More Important Than The Cosmos Itself

Education, it has been said, should knock windows into the world for us. We are born into a closed and darkened room: As the windows are opened, we see, here, man, with all his character and capacities, experiments, endless achievements, and possibilities, there, the material world itself, the elements that compose, and unexpected laws that govern it. The windows are unmade, or in the making, when we are fourteen. We have no notion of the landscapes and moving figures outside our prison house, and an essential aspect of education is to make openings in its walls, and take us to them, and give us time to view the scene beyond.

An open and alert mind, which understands human nature and its possibilities, which can judge and sympathize, which because of its wide survey and outlook on the world creates new opportunities and developments, prospers in commerce or in any work—but it is the child of a varied education, not of narrow technical training.


The great gap in science is that it tells us hardly anything about man. This sounds paradoxical, yet consider: Suppose that we have studied physics, chemistry, physiology, zoology, and the rest—how much do we thereby know of man? Perhaps we have mastered the history of his tissues, his nervous system, his bones and sinews; perhaps we understand his structure and constitution, the laws which regulate his production, growth, and decay. Still, we know nothing of him as he moves in actual life. The man who is our friend, enemy, kinsman, partner, colleague, with whom we live and do business, who governs or is governed by us, has never once come within our view.


As science reveals to us the physical constitution of ourselves and of the world round us, so the humanities reveal to us man. There is no science of man. Anatomy and biology, while they have much to say about his body, throw little light upon his behavior, nor explain why he makes a French Revolution or a European war, why he is a miser or a spendthrift, a Machiavelli or a Frederick the Great. Physical science does not deal with this kind of thing. Yet the “science” which everyone needs, and statesmen above all, is such a knowledge of man.

Now there is, if not a science, yet a record and account of man. We call it, according to its various aspects, by the various names of literature, history, philosophy. And this is the justification of the literary philosophic-historical education which prevails in our secondary schools and universities.

Generally speaking, the subject of that education is man—man viewed in himself and his proper nature, viewed as literature views him, as a being with feelings and prejudices, virtues and vices, ruled by intellect, or perverted by passion, inspired by ideals, torn by desires, acting on plan and calculation, or carried away by unreflecting emotion, sacrificing his life, now for gold, now for an ideal—an adulterer, a patriot, a glutton, a dreamer; Aegisthus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Faust.

Before the student of literature, philosophy, and history are displayed all the forces and ideas that have governed man, personal, religious, or political—to see why he has rejected this and espoused that, why this failed and that was successful, what are liberty and religion, family affection and personal greed, and in a word, to study Man. As he reviews them, and compares them with the present, he can see, as far as a man can see, what ideas have come down to his own day, and what new elements are combining with them, can forecast in some degree the future, and by virtue of his knowledge guide the streaming forces, and shape the molten mass, serve his country, and use to the best advantage his own powers.

The world is far more intelligible to us if we have studied history and literature. We understand Hamlet or Brutus, when we meet them in the flesh, far more readily if we have already met them in Shakespeare. Their actions have a meaning for us because we have the clue to their character. We are like visitors to a foreign town who have already studied its map. The lie of the land, the plan of the whole, is already familiar for us, and we pick up our bearings quickly, instead of wandering vaguely about the streets.

Then a further point. One of the chief objects of education is to train flexibility of mind, to make a man quick to comprehend other points of view than his own. Obviously, no power is more necessary in dealing with men. To be able to discard for the moment his own opinions, and see the world through the eyes of other classes, races, or types, is as indispensable to the merchant as to the statesman.

Imaginative literature in prose or poetry helps us also in our turn to see the world with imagination:

The poet in a golden clime was born,
With golden stars above.

But the ordinary man is not born in a golden clime, and though his happiness, and in the best sense, his success, depends on his reaching it, little in his surroundings helps him to do so. Besides, human nature is sleepy: It suffers from a pervading apathy. The world is full of an incredible wonder, and yet somehow we are not much stirred. Everywhere the world suffers from its aeonian disease—there is no open vision, and where there is no open vision the people perish. Everywhere we are weighed under the burden of which Goethe spoke, was uns alle bandigt, das Gemeine: “The universal subjugator, the commonplace.” Both in politics and in life we are inevitably immersed in details, and forget to see with the eyes of imagination. We run no risk of overlooking the details, they force themselves on us and prevail.

But we may easily miss the illumination by which we can see the whole sub specie aeternitatis, the light without which the whole body is full of darkness. Here it is that the poets and men of imagination help us. They touch the springs of our hearts, and let the poet in us loose.

That is why literature holds so important a place in education. It is a country where the light of imagination is continual, and all things are illuminated by it. It is the world we know, inhabited by the men and women around us. The Grecian urn of Keats was a black clay vessel, with white and red figures, in a glass case in a museum, his nightingale and Shelley’s skylark and Wordsworth’s cuckoo are the birds of our fields. The England of Wordsworth’s sonnets is the same country whose soil is beneath our feet. We have all met Kent and Horatio, Imogen, Cordelia, and Juliet, or we have been very singular. Only, since we are not poets, our eyes have been held, and we have not known the meaning of what we saw. But the poet sees the secret beauty and inner significance of things. We are happier, wiser, better, for being taught thus to see the world.

So we hand our youth over to literature, to the prophets of humanity, in the hope that he may learn to see the world as they saw it, and catch something of their joy, nobility, and inspiration. Without it, a man may be a “flourishing earthworm.” He will never be great, he will hardly be a man.

While supporting any attempt to improve the teaching of science where it is deficient, and to bring more science where it is needed in national life, we shall remember that an education based solely on physical science would not only leave the mind unflexible, unsympathetic, unimaginative, and undeveloped, but would ignore what is more important than the Cosmos itself. Our motto was written 2,500 years ago on the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself.”

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