his own little "palace of art" constructed by the spirit of self-love and exclusiveness? If they can be counted on to do the former, then the millions are most wisely expended; but if the latter is to be the outcome, then, beyond all doubt, the millions might have been better applied. We believe in natural differentiations, but not in artificially created distinctions; and unless our highly educated class can accept and discharge some social ministry that will have the effect of communicating to others some share in what they have obtained themselves, it seems to us that this vast expenditure of money for higher education may lead to social results of a rather undesirable kind. The university graduate, as we have seen, is cutting a very poor figure in politics. The politicians by profession will not let him do otherwise; and he seems to have no power whatever of appealing to or influencing the people against the politicians. The reason why he is thus powerless—admitting, what perhaps there is no reason to admit in some cases, that he has any ideal of his own above the common—is that the life of the people is almost untouched by any kind of ideality, and that the popular habit of mind is opposed to the recognition of any leadership based upon superiority of mental or moral endowment. We are thus led to the unwelcome conclusion that there is but little diffusion of culture in any true sense among the people, and that it is the general lack of it, and the absence of any interest in larger questions, which give to our politics that character of dreariness and pettiness, not to mention a constant tendency to corruption, which all careful observers have noted.

One careful observer has lately consigned his observations to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly; we refer to the article contributed to the March number of that periodical by Mr. Francis C. Lowell, under the title of Legislative Shortcomings. It is of the Massachusetts Legislature, in which he had two years' experience, that Mr. Lowell speaks. "The first object," he says, of a member elected thereto, "is to secure the passage, or more rarely the defeat, of some legislative measure of only local importance. . . . Occasionally, but not often, this measure is an iniquitous job. Usually the member has no pecuniary interest in it, and often it is little more than a matter of legislative routine. Even when it is unwise, it is frequently nothing worse than a piece of legislative fussiness; or perhaps it was devised to meet some local demand, and is objectionable only on account of the bad precedent it establishes; such, for example, as acts to enable a particular town to subsidize a steamboat or a variety show for the convenience or amusement of its summer visitors. . . . If the member's pet measure is not a local matter, but an act of general importance, he runs the risk of being deemed a crank. If he should strenuously seek the passage of several measures, really important, he would be thought wholly devoid of common sense, and his influence would soon disappear." Then, in order to get his own little bill passed, the member, Mr. Lowell tells us, has to trade his vote—that is to say, he must vote for other men's bills, be they good or bad, if he wishes them to vote for his. If he should fail to do this, "his constituents, without regard to party or condition, would probably deem him faithless to his principal duty."

If such things are done in the green tree of Massachusetts, what may we expect in the drier wood of less happily conditioned States? The Atlantic Monthly would render a great service if, taking this article of Mr. Lowell's as the first of a series, it would give us a dozen or so of similar studies of other State Legislatures. Nothing would more effectually hold up to us a mirror in which to see our true social and political status. Meantime let us first ask how such a condition of political intelligence as Mr. Lowell depicts tallies with the vast apparatus we already command, and the vaster we are daily acquiring, for the promotion of higher learning. When do our learned men propose to swoop down from their heights with culture in their wings for the help and inspiration of the masses of their countrymen? Or is this a matter which they think may safely be left to the common schools?

In this uncertainty as to what the learned classes are going to do for the commonwealth, we sometimes wonder whether it might not be possible to divert advantageously to purposes of popular culture some portion of the wealth which is now finding its way in lavish streams to already well-endowed seats of learning. How the money, if available, could best be applied is an interesting question as to which we should be glad to receive suggestions from our readers. We have more than once heard regret expressed and we share the feeling ourselves at the almost complete disappearance of the lecture system which was doing so much useful work a generation ago. The newspaper has superseded the platform; and yet the platform, we do not hesitate to say, was a more civilizing force in some respects than the newspaper. For one thing, it "uttered nothing base," which is more than can be said for the newspaper. It gave the people high thoughts, interesting ideas, pure sentiments, and useful knowledge. It was not occupied with idle gossip, or mean personalities, or the criminal side of life. It is not fully replaced even by good books and papers. As Prof. Corson says in his interesting little book on The Aims of Literary Study: "The intellectual coefficient can be apprehended through silent reading; the main object of vocalization is to exhibit the spiritual coefficient, which is indefinite to the intellect, and needs to be vocally rendered as much as a musical composition needs to be vocally or instrumentally rendered." There was, moreover, a certain social stimulus afforded by the lecture system which the private reading of even good literature does not supply.

We conceive, therefore, that a wealthy man. desiring to benefit the people at large, might with great advantage establish not lectureships but rather readerships. The literature of to-day and of past days contains ample material for the instruction and delight of popular audiences if read aloud by a properly trained elocutionist. Our idea would be to have such readings entirely free, except that local expenses in the way of hall hire, etc., might be met by the locality; and we should further propose that the reader should in each place that he visited give a course of lessons, also free, in correct reading. For the results which might be expected to accrue from such measures we would refer to the little work by Prof. Corson already mentioned, and to another by the same author entitled The Voice and Spiritual Education. If Prof. Corson is right, culture, no less than faith, comes mainly by hearing; and an agency, therefore, by which the best literature of the day and of all days should be brought home to people's hearts through the tones of a sympathetic human voice could not fail, in course of time, to produce very beneficial effects both mental and moral. Within the household itself nothing is more humanizing than good reading (aloud); and this would be promoted by such public readings and such instruction as we have in view. We hear not infrequently of gifts of a million dollars or more to a single university; and we think it is time that something should be done for those who have no opportunity to become very learned, but whose minds might by proper effort be attuned to what is best in literature, and thus raised above the dreary level of commonplace ideas and petty personal concerns.


A couple of years ago, as some of our readers will remember, a book was published under the title of From the Greeks to Darwin, in which the history of the doctrine of evolution was sketched, or at least purported to be sketched, from the earliest times down to our own day. The most remarkable thing about the book was that, of set purpose, it ignored the greatest thinker on evolutionary lines that the world had ever seen; we mean, of course, Herbert Spencer. This omission was duly noticed in our columns at the time, and there is no need to go over the ground again. What we wish to say to-day is that, if Mr. Spencer's position in relation to the doctrine of evolution needed any vindication, it has received it in ample measure in Mr. Edward Clodd's recently published book, Pioneers of Evolution, and in the article by Mr. Grant Allen contributed to the Fortnightly Review and republished in our last number. No one can read either the one or the other without feeling that to discuss evolution in its broader aspects without making due mention of Spencer is like narrating the discovery of America with but slight mention of Columbus. To Mr. Spencer we owe a rational and systematic statement of the doctrine of universal evolution; to Darwin we owe an original and lucid explananation of the natural process by which species are modified and new species formed. The latter was indeed a most solid and substantive piece of work, but it did not furnish the general formula of evolution, which but for the labors of Herbert Spencer would still be to seek. It was Darwin himself who said of Spencer: "I suspect that hereafter he will be looked upon as by far the greatest living philosopher in England; perhaps equal to any that have lived."

We feel how times have changed when to be recognized as a potent contributor to the establishment of the doctrine of evolution is one of the highest honors, if not the highest honor, which a philosophical thinker can enjoy. When Darwin published his Origin of Species, and for some years later, his name was cast out as evil; to-day it is difficult to keep an admiring public from claiming for him the authorship of that much wider scheme of evolution for which Mr. Spencer properly stands sponsor. The record, however, is very clear, and no one needs to be in error as to the respective achievements of the two men. Both have done great work for the intellectual emancipation of mankind, and the names of both will go down with glory to posterity.