Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/November 1897/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


TO most persons such a question will seem very absurd. Of course, the American people are civilized. They are probably the most civilized on the face of the earth, not in a material sense merely but in an immaterial sense. Where is there more anxious discussion of ways and means to elevate the condition of the poor both morally and physically, and to alleviate the sufferings of the unfortunate? Where is there so much money given to promote the work of charity and education? But the sympathies of the American people are not confined to their own borders. When there is a great calamity abroad, like an Irish or Russian famine, or an Indian plague, no purse is opened more quickly or widely than theirs; and as to work in the missionary field, have they not contributed countless sums to carry it on?

But these statements betray an inexact knowledge of the essence of civilization. They show how the mind is taken with the ostentatious and dazzling, which may possess a meaning quite different from that attached to them, and how it fails to grasp the more significant but hardly less obvious phenomena of American social and political life. Charity does not necessarily mean a high civilization, for it may be born of vanity, a conspicuous trait of the barbarian, and be so shortsighted as to be utterly destructive of the best interests of the race. Nor does education in the popular sense—that is, the acquisition of facts and the sharpening of the intellect—mean civilization proper, for, as Mr. Morley pointed out in his recent lecture on Machiavelli, rare scholarship and a high degree of aesthetic taste, such as those of the Medici and their associates, may be coupled with unspeakable baseness. The truly civilized man does not refrain simply from conduct that is clearly wrong, such as robbery and murder, but he refrains from conduct that tends in indirect and obscure ways to injure his fellows, depriving them in the long run of their lives and their property. His sympathies are lively in the highest degree. But they are rational. While they respond to immediate suffering, they respond more quickly to the greater remote suffering that unwise philanthropy always inflicts. While, finally, he is resentful of invasions of his own rights, he is invariably considerate and jealous of the rights of others.

When judged by this standard, one that a few persons in every community have already reached, the American people can hardly be said to have attained civilization. In fact, they are, in many respects, still on the level of barbarians, deficient in self-control, oblivious to the rights and feelings of others, incapable of grasping the less obvious but more important results of a given line of conduct, and even given over to actual lawlessness and crime. They may shudder at Armenian massacres, and feel that the Turk deserves the solicitude of the hangman. They may denounce with a Carlylean wealth of epithet the Spanish cruelties in Cuba, which are, in reality, nothing more than the inevitable accompaniment of war, and clamor for an intervention that will put an end to them in the interest of humanity. But have they earned the right to set themselves up as international philanthropists, when their own hearthstone, according to Dr. Andrew D. White, is made red every year with the blood of more than ten thousand victims of the homicide Do their generous contributions to domestic charities and foreign missions entitle them to distinction as model representatives of Christian civilization, when mobs of leading citizens in New York and Ohio, as well as in various Southern States, lynch negroes charged with crimes that have not been proved? Has not Christian civilization some conquests to make in a land where, as in New Orleans, Italians are murdered with the approval of public sentiment, and, as in many parts of the West, the. treatment of Chinese is hardly less savage than that of European missionaries in the most benighted districts of the Celestial Empire? Is it not clear also that barbarism has yet to be abolished where striking workingmen burn down property and assail the men ready to take their places with a ferocity that the followers of Attila might have envied?

But it is not such obvious facts as these that justify the sneering smile of the cynic at the patriotic boast of Americans in regard to their civilization. Certain conspicuous features of our public policy are not less indicative of the tastes and instincts of a barbarian. Take, for one example, the provision of the Constitution of the State of New York that restricts prison labor. Had the convention that framed it proposed that, in order to relieve the Commonwealth of its criminal burden, a certain number of prisoners should be strangled every month, what an outburst of horror throughout the country there would have been! But the provision actually adopted by the picked representatives of the people and afterward approved by the people themselves is hardly less atrocious. The idleness it enforces is driving prisoners mad. Yet there is more effort to stop cruelty to animals and to throttle science by putting an end to vivisection than there is to suppress this form of atrocity. Take, for another example, the law recently passed that will either enhance the price or vitiate the quality of every commodity on which a protective duty is levied. A people really civilized could no more have permitted it to be placed on the statute books than they could permit thieves to rob the poor of a part of their food and clothing, making it more difficult for them to live and thus increasing the suffering that philanthropists and social reformers are seeking in endless ways to alleviate. It would have seemed to them nothing less than barbarous to pass a law that not only makes it more difficult for their own countrymen to live, but deprives people in foreign countries, like the Welsh tinplate makers and the Austrian pearl-button makers, of a means of livelihood. Take, for still another example, the imperfect international copyright law. People that appreciate in but a very indistinct manner the existence of property in ideas and refuse to protect it effectively do not meet the requirements of the definition of civilization.

