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Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 450 Volume 18, New Series, August 14, 1852   By:

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No. 450. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, AUGUST 14, 1852. PRICE 1 1/2 d.


The advocates of the diffusion of useful knowledge among the great body of the people, found one of their greatest difficulties to lie in an inability on the part of the people themselves to see what benefit they were to derive from the knowledge proposed to be imparted. This knowledge consisted of such a huge mass of facts of all kinds, that few could overcome a sense of hopelessness as attending every endeavour to acquire it. Take botany alone, it was said. You have a hundred thousand species of plants to become acquainted with to learn their names, and to what genera and orders they belong, besides everything like a knowledge of their habitats, their properties, and their physiology. Seeing that this is but one of the sciences, there might well be a pause before admitting that the moral and intellectual regeneration of our people was to be brought about by the useful knowledge movement.

There was here, however, a mistake on both hands, and one which we are only now beginning to appreciate. It was not observed at first, that there is a great distinction to be drawn between the relations of science to its cultivators or investigators, and those which it bears to the community at large. It is most important that a scientific zoologist like Mr Waterhouse, or a profound physiologist like Professor Owen, should determine and describe every species with the minutest care, even to the slightest peculiarities in the markings of a shell or the arrangements of a joint, because that exactness of description is necessary in the foundations of the science. But it is not necessary that every member of the public should follow the man of science into all these minutiƦ. It is not required of him, that he should have the names of even the seventy families of plants at his finger ends, though that is not beyond the reach of most people. Some summation of the facts, some adroit generalisation, if such be attainable, is enough for him. The man of science is, as it were, a workman employed in rearing up a structure for the man of the world to look at or live in. The latter has no more necessary concern with the processes of investigation and compilation, than a gentleman has with the making of the mortar and hewing of the stones used in a house which he has ordered to be built for his residence.

Were the facts of science thus generalised, it is surprising how comprehensive a knowledge of the whole system of the universe every person might have. Only generalise enough, and no one need to be ignorant. Just in proportion as a man has little time to bestow on learning, condense the more what you wish to impart, and the result, where there is any fair degree of preparedness, will be all the better. In the very last degree of exigency, explain that nature is a system of fixed method and order, standing in a beneficial relation to us, but requiring a harmonious conformity on our part, in order that good may be realised and evil avoided, and you have taken your pupil by one flight to the very summit of practical wisdom. The most illustrious savant , while knowing some of the intermediate steps by which that wisdom was attained, and having many delightful subjects of reflection in the various phenomena involved in the generalisation, cannot go an inch further.

This is putting the matter in its extreme form. We are entitled to suppose that the bulk of mankind have some time to spend on the acquirement of a knowledge of the natural system of things into which their Maker has thrown them. Grant a little time to such a science, for example, as botany; we would never attempt impressing a vast nomenclature upon them... Continue reading book >>

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