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"Mere Amateurs"
by [?]

“He was a mere amateur; but still, he did some good work in science.”

Increasingly of late years I have heard these condescending words uttered, in the fatherland of Bacon, of Newton, of Darwin, when some Bates or Spottiswoode has been gathered to his fathers. It was not so once. Time was when all English science was the work of amateurs–and very well indeed the amateurs did it. I don’t think anybody who does me the honour to cognise my humble individuality at all will ever be likely to mistake me for a laudator temporis acti. On the contrary, so far as I can see, the past seems generally to have been such a distinct failure all along the line that the one lesson we have to learn from it is, to go and do otherwise. I am one on that point with Shelley and Rousseau. But it does not follow, because most old things are bad, that all new things and rising things are necessarily and indisputably in their own nature excellent. Novelties, too, may be retrograde. And even our great-grandfathers occasionally blundered upon something good in which we should do well to imitate them. The amateurishness of old English science was one of these good things now in course of abolition by the fashionable process of Germanisation.

Don’t imagine it was only for France that 1870 was fatal. The sad successes of that deadly year sent a wave of triumphant Teutonism over the face of Europe.

I suppose it is natural to man to worship success; but ever since 1870 it is certainly the fact that if you wish to gain respect and consideration for any proposed change of system you must say, “They do it so in Germany.” In education and science this is especially the case. Pedants always admire pedants. And Germany having shown herself to be easily first of European States in her pedant-manufacturing machinery, all the assembled dominies of all the rest of the world exclaimed with one voice, “Go to! Let us Germanise our educational system!”

Now, the German is an excellent workman in his way. Patient, laborious, conscientious, he has all the highest qualities of the ideal brick-maker. He produces the best bricks, and you can generally depend upon him to turn out both honest and workmanlike articles. But he is not an architect. For the architectonic faculty in its highest developments you must come to England. And he is not a teacher or expounder. For the expository faculty in its purest form, the faculty that enables men to flash forth clearly and distinctly before the eyes of others the facts and principles they know and perceive themselves, you must go to France. Oh, dear, yes; we may well be proud of England. Remember, I have already disclaimed more than once in these papers the vulgar error of patriotism. But freedom from that narrow vice does not imply inability to recognise the good qualities of one’s own race as well as the bad ones. And the Englishman, left to himself and his own native methods, used to cut a very respectable figure indeed in the domain of science. No other nation has produced a Newton or a Darwin. The Englishman’s way was to get up an interest in a subject first; and then, working back from the part of it that specially appealed to his own tastes, to make himself master of the entire field of inquiry. This natural and thoroughly individualistic English method enabled him to arrive at new results in a way impossible to the pedantically educated German–nay, even to the lucidly and systematically educated Frenchman. It was the plan to develop “mere amateurs,” I admit; but it was also the plan to develop discoverers and revolutionisers of science. For the man most likely to advance knowledge is not the man who knows in an encyclopaedic rote-work fashion the whole circle of the sciences, but the man who takes a fresh interest for its own sake in some particular branch of inquiry.