But the policy of aggression, which is the more fit term that Mr. Spencer applies to what is called protection, a policy inherited directly from feudal barbarism, is not confined to tariff laws and imperfect international copyright laws; it extends to the innumerable laws passed by State and national Legislatures in restriction of personal liberty and in authorization of the seizure of private property for purposes outside of the legitimate sphere of government. Money taken from a man for an object that he does not approve, such as circulating libraries, public baths, and a hundred and one other schemes supposed to be for the benefit of people, is as much a violation of the principle of equal rights, the unfailing test of a high civilization, as the highwayman's possession of a traveler's purse. The same is true of taxes in support of so-called public charities, which are not charities at all, properly speaking. They are simply compulsory largesses, since they are not voluntary contributions prompted by the altruism of the citizen, but forced contributions that he is always glad to escape.

So enormously has this policy of aggression grown within the past few years; so indifferent have people become to the fundamental duty of human society, namely, the maintenance of order and the enforcement of justice; little wonder that "a spirited foreign policy" is now one of the most cherished ideals of the American people. It is only an extension of the domestic aggression to the field of foreign politics. People that violate incessantly and without the slightest compunction the rights of one another, no matter what fine motives they may give themselves in justification, are certain to be deficient in respect for the rights of the foreigner. Not in a negative way alone by the passage of tariff and anti-immigration acts will they attack him. But they will attack him positively, issuing blustering declarations of defiance and insult, proposing the violation of the laws of nations in order to interfere in behalf of rebellious subjects, conniving at conspiracies to overthrow a monarchical government in the interest of a more democratic one, and making elaborate preparations on land and sea to engage in any conflict that may be provoked.

The induction to be made from an examination of these phenomena of American social and political life is obvious. It is that we shall never reach the highest civilization by the path that we are pursuing so energetically and with so much self-satisfaction. A continuance of the policy of aggression, both domestic and foreign, can not fail to end disastrously. Devotion to the work of perfecting our criminal laws and the suppression of crime; to the simplification of our civil laws, making justice cheap and easy; and to the redemption of our various governments from the pilferers that have taken possession of them, may not appeal very powerfully to the imagination of men intent on great and showy schemes of state philanthropy. But it will do infinitely more to promote American civilization. It will teach men to respect the rights of others, and to do nothing that will violate even remotely the principle of justice. It will lead them to depend upon themselves—that is, voluntary co-operation, instead of the state—that is, compulsory co-operation—to promote the schemes of the philanthropist for the alleviation of human suffering and the advancement of the human race.


A recent article by Mr. Frederick Burk in the Atlantic Monthly gives a vivid idea of the uselessness and worse than uselessness of much of the instruction that is imparted to normal-school classes under the head of Psychology and Methods of Education. Mr. Burk has been attending classes in several of the foremost institutions for the training of teachers, and furnishes verbatim reports of what he heard. As we think it of importance that attention should be called as widely as possible to his observations and conclusions, we shall here quote portions of his article.

In one normal school the question under discussion in the psychology class was as to the nature and authority of conscience, and the question having been asked, Is conscience an infallible guide? the following answer was accepted as correct: "In one sense conscience is infallible and in another it is not. Conscience is not infallible in judging what is the highest good; it is infallible in affirming that we should choose in accordance with our sense of obligation." According to this definition, we have, over and above a "sense of obligation" in moral matters, something which tells us we should obey that sense. But if a "sense of obligation" does not of itself imply a need for obedience, what force is there in the words? And what could be more palpably redundant in expression than to say that conscience is that which makes us feel that we must do what we feel we must do? Yet such and no other is the sense of the answer accepted as correct.

There was more to come, however. The fallibility of conscience in indicating the right course to follow having been admitted, and the consequent diversity of human standards of conduct having been recognized, the teacher asked whether there was any such thing as an absolute standard. The class answered "Yes," and being asked to say where such a standard was to be found, answered with great unanimity, "In the Word of God. "Teacher:" "The Word of God, then, makes a revelation of God's will and gives us a standard of absolute right?" Class: "Yes, sir." It might have been expected that at this point the question would have been raised as to how it was that human standards differed so greatly if there was one generally accepted standard in the Word of God; but obvious as this development of the subject was, the discussion broke off at this point save for an objection raised by one of the pupils to the effect that, if the Bible contained the one true standard of right conduct, nations that did not possess it could not know what they ought to do. This objection the teacher disposed of by authoritatively stating that we were in no uncertainty, and that the other matter might rest.

