Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


WE do not know from whom the philosopher Locke quotes the saying, "Non vitæ sed scholæ discimus" but he translates it well, "We learn not to live, but to dispute." The adage has reference to the old systems of education which had for their aim neither the discovery of truth nor the perfecting of the human faculties in any broad sense, but the fitting of the individual to take his place in a world of conventional ideas and discuss conventional topics upon conventional lines. In other words, the preparation was for school, not for life, the whole subsequent career of the individual being regarded simply as a prolongation of the intellectual influences and discipline of the school. That system, which was ecclesiastical in its origin, has now, save for strictly ecclesiastical purposes, passed away. We consider life as the end of school and not school as the end of life.

It may be questioned, however, whether we have as yet thoroughly adapted our educational methods to this change of standpoint. Do we as yet take a sufficiently broad view of life? If we conceive life narrowly as essentially a business struggle, and adapt our procedure to that conception, the results will show very little relation to the larger and truer conception according to which life means development of faculty, activity of function, and a harmonious adjustment of relations between man and man. If, again, we make too much of knowledge that has only a conventional value, having little or no bearing on the understanding of things or the accomplishment of useful work, we are so far falling into the old error of "learning for school." The address by Sir Archibald Geikie, which we published last month, gives a useful caution against undervaluing "the older learning." The older learning can certainly be made an effective instrument for the cultivation of taste, of sympathy, and of intellectual accuracy along certain lines. It tends further, we believe, to promote a certain intellectual self-respect, which is a valuable quality. In the study of language and literature the human mind surveys, as it were, its own peculiar possessions, and thus acquires a sense of proprietorship which a study of the external world can hardly give. Still, it is well to cultivate a consciousness of the essentially limited and arbitrary nature of such knowledge. It is important, we may admit, to have a good text of such an author as Chaucer; but the minutiae into which critics of his text enter can not be said to possess any broad human interest. Whether he wrote this word or that word, adopted this spelling or that, can not be a question on which much depends; and could one know the exact truth on a thousand such points, he would not really be much the wiser. Among Chaucer scholars he could speak with a good deal of confidence; but the knowledge of these details would not really help to round out any useful system of knowledge, nor could any single fact possess the illuminating' power which sometimes belongs to some single and, at first sight, unimportant fact in the realm of natural knowledge.

This is not said with any intention of disparaging the culture that comes of literary study. It is a culture that tends to brighten human intercourse and to sweeten a man's own thoughts. It is a culture eminently favorable to flexibility of mind and quick insight into human character. So far it is a culture "for life"; but too often it tends to become a culture "for school"—that is to say, when things are learned simply to meet conventional demands and conform to the fashion of the time.

A true and sufficient culture can never, as we conceive, be founded on literature and language alone. No mind can be truly liberalized without imbibing and assimilating the fundamental principles of science. There is darkness in the mind that believes that anything can come out of nothing and which has never obtained a glimpse of the exactness with which Nature solves her equations. In the region of mechanics alone there are a thousand beautiful and varied illustrations of the unfailing constancy of natural laws. It is a liberal education to trace the operation of one law under numberless disguises, and thus arrive at an ineradicable conviction that the same law must be reckoned with always and everywhere. The persistence of force, the laws of the composition and resolution of forces, the laws of falling bodies and projectiles, the conservation of energy, the laws of heat, to mention only a few heads of elementary scientific study, are capable, if properly unfolded and illustrated, of producing in any mind open to large thoughts a sense of harmony and a trust in the underlying reason of things, which are constitutive elements of the very highest culture. Only, care must be taken to approach these studies in a right spirit. There is a way of regarding the laws of Nature which tends to vulgarize rather than refine the mind. If we approach Nature merely as something to be exploited, we get no culture from the study of it; but if we approach it as the great men of old did, and feel that in learning its laws we are grasping the thoughts which went to the building of the universe, and, by so doing, are affirming our own high calling as intelligent beings, then every moment given to the study of Nature means intellectual, moral, and spiritual gain. When we look into literature there is much to charm, much to delight and satisfy; and doubtless, in relation to what any one man can accomplish, the field is infinite; but still we know we are looking into the limited. On the other hand, when we are face to face with Nature, we know we are looking into the infinite, and that, however many veils we may take away, there is still "veil after veil behind."

It is needless to say that there are thousands of minds in the world possessed of good native power, but laboring under serious disability for the want of that culture which science alone can bestow. Some of these are sick with morbid longings for unattainable knowledge, and openly or secretly rebellious at the limitations of a Nature whose powers they have never even begun to explore.' To such persons anything like an adequate insight into the harmony amid diversity of Nature's laws would come with all the force of a revelation, and would, we may well believe, clear their minds of the feverish fancies which have made them so restless and dissatisfied; but, alas! it is rarely that such enlightenment comes to those who have not in youth imbibed a portion of the scientific spirit. In this class are to be found the victims of spiritualism, of the Keeley motor, and even of that grotesque satire, the success of which we remember almost with fear and trembling, the "sympsychograph." Still, to all such we would say:

"Come forth into the light of things;
Let Nature be your teacher."

