Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/February 1898/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


AN ingenious but somewhat paradoxical writer of the present day has lately said that, "were we all agreed as to the training of our children, we need not await the slow evolution of the social millennium; it would be achievable in the very next generation." His argument is that "if a generation can be reared to reverence a stick or a stone, an inanimate idol, and this or that grotesque religious system, it can be reared also to love and reverence man." The postulate here, it will be observed, is a very extensive one—"were we all agreed as to the training of our children." The meaning evidently is, that if our intellectual methods and moral principles were in complete accord, and if both were of the most advanced order, we might look for the speedy coming of the millennium. Why not? We should be all but in it ourselves, and when it came our children would hardly know the difference.

It does not seem to us that there is much advantage in this way of stating the case. We are not all agreed as to the training of our children. We are agreed, broadly speaking, in some things; but, unfortunately, the things we are agreed upon do not make very directly for the millennium. In the matter of education there is no opinion so widely shared or so strongly held as that education ought to be mainly a preparation for commercial success. It was said long ago that wisdom was "the principal thing," and that therefore we should get wisdom. That opinion has been before the world for some thousands of years, but it has never yet dominated the mind of any society; and to-day, as much perhaps as ever, the feeling of the multitude is that money is the principal thing, and that therefore every effort should be bent on getting money. Apart from the teaching of school there is the teaching of daily life. Here again the most widely entertained ideals are not the best. The methods, for example, of the politician may almost be said to be imposed on him by the people. If the path to political success lay through a careful study of public questions with a view to the general good, our politics would be completely transformed and a new race of men would appear upon the scene. But the idea of the general good as a paramount object is one which, in the present state of our civilization, can not be brought home to many minds; and the fact that it is repudiated by the multitude renders it difficult for those who acknowledge and accept it to act on it in a consistent manner.

The writer we have quoted, Mr. Archdall Reid,[1] thinks that, because a generation can be educated to worship a stick or a stone, one might just as easily be educated to "love and reverence man." Well, as we have already suggested, if the preceding generation loved and reverenced man, its successor would probably do so also, and possibly in a slightly increased degree. But that is not to the purpose; the question is, whether the present generation, being what it is, could as easily train the next into all the virtues required for the millennium as a given tribe of savages might train its children to believe in and perpetuate its own superstitions. To ask such a question is to answer it. Fetichism is a phenomenon which has made its appearance in every quarter of the world, and which belongs specifically to a certain stage of the human mind. It has its roots very deep in human nature, and we may be allowed to doubt whether those roots are entirely dead in any human being to-day. Certainly we see stray shoots springing up from them in the very heart of civilization. The most prosaic of us will conceive singular attachments for various inanimate things of no special intrinsic value. We say we prize them for their associations; but that is only another way of saying that something has attached itself to those objects which, for us. changes their character and gives them a certain human or, as we might say, spiritual interest. One of the sanest of English poets, Wordsworth, has given expression in more than one passage of his works to this sentiment. As to any intellectual difficulty involved in attaching sanctity to a stock or a stone, it would be little felt by a savage; but, so far as felt, would probably be an aid to the maintenance of the cult. Over a century and a half ago it was remarked by the philosophical Montesquieu that, "by the nature of the human understanding, men like, in the matter of religion, whatever supposes an effort, just as, in the matter of morals, they like, speculatively, whatever bears a character of severity."

It is clear, therefore, that to hand on a fetichistic worship nothing is necessary beyond the ordinary, spontaneous action of the tribe; and it is equally clear, we imagine, that to bring on what is popularly spoken of as the millennium in the generation in which our children will be the chief actors would require nothing short of a miracle. We are not millennial people ourselves, and no determination to which we could possibly come in regard to the education of our children could have the effect of throwing them forward in moral development more than one generation. A tree may in a favorable year make a little more growth than in an unfavorable one; and a river may, in a year of unusually heavy rains, carry down more alluvium to an estuary than is carried down in an ordinary year. Thus we may conceive that a little more work for civilization may be done in one generation than in another; but any such variation will be confined within limits somewhat analogous to those which obtain in the purely physical region.