Now, if the object of this discussion was in any degree to teach the teachers of the future to think, we can only say that they were not fairly dealt with. Every one knows that disputes in regard to questions of duty constantly arise and sometimes wax very sharp between parties who equally recognize the authority of the Bible. If there is one absolute standard in the Bible, why should there be so many conflicting human standards, and why should the conscience of those who accept the Bible frequently lead them astray as seemed to be fully admitted in the class? When our slavery troubles were at their height, was not the Bible invoked with equal conviction on both sides? Did not difference of opinion as to what the Bible taught on the subject lead even to the disruption of churches? To-day legal prohibition of the liquor traffic is a leading issue; and the situation is just the same as it was forty years ago in regard to slavery. Some find prohibition in the Bible; others find a distinct recognition of the lawfulness of wine drinking. So with the question of women's rights, the question of capital punishment, and a dozen others that might be named. For every text which the advocates of one theory can quote, their opponents are ready with one of seemingly opposite import. These are facts sufficiently notorious to be well within the knowledge of normal students, and therefore to tell such students without qualification that the Bible contained the one absolute standard of right was simply casting dust in their eyes. It is of prime importance that the teachers of the future should be taught to be honest in their intellectual methods, but here was a direct lesson—so at least we regard it—in dishonesty. The moral is, when a discussion threatens to develop in a "dangerous" direction, cut it short or shunt it on to another track. We should not teach that to normal students; we should not teach it to anybody. We may properly teach caution in dealing with difficult subjects, and may point out the errors to which logical processes are always liable; but we should never inculcate the duty of closing the eyes to unwelcome facts. The cause of the Bible is not served by those who put forward conventional views in regard to it and seek to exempt these from criticism. Like all else that is good, the Bible only gains in influence and just authority through being represented simply as it is.

In the same school, the subject of the will being under discussion, the teacher inquired how the will was cultivated. The answer given—correct, we are informed, according to the book—was as follows: "The will is cultivated by cultivating the intellect, which enables the mind to judge more wisely what is the highest good; by listening to the voice of conscience in regulating the natural impulses; by resolving to do always what ought to be done." It seems wonderful that the futility of such talk is not self-evident. If the object was to teach the students how to use words without meaning anything by them we should think this particular exercise well chosen. We are to cultivate the will "by listening to the voice of conscience in regulating the impulses," and "by resolving to do always what ought to be done." But people who can "listen to the voice of conscience" so as to control their impulses, and who are capable of "resolving to do always what ought to be done," have their will already cultivated: we do not see what more they want. Then surely the teacher who approved of the statement that by cultivating the intellect we enable the mind to judge more wisely what is the highest good must have forgotten that only a short time before he had taught the class that the Word of God contained the one perfect standard of right action. What is the use of cultivating our intellects in order to find out what is fully set forth for our guidance in a book accessible to all? A standard once given is something to use, not to dispute about.

We must, however, quote verbatim Mr. Burk's experience in another school.

One recitation that I heard was upon the formation of judgments.

"What is a judgment?" asked the teacher, as he picked off a card from a pack containing the names of the members of the class.

"A judgment," replied the pupil upon whom the lot fell, "is a relation between concepts."

"What is the act of judging?" was asked as a fresh card was turned.

"The act of judging," said the pupil, "is the act of knowing that the concept of the species is included in the concept of the genus."

"Give an example."

"In the judgment ‘a dog is an animal,’ the act of judging is the act of knowing that the concept ‘dog’ is included in the concept ‘animal.’”

"In what two ways may concepts he compared?"

"Concepts may be compared in two ways—as to content and as to extent."

"What is a judgment of content?"

"A judgment of content is the knowing that the content of one judgment is included in the content of another."

The wording of this answer was not considered quite correct by the attentive class, and a correction was made.

"What two kinds of judgment of extent are there?" asked the teacher.

"The two kinds of judgment of extent are common judgments of extent and scientific judgments of extent."

"What is a common judgment of extent?" and the turning of the card brought to her feet a ruddy-faced young woman, who said with considerable rapidity, "A common judgment of extent is the knowing that one judgment of extent is included in the concept of another, without genii or species."

A titter admonished her, and she hastily corrected her statement: "I mean, without genii or speciei."

The answer finally accepted as correct was that "a common judgment of extent is the knowing that one judgment of extent is included in the judgment of another without being included as a species of the genus."

