Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/November 1899/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


THE doctrine has gone abroad, suggested by the most popular poet of the day, that "white men" have the duty laid upon them of scouring the dark places of the earth for burdens to take up. Through a large part of this nation the idea has run like wildfire, infecting not a few who themselves are in no small degree burdens to the community that shelters them. The rowdier element of the population everywhere is strongly in favor of the new doctrine, which to their minds is chiefly illustrated by the shooting of Filipinos. We do not say that thousands of very respectable citizens are not in favor of it also; we only note that they are strongly supported by a class whose adhesion adds no strength to their cause. It is almost needless to remark

??that a very few years ago we were not in the way of thinking that the civilized nations of the earth, which had sliced up Asia and Africa in the interest of their trade, had done so in the performance of a solemn duty. The formula "the white man's burden" had not been invented then, and some of us used to think that there was more of the filibustering spirit than of a high humanitarianism in these raids upon barbarous races. Possibly we did less than justice to some of the countries concerned, notably Great Britain, which, having a teeming population in very narrow confines, and being of old accustomed to adventures by sea, had naturally been led to extend her influence and create outlets for her trade in distant parts of the earth. Be this as it may, we seemed to have our own work cut out for us at home. We had the breadth of a continent under our feet, rich in the products of every latitude; we had unlimited room for expansion and development; we had unlimited confidence in the destinies that awaited us as a nation, if only we applied ourselves earnestly to the improvement of the heritage which, in the order of Providence, had become ours. We thanked Heaven that we were not as other nations, which, insufficiently provided with home blessings, were tempted to put forth their hands and—steal, or something like it, in heathen lands.

Well, we have changed all that: we give our sympathy to the nations of the Old World in their forays on the heathen, and are vigorously tackling "the white man's burden" according to the revised version. It is unfortunate and quite unpleasant that this should involve shooting down people who are only asking what our ancestors asked and obtained—the right of self-government in the land they occupy. Still, we must do it if we want to keep up with the procession we have joined. Smoking tobacco is not pleasant to the youth of fifteen or sixteen who has determined to line up with his elders in that manly accomplishment. He has many a sick stomach, many a flutter of the heart, before he breaks himself into it; but, of course, he perseveres—has he not taken up the white boy's burden? So we. Who, outside of that rowdy element to which we have referred, has not been, whether he has confessed it or not, sick at heart at the thought of the innocent blood we have shed and of the blood of our kindred that we have shed in order to shed that blood? Still, spite of all misgivings and qualms, we hold our course, Kipling leading on, and the colonel of the Rough Riders assuring us that it is all right.

Revised versions are not always the best versions; and for our own part we prefer to think that the true "white man's burden" is that which lies at his own door, and not that which he has to compass land and sea to come in sight of. We have in this land the burden of a not inconsiderable tramp and hoodlum population. This is a burden of which we can never very long lose sight; it is more or less before us every day. It is a burden in a material sense, and it is a burden in what we may call a spiritual sense. It impairs the satisfaction we derive from our own citizenship, and it lies like a weight on the social conscience. It is the opprobrium alike of our educational system and of our administration of the law. How far would the national treasure and individual energy which we have expended in failing to subdue the Filipino "rebels" have gone—if wisely applied—in subduing the rebel elements in our own population, and rescuing from degradation those whom our public schools have failed to civilize? Shall the reply be that we can not interfere with individual liberty? It would be a strange reply to come from people who send soldiers ten thousand miles away for the express purpose of interfering with liberty as the American nation has always hitherto understood that term; but, in point of fact, there is no question of interfering with any liberty that ought to be respected. It is a question of the protection of public morals, of public decency, and of the rights of property. It is a question of the rescue of human beings—our fellow-citizens—from ignorance, vice, and wretchedness. It is a question of making us as a nation right with ourselves, and making citizenship under our flag something to be prized by every one entitled to claim it.

It is not in the cities only that undesirable elements cluster. The editor of a lively little periodical, in which many true things are said with great force—The Philistine—has lately declared that his own village, despite the refining influences radiated from the "Roycroft Shop," could furnish a band of hoodlum youths that could give points in every form of vile behavior to any equal number gathered from a great city. He hints that New England villages may be a trifle better, but that the farther Western States are decidedly worse. It is precisely in New England, however, that a bitter cry on this very subject of hoodlumism has lately been raised. What are we to do about it?

