Page images


It is the way of the dull person to content himself with going through the motions of rendering service without troubling himself to see whether the benefits intended are indeed realized. Either because formerly success attended them, or because they look as if they can produce the desired effect, he assumes that certain forms are efficacious and never thinks of testing their actual results. For example, a building ordinance is adopted by a city and an inspector is appointed to see that it is obeyed. At first he issues building permits on the basis of architect's plans submitted and later inspects the building to see whether the plans have been carried out as approved. But as the city grows he has less and less time for inspection, until at last he sits all day in his office issuing building permits on the strength of plans which builders later change to suit themselves. Without realizing it he has become a mere formalist.

Courts of justice are very subject to this disease, because one litigant or the other has an interest in urging technicalities, so that, unless the judge puts his foot down, rules meant to save time and expedite the court's business are used to waste time and obstruct this business by becoming the subject of wrangling between attorneys. An American observer comments as follows upon the difference between the American and the British consular court in China:

In the British Court the direct dive to the gist of the matter before the court, and the intolerance of technicalities is what astounds and impresses the American lawyer. The wearying, formal, perfunctory round of demurrers and motions is entirely missing. Mere technical objections are easily and impatiently waved aside, and exceptions to pleadings right speedily cured wherever possible without postponement. Hence, being unsuccessful in achieving any advantage, such objections tend to lapse into disuse.

Other formalisms of organs of justice are: record worship; the insistence on trying records rather than trying cases; the throwing of causes out of court because brought in, or taken to, the wrong court or the wrong venue instead of transferring them to the right one and saving all prior proceedings; inflicting "the monstrous penalty of a new trial" when the jury appear to have been influenced

by improper argument by counsel, or by confusing expert evidence, when the error might have been corrected very simply in an oral charge to the jury by the judge.

Institutions for dependent children are very subject to formalism, because the victims make no outcry and no one of influence takes a strong interest in the fate of the individual child. It seems incredible that a foundling asylum which loses 97 per cent of its babies should live; yet experience has shown again and again that good people, pleased at going through the motions of succoring foundlings, will keep on with it. A large orphanage is just the sort of thing a formalist loves. The money laid out makes a brave show, the bigness of the charity is obvious, and the children, made spick and span, can be collected in one place to feast the eyes of donors and visitors. It is overlooked that children cannot be raised well on the wholesale plan, that the institution-child lags far behind other children in development, that the best parts of its nature atrophy from disuse, that all through life it will never stand for much nor alone, and that it would be infinitely better off if placed in a normal family, even if thereby the service to the orphan sank out of public view.

The formalist loves visible material relief of destitution-baskets of food and bales of clothing distributed to dingy women in shawls— and he never thinks of visiting the tenements to see how the weekly dole at the poor-office affects the habits and morals of the poor. He sneers at charitable societies which dispense few groceries but waste their income in paying salaries to "a lot of trained workers who do absolutely nothing for the poor”-save to hunt a job for the out-of-work, overhaul the plumbing which has produced disease, arrange for the removal of the ailing family to a better neighborhood, persuade the landlord to wait for the rent, stand off the holder of the chattel mortgage, teach the mother to cook or earn, put the boy to a trade, or entice the children to the social settlement where they will get aspirations instead of alms!

But the paradise of the formalist is the school, because it works with the mind, and the mind is something we know little about. In less advanced countries one comes upon such atrocities as making pupils learn by rote, parrot-like recitation of the textbook, primers

made up of the sayings of sages, natural science taught without materials or laboratory. But then look at our own sins. Children are set to work upon spelling-books full of strange words instead of studying the few hundred words which experience has shown they are likely to misspell. They are drilled in grammar instead of being trained in the correct use of their mother-tongue. They agonize over arithmetic operations which no one uses in real life. They pore over books instead of handling what the books tell about or doing what the books describe. They are made to labor over stuff utterly without use or interest-Latin prosody, for example in order to strengthen their mental faculties generally, although experiments show that facility gained in doing one thing is not transferred to the doing of other things.

