MERE AMATEURS -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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"He was a mere amateur; but still, he did some good work in science."

Increasingly of late years I have heard these condescending words uttered, in the fatherland of Bacon, of Newton, of Darwin, when some Bates or Spottiswoode has been gathered to his fathers. It was not so once. Time was when all English science was the work of amateurs—and very well indeed the amateurs did it. I don't think anybody who does me the honour to cognise my humble individuality at all will ever be likely to mistake me for a laudator temporis acti. On the contrary, so far as I can see, the past seems generally to have been such a distinct failure all along the line that the one lesson we have to learn from it is, to go and do otherwise. I am one on that point with Shelley and Rousseau. But it does not follow, because most old things are bad, that all new things and rising things are necessarily and indisputably in their own nature excellent. Novelties, too, may be retrograde. And even our great-grandfathers occasionally blundered upon something good in which we should do well to imitate them. The amateurishness of old English science was one of these good things now in course of abolition by the fashionable process of Germanisation.

Don't imagine it was only for France that 1870 was fatal. The sad successes of that deadly year sent a wave of triumphant Teutonism over the face of Europe.

I suppose it is natural to man to worship success; but ever since 1870 it is certainly the fact that if you wish to gain respect and consideration for any proposed change of system you must say, "They do it so in Germany." In education and science this is especially the case. Pedants always admire pedants. And Germany having shown herself to be easily first of European States in her pedant-manufacturing machinery, all the assembled dominies of all the rest of the world exclaimed with one voice, "Go to! Let us Germanise our educational system!"

Now, the German is an excellent workman in his way. Patient, laborious, conscientious, he has all the highest qualities of the ideal brick-maker. He produces the best bricks, and you can generally depend upon him to turn out both honest and workmanlike articles. But he is not an architect. For the architectonic faculty in its highest developments you must come to England. And he is not a teacher or expounder. For the expository faculty in its purest form, the faculty that enables men to flash forth clearly and distinctly before the eyes of others the facts and principles they know and perceive themselves, you must go to France. Oh, dear, yes; we may well be proud of England. Remember, I have already disclaimed more than once in these papers the vulgar error of patriotism. But freedom from that narrow vice does not imply inability to recognise the good qualities of one's own race as well as the bad ones. And the Englishman, left to himself and his own native methods, used to cut a very respectable figure indeed in the domain of science. No other nation has produced a Newton or a Darwin. The Englishman's way was to get up an interest in a subject first; and then, working back from the part of it that specially appealed to his own tastes, to make himself master of the entire field of inquiry. This natural and thoroughly individualistic English method enabled him to arrive at new results in a way impossible to the pedantically educated German—nay, even to the lucidly and systematically educated Frenchman. It was the plan to develop "mere amateurs," I admit; but it was also the plan to develop discoverers and revolutionisers of science. For the man most likely to advance knowledge is not the man who knows in an encyclopædic rote-work fashion the whole circle of the sciences, but the man who takes a fresh interest for its own sake in some particular branch of inquiry.

Darwin was a "mere amateur." He worked at things for the love of them. So were Murchison, Lyell, Benjamin Franklin, Herschel. So were or are Bates, Herbert Spencer, Alfred Russel Wallace. "Mere amateurs!" every man of them.

In an evil hour, however, our pastors and masters in conclave assembled said to one another, "Come now, let us Teutonise English scientific education." And straightway they Teutonised it. And there began to arise in England a new brood of patent machine-made scientists—excellent men in their way, authorities on the Arachnida, knowing all about everything that could be taught in the schools, but lacking somehow the supreme grace of the old English originality. They are first-rate specialists, I allow; and I don't deny that a civilised country has all need of specialists. Nay, I even admit that the day of the specialist has only just begun. He will yet go far; he will impose himself and his yoke upon us. But don't let us therefore make the grand mistake of concluding that our fine old English birthright in science—the birthright that gave us our Newtons, our Cavendishes, our Darwins, our Lyells—was all folly and error. Don't let us spoil ourselves in order to become mere second-hand Germans. Let us recognise the fact that each nation has a work of its own to do in the world; and that as star from star, so one nation differeth from another in glory. Let each of us thank the goodness and the grace that on his birth have smiled, that he was born of English breed, and not a German child.

"Don't you think," a military gentleman once said to me, "the Germans are wonderful organisers?" "No," I answered, "I don't; but I think they're excellent drill-sergeants."

There are people who drop German authorities upon you as if a Teutonic name were guarantee enough for anything. They say, "Hausberger asserts," or "According to Schimmelpenninck." This is pure fetichism. Believe me, your man of science isn't necessarily any the better because he comes to you with the label, "Made in Germany." The German instinct is the instinct of Frederick William of Prussia—the instinct of drilling. Very thorough and efficient men in their way it turns out; men versed in all the lore of their chosen subject. If they are also men of transcendent ability (as often happens), they can give us a comprehensive view of their own chosen field such as few Englishmen (except Sir Archibald Geikie, and he's a Scot) can equal. If I wanted to select a learned man for a special Government post—British Museum, and so forth—I dare say I should often be compelled to admit, as Government often admits, that the best man then and there obtainable is the German. But if I wanted to train Herbert Spencers and Faradays, I would certainly not send them to Bonn or to Berlin. John Stuart Mill was an English Scotchman, educated and stuffed by his able father on the German system; and how much of spontaneity, of vividness, of verve, we all of us feel John Stuart Mill lost by it! One often wonders to what great, to what still greater, things that lofty brain might not have attained, if only James Mill would have given it a chance to develop itself naturally!

Our English gift is originality. Our English keynote is individuality. Let us cling to those precious heirlooms of our Celtic ancestry, and refuse to be Teutonised. Let us discard the lessons of the Potsdam grenadiers. Let us write on the pediment of our educational temple, "No German need apply." Let us disclaim that silly phrase "A mere amateur." Let us return to the simple faith in direct observation that made English science supreme in Europe.

And may the Lord gi'e us Britons a guid conceit o' oorsel's!

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