CONDUCTED BY WILLIAM AND ROBERT CHAMBERS, EDITORS OF 'CHAMBERS'S INFORMATION FOR THE PEOPLE,' 'CHAMBERS'S EDUCATIONAL COURSE,' &c.
It was for a long time the custom to recommend knowledge to the attention of the people by depicting the material advantages and pleasures incident to its pursuit. Glowing and attractive pictures were exhibited of the career and progress of meritorious and successful persons, who had been elevated by their intelligence to positions of consideration and distinction. Universal history and biography were ransacked to furnish instances of a persevering and well-rewarded prosecution of knowledge 'under difficulties;' and the general mind was invited to contemplate and reflect on these, as worthy exemplars for its imitation. The inference, moreover, that was almost uniformly intended to be drawn, was such a one as was naturally acceptable to the crude and undisciplined understanding—the obvious purpose of all such representations being to stimulate the energies and enterprise of the ambitious, by the offer or indication of material rewards, and to make intelligence respected and desirable for the sake of its sensible compensations.
There might perhaps be reasons adducible to justify the employment of such incitements, as there may doubtless be circumstances under which the cultivation of knowledge might, for a time, be more effectually advanced by means of interested considerations, than by an appeal to motives more strictly rational, and accordant with a disinterested reverence for its spiritual worth and dignity. There are evidently stages of human progress when a regard for their personal interests has a more powerful efficacy in urging men into improvement, than any of the finer influences of which they are susceptible, or which an advanced culture would probably awaken. Thus, as an exoteric or introductory intimation of the value and desirableness of knowledge, it may not be amiss to attract a people, otherwise indisposed to its acquirement, by an exhibition of the conventional advantages and distinctions which it may contribute, more or less successfully, to realise. And though it cannot be allowed that the culture of the intellect is to be subordinated to the acquisition of any of the temporal benefits of life, yet inasmuch as an increase of intelligence and sagacity may be reasonably applied to the promotion of such comforts and conveniencies as tend to enhance the rational satisfactions of existence, it is not to be questioned that the latter may be innocently, and even serviceably, urged upon the attention, as reasons and motives for stimulating the slothful or indifferent mind to an appropriate activity, whensoever higher and worthier considerations may have been found to be ineffectual, or are in any likelihood of being imperfectly apprehended. The sole condition needful to be observed by those who thus endeavour to promote the education and enlightenment of the people, is a clear and firm persuasion in themselves that such a method of interesting men in the pursuits of literature or science, can only be considered as initiatory, and preparatory to something higher, and that at last knowledge must stand recommended to the mind by its own intrinsic charms, and by its grand and native tendency to further a man's spiritual advancement.
It is scarcely to be doubted that the oversight of this has greatly contributed to occasion the failure of many of those popular schemes and institutions which have had for their object the intellectual improvement of the people. Starting with the flattering assumption that literary and scientific information possessed the power of raising men to social consequence, it was presently perceived that the result was not answerable to the expectations which had been excited, and that the more generally intelligence was spread, the greater was the competition for the advantages in view, and the less the chance of attaining them. By being taught to regard their education as a means or process whereby they might be more readily and securely inducted into positions of emolument and honour, not only were the people misdirected with respect to the real and authentic signification of manly culture, but even the inducements held out as the encouragements of their efforts were found to end mainly in disappointment. The generality were not, and could not be enriched, nor very sensibly elevated in the estimation of the world; they did not usually attain to what they had been taught to aim after, which was, in most cases, antecedence of their fellow-men, distinction and exalted notice in the eyes of accredited respectability. The conditions of society to which they were subjected limited most of them to their old employments and pursuits, and it only occasionally happened that a man's personal fortunes were very materially promoted by the intelligence he had gained through studious exertion. If, by some favourable concurrence of circumstances, one might chance to attain eminence, or realise any considerable share of the substantial possessions of life, for every individual thus fortunate, there has probably been a thousand whose efforts were utterly unproductive of any such success. Upon the whole, it is evident that the more universally the benefits of instruction are extended among a people, the casual prizes which were formerly accessible to rare examples of ability and intelligence become less and less easy of attainment, and have an eventual tendency to become distributed