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WHAT TO LEARN.
SHALL speak to you this evening about the present
aspect of education in this country, and the probable future phases of its development. I shall attempt to prove to you that it is no longer a mere social want, that it has become at least for us a political necessity. At Lewes the other day I dwelt at some length on the various difficulties, many real, some imaginary, which beset the path of the learner and impede his progress. I showed that many obstacles may be overcome by perseverance, while others may be eluded by a little foresight: and that in the same way, as happiness is not the exclusive enjoyment of the rich, nor misery the unfailing lot of the poor, so the facilities for acquiring knowledge are not so entirely the inheritance of those who are born to ample wealth and abundant leisure as the world generally imagines. Were it otherwise, there could be no healthy circulation among the constituent elements of society. It would become stagnant. The rich being in possession of every social, intellectual, and moral advantage, would never take the lower place to make room for the poor man, bidden by the great Master of the feast to take the higher seat.
Having endeavoured to show on that occasion how a young man should learn, I will now proceed to discuss what it is he ought to learn. Now, in the first place, let us contrast the present amount of knowledge, widely gathered and safely garnered up in books for the use and advancement of mankind, as compared with the stock the world was in possession of some three or four centuries
Because a careful examination of this matter will plainly show you that there is much valuable knowledge and much important information which the most highly gifted, and the most indefatigable must be contented to continue in ignorance of; that no length of life, no amount of leisure, would enable a man to master the circle of the sciences, as it is called; and that the existence of an Admirable Crichton, at all times a myth, has now become an im
possibility. We must introduce into intellectual acquirements that principle of the division of labour which has long since been admitted into and acted upon in the various departments of mechanical and commercial industry. Knowledge, then, and ignorance, like virtue and vice, or pleasure and pain, if they do not go hand-in-hand, are yet not far distant from each other. Though the actual amount of our individual acquirements may increase, our relative ignorance grows in a much higher ratio, because the sum total of human knowledge, in all its various subdivisions of literature, science, and art, is marvellously augmented, from day to day, nay from hour to hour. The horizon of human knowledge is widening and clearing up in certain directions, while in others an impenetrable veil of cloud rests and ever will rest upon it. Now, this individual increase, coupled with relative diminution in the acquisition of knowledge, serves to draw tighter the bonds of human society: it makes us more dependent upon others, and our neighbours
We find the very same principle to hold in the community of nations. What would become of commercial intercourse or national sympathies, or the spread of civilization but for this—that the means of supplying the multiplied wants of man in society are to be sought for in every clime. This makes the whole earth to be virtually " of one language and of one speech.”
Two centuries ago in this country, and indeed all over Europe, learning was synonymous with erudition. A man of great knowledge was a man who had read great books. In those days the inquiry was not, is it true? but who asserts it? Belief was founded neither upon reason, nor upon evidence, but on authority. Truth stood a veiled form at the entrance to the temple of knowledge, and her veil was not to be hastily or rashly drawn aside. There must be esoteric and exoteric teaching, that is, one form of doctrine for the enlightened, another for the ignorant. It is not at all strange that in the infancy of society, teaching should be based upon human authority, that the ipse dixit of the professor should supply the place of proof. The old Greek proverb applies as well to the childhood of nations as to that of individuals. Δεί μανθανοντα πισTEVELV—the learner must have faith. The beginner must receive the elements of knowledge upon trust. He cannot until afterwards know them to be true.
So very modern is that superstructure of science, in whose courts we all more or less learn to pay homage, that 200 years ago, you will be surprised to learn, mathematics were little known or even heard of in the University of Cambridge. The celebrated mathematician, Dr. Wallis, writes: “ Mathematics were scarce looked upon as academical studies, but rather mechanical, as the business of traders, merchants, seamen, carpenters, surveyors of land, and almanac makers in London. Among more than two hundred students in our College (Emmanuel College), I do not know of two who had more than I, if so much, which was then but little, and but very few in that whole University. For the study of mathematics was then more pursued in London than in the Universities.” What a change has since come over the spirit of the place. For many years past mathematics, with classics, have been cultivated at Cambridge, to the exclusion of the other not less important departments of literature and science. It is, however, a symptom of healthy progress that this contracted fashion is passing away, and that Cambridge will vindicate its just claim to the title of a University by recognising the universality of knowledge. And indeed the change has not come too soon. Look at the new sciences which have started into existence and shot up into importance within the last sixty or eighty years. One hundred and fifty years ago the little science there was then discovered could only be reached through the original languages, or by the help of Latin translations. It was in this way only that a man could study the works of Euclid, Archimedes, or Apollonius. So well established was this custom of burying living knowledge in the tomb of a dead language, that Lord Bacon having first thought out and written in English his great work on the Advancement of Learning, is said to have had it translated into Latin under the title - De Augmentis Scientiarum.” Now, the range of knowledge is becoming so vast, so entirely beyond the compass of any one man's comprehension, however ample his leisure or untiring his industry, however tenacious his memory or intuitive his intellect, that no one can hope to master more than a small portion of our present knowledge. The possession of a nugget or two of this vast intellectual treasure must content us.
The practical question, then, with which you have to deal is this—on what principle are you to make your selection.
Believe me, it is much better, under every point of view, to know two or three subjects well, than to have a loose rambling sort of notion as to what several are about. This is no needless caution at the present day, when a diligent sitter out of lectures during a session may “ assist” at lectures on astronomy and astrology, optics and clairvoyance, medicine and mesmerism, mining and music, electricity and animal magnetism, geology, conchology, physiology, and a whole heap of ologies besides. Do not imagine that a man is at all the more clearheaded, or even the better informed, for having all this farrago and jumble of odds and ends, of bits and scraps of knowledge shot into his memory, as a carter shoots rubbish into waste ground. A man's mind that receives impressions in this way is no better than the screen on which one may see dissolving views thrown in a chromatic exhibition. The figures mix and blend, and fade into each other; while, on the other hand, if you look through a telescope, although the objects you examine are but few, you recollect how bright and distinct they are, how precise their outlines, how sharp their edges. Much better is it for the traveller to have exact information about a few prominent distant objects by the help of a glass, than to gaze at a whole country's side through a haze or fog. I believe these remarks are not mistimed in this age of cheap books and light literature, as it is called. You are not to imagine that every hour you dream over a flimsy tale or threadbare fiction is so much time cut off from amusement, and given to mental improvement. The time thus passed in reverie over the pages of a novel may safely be put down under the same head as time passed in singing or dancing, or any other like harmless amusement. It is seldom better spent, and very I am not finding fault with this kind of reading, I only contend that it should not be set down for what it is not. It would be a very pleasant thing for all of us if we could acquire knowledge in this way, just as you farmers would find it very pleasant and profitable if you could grow wheat by merely casting the seed on the
sward. You can no more reap knowledge than you can reap corn without the sweat of the brow, whether it be from within or without. You may write letters with your finger in water, but you must use the chisel and the mallet-you must strain the muscles of the arm-to grave them in marble. When light reading was scarcely
known, and novels were as ponderous as a blue-book on the currency, that profound thinker and acute reasoner Bishop Butler observed :-" The great number of books and papers of amusement which, of one kind or other, daily come in one's way, have in part occasioned, and most perfectly fall in with and humour this idle way of reading and considering things. By this means, time, even solitude, is got rid of without the pain of attention, neither is any part of it more to be put to the account of idleness, or spent with less thought, than a great part of that which is spent in reading,”—and to the same effect by another great authority :"Nothing," says Dugald Stewart,“ has such a tendency to weaken not only the powers of invention but the intellectual powers in general, as a habit of extensive and various reading without reflection. The activity and force of the mind are gradually impaired in consequence of disuse, and not unfrequently all our principles and opinions come to be lost in the infinite multiplicity and discordancy of our acquired ideas.”
These are very important points to be settled by you who propose to turn your attention to your own improvement. What are the considerations which are to determine your selection? For what point of the compass are you to make? While sailing down a river you want no compass to guide you, it is when launched upon the shoreless ocean that you require the aid of maps and charts, and all the help of scientific navigation to direct you. At the annual dinner of the Society of Arts in the Crystal Palace last Midsummer, our Vice-president, Lord Ashburton, in his address from the chair, wisely and well observed :- Let us but remember what we are aboutwe are fitting out man for the struggles of life; we are not fitting up a storehouse for the use of a philosopher. Man goes forth into the world as a soldier goes forth into a campaign. His wants are boundless, his means of carriage are small. Can any service be greater than that of planning out and assorting his pack of knowledge, rejecting all that shall cumber his movements, selecting all that may afford materials for the work he has to do? Surely there is no more urgent task for us to perform than that we should employ our wisest heads to consider man's powers—to consider man's necessities -to consider man's position in relation to his Maker, his duty to God, to himself, and to his neighbour, and then decide upon