Manifestly the hoodlum or incipient tramp is one of two things: either he is a person whom a suitable education might have turned into some decent and honest way of earning a living, or he is a person upon whom, owing to congenital defect, all educational effort would have been thrown away. In either case social duty seems plain. If education would have done the work, society—seeing that it has taken the business of public education in hand—should have supplied the education required for the purpose, even though the amount of money available for waging war in the Philippines had been slightly reduced. If the case is one in which no educational effort is of avail, then, as the old Roman formula ran, "Let the magistrates see that the republic takes no harm." Before, therefore, our minds can be easy on this hoodlum question, we must satisfy ourselves thoroughly that our modes of education are not, positively or negatively, adapted to making the hoodlum variety of character. The hoodlum, it is safe to say, is an individual in whom no intellectual interest has ever been awakened, in whom no special capacity has ever been created. His moral nature has never been taught to respond to any high or even respectable principle of conduct. If there is any glory in earth or heaven, any beauty or harmony in the operations of natural law, any poetry or pathos or dignity in human life, anything to stir the soul in the records of human achievement, to all such things he is wholly insensible. Ought this to be so in the case of any human being, not absolutely abnormal, whom the state has undertaken to educate? If, as a community, we put our hands to the educational plow, and so far not only relieve parents of a large portion of their sense of responsibility, but actually suppress the voluntary agencies that would otherwise undertake educational work, surely we should see to it that our education educates. Direct moral instruction in the schools is not likely to be of any great avail unless, by other and indirect means, the mind is prepared to receive it. What is needed is to awaken a sense of capacity and power, to give to each individual some trained faculty and some direct and, as far as it goes, scientific cognizance of things. Does any one suppose that a youth who had gone through a judicious course of manual training, or one who had become interested in any such subject as botany, chemistry, or agriculture, or who even had an intelligent insight into the elementary laws of mechanics, could develop into a hoodlum? On the other hand, there is no difficulty in imagining that such a development might take place in a youth who had simply been plied with spelling-book, grammar, and arithmetic. Even what seem the most interesting reading lessons fall dead upon minds that have no hold upon the reality of things, and no sense of the distinctions which the most elementary study of Nature forces on the attention.

But, as we have admitted, there may be cases where the nature of the individual is such as to repel all effort for its improvement. Here the law must step in, and secure the community against the dangers to which the existence of such individuals exposes it. There is a certain element in the population which wishes to live, and is determined to live, on a level altogether below anything that can be called civilization. Those who compose it are nomadic and predatory in their habits, and occasionally give way to acts of fearful criminality. It is foolish not to recognize the fact, and take the measures that may be necessary for the isolation of this element. To devise and execute such measures is a burden a thousand times better worth taking up than the burden of imposing our yoke upon the Philippine Islands and crushing out a movement toward liberty quite as respectable, to all outward appearance, as that to which we have reared monuments at Bunker Hill and elsewhere. The fact is, the work before us at home is immense; and it is work which we might attack, not only without qualms of conscience, but with the conviction that every unit of labor devoted to it was being directed toward the highest interests not of the present generation only, but of generations yet unborn. The "white man," we trust, will some day see it; but meanwhile valuable time is being lost, and the national conscience is being lowered by the assumption of burdens that are not ours, whatever Mr. Kipling may have said or sung, or whatever Governor Roosevelt may assert on his word as a soldier.


That division of labor is as necessary in the pursuit of science as in the world of industry no one would think of disputing; but that, like division of labor elsewhere, it has its drawbacks and dangers is equally obvious. When the latter truth is insisted on by those who are not recognized as experts, the experts are apt to be somewhat contemptuous in resenting such interference, as they consider it. An expert himself has, however, taken up the parable, and his words merit attention. We refer to an address delivered by Prof. J. Arthur Thompson, at the University of Aberdeen, upon entering on his duties as Regius Professor of Natural History, a post to which he was lately appointed. "We need to be reminded," he said, "amid the undoubted and surely legitimate fascinations of dissection and osteology, of section cutting and histology, of physiological chemistry and physiological physics, of embryology and fossil hunting, and the like, that the chief end of our study is a better understanding of living creatures in their natural surroundings." He could see no reason, he went on to say, for adding aimlessly to the overwhelming mass of detail already accumulated in these and other fields of research. The aim of our efforts should rather be to grasp the chief laws of growth and structure, and to rise to a true conception of the meaning of organization.

The tendency to over-specialization is manifest everywhere; it may be traced in physics and chemistry, in mathematics, in archæology, and in philology, as well as in biology. We can not help thinking that there is a certain narcotic influence arising from the steady accumulation of minute facts, so that what was in the first place, and in its early stages, an invigorating pursuit becomes not only an absorbing, but more or less a benumbing passion. We are accustomed to profess great admiration for Browning's Grammarian, who—

"Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De Dead from the waist down,"

but really we don't feel quite sure that the cause for which the old gentleman struggled was quite worthy of such desperate heroism. The world could have got along fairly well for a while with an imperfect knowledge of the subtle ways of the "enclitic De," and indeed a large portion of the world has neither concerned itself with the subject nor felt the worse for not having done so.

What we fear is that some people are "dead from the waist down," or even from higher up, without being aware of it, and all on account of a furious passion for "enclitic de's" or their equivalent in other lines of study. Gentlemen, it is not worth while! You can not all hope to be buried on mountain tops like the grammarian, for there are not peaks enough for all of you, and any way what good would it do you? There is need of specialization, of course; we began by saying that the drift of our remarks is simply this, that he who would go into minute specializing should be careful to lay in at the outset a good stock of common sense, a liberal dose (if he can get it) of humor, and quantum suff. of humanity. Thus provided he can go ahead.