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A Practical Suggestion (S618c: 1905)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Printed in the first issue of The Ethological Journal, January 1905. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S618C.htm

     [[p. 19]] I have been reading lately the autobiography of one of the teachers of my youth--Robert Owen, of New Lanark--and in reply to your request I cannot, I think, do better than call the attention of the members of the Ethological Society to it.

     Robert Owen was the greatest educationalist and the greatest student of character of his age. He was the only man (in our country at all events) who not only saw clearly the overwhelming importance of education, in its best and broadest sense, from infancy to adolescence, but acted consistently on the great principle which guided him through life; and he also carried his principles into effect with such strikingly beneficial results as have never been approached before or since, and which, at the present day seem quite lost sight of.

     This great principle was simple and self-evident, as most great principles are. It was that "Character is universally formed for, and not by, the individual." This he reiterated again and again in various forms. More impressively and more fully as follows: "The character of man, is, without a single exception, always formed for him; it may be, and is, chiefly created by his predecessors; they give him, or may give him, his ideas and habits, which are the powers that govern and direct his conduct. Man, therefore, never did, nor is it possible he ever can, form his own character." As we [[p. 20]] say now, the child and the man are alike the product of heredity and environment. Every thinker admits this, but no legislature, no government, no local authority, ever acts upon it. The great, the amazing merit of Owen was, that he acted upon it consistently and strictly thoughout his life; that through fortunate circumstances having had complete control, for about 25 years, of a population of nearly 2,500 individuals, all hard workers for their livelihood, he changed them from a degraded, dirty, and vicious population into a community which has probably never been surpassed, under similar conditions, for good conduct and happiness; and he did all this without any use of punishment, without even open blame, but by the strict application of the deduction from his great principles, that no one ever deserves praise or blame, reward or punishment, for conduct due solely and inevitably to his heredity and environment.

     All the best minds of the day accepted Owen's principles (which, however, he never claimed as original) and had nothing but the highest praise and almost incredulous admiration for the results he had, in so short a time, produced by its application. New Lanark was for many years visited by over 2,000 persons every year, and these included people of the highest rank and greatest eminence from every civilised country; yet so great was the antagonism of capitalistic manufacturers and greedy money-makers, that nowhere was it found possible to induce others to follow his example in all its thoroughness, and when, through unfortunate conditions, Owen was obliged (as he thought) to give it up to his partners, it was allowed gradually to drift back into the ordinary factory-system, and as such it still exists, with only about 700 population, while the schools and other public buildings erected by Owen for the benefit of the workers are now empty or ruinous.

     Now I venture to suggest that, as one department of its educational work, the Ethological Society should carefully study Owen's methods and results, not only as stated by himself but as described in the numerous reports of his schools, shops, factory and village, by independent parties, and then take every opportunity of urging on the educated public and advanced thinkers the absolute necessity of adopting this simple, effectual, and truly scientific system of the formation of good character by proper training and favourable conditions through infancy, youth, and adolescence. This, when systematically pursued, in connection with co-operative labour, as advocated by Owen (and quite recently in a modified form by Mr. John Richardson in his volume How it can be Done) will steadily and surely diminish, and in two or three generations almost entirely abolish, both pauperism and poverty, both vice and crime.

     This should, in my opinion, be the object and guiding star [[p. 21]] of a Society for the Study of Character; and it is an object so clear, so practicable, and of such transcendent importance, that when set forth with judgment, earnestness, and discretion, is calculated to attract to its ranks some of the most advanced thinkers and energetic characters of the age.

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