At the same time the problem of education is one deserving of the most earnest attention of all who are interested in social progress. Education is the debt of each generation to its successor, and, if we can not place those who come after us on a better footing than ourselves, we should at least see that we transmit an undiminished heritage. The aim should, of course, be—and among all but the most thoughtless, no doubt, is—to give those who come after us a better start than we had. The progress of science is doing wonders in the way of improving the surface of the earth; but the only progress which really makes for happiness is that connected with advancing ideals and better principles of action. Will the next generation enter upon active life with a higher conception, on the whole, of that in which the true value of life consists than we had at the outset of our career? It will be well if it is so; but it sometimes seems as if the most strongly marked characteristic of the next age would be a keener appetite for pleasure. If so, that is not progress. The late poet laureate of England has told us in words which may be hackneyed by frequent quotation, but which can never lose their truth, that

"Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-con-
These three alone lead life to sovereign

Modern state education can hardly recognize such a sentiment as this; but it must be recognized somewhere, or else we shall go backward, not forward. If every generation faithfully gives of its best to the generation that follows after, progress will be continuous and the equilibrium of society will be secure; but if at a given moment we begin to trust to governmental machinery and external forms and the general framework of laws to sustain the moral life of society the result will be disastrous. There is no life in these things. The poet moralist of ancient Rome had found this out when he exclaimed, "What are empty laws worth, unsupported by the moral sense of the people?" What is wanted is a deepened popular consciousness of certain commonplace moral principles—principles as old as the beginning of civilization, and yet which can not be held to, even in our own day, without an effort. To inculcate these is something very different from inculcating a system of fetich-worship; but it is the appointed task of the parents and teachers of to-day, and one which can not be neglected without grave responsibility.


An interesting little book published by Dr. Louis Waldstein, under the title of The Subconscious Self, contains many hints that should be of use not only in the education of children, but in the general guidance of life. What the author principally shows is that the larger, and perhaps the more important, part of each person's character is made up of habits, tendencies, preferences, aversions, moods, and principles of which for the most part the individual has little distinct consciousness, and that these at critical moments have often a decisive effect on his destinies. The recognized business of education is to cultivate the consciousness of the individual, and to furnish him with such a working capital of knowledge, ideas, and mental and moral habits as may enable him to do business, in the widest sense, in the world as it exists to-day. But what is thus by direct educative effort brought into a man's consciousness may not penetrate very deeply into his nature. It may,to a considerable extent, be a mere external equipment, and the real man may have been molded and stamped by circumstances and influences of which neither he nor his educators took much or any account.

The more we reflect on this the more we shall recognize both its truth and its importance. Parents sometimes wonder why the multiplied precepts which they bestow upon their children do not more powerfully influence their conduct. The fact is that the precepts in question go to form in the children's minds a fund of conventional opinions—those which they will use before the world—but the parents own example, the thousand and one ways in which they practically manifest themselves, are subconsciously received by the children and go to form the underlying character from which most of their actions spring. Hence the common maxim that example is better than precept. Precept strikes the consciousness, but example constantly present sinks into the heart.

In every department of life we see only too frequently a very wide separation between profession and practice. Profession comes from the region of the conscious, and practice largely from that of the subconscious. Of course, many actions, and particularly our most public ones, are dictated by the active consciousness; but those that make up the main tissue of our lives have their springs in a deeper region and furnish a better index to our true selves. It is of the highest importance, therefore, that the young should not only receive formal instruction in right principles, but that their habitual surroundings should be such as to promote the general health of the moral and intellectual nature. They should see as little as possible of angry passion, of selfish scheming, of duplicity in any form; and every effort should be made to lead them to appreciate and enjoy the finer and happier effects of Nature and all that is harmonious and elevating in the world of art and of human effort generally. It may be said that this would give them an incorrect idea of the world as it is; but it should be borne in mind that the object is to make the world other than it is—to make men and women more humane, more reasonable, more equitable, to endow them with more correct perceptions in all matters of taste, and fit them for a higher plane of social life. If we were to proceed upon the assumption that the world is incapable of amendment, and that the only thing is to make ourselves at home in it exactly as it is, there would be an end to all progress in education.

There are some good remarks in Dr. Waldstein's book about the danger of crowding too much into consciousness and so impairing the subconscious receptivity of the whole nature. We have all heard of prodigies at school who have turned out very dull men in after life. As long as it was a question of absorbing the formal instruction imparted by masters, such individuals were far to the front; but afterward, when it came to be a question of individual resource, of energy, initiative, originality, they relapsed into quite a commonplace if not inferior position. It is very undesirable that anybody should be all consciousness. It is Shakespeare who says:

"If springing things be any jot diminished,
They wither in their prime, prove nothing

In our schools many a "springing thing" is thus "diminished" through the very forcing which seems at the time to produce so great an enlargement of mental faculty. The careful educator should be constantly asking himself the question, Is the mind before me getting into contact with things? and his chief effort should be to establish and promote this contact, so that the mind may draw instruction from its surroundings as a plant derives nourishment from the soil. There is nothing absolutely new in Dr. Waldstein's views, because ages ago men recognized the comparative futility of brilliant faculties unsupported by solid qualities of mind and character; but he has brought forward what he has to say at a very good moment, when, almost more than ever, we need the quiet teachings of Nature to curb our mental restlessness and enable us to "see things steadily and see them whole."

  1. See his article, Characters, Congenital and Acquired, in Science, December 24, 1807.