Is the World Worse? — Divorces — Moral Training.
George R. Stetson, Boston, Mass.
My Dear Sir: Your favor of the 7th inst. came to hand, and I thank you for the kindly reference to my little book.
I fully agree with you in regard to the importance of "proper home influences in childhood and of thorough and well-disciplined education in early life." In fact, upon these hangs the hope of the future.
You have placed me under obligations by sending me a copy of your articles on "Illiteracy and Crime" and "The Necessity of Moral and Industrial Training." I have read them with great interest, and hope they may have a wide circulation.
While I am in hearty accord with you in your aims, and admit the necessity of more thorough moral as well as industrial training of the young, yet, if you will pardon me for saying so, I do not believe that the world is any worse now than it was fifty years, or more, ago, as you seem to infer, from the fact that arrests and convictions for crime, as well as the number of divorces, in proportion to population, are increasing. On the contrary, I believe that, all things considered, the world is a little better now than it has been in the past. But we have devised and adopted new agencies for detecting and recording the foibles and transgressions of not only men, but even of children, and in order to convince us that they are doing something, these agencies bring to our attention thousands of cases which before went unnoticed. Just as the microscope reveals a whole world which existed, but was almost unknown before, so our modern police systems, detective agencies, municipal governments, with their multifarious ordinances, etc., bring to light and record acts the greater part of which used to pass unnoticed. I can remember the time when the magistrate took notice of only the more serious offenses, and when, if a man was found drunk on the streets, he was simply taken home; if a boy got into mischief, his father would whip him, and that was the end of it; if two men quarreled, they would fight it out and then go home; even many dangerous criminals went undetected, but now all this is changed. Not only are the grave offenders more generally detected, but all the parties guilty of trivial offenses must now be arrested, tried, put in jail, etc., so that the record will, of course, show a greater number of arrests and convictions than formerly. But this, it seems to me, does not necessarily prove that men are any more depraved or vicious now than they were in the past.
Further, the effect of numerous arrests, incarcerations, prison
144associations, etc., is to break the self-respect and weaken the moral character of many of the young, and thus to prepare them for the commission of crimes of which they would never have been guilty except for their degrading experiences. Therefore, while prison statistics may assist us in forming a correct opinion concerning the present moral condition of society, it seems to me they are of little value for the purpose of comparison between different periods.
In regard to the increase in the number of divorces in proportion to the population, allow me to ask, Would this not almost necessarily follow an era of great educational activity, an era in which there were a thousand agencies at work, not only among men but among women, all tending to place the latter on an equality with men, and tending, in many cases, to create dissatisfaction with existing conditions? Would there not almost necessarily follow a period of transition or readjustment, and when the readjustment has taken place will the organization of society not rest on a more intelligent basis than before, and therefore the world be a little better than before, although it may appear worse while the readjustment is in process? Besides, is it not true that the number of divorces is in proportion to the progress made in the emancipation of women? In those countries where women are merely beasts of burden there are no divorces. Further, is separation, with all its ills, not better for society than union and the rearing of a family amid depraving and brutal conditions? It seems to me that children who have frequently to see their mother thrashed by a brutal or drunken father cannot get a very exalted idea of life, and that any system which will keep a man and woman together under these circumstances is barbarous, and cannot possibly be productive of any good to the world.
"The degeneracy of the times" has always been a favorite theme, but one which is liable to mislead, and ever must be so, for the imperfections, weaknesses, and follies of "the present" are not only seen, but are felt; whereas the imperfections, weaknesses, and follies of "the past" are not only unfelt, but are mostly unseen, because the mists of oblivion hide all but the more conspicuous objects and events from our view. While, therefore, different periods of history may be compared, it is very difficult to compare "the present" with any other time.
However, while claiming that the world is better now than formerly, I admit that it is still bad, and that there is a crying necessity for more thorough moral and industrial training, and I hope you may be able to arouse the interest of the American public in this question, and thus pave the way for improved methods of instruction.
I like your idea of moral text-books for use in schools. If
145properly prepared, I believe they will serve an excellent purpose. The trouble now is with much of the moral teaching that it holds up the punishment for wrong-doing as a remote event, before the happening of which there will be abundant opportunity to reform, to be forgiven, etc., so that the child gets no proper comprehension of the instantaneous, degrading, and weakening effect upon its nature of doing a mean or a wrong act. The child gets an abstract or theoretic notion of right and wrong, and thinks it can go and do the wrong and yet be precisely the same person afterward that it was before, simply having taken the chance of, at some time, being punished. In other words, our youth, as a rule, are not made to understand that every time they tell a lie or steal or do any wrong act, their nature undergoes a change and they are no longer quite the same persons that they were before; or, on the other hand, that every time they do a noble act they expand and instantly become stronger and greater than they were before. Their idea of punishment is that it is an arbitrary decree of religion; they get no idea of the degrading and weakening effect of sin on both mind and body. We tell a child to avoid fire, and it obeys; not because it may be damned for disobedience, but because it knows that there will be instant suffering. Make the child once thoroughly understand that if it does any wrong act there will follow instant suffering, and it will heed where now it does not.
In many cases morals can be successfully taught from a purely religious standpoint, but in very many others this can only be done from a practical point of view, and the needs of these cases could be met by moral text-books such as you recommend.
Asking your pardon for thus obtruding my views on your attention, and hoping you will favor me with a copy of any article you may publish in the future, I am.
Very respectfully yours,
JOHN P. ALTGELD.
Chicago, Ill., September 30, 1887.