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A Plea for Moderation

1875 — Teachers’ Institute


Some one has said, “It is better to wear out than to rust out.” It is a very captivating sentence. The author has simply given expression to what we have been believing and acting upon all our lives. And we make the sentiment an excuse for all kinds of abuse of our physical and mental powers. Self-murdered students quote it with their dying breath, and the doors of insane asylums close upon those who uttered it in their last sane moments. Yes, we believe, not only this, but we go a step farther, and hold it a sacred duty to wear out as soon as possible. There is a feeling of self commendation and saintliness in being rapidly oxydized.

The manner in which people are madly rushing on to this consummation makes one sympathize with Ruskin in hating railroads and telegraphs and every thing else classed under that specious name, Progress.

In view of the enormity of mental suicide, one is strongly inclined to believe that civilization is founded in error, and that children and savages are the only normal type of mankind. Even staid and sober England is aroused to the growing danger of the situation. One of her most able physicians writes thus:

“During the last thirty years there has been a very large increase in the mortality from diseases of the brain. In the year 1839 there were 1,495 deaths registered from this cause, and in 1869 there were 5,517. Thus, whilst the population in England has increased 30 per cent., the mortality due to brain disease has multiplied nearly four fold. In the same period the deaths from paralysis and apoplexy have considerably more than doubled, viz: from 10,000 annually to 22,000. The deaths from insanity have also nearly doubled. The causes for this portentous phenomenon are not mysterious nor far to seek; nor, when found, are they difficult to understand. The great development of railway and telegraphic communication has resulted in an enormous increase of business transactions, entailing a vast augmentation of the cares, worries and anxieties of life. The brain, receptive of all impressions, has a double load to bear in the economy. The struggle for life’ is ever increasingly severe, every throe of this struggle implies disintegration and waste of brain tissue; and whilst the chances of irregularity or disorder in the nutritive changes increase in a geometrical ratio, the increase of disease is a logical sequence.

“It is interesting to trace an illustration of these principles in the correspondence of sudden increases. in the rates of mortality with the social and commercial disorders of certain epochs. No one will find any difficulty in recalling the convulsions that agitated the commercial world in the years 1845-46. Bearing this in mind it does not surprise us to learn that immediately after this period, viz., in 1847, we find the registered deaths from ‘brain diseases’ to be more than doubled — from 1,495 to 3,012- whilst the mortality in paralysis and apoplexy is increased 50 per cent. The calm that succeeded was accompanied by a corresponding improvement in nervine health, for from this year until 1852 there was no increase in the mortality from this class of causes. Since 1853 there has been a gradual increase. For every million persons living in 1853 there died from ‘disease of brain,’ etc., 196, and in 1869 there died 254. It is again worthy of notice that in 1866-67, years of great agitation, the average of deaths from this cause, 267 per million, was higher than in any year before or since.”

If England has cause for alarm, America has ten fold greater cause. If English brain has suffered from panics, social, political and commercial, it is quite miraculous that American brain is not entirