Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
V. Huxley on Science and Culture
By Professor A. O. Norton
HUXLEYS address on Science and Culture1 was delivered in 1880, at the opening of Mason Science College in Birmingham, England. Like many academic addresses, it not only celebrates a local event, but also deals with questions of the day, chosen to suit the occasion. Unlike most such addresses, however, it is of permanent value as a document in the history of a great epoch in English educational progress. The event which it celebrates marks a crisis in the long battle, or rather of the long series of battles which were fought over education during the nineteenth century; the discussion concerns two of the most significant educational reforms of that century; the speaker was a great leader in the struggle which brought those reforms to pass; the style of the address illustrates the strenuous and attractive method of exposition which characterizes all of Huxleys writings, and which was a powerful means of winning public support for his views.
The full significance of Science and Culture appears only when it is placed in its historical setting. To-day Huxleys views seem commonplace, because to-day everyone accepts them. Who, nowadays, disputes his proposition that the sciences are an essential element of modern culture? And who denies that the diffusion of a thorough scientific education is an absolutely essential condition of industrial progress?
In England in 1880, however, these ideas seemed shockingly radical to a very large majority of the people who were doing the thinking of the country and managing its affairs; and the advocates of scientific studies faced a powerful opposing party composed of two groupsthe practical men of business, and the men of liberal education.
Scientific education was despised by practical business men because it seemed not only unnecessary, but actually harmful as a preparation for business. English industries had flourished amazingly without the aid of the sciences, and the captains of industry saw no reason to believe that rule of thumb, by which they had succeeded, would not continue to suffice for their needs. They failed to see the importance of the connection between scientific education and the industries; but it was even then perceived in Germany, that land of damned professors, with the result that Germany rose, in the next twenty-five years, from industrial insignificance to the position of Englands leading industrial competitor.
The entrance of the sciences into the circle of liberal studies also met powerful opposition. School and university men in general doubted, and most of them denied, that the sciencesphysics, chemistry, biology, geology, and the likewere at all essential to culture. And Huxleys conviction that, for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effective as an exclusively literary education was as shocking to the academic world of that day as the advent of a band of shooting cowboys would have been to an English garden party. Huxley states very fairly the working ideal of culture which was held by the great majority of educated Englishmen of 1880, and which had shaped the whole course of liberal education during the three centuries preceding: In their belief, he says, culture is obtainable only by a liberal education; and a liberal education is synonymous, not merely with education and instruction in literature, but in one particular form of literature, namely that of Greek and Roman antiquity. They hold that the man who has learned Latin and Greek, however little, is educated; while he who is versed in other branches of knowledge, however deeply, is a more or less respectable specialist, not admissible into the cultured caste. The stamp of the educated man, the University degree, is not for him. The best-trained university men undoubtedly took a more liberal attitude than this, but schoolmasters in general, and university men of mediocre quality, often maintained this position with patronizing, not to say insolent, superiority.
Another group of educated men also opposed scientific studiesespecially biologyon religious grounds. Since the appearance of Darwins Origin of Species in 1859 there had been endless battles and skirmishes between scientists and theologians over the doctrine of evolution. It is almost impossible for readers of this generation to realize the bitterness of the feelings aroused over this doctrine, or the violence with which, during the sixties and early seventies, evolution and its champions were attacked. To clergy and the devout laity alike it seemed to undermine theology and to sap the very foundations of Christian belief. Scientists who defended itHuxley chief among themwere regarded as the deadly enemies of religion, as rationalists, materialists, atheists beyond redemption. Naturally, scientific studies were opposed on the ground that they were anti-religious in their effect, the breeders of atheism, and the destroyers of faith. The stormiest period of the debate had passed by 1880, but the feelings which it aroused were still strong. And, although Huxley does not directly address these opponents in Science and Culture, some reminiscences of the conflict may be traced in its pages.
Under these circumstances, the address was hardly the tame affair which it seems to readers of the younger generation. On the contrary, it was the challenging utterance of a champion in the warfare of science, at the crisis of the battle.
As above suggested, the two great reforms for which Huxley contended in this address, and elsewhere, were, first, the diffusion of scientific education as a benefit to industrial workers and an aid to the industries themselves; second, the revision of the program of liberal studies to include modern studies, especially the natural sciences, as well as the traditional Latin and Greek. Thus he confronted two of the three groups of opponents of scientific studiesthe practical men of business, and the men of liberal culture.
The first thing to note in reading the address is the skill with which Huxley meets each of these antagonists. To the practical men he appeals in a practical way. His appeal, summarized, is this: I wont try to reason you out of your opposition to scientific education. But consider what Sir Josiah Mason, the founder of this College, has done. He is a practical man like yourselves, and yet he believes in scientific education enough to spend a great part of his fortune in providing it for young men and women who are to enter the industries of Birmingham. No one is better qualified to judge than he. This College is his practical answer to your practical objections. I can say nothing which will add to its force.
Toward the close of the address Huxley returns to the charge with evidence that the general sciences are of practical value to the industries, and with the further remark that considered as culture alone they are of practical value, for they both ennoble character and increase and improve in quality the variety of desires which are satisfied by the products of industry.
Huxleys method of dealing with the second group of antagonists is very different from this. Here his appeal is to reason. He begins with a definition of culture which hardly anyone could refuse to accept. Next, he points out that the real matter on which they disagreed is the answer to the question, How is culture to be obtained? Why do we differ so sharply on this matter? he asks. History tells us why. The studies which have been supposed to give culture have changed from age to age. In the Middle Ages theology was the sole basis of culture, because it furnished the best ideals and standards then available for the criticism of life. In the fifteenth century the great body of classical literature was revealed to western Europe. This in turn became the basis of culture, displacing theology, because in many ways it furnished better ideals and standardsespecially in literature, sculpture, and above all in the use of reason. But since the fifteenth century vast new sources of culture have developedthe modern literatures, modern music, modern painting, and above all the great structure of modern science, which gives us ideals and standards of judgment drawn from a new field, the book of Nature herself. The reason why we differ is clear. You still live in the views of the fifteenth century, and you take no account of the vast changes in our knowledge since that time. But if culture is to be an effective criticism of modern lifeas we agreeis it not clear that the ideals and standards given by these new fields of learning must form a part of any scheme of complete culture? Thus by clear definition, and by reasoning based on the historic facts, Huxley drives home his conclusion with telling power.
The style of the address deserves notice. It is characteristic of all Huxleys writings. Perfect clearness and simplicity are its most obvious qualities. So clear and simple is it, indeed, that one constantly forgets that the printed page is before one. One seems to be looking directly at the thought expressed rather than at the words themselves, just as one looks through a clear window at a landscape. At the same time, the style is never dry. The bottled life which, according to a reviewer, Huxley always infused into the driest topic on which human beings ever contrived to prose, is evident here as in all his writings. Forcible and interesting, as he always is, Huxley also makes this address pungent by picturesque phrases and keen thrusts at his antagonists.
A last word must be given to Huxley as a man. He was one of the most distinguished and striking personalities of his day in England. Hardly any character will better repay study. Let the reader turn to his Collected Essays, and especially to the two volumes of his Life and Letters, edited by his son. There he will find a portrait, sharply drawn. It is the portrait of a passionate seeker of truth, fearless in its defense against all odds, and at any cost to himselfa man ruggedly honest and straightforward, big of mind, broad of vision, the soul of simplicity, sincerity, and honor.