The "Nature" which we require to teach us for the peace and tranquillity of our souls is the Nature of everyday phenomena, the Nature that forms the clouds and rounds the raindrops, that springs in the grass and pulses in the tides, that glances in the sunbeam and breathes in the flower, that works witchery in the crystal and breaks into glory in the sunset. The mind that knows what can be known of these things has feasted full of wonder and beauty, and makes no greedy demand for higher grace or mightier miracle.

Then again there are those who for want of a little elementary scientific knowledge, and particularly for want of an assured conviction that Nature gives nothing for nothing, are continually attempting the impossible in the way of projected inventions. They catch at a phrase and think it must represent a fact; they fall victims to a verbal mythology of their own manufacture. If there was much hone of their learning anything of value through disappointment, they might be left to the teaching of experience, costly as the lessons of that master are. But they do not learn: their hopes are blasted, their fortunes, if they had any, are wrecked, but their infatuations survive. Where is the inventor of a perpetual motion who ever ceased to have confidence in his peculiar contrivance? The thing may be as motionless as a tombstone, save when urged by external force into a momentary lumbering activity; but all the same, it only needs, its misguided author thinks, a little doctoring, a trifling change here or there,

to make it tear round like mad. And so with other inventors of the impossible: they take counsel not with Nature, but with their own wholly incorrect notions of what the operations of Nature are. The least power of truly analyzing a natural phenomenon, and separating the factors that produce it, would show them the falsity of their ideas; but that power they do not possess.

We can not, then, plead too strongly for the teaching of science, not with a view to results in money, but with a view to the improvement of the mind and heart of the learner, or, in other words, as a source of culture. Literature introduces us to the world of human thought and action, to the kingdom of man; and science shows us how the thought and powers of man can be indefinitely enlarged by an ever increasing acquaintance with the laws of the universe. Literature alone leaves the mind without any firm grasp of the reality of things, and science alone tends to produce a hard, prosaic, and sometimes antisocial temper. Each helps to bring out the best possible results of the other; and it is only by their joint action that human faculties and human character can ever be brought to their perfection.



It is singular what a propensity some writers have to misunderstand and misrepresent the views of Mr. Herbert Spencer, even upon points in regard to which he has made every possible effort to avoid occasion for misapprehension. The term "survival of the fittest" is one which Mr. Spencer himself introduced as being, perhaps, a little less open to misunderstanding than the Darwinian expression natural selection. The latter seemed to imply purposive action, and Mr. Spencer thought that this implication would be less prominent if the phrase were changed to "survival of the fittest." From the very first, however, he recognized that the difference between the two terms in this respect was, if we may so express it, purely quantitative; and he took care to make it clear that by "the fittest" he did not in the least intend to signify any form of ideal or subjective fitness, but simply a superior degree of adaptation, as a matter of actual fact, to environing conditions. The conditions at any given moment are as they are, and the "fitness" of any particular organism is such a correspondence with those conditions as permits and favors its perpetuation. The conditions do not create fitness; they merely eliminate unfitness; nor does Mr. Spencer conceive any agency as producing ab extra the fitness which enables an organism or a number of organisms to survive. He differs, however, from what is perhaps the dominant school of biology to-day, in holding that the higher forms of organic life are, as he expresses it, "directly equilibrated" with their surroundings through the inheritance of physical features resulting from effort and habit.

To whatever cause it may be attributed, few writers whose intellectual activity has extended over so long a term of years as Mr. Spencer's have been so consistent in their utterances at different stages as he. The "Synthetic Philosophy" is the realization of a scheme of thought no less wonderful in its coherence and solidity than in its compass, the author having planted himself from the first at a point of view which gave him a clear command of his entire field. To say that no other system of thought equally comprehensive and equally coherent exists in the world to-day would be to make a statement which few competent and dispassionate authorities would deny. Notwithstanding this, there are writers not a few, particularly of the class "who write with ease," who, as we said at the outset, have a propensity for misunderstanding Mr. Spencer, and who consequently accuse him of inconsistencies and self-contradictions for which nothing that he has ever said affords any warrant. One of these gentlemen is the Duke of Argyll, who has lately offered the world another superfluous book under the title of Organic Evolution Cross examined. The duke particularly concerns himself with Mr. Spencer's teaching in regard to the "survival of the fittest," and Mr. Spencer, in the columns of Nature, replies to him in a brief but sufficient manner. It is safe to say that Mr. Spencer's philosophy will show Cyclopean remains generations after the name of his ducal critic shall have passed forever into the mists of oblivion; and the "survival of the fittest" will thus be illustrated in a sense in which Mr. Spencer himself never used the words.