Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/August 1899/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


IT is probably not too much to say that the true measure of the intelligence and efficiency of a government is the extent to which, in the various spheres of activity which it controls, it recognizes the authority and adopts the methods of science. There is one department of Government—the remark might be applied to nearly all civilized governments, and very pointedly to our own—in which science receives a large and serious recognition, and that is the Navy Department. We have lately had a striking exhibition, which the world at large has watched with great interest, of the high state of efficiency to which a navy can be brought in a comparatively short space of time. If the question is asked how it was done, there is but one answer: it was done by recognizing science and working on scientific lines. To work on scientific lines is simply to study carefully, in the light of the best available knowledge, the means for accomplishing a desired end, and having found the best means, to adopt them in practice. Our naval administration has fortunately been able to repel if not wholly, at least to a remarkable extent, the intrusion of "political" influence, and has consequently been able to apply itself without serious distraction to the accomplishment of its own special tasks. It has called science to its aid not only as regards purely physical questions, but as regards questions of organization; and the result is that it has succeeded in giving the nation not only ships and guns, but the men who are fitted by knowledge, by training, and by discipline to make the best possible use of the ships and guns.

Next to the navy in the recognition accorded to science, but yet a long way off, comes the army. We are speaking now, of course, of our own army; and what the "long way off" meant in waste of money and of human life, in the suffering and misery of brave men, is a too familiar tale. Had science governed the operations of the land forces and presided over their whole organization to the same extent that it did over the operations and organization of the navy, a certain recent page of history would have borne a very different record, and would not have been so burdened as it is with shame and heartache to patriotic citizens.

Killing and being killed are serious matters, and everybody understands that the business can not safely be trifled with. That is why science is allowed to have its own way almost entirely in the navy, and to exercise a large measure of control in the army, with the effect of rendering the first a nearly perfect machine, and giving to the latter a high degree of efficiency for its own purposes. But have we not here object lessons which ought to be applied to other departments of the Government? Is it only in the matter of killing that the aid of science is required? Can the public at large not rise to the conception that, if science can make splendid killing machines, it might also, if allowed fair play, make excellent administrative machines for peaceful purposes? We have departments which deal with such important matters as currency and finance, agriculture and statistics, the administration of justice, the control of railway traffic, the erection of public buildings and the improvement of waterways, the carrying out of geodetic and geological surveys, the representation of the country abroad, the protection of the public health, and, finally, the great question of public education. It must be obvious to every thoughtful person that, if science could have its say and its way in relation to these matters, it would put them all on the best footing which the existing condition of knowledge permits. It would ask, "What are the objects to be accomplished?" and would proceed to select the persons and adopt the means best fitted to realize those objects. The country would then have a civil service in which economy and efficiency would be equally conspicuous, and which would furnish examples for imitation in private enterprise of the best ways of doing things.

It is needless to say how far removed the present condition of government business is from anything like scientific organization. If killing must be done scientifically, the injured feelings of the politician find relief in insisting that nearly everything else within the sphere of government action shall be done most unscientifically. In the filling of important positions the first thing considered is not the question of fitness for the work to be done, but the question of party advantage. It is not too much to say that a prejudice frequently exists against a man conspicuously qualified by knowledge, experience, and character for a given post. There is an uncomfortable feeling that such a man might not be sufficiently pliable afterward in the hands of those who had appointed him—that the preposterous idea might get into his head that, having obtained the office on his merits, he was at liberty, in the execution of his duties, to think only of the public interest. The preference of the politician, therefore, for "the boys" is easily understood; but "the boys" and science do not work hand in hand.

Our universities are turning out year by year men possessing the highest scientific qualifications, men who have studied both in this country and in Europe, and who are prepared to take any positions in which scientific work is required. Some of these are absorbed by the teaching profession, but the great majority find employment in the various industries of the country. Unfortunately, the attainments of such men give them no special advantage as regards employment in the public service of the country; to qualify for that they must graduate in another school entirely, and get certificates from a very different class of professors. We are far from holding the opinion that men of high education should dissociate themselves from the political life of the country; but it is unhappily true that the kind of interest which an intelligent man who places the nation above party can take in politics is not likely to recommend him to those who have the dispensing of places. The fact should, however, be emphasized that if science does not receive due recognition in connection with the public services, it is not because of any lack of native-born citizens capable of representing it with credit and even with distinction. In this respect America has placed herself fully abreast with the most advanced nations of the modern world, and the Government has only to say what service it requires in order to have its choice of men possessing every qualification to render that service in the most competent and satisfactory manner.

In the last resort, it must be admitted, the fault rests with the people. It is with reluctance that the average elector acknowledges—if he can be brought to acknowledge at all—that any public office requires special qualifications. Such an idea seems to be at war with true democratic doctrine, and to imply a serious abridgment of the powers of the people's representatives. It is readily conceded that private industries and enterprises of all kinds call for training and experience and special knowledge on the part of those who conduct them; but Government business is supposed to be so simple that a wayfaring man, though a pronounced fool, need not err therein. There is more or less hypocrisy, however, in the pretension. The real underlying thought is that, outside of the two great killing departments, no very serious harm can be done by official incompetence, and that the great thing is to provide for "the boys." No idea could be more false. The evil that can be done by unwise economic measures, for example, is incalculable. The army and navy are brought into action only when the dogs of war have been let loose; but the influence of the civil departments of the Government acts unceasingly, and touches the life of the people at a thousand points.

