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An essay by Charles Dudley Warner

A Tendency Of The Age

Title:     A Tendency Of The Age
Author: Charles Dudley Warner [More Titles by Warner]

This ingenious age, when studied, seems not less remarkable for its division of labor than for the disposition of people to shift labor on to others' shoulders. Perhaps it is only another aspect of the spirit of altruism, a sort of backhanded vicariousness. In taking an inventory of tendencies, this demands some attention.

The notion appears to be spreading that there must be some way by which one can get a good intellectual outfit without much personal effort. There are many schemes of education which encourage this idea. If one could only hit upon the right "electives," he could become a scholar with very little study, and without grappling with any of the real difficulties in the way of an education. It is no more a short-cut we desire, but a road of easy grades, with a locomotive that will pull our train along while we sit in a palace-car at ease. The discipline to be obtained by tackling an obstacle and overcoming it we think of small value. There must be some way of attaining the end of cultivation without much labor. We take readily to proprietary medicines. It is easier to dose with these than to exercise ordinary prudence about our health. And we readily believe the doctors of learning when they assure us that we can acquire a new language by the same method by which we can restore bodily vigor: take one small patent-right volume in six easy lessons, without even the necessity of "shaking," and without a regular doctor, and we shall know the language. Some one else has done all the work for us, and we only need to absorb. It is pleasing to see how this theory is getting to be universally applied. All knowledge can be put into a kind of pemican, so that we can have it condensed. Everything must be chopped up, epitomized, put in short sentences, and italicized. And we have primers for science, for history, so that we can acquire all the information we need in this world in a few hasty bites. It is an admirable saving of time-saving of time being more important in this generation than the saving of ourselves.

And the age is so intellectually active, so eager to know! If we wish to know anything, instead of digging for it ourselves, it is much easier to flock all together to some lecturer who has put all the results into an hour, and perhaps can throw them all upon a screen, so that we can acquire all we want by merely using the eyes, and bothering ourselves little about what is said. Reading itself is almost too much of an effort. We hire people to read for us--to interpret, as we call it --Browning and Ibsen, even Wagner. Every one is familiar with the pleasure and profit of "recitations," of "conversations" which are monologues. There is something fascinating in the scheme of getting others to do our intellectual labor for us, to attempt to fill up our minds as if they were jars. The need of the mind for nutriment is like the need of the body, but our theory is that it can be satisfied in a different way. There was an old belief that in order that we should enjoy food, and that it should perform its function of assimilation, we must work for it, and that the exertion needed to earn it brought the appetite that made it profitable to the system. We still have the idea that we must eat for ourselves, and that we cannot delegate this performance, as we do the filling of the mind, to some one else. We may have ceased to relish the act of eating, as we have ceased to relish the act of studying, but we cannot yet delegate it, even although our power of digesting food for the body has become almost as feeble as the power of acquiring and digesting food for the mind.

It is beautiful to witness our reliance upon others. The house may be full of books, the libraries may be as free and as unstrained of impurities as city water; but if we wish to read anything or study anything we resort to a club. We gather together a number of persons of like capacity with ourselves. A subject which we might grapple with and run down by a few hours of vigorous, absorbed attention in a library, gaining strength of mind by resolute encountering of difficulties, by personal effort, we sit around for a month or a season in a club, expecting somehow to take the information by effortless contiguity with it. A book which we could master and possess in an evening we can have read to us in a month in the club, without the least intellectual effort. Is there nothing, then, in the exchange of ideas? Oh yes, when there are ideas to exchange. Is there nothing stimulating in the conflict of mind with mind? Oh yes, when there is any mind for a conflict. But the mind does not grow without personal effort and conflict and struggle with itself. It is a living organism, and not at all like a jar or other receptacle for fluids. The physiologists say that what we eat will not do us much good unless we chew it. By analogy we may presume that the mind is not greatly benefited by what it gets without considerable exercise of the mind.

Still, it is a beautiful theory that we can get others to do our reading and thinking, and stuff our minds for us. It may be that psychology will yet show us how a congregate education by clubs may be the way. But just now the method is a little crude, and lays us open to the charge--which every intelligent person of this scientific age will repudiate--of being content with the superficial; for instance, of trusting wholly to others for our immortal furnishing, as many are satisfied with the review of a book for the book itself, or--a refinement on that--with a review of the reviews. The method is still crude. Perhaps we may expect a further development of the "slot" machine. By dropping a cent in the slot one can get his weight, his age, a piece of chewing-gum, a bit of candy, or a shock that will energize his nervous system. Why not get from a similar machine a "good business education," or an "interpretation" of Browning, or a new language, or a knowledge of English literature? But even this would be crude. We have hopes of something from electricity. There ought to be somewhere a reservoir of knowledge, connected by wires with every house, and a professional switch-tender, who, upon the pressure of a button in any house, could turn on the intellectual stream desired. --[Prophecy of the Internet of the year 2000 from 110 years ago. D.W.] --There must be discovered in time a method by which not only information but intellectual life can be infused into the system by an electric current. It would save a world of trouble and expense. For some clubs even are a weariness, and it costs money to hire other people to read and think for us.

[The end]
Charles Dudley Warner's essay: A Tendency Of The Age