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Government Aid to Science (S157: 1870)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the Nature of 13 January 1870. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S157.htm

    [[p. 288]] I venture to hope that you will allow me space in your columns to express opinions on this subject which are not popular with scientific men, and which are evidently opposed to your own views as indicated in your recent article on Science Reform.

    The public mind seems now to be going mad on the subject of education; the Government is obliged to give way to the clamour, and men of science seem inclined to seize the opportunity to get, if possible, some share in the public money. Art education is already to a considerable extent supplied by the State,--technical education (which I presume means education in "the arts") is vigorously pressed upon the Government,--and Science also is now urging her claims to a modicum of State patronage and support.

    Now, sir, I protest most earnestly against the application of public money to any of the above specified purposes, as radically vicious in principle, and as being in the present state of society a positive wrong. In order to clear the ground let me state that, for the purpose of the present argument, I admit the right and duty of the State to educate its citizens. I uphold national education, but I object absolutely to all sectional or class education; and all the above-named schemes are simply forms of class education. The broad principle I go upon is this,--that the State has no moral right to apply funds raised by the taxation of all its members to any purpose which is not directly available for the benefit of all. As it has no right to give class preferences in legislation, so it has no right to give class preferences in the expenditure of public money. If we follow this principle, national education is not forbidden, whether given in schools supported by the State, or in museums, or galleries, or gardens, fairly distributed over the whole kingdom, and so regulated as to be equally available for instruction and amusement of all classes of the community. But here a line must be drawn. The schools, the museums, the galleries, the gardens, must all alike be popular (that is, adapted for and capable of being fully used and enjoyed by the people at large), and must be developed by means of public money to such an extent only as is needful for the highest attainable popular instruction and benefit. All beyond this should be left to private munificence, to societies, or to the classes benefited, to supply.

    In art, all that is needed only for the special instruction of artists, or for the delight of amateurs, should be provided by artists and amateurs. To expend public money on third-rate prints or pictures, or on an intrinsically worthless book, both of immense value on account of their rarity, and as such of great interest to a small class of literary and art amateurs and to them only, I conceive to be absolutely wrong. So, in science, to provide museums such as will at once elevate, instruct, and entertain all who visit them is a worthy and a just expenditure of public money; but to spend many times as much as is necessary for this purpose in forming enormous collections of all the rarities that can be obtained, however obscure and generally uninteresting that they may be, and however limited the class who can value or appreciate them is, as plainly, an unjust expenditure. It will, perhaps, surprise some of your readers to find a naturalist advocating such doctrines as these; but though I love nature much I love justice more, and would not wish that any man should be compelled to contribute towards the support of an institution of no interest to the great mass of my countrymen, however interesting to myself.

    For the same reason I maintain that all schools of art or of science, or for technical education, should be supported by the parties who are directly interested in them or benefited by them. If designs are not forthcoming for the English manufacturer, and he is thus unable to compete with foreigners, who should provide schools of design but the manufactures and the pupils who are the parties directly interested? It seems to me as entirely beyond the proper sphere of the functions of the State to interfere in this matter as it would be to teach English bootmakers or English cooks at the public expense in order that they may be able to compete with French artistes in these departments. In both cases such interference amounts to protection and class legislation, and I have yet to learn that these can be justified by the urgent necessity of our producing shawls and calicoes, or hardware and crockery, as elegantly designed as those of our neighbours. And if our men of science want more complete laboratories, or finer telescopes, or more expensive apparatus of any kind, who but our scientific associations and the large and wealthy class now interested in science should supply the want? They have hitherto done so nobly, and I should myself feel that it was better that the march of scientific discovery should be a little less rapid (and of late years the pace has not been bad), than that Science should descend one step from her lofty independence and sue in formâ pauperis to the already overburthened taxpayer. So if our mechanics are not so well able as they might be to improve the various arts they are engaged in, surely the parties who ought to provide them with the special education required are the great employers of labour, who by their assistance are daily building up colossal fortunes; and that great and wealthy class which is, professionally or otherwise, interested in the constructive or decorative arts.

    I maintain further, not only that the money spent by Government for the purposes here indicated is wrongly spent, but also that it is in a great measure money wasted. The best collectors are usually private amateurs, the best workers are usually home students or the employés of scientific associations, not of governments. Could any Government institution have produced results so much superior to those produced by our Royal Institution, with its Davy, Faraday, and Tyndall, as to justify the infringement of a great principle? Would the grand series of scientific and mechanical inventions of this century have been more thoroughly and more fruitfully worked out, if Government had taken science and invention under its special patronage in the year 1800, and had subjected them to a process of forcing from that day to this? No one can really believe that we should have got on any better under such a régime, while it is certain that much power would have been wasted in the attempt to develop inventions and discoveries before the age was ripe for them, and which would therefore have inevitably languished and been laid aside without producing any great results. Experience shows that public competition ensures a greater supply of the materials and a greater demand for the products of science and art, and is thus a greater stimulus to true and healthy progress than any Government patronage. Let it but become an established rule that all institutions solely for the advancement of science and art must be supported by private munificence, and we may be sure that such institutions would be quite as well supported as they are now, and I believe much better. If they were not, it would only prove more clearly how unjust it is to take money from the public purse to pay for that which science-and-art-amateurs would very much like to have, but are not willing themselves to pay for.

    The very common line of argument which attempts to prove the wide-spread uses and high educating influences of art and of science, are utterly beside the question. Every product of the human intellect is more or less valuable; but it does not therefore follow that it is just to provide any particular product for those who want it, at the expense of those who either do not want, or are [[p. 289]] not in a condition to make use of it. Good architecture, for instance, is a very good thing, and one we are much in want of; but it will hardly be maintained that architects should be taught their profession at the public expense. The history of old china, of old clothes, or of postage stamps, are each of great interest to more or less extensive sections of the community, and much may be said in each case to prove the value of the study; but surely no honest representative of the nation could vote, say, the moderate sum of a million sterling for three museums to exhibit these objects, with a full staff of beadles, curators, and professors at an equally moderate expenditure of £10,000 annually, and a like sum for the purchase of specimens. But if we once admit the right of the Government to support institutions for the benefit of any class of students or amateurs however large and respectable, we adopt a principle which will enable us to offer but a feeble resistance to the claims of less and less extensive interests whenever they happen to become the fashion.

    If it be asked (as it will be) what we are to do with existing institutions supported by Government, I am at once ready with an answer. Taking the typical examples of the National Gallery and the British Museum, I maintain that these institutions should be reorganised, so as to make them in the highest degree entertaining and instructive to the mass of the people;--that no public money should be spent on the purchase of specimens, but what they already contain should be so thoroughly cared for and utilised as to make these establishments the safest, the best, and the most worthy receptacles for the treasures accumulated by wealthy amateurs and students, who would then be ready to bestow them on the nation to a much greater extent than they do at present. From the duplicates which would thus accumulate in these institutions, the other great centres of population in the kingdom should be proportionately supplied, and from the Metropolitan centres trained officers should be sent to organise and superintend local institutions, such a proportion of their salaries being paid by Government as fairly to equalise the expenditure of public money over the whole kingdom, and thus not infringe that great principle of equality and justice which I maintain should be our guide in all such cases.

    This communication will doubtless call forth much opposition, but I trust it will also elicit the support of some of those eminent scientific men, who I know hold similar general views, and who are so much better able than I am to explain and support them.

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