Is it not lamentable to think that, in these days, when science is giving so real a character to human knowledge, such unprofitable verbiage as the above should still be foisted upon the minds of students in our most reputable educational institutions? As Mr. Burk very well points out, the sciences of biology and anthropology have revealed the mind as something subject to definite though very complex laws of growth, and have completely overturned the mediæval conception of it as a thing organized and partitioned off according to the methods of thought of adult and fully self-conscious human beings. All questions therefore relating to conscience, will, and judgment should, in relation to education at least, be considered as questions of phase in a developing organism, not as questions of hard fact in a fully and finally developed system. It is satisfactory to learn that in one or two institutions Mr. Burk found the modern point of view fairly well recognized. We hope his article will hasten a much-needed change in pedagogic methods.


In former days people used to grow restive periodically under the abuses of monarchical or autocratic government; and there were those who fondly believed that, if monarchy as an institution could be done away with and the people left free to govern themselves, all political troubles would cease. Well, in certain countries, and notably in this, every vestige of monarchy in the hereditary sense has been abolished; the people are free to govern themselves; and yet, judging by the discussions that we read in the daily press, the golden age seems still to delay its coming. The complaint used to be that the monarch was forgetful of the true interests of his subjects, that too much was sacrificed to court intrigues and private favoritism; and, strange to say, we hear to-day complaints which run on precisely the same lines, though directed against quite another class of authorities. Instead of the intrigues of a court we have the intrigues of committees and their managers; and just as before, but perhaps to an even greater extent, the people find that their real interests are being neglected while their supposed servants, but actual rulers, are assigning places and carving out the public wealth with a view mainly to their own convenience and the perpetuation of their power. At the present moment there is in this very community a specially bitter outcry against the evils of political bossism, and thousands of worthy citizens have taken counsel together in the hope of casting asunder the bands which they find so oppressive. If they can by a prodigious effort break the power of the ruling boss, things, they hope, will go better ever afterward. We are not sure that there is not some illusion in this. No monarch ever placed himself on his throne by his own unaided action; and no boss ever acquired his position by the sole exertion of his own will. The origin of the boss, as we take it, is this: Government with all its powers being thrown into the hands of the people, there arises a keen struggle as to who shall wield those powers and enjoy such advantages as may be incident thereto. Such a struggle necessarily develops into a faction fight; and where there is fighting there must be organization for fighting purposes. The boss is the leader of the faction, the man who surveys with a comprehensive eye the whole field of battle, who enforces discipline, who gives the word of command, who directs the campaign. The old saying that in the midst of arms laws must keep silent is verified in these political struggles. The place which ought to be filled by some competent man prepared to serve the public to the utmost of his ability has to be given to some one whose appointment will "strengthen the party"; and the party is understood to be strengthened when an important office is bestowed in such a manner as (1) to encourage party workers, and (2) to furnish funds for party uses. Neither in actual warfare nor in politics are battles won by discourses on moral philosophy. The boss engages to carry his party to victory, or to nurse its energies after defeat; and he must be allowed a large discretion as to the means to be used.

A little reflection, therefore, will make it clear that the only way to get rid of the boss is to do away with the necessity for his services. As long as he is wanted he will be there, and there is very little use in finding fault with him or with his methods. As well find fault with a general in the field for shelling a town in which the enemy have fortified themselves, or setting fire to standing grain, or doing any other of the thousand wasteful acts that characterize ordinary warfare. War is war the world over, and—bloodshed apart, which, however, may not be far in the background—political warfare has all the signs and characteristics of war in its murderous form. It is a matter of strategy. It involves waste of property, and gains its ends, whenever necessary, by ruse and deceit. The question how to get rid of the boss is merged, therefore, in the much wider one, how to get rid of the conflict that calls the boss into existence and invests him with dictatorial power.

There is but one way that we can see, and that is to persuade the electorate that appointments to office are not things to squabble about, and that, in so far as any man governs through his vote, he is bound to do it in the interest of the country at large. We are not enthusiastic enough to believe that such a change in public sentiment can be brought about in a short time. Still, we consider it important that the seat of the trouble should be distinctly recognized. So long as men are bent on fighting for the control of patronage it is vain to ask them to set aside the leaders upon whose talents for organization, strength of will, and general resourcefulness all their hopes of victory depend. The efforts of reformers should be bent, not on showing how many deplorable acts the different bosses are responsible for, and how little in general they consult the public interest in the exercise of their power, but in bringing home the responsibility for this whole condition of things upon the thousands of electors who never ascend to any correct view of their political obligations, and consequently never think of using their individual portions of political power for other than selfish ends. The boss will continue to flourish until the people get a new heart. When that day comes he will pass into innocuous desuetude.