James Bryce Bryce.

University and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain online

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 17 of 24)
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remains beyond to be known, and that the realm of
the unknown seems to be steadily increasing with
every addition to our knowledge. It is as though the
particular path which we are following was always di-
verging into a number of different paths which tend to
separate from one another, and each of which leads into
untrodden solitudes to which we see no end. Within
the recollection of most of us, new branches of science
have made good their place, and have become recog-
nized as separate fields of enquiry, and along with
this it has befallen that the great majority of scientific
enquirers now begin, as soon as their general scientific
education has been completed, to devote themselves
to one particular branch of investigation and throw


their whole energy into pushing it forward. A man
is now not a "natural philosopher" in the old sense
of the term, but belongs to some one of the specific
branches into which natural philosophy has become
divided. The mass of papers and articles upon all
the branches of science that fills the weekly and
monthly and quarterly and yearly magazines and
reports of proceedings of learned bodies in all civil-
ized countries, is now so vast that the most powerful
intellect cannot follow and keep pace with what is
being accomplished even in its own special branch.
Indices and books designed to be guides to the ever
accumulating pile increase in number, but do not
meet our needs. In chemistry, for instance, there is
published every year a body of facts greater than all that
stood recorded in the days of Black and Priestley.
The same thing has happened in those practical arts
which depend upon the application of science. They,
too, have multiplied by division, and thus new prac-
tical professions, each employing many thousands of
persons, such as photography and electrical engineer-
ing, have grown up, which were unknown seventy
years ago.

The same thing has, of necessity, happened in uni-
versity education. We have now in all duly organized
universities professors of a large number of distinct
branches of knowledge which were formerly lumped
together as being one branch under one professor.
When I was a student in the University of Glasgow,


and also in that of Oxford, I remember that there
was in each but one professor of physics.

So also among students the tendency is for those who
have advanced some way to begin to concentrate their
efforts upon one particular line of study and investi-
gation. Both the teacher and the student are naturally
fascinated by the prospect of discovery. The professor
likes best to lecture upon the subject in which he is
pushing forward his own investigations, and the stu-
dent is able to find in them the most attractive field
of experimental research.

This sort of specialization has become inevitable,
but there is a consequence attached to it which ap-
pears almost equally inevitable, yet in some aspects
regrettable. Part of the time which was previously
given to general study, i.e. to a knowledge both of nat-
ural science in general and of other non-scientific sub-
jects, must needs be now devoted to this special study.

The field of nature is unlimited. Human curiosity
is unlimited. But human life and the capacity for
using our time and our powers in the acquisition of
knowledge remain within very narrow bounds. It
would be rash to set limits to what scientific research,
such as that which members of the brilliant medical
faculty of this University carry on, may effect in
the way both of extending human life and of mak-
ing health more vigorous and thus improving the
working powers of the mind. Still, life is short, ter-
ribly short for all that we want to learn and do, and


there is no present prospect that it will be much pro-
longed. Has it not sometimes occurred to you what
a pity it is that the immense length of working years
which mankind is said to have enjoyed in the days
before the Flood, when scientific investigations, so far
as we know, were slender, and directed to purely prac-
tical ends, could not have been reserved for times like
our own, in which a long life is more needed for utiliz-
ing the accumulated knowledge and skill a great
scholar and student can bring to bear upon the ma-
terials that now lie before us ? What might not Dar-
win or Helmholtz or Kelvin or Mommsen or Ranke or
the distinguished historian whom America has lately
lost, Mr. Henry C. Lea, have accomplished with a
working life extended in some proportion to the vaster
fields of enquiry that attract us to-day ?

The problem which now confronts us in all univer-
sities is how to find time both for these specialized
studies, which are daily becoming more absorbing, and
also for the obtaining that kind of survey and com-
prehension of the general field of human knowledge
which is necessary hi order to make the university
graduate a truly educated and cultivated man, capable
of seeing the relation of his own particular study to
others and of appreciating the various methods by
which discovery is prosecuted. This problem of recon-
ciling special with general study, although most urgent
hi the sciences of nature, shows itself in what may be
called the human subjects also. In history, for instance,


one now finds people who devote themselves entirely
to one period of history, and will complacently tell
you, when a question belonging to some other time is
raised, that they know nothing about it because it is
"not hi their period." So there are people who give
themselves up so entirely to the study of economic
history that they may know very little of civil or
ecclesiastical history in general.