Universities especially are infected with formalism, for usually they are too high and imposing to be much in fear of critics. In the sixteenth century Rabelais has his hero Gargantua educated in the scholastic universities. For twenty years the youth works with all his might and learns so perfectly the books he studies that he can say them off by heart backward and forward, "yet his father discerned that all this profited him nothing, and, what is worse, that it made him a madcap, a ninny, dreamy and infatuated." In the next century the philosopher Locke complained that at Oxford he had been obliged to waste his time in formal disputations. "In the universities," writes Adam Smith a century later, "the youth neither are taught, nor always can find any proper means of being taught, the sciences which it is the business of these incorporated bodies to teach." Indeed, as late as the time of the French Revolution Oxford students were still required, in order to receive their official certificates as trained thinkers, to repeat long "strings" of syllogistic affirmations and denials on some question in moral or natural philosophy.

Even in our own universities, goaded as they are by a sharp rivalry among themselves for gifts and students, we mark formalism in the abuse of the lecture system, in the endeavor to turn out examination passers, and in the refusal to grant the graduate student credit for supervised field work.

1 Op. cit., II, 350.


The history of English charitable foundations is instructive as to the folly of regulating the present according to the will of the past. Owing to changes unforeseen by the testator, thousands of the twenty-eight thousand perpetual charities brought to light by the great survey instituted in England a century ago had become useless or even harmful. Funds had been left to provide forever for superannuated wool carders; for teaching children to card, spin, and knit; for apprenticing the children of poor Protestant soldiers in Cork, a city in which for a long time there had been no Protestant soldiers; for conducting services in the French tongue in the Walloon chapel of Canterbury Cathedral, although the congregation had known no French for a hundred years; for disseminating the doctrines of a sect that had died long since; for repairing causeways and bridges in a wet district which had been drained to the point of no longer needing causeways and bridges; for the ransom of Christians held captive by the Barbary corsairs; for the relief of those imprisoned for debt; for leper hospitals; for doles to needy persons who will stultify themselves by repeating some prescribed religious formula; for schools with fixed courses of instruction reflecting the educational ideas of the Elizabethan period.

The demand for thorough social reconstruction which has made such a stir in the last half-century gives color to the notion that people err chiefly in underestimating the stability of society. But it is likely that, taking one age with another, for one who looks upon society as a living plastic thing there are ten thousand who imagine the world will go on forever as they have known it. Even minds that have caught the idea of flux do not expect change to invade all departments or anticipate the changes which actually occur. Wisdom does not qualify men to read the social future, for the wise and farsighted testators have failed as egregiously as the ignorant in forecasting society's path of development. What then can be more foolish than to chain any perpetual endowment to the terms of a founder's will?

Even if it be not tied by the strict requirements in its deed of gift, a social structure will let itself fall behind the times unless outside pressure forces it to keep abreast of its opportunity. Thus

an old government office or bureau that can take its appropriation for granted wears a rut for itself, so that a "shake-up" may be required to get it onto the right lines. But then it will wear a new rut as deep as the old one, and if swift change is going on all about it in a score or two of years it will need another upheaval to adjust it to new conditions. Hence the more rapidly society changes, the sooner it develops away from its structures and the oftener it must overhaul them or inject into them "new blood."

Productive funds likewise exempt a social structure from the necessity of justifying itself in order to win favor and support. This is why the rich college or charity is likely to fall behind the times and do little good. Adam Smith, who knew well the English universities, characterized them as

for a long time the sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world. In general, the richest and best-endowed universities have been slowest in adopting those improvements [in science] and the most averse to permit any considerable change in the established plan of education.'

This, to be sure, is but one aspect of endowments. They do indeed make possible an obsoletism that would soon be the death of an institution with nothing to depend on but current support. On the other hand, they maintain men who devote themselves to rendering valuable services, which nevertheless do not command a fair price, either because they benefit all alike, or because those who receive them will not or cannot pay what they cost. The true policy with endowed institutions is not to suppress but to supervise them.

Various causes hinder a social structure from molding itself to the changing situation about it. One is the force of habit. This being strongest in the aged will be felt most when the structure is controlled by those who have grown old in it. If it is in a bad rut an outsider must be put in charge.

An organization composed of a number of parts resists needed changes in its functions or methods because of the extra trouble they involve. After the parts have come to work together smoothly

1 Op. cit., II, 357.

« PreviousContinue »