In the matter of public education science has never had the recognition to which it is entitled; nor will it have until the people as a whole know better what science is—until they cease to think of it as a thing of mysteries and technicalities, and come to understand that it is simply the organization of knowledge and the rendering of it available for guidance in the business of life. Meantime, wherever circumstances are favorable, the education of the young, even of the youngest, should be given as far as possible a scientific character. We are strongly inclined to the opinion that, in a country whose fundamental industry is agriculture, an effort should be made in all schools to impart a few sound elementary ideas as to the principles of agriculture. What better starting point could there be for scientific instruction than the soil out of which we derive, mediately or immediately, all that goes to sustain life? It seems to us that no human being should be permitted to be wholly ignorant of the conditions upon which the successful cultivation of the soil depends, and we are persuaded that the subject might, by proper treatment, be made deeply interesting to the vast majority of school children.

A prominent Englishman, Mr. Boyd-Kinnear, has lately been discussing this matter in a London paper. He points out that a knowledge of the scientific principles of agriculture is of fundamental importance, and that whatever else is taught in the national schools, the sciences on which farming rests—physics, chemistry, mechanics, and the physiology of plants and animals—should hold a principal place. He observes that in order to know agriculture it is necessary to understand, first of all, the elements and the action of the soil and the air. There is urgent need, he contends, for teaching what is known on these subjects and for pursuing research into the much larger field of the unknown. In these remarks we entirely concur, and we believe that it would be a happy thing for this country, and for every country, if education could be so administered that, instead of tending, as it so often does, to separate human beings from the soil, it should tend to establish in their minds a sense of their dependence on it and an intelligent, if possible a loving, interest in the operations by which the living of the world is won and the face of Nature is beautified. Here, as we conceive, is where scientific teaching should begin. Such a system of instruction would do much more than increase the intelligence of the farming community, though that would be a benefit of the first magnitude; it would so transform public opinion in general that the divorce we now see between science and the State would no longer be possible. The whole national life would be placed on a sounder basis; and it would probably be found that the result of doing other things scientifically was to diminish very greatly the importance of the arrangements for scientific killing. A nation governed by science would be a peace-loving and peace-maintaining nation.


Some very interesting points of view are presented in an article on the food supply of England which appeared a few months ago in The New Century Review of London, The writer, Mr. Richard Higgs, Jr., is very unwilling to admit the commonly accepted view that Great Britain must be dependent upon other countries for the food her people require. He holds that all that is required to make the production of grain profitable in England is the application of higher intelligence and more businesslike methods to the work of the farm. "Speaking generally," he says, "agriculture has been of late a despised industry; intellectual activity has not been brought to bear on it; the men of force and enterprise have failed to recognize that it offers an absolutely unrivaled sphere for the exercise of personal initiative, skill, and knowledge. … Agriculture has not been regarded as a means of assisting human development, but rather as a hindrance to progress. A low type of manhood and a slow, unprogressive condition of life are usually regarded as indispensable to agriculture, and consequently it has been neglected by reformers who desire to further the progress of the race."

The writer proceeds to describe the various ways in which, as he believes, agriculture might be made more profitable, partly through lowering of the cost of production, and partly by improvement of the yield; and, finally, he sets forth the disagreeable and very serious conclusions which flow from the proposition—if it is to be accepted as established—that Great Britain can not feed herself by the remunerative production of wheat in the face of low prices. In the first place, the national policy must be one of "bluff and weakness toward other nations: bluff, because it will not answer our purpose to appear weak; and weakness, because, seeing that possible enemies are our largest feeders, we are not in a condition to deal with other nations on equal terms, but must ever face the galling necessity of being dependent upon the good will of a few powerful nations for our daily bread." A nation so situated must be "in the front rank of the nations which are engaging in the mad scramble after markets"; must give itself over "to all the orthodox requirements of diplomacy by engaging in bullying, cringing, lying, deceit, and massacre, in order to secure an outlet for its manufactured goods." Such a fact further implies "the eternal persistence on the face of the land of those hideous monstrosities—our manufacturing towns; those excrescences which, like the dragon of old, are daily vomiting fire and smoke, and by their foulness are blasting and cursing the lives of the people and causing the physical, mental, and moral deterioration of the race.… It banishes the poetry, the music, and the glories of an agricultural life, and condemns untold millions to the artificial and unhealthy moral atmosphere of our towns."

It may be said that all this has not much application to the state of things in these happy United States. It has application to at least this extent, that our towns too are becoming bloated and our country places starved. We are fully at one with the writer in his estimate of the agricultural life, and believe that no greater service could be rendered to any country than to place its agriculture on the moral and intellectual, as well as on the economic, level which it has a just claim to occupy. It is the application of science to agriculture that will bring about this result.