However, it is chiefly in the sciences of nature that
the difficulty I am referring to arises. These are now
tending to overshadow all other studies, partly be-
cause the numerous practical applications to which
they are turned have acquired immense industrial
importance for men and nations, and partly also
because we are all fascinated by the progress of dis-
covery, and are so eager to attain certitude that we
are disposed to turn from those enquiries in which
complete certitude is unattainable to those in which
the laws of nature provide an absolutely firm basis.
And it is in the natural sciences that the subdivision
and specialization referred to have gone farthest.

The problem has accordingly two aspects. It
raises the question of a mastery of the principles
of the sciences of nature hi general as against a
highly specialized study of some one department in
those sciences. It also raises the question of the re-
spective claims of the study of physical science, or
some branch of it, as against the claims of what may
be called the human sciences, or, if you prefer it, hu-


manistic subjects. It is upon this latter aspect that
I have a few observations to submit.

What do we mean by general intellectual cultivation
as opposed to special knowledge ? Without attempt-
ing a complete definition nothing is more dangerous
than a definition I will suggest a description. We
mean such a knowledge of the main facts and distinc-
tive methods of various branches of human knowledge
as furnishes a general idea of the relations of each
branch to other branches; that is to say, a comprehen-
sion of what truth and certitude mean in different de-
partments of study, and of what are the various paths
by which truth may be reached or approached. Were
I asked to indicate what this would include, I should
make some such answer as this : In the sphere of
natural science, it would include a knowledge not
necessarily wide, but sound and exact so far as it went,
of a deductive science such as geometry, and of some
science of observation such as a branch of natural his-
tory, geology, for instance, or some department of
biology, or of such an experimental science as chemis-
try. On the human side, it would include a knowl-
edge of one at least among what may be called the
more abstract subjects, such as psychology (in the
older sense) or logic or ethics, and of one of the more
observational subjects such as economics or politics.
It would include a knowledge of the principles of
language, and of at least one foreign tongue, ancient
or modern, preferably an inflected tongue possess-


ing a literature. And, finally, it must include the
record of human effort and development through
the ages, that is to say, history, which shows us how
man has grown from what he was in the past to be
what he is in the present, and holds out hopes of what
he may be hi the future. Without at least an elemen-
tary knowledge of these matters, no man is properly
equipped for a life of study and thought, or for those
branches of the practical work of life which require a
wide intellectual outlook. It is not necessary to-day,
as it would have been fifty years ago, to argue that
every educated man should have some knowledge of
deductive science and of the observational and experi-
mental sciences of nature. But it is beginning to be
necessary to vindicate for the other great department
of enquiry, that which relates to Man, its rightful
place in a general scheme of education.

Specialization is not only inevitable for the progress
of discovery, but in many minor ways excellent. It is
a splendid thing for a great university like this to have
among its professors men each of whom is abreast of
the highest development of some particular line of en-
quiry and knows how that line of enquiry ought to be
prosecuted, so that it holds within its own walls, so to
speak, an accumulated mass of various knowledge, rep-
resenting that to which the world has yet attained. The
scientific specialist makes interesting company when
I have a chance I always try to get beside him at
dinner because he is able to tell us what we seek to


know of the progress of discovery in the growing
sciences, and we have only to interrogate him to get
at once, without the labour of consulting books, the lat-
est results in the clearest form. The scientific investi-
gator, moreover, seems to have on the whole the happi-
est kind of life that is now possible. Does he know
how happy he is ? Engaged in the discovery of truth, he
has for his helpers all others engaged in the same pur-
suit, and feels that all his labours are working to-
wards a noble and useful end. He is free from the
vexations that beset the business man or the lawyer
or the politician. He depends on no man's favour.
He is not expected to say anything of whose truth he
entertains secret doubts. If he has not a happy life,
granted good health, it is probably his own fault, for
what more can one desire than to be, as Bacon says,
the interpreter as well as the servant of Nature ?

Admitting all this, and much more that might be
said about the interest and pleasure of enquiry con-
centrated on one department, it is nevertheless right
to present to you some dangers that seem to arise
from the immense extension of the specializing ten-
dency and from the predominance, in particular, of the
study of the natural sciences to the exclusion of other
topics. We are accustomed to divide the subjects of
enquiry into two great departments ; those, the human
subjects, in which we deal with probable matter, and
that field of Nature in which all is fixed, certain, posi-
tive, immutable. Some one may, to be sure, remark


