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An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance   By: (1770-1843)

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An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance

By John Foster.

Revised and Enlarged Edition.

"A Work, which, popular and admired as it confessedly is, has never met with the thousandth part of the attention which it deserves. It appears to me that we are now at a crisis in the state of our country, and of the world, which renders the reasonings and exhortations of that eloquent production applicable and urgent beyond all power of mine to express."

Dr. J. Pye Smith.


If the circumstance of a manner of introduction somewhat different from what would be expected in a composition of the essay class were worth a very few words of explanation, it might be mentioned, that the following production has grown out of the topics of a discourse, delivered at a public anniversary meeting in aid of the British and Foreign School Society.

When it was thought, a good while after that occasion, that a more extensive use might be made of some of the observations, the writing was begun in the form of a Discourse addressed to an assembly, and commencing with a sentence from the Bible, to serve as a general indication to the subject. But after some progress had been made, it became evident that anything like a comprehensive view of that subject would be incompatible with the proper limits of such a composition.

In relinquishing, however, the form of a public address, the writer thought he might be excused for leaving some traces of that character to remain, in both the cast of expression and the theological sentiment; for reverting repeatedly to the sentence from Scripture; and for continuing the use of the plural pronoun, so commodious for the modest egotism of public discoursers.

In the general design and course of observations, the essay retains the character of the original discourse, which was, in accordance to the presumed expectations of a grave assembly, an attempt to display the importance of the education of the people in reference, mainly, to moral and religious interests. There are special relations in which their ignorance or cultivation are of great consequence to the welfare of the community. Some of these are of indispensable consideration to the legislator, and to the political economist. But it is in that general and moral view, in which ignorance in the lower orders is beheld the cause of their vice, irreligion, and consequent misery, that the subject is attempted, imperfectly and somewhat desultorily, to be illustrated in the following pages.

Nor was it within the writer's design to suggest any particular plans, regulations, or instrumental expedients, in promotion of the system of operations hopefully begun, for raising these classes from their degradation. His part has been to make such a prominent representation of the calamitous effects of their ignorance, as shall prove it an aggravated national guilt to allow another generation to grow up to the same condition as the present and the past. In the course of attempting this, occasions have been seized of exposing the absurdity of those who are hostile to the mental improvement of the people. If any one should say that this is a mere beating of the air, for that all such hostility is now gone by, he may be assured there are many persons, of no insignificant rank in society, who would from their own consciousness smile at the simplicity with which he can so easily shape men's opinions and dispositions to his mind whether they will or not. He must have been the most charitable or the most obtuse of observers.

It is feared the readers of the following essay will find some defect of distribution and arrangement. To the candor of those who are practised in literary work it would be an admissible plea, that when, in a preparation to meet a particular occasion for which but little time has been allowed, a series of topics and observations has been hastily sketched out, it is far from easy to throw them afterwards into a different order... Continue reading book >>

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