Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/October 1906/Francis Bacon and the Modern University




THE student of the history of education marvels at the tenacity with which the aims and methods of scholasticism and the middle ages maintained their hold upon the universities. The use of Latin as exclusive means of communication and the worship of Aristotle as source of final authority upon all questions marked the universities as medieval long after the world at large had moulted its chrysalis and become modern. At the opening of the nineteenth century only traces of advancement were perceptible; fortunately that century has seen changes nothing short of revolutionary in the ideals and methods of the institutions of higher learning.

It is a commonplace that Francis Bacon was the herald, if not the originator, of that scientific method which more than anything else has wrought the reform of the university; but the work went on for two centuries outside the sacred limits of the universities, and, as we have seen, gained access to them only in the third century after Bacon's time. And yet we hope to show that he foresaw and described accurately the essential changes needed to fit these institutions for their true work.

One naturally thinks first in this connection of the New Atlantis, and the 'Salomon's House' described therein, which was 'the lantern of the kingdom—and dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God'; and no one can fail to perceive in this fantasy of Bacon's imagination striking hints of modern scientific investigation and of that organization and cooperation which are so essential a means of progress in knowledge. But for our present purpose better material is found in a serious discussion of the needs of higher education and scientific research in the first chapter of Book II. of the 'Advancement of Learning.' Bacon proposes here to set forth the 'direction, or the pointing out and delineation of the direct way to the completion of the object in view,' that is, of the advancement of knowledge. The lines of progress he advocates are six in number; let us examine them briefly in order.

First, "among so many illustrious colleges in Europe, all the foundations are engrossed by the professions, none being left for the free cultivation of the arts and sciences. . . . There is no collegiate course so free as to allow those who are inclined to devote themselves to history, modern languages, civil policy and general literature; . . ." With this compare President Eliot's 'What is a Liberal Education,' written in 1884; President Eliot names as subjects entitled to full admission into higher culture these five: English literature, French and German, history, political economy and natural science. The first four are practically identical with Bacon's list; and the last, natural science, is abundantly championed by Bacon in discussing what he names as the third and sixth defects of the existing system. What Bacon, as intellectual seer, prescribed, Eliot, as foremost actor in university reform in America at least, confirms and urges. Moreover, the fulfilment of Bacon's word is the more wonderful in that for two centuries after he wrote, almost no movement occurred in the dry bones of the traditional system, and that within the limits the third hundred years the five subjects in question have conquered their rightful place in higher education.

The second defect which Bacon saw in the institutions of his own day is one which will appeal at once to those who even in this better age earn their bread by service in the armies of science and learning—'the mean salaries apportioned to public lectureships, whether in the sciences or the arts.' Even in this matter all must admit that progress has been made since Bacon's time; and all will agree that Bacon was right in pointing to higher compensation of the scientific laborer as one of the indispensable conditions of large and general progress in the work. It is safe to say that the economic condition of the individual worker in these fields is far better to-day than it was in the sixteenth century; and the total sum applied to the advancement of learning, and especially to those very branches that Bacon so much advocated, is immeasurably vaster than ever before in the history of the world, and yearly increasing.

"The next deficiency we shall notice," says Bacon, "is the want of philosophical instruments. . . . To study natural philosophy, physic and many other sciences to advantage, books are not the only essentials—other instruments are required." Bacon goes on to mention what has already been done in this direction—the use of spheres, globes, astrolabes, maps; and the provision of 'gardens for the growth of simples' and dead bodies for dissection, for schools of medicine. But what has been done is entirely inadequate; 'there will be no inroad made into the secrets of nature unless experiments, be they of Vulcan or Daedalus (air ships?), furnace, engine or any other kind, are allowed for; . . . you must allow the spies and intelligencers of nature to bring in their bills, or else you will be ignorant of many things worthy to be known.' With what joy would the writer of this have beheld the laboratories of a modern university; how he would have glowed with enthusiasm over experiment stations and a Carnegie Institution!

The fourth point is more distinctly educational: 'neglect of proper supervision or diligent inquiry into the course of studies, with a view to a thorough reformation of such parts as are ill-suited to the age, or of unwise institution.' Bacon gives two specimens of faults in the existing course of study: first, that scholars are inducted too early into logic and rhetoric; and second, that invention and memory are not exercised together. These are evidently mentioned rather to indicate the kind of reforms which Bacon here intends, than for any peculiar importance attaching to them. Perhaps nothing is more characteristic of modern education than just this 'diligent inquiry into the course of study' which Bacon recommends; not indeed that we may yet count ourselves to have attained to perfection in the matter of actual reformation, nor to have yet cast off all that was fit only for the 'obscure times' in which our curricula were first formed. But throughout the civilized world those responsible for the training of the young—teachers, parents and statesmen—are giving themselves with resolute purpose to the discovery and ordering of the best means of education, for all ages from infancy to maturity.

The next defect is 'the little sympathy and correspondence which exists between colleges and universities, as well throughout Europe as in the same state and kingdom.' Evidently the possession of a common academic language did not insure complete academic harmony and -cooperation! One can not doubt that Bacon would have seen many fulfilments of this desire of his in modern university life: learned ^societies, associations of colleges and schools, conferences, philosophical ; and scientific journals, scientific congresses at international expositions, and the like. Perhaps the ceremonies of inducting a president of a university into his office would have seemed to him particularly to show forth' a fraternity of learning and illumination, relating to that paternity which is attributed to God, who is called the Father of lights.' "Lastly," says Bacon, "I may lament that no fit men have been engaged to forward those sciences which yet remain in an unfinished state." Lastly, indeed, but not least; rather may we believe that this forwarding of the unfinished sciences lay nearest of all to the heart of the author of the Instauration Magna, a work undertaken, he tells us, to 'perform, as it were, a lustrum of the sciences, and to take account of what have been prosecuted and what omitted.' None of Bacon's admonitions have been more fully heeded by the universities most worthy of the name; indeed it has come to be a mark of a genuine university that its teachers should be all 'fit men to forward the unfinished sciences'—in other words, investigators. How vast has been the actual progress in the lustrum of the sciences may perhaps best be felt by comparing the strange and antiquated terms in the outline of Books III. and IV. of the Advancement, where Bacon catalogues the sciences, with the list of departments of study in some great university of to-day. The sciences of which Bacon knew have been advanced to a place far beyond the highest imaginings of even his great mind in that time; and new regions of knowledge have been opened of which he could not dream. Even more significant is the fact that we have given up believing in even the possibility of a finished science; all are unfinished, and therefore it is the duty of every devotee to labor for advance. The universities, after centuries of inertia, have at last waked, or rather been somewhat vigorously aroused, to their duty to be creators as well as conservators of the store of knowledge.

Thus when the sixteenth century had barely closed, Bacon pointed out these six ways in which higher education and research needed to advance: a more liberal curriculum, more generous financial support, better and more abundant apparatus for experiment and investigation, a rational organization of the course of study, sympathy and cooperation between all colleges and universities, and the prosecution of the 'unfinished sciences.' History has wonderfully justified his verdict, and we may well pronounce him the prophet of the modern university.