that the phenomena of nature may possibly be under-
going some slow process of change. We cannot be
sure that oxygen and hydrogen may not be different
now from what they once were, or that alterations
may not conceivably occur in the proportion of the
constituents present in compound chemical bodies.
However that is all speculation. For our present pur-
poses, we think of the sciences of nature as being occu-
pied with that which is permanent and unchangeable.
They deal with those laws which we believe, so far as
our knowledge goes, to be immutable, to have been
operative in the past and likely to be operative in the
future, even as they are operative now. Now he whose
whole time and thoughts are given to the study of
these unchanging laws does not learn thereby how to
deal with that which is mutable and transient. But
the mutable and the transient include not only most
of what concerns our daily life, but the whole immense
field of knowledge which covers the human subjects.
Here we deal not with the Certain but with the
Probable. The realm of ideas, beliefs, theories,
emotions, institutions, habits, in fact, the entire
realm of human thought, human society, human
conduct, belongs to the sphere of the transitory and
changeable. In investigating the phenomena of this
realm, we have to walk by methods which are not
only not the same as those which belong to the sci-
ences of nature, but differ from the latter by being
far more intricate. The investigation of probable


matter is more perplexing and less satisfying because
its results are less definite and positive than are those
enquiries at the end of which stands, like a statue
closing a vista between trees, the figure of certain and
immutable Truth. Those accordingly who try to ap-
ply to the human subjects the same formulae and
methods which they apply to nature are in danger of
failing when they enter the field which includes his-
tory and all political or social phenomena. Differences
in the subject matter imply differences in the proper
mode of treatment. As men erred five centuries ago
when they tried to explain nature by applying to her
their own crudely formed abstract notions, so now it
is an error to think that in probable matter the methods
applicable to natural phenomena can be so applied as to
attain equally certain and definite conclusions. Does it
not follow that an education in the methods proper to
these last-named historical and social fields is as needful
as is a knowledge of the methods of physical enquiry ?
Sixty years ago people complained, and complained
justly, of the narrowness of those persons, some of
them of the highest eminence, who had been trained
entirely on the old scheme of education, which largely
consisted in grammatical studies, and especially in a
knowledge of the ancient languages. Men so trained,
men highly gifted and instructed, often failed to appre-
ciate the interest and value of the study of nature, and
showed a strange incapacity to understand the processes
it employs. I remember some such among our leading


English statesmen. A whole world of interests and
pleasures was closed to them by an ignorance that was
too often self-complacent. In travelling, for instance,
distinguished historians did not see, because they had
not been taught to observe, all sorts of natural features
in a country which might have helped them to under-
stand its history. Bacon has warned us against that ab-
sorption in a particular set of ideas, that prepossession
in favor of one particular view which he classes among
the Idola Specus, the phantasms of the Cave, which
surround the man who sits in the dark recesses of his
own remote and secluded thought unillummed by the
light of the broad sky. So now the devotion to any
special study, whether in the sphere of natural science
or in any other, tends to narrow the mind and prevents
its faculties from attaining their highest development.
Many of the greatest discoveries have arisen from
bringing together facts and ideas drawn from different
regions whose relations had not previously been dis-
cerned. The more you extend the range of knowledge,
the more you increase the chances of such discoveries.
Most of the great men to whom the progress of science
is due were in their early days trained not as specialists,
but had minds that ranged far and wide like keen-
eyed eagles over the vast field of knowledge.

The chief end of education is to stimulate curiosity,
to make a man ask about all things, be they familiar
or unfamiliar, the How and the Why, to discover
matter for enquiry in facts which other people have


passed over without thinking of the problems they
suggest, to retain that activity and versatility and
freshness which are the most characteristic marks of
a forceful and creative intellect. Is it not wonderful
how many things were overlooked in the past which
we now perceive to need investigation ? The ancients,
both hi the Greek and in the Italian lands, must, for
instance, have noticed how various are the aspects and
structure of different kinds of rock. The differences
between gneiss and limestone, between basalt and
slate, stared them in the face. They saw fossil shells
hi the strata. But though observant men like Herod-
otus sometimes noted facts which suggested the work-
ing of forces that had changed the earth's surface, it
did not occur to them to seek any general explana-
tion of these phenomena, and geological science is not
yet two centuries old. So ancient observers described
plants and were interested in their pharmaceutical
properties; they described tribes of men and some-
times raised questions as to their forms of speech, but
it did not occur to them to classify either the plants or
languages on any scientific principles. Hippocrates
was a great physician, scientific in his methods. Why
did his successors not carry them on with a persever-
ance and exactitude which would have produced great
results? Was it because they had given themselves
too much to the study of words and of rhetoric, and
because their brilliant dialectical gifts had drawn them
away from the observation of facts? One wonders


how it happened that a race so wonderfully gifted as
were the Greeks, who seemed frequently on the very
edge of great discoveries in physical science, did
not find and pursue the paths which have led us
to the unveiling of the secrets of Nature. And one
wonders also whether there are any phenomena which
we now are passing by unexamined because it has
never struck us that they deserve enquiry.

The wider the range of a man's interests, the more
susceptible he is to ideas of many kinds, so much greater
is the pleasure which life can afford him, and so much
the better can he contribute to the progress of the
world both by stimulating others and by himself
pointing out the way in which advances can be made.
Different as are the phenomena in different parts of
the field of knowledge, and different in some re-
spects as are even the methods to be applied, the habit
of keen observation and steady reflection formed in any
department quickens a man's powers in every other;
and just as an historian will profit by knowing some-
thing of geology or botany, so a student of natural
history may profit by knowing how the human mind
used to approach nature before our modern methods
had come into being. A university has to think not
only of forming specialists, but of making these special-
ists better by giving them a wide range of knowledge,
and still more of sending out men who sustain the level
of taste and insight in the whole community and are
fit to be its intellectual leaders. '


You may ask how time is to be found both for special
studies and for the sort of general cultivation that I
have tried to describe. Must the general studies pre-
cede specialization, or is it possible to carry them on
together, and to show young men, even in their last uni-
versity year, how to correlate their special scientific stud-
ies with a mastery of other fields ? These are practical
questions which I must leave to your superior com-
petence. The principle which we seem chiefly called
upon to uphold is the principle of breadth and catholic-
ity in education, the recognition not only of the duty of
a great university to provide teaching in all the main
subjects, but also of the truth that a one-sided educa-
tion is an imperfect education. The error of those
who a century ago deemed a grammatical and literary
curriculum sufficient was no greater than is that of
those who now dispute and seek to exclude the hu-
man subjects ; or who hold that any single branch
either of the human or of the natural subjects is
enough to inform the mind or to develop and polish
it to its highest efficiency.





NOT long ago I read in an American novel this
sentence : "The life of an American man is Business."
If this merely meant that Business is the dominant fea-
ture in the life of the United States, occupying most
of men's time and thoughts, it is true, and scarcely less
true of such countries as England and Germany. As it
is everybody's first need everywhere to make an income
sufficient to support himself and his family, so in a
country which is still hi the stage of swift material
development and where opportunities abound for the
exercise of practical talent and the amassing of large
fortunes, commerce and industry and such professions
as engineering and law must necessarily hold the fore-
most place.

But the sentence may also mean that the normal
American man thinks and cares for nothing but business ;
and that was probably the sense intended by the writer.
If this were true, you as University men would think
it ought not to be true, and would deem it disparag-
ing to your universities. Of all the countries of the
world, the United States is that in which the largest



proportion of university graduates enter a business
career, or conversely, it is the country in which the
largest proportion of men engaged in business have
received a university education. Now one main use
of that education is to prevent business from being the
whole of an American man's life; in other words, its
aim is to give him intellectual interests and tastes
outside business. Whatever a man's active career,
be it commercial business or any other, he finds it hard
to maintain those other interests under the constant
pressure of the practical work of life. That is why
university teaching ought to try to root them so deeply
in the mind and give them such a hold on our affection
that they will resist the pressure.

Two generations ago the study of ancient literature
held a foremost place among those intellectual interests,
and not a few university men used to go on reading and
drawing pleasure from the Greek and Latin classics
through the whole of their lives. These writings
had become a part of their minds. Few men so read
now; few in Europe, still fewer here. The study of
Latin has shrunk to narrow dimensions, and that of
Greek is in many universities practically extinct. In the
West both languages are more studied by women
than by men. An association has, however, been
founded for defending, and if possible extending,
classical studies. As its headquarters are planted in
this great university, you may naturally wish to hear
some remarks upon the case to be made for those


studies, for they can no longer rely on tradition but
must support their claim by definite and positive argu-
ments which will appeal to a public that is now, both
in Europe and here, bent upon the practically useful,
and somewhat prejudiced against every habit which
the (now discredited) "wisdom of our ancestors"

Let us begin by frankly admitting that the excessive
importance given a century ago to the languages of
Greece and Rome has prejudiced them in the modern
eye. The claims made for them were so extravagant as
to have disparaged their real merits. We may more-
over doubt whether some of the arguments used on
their behalf have much weight. Grammar is a useful
study if taught in a rational way, so as to induce
thought, and not by forcing wretched children to
repeat its rules by rote. It is also true that the
grammar of inflected and synthetic languages affords
better mental training than does that of French or
German, which it is proposed to substitute for Latin,

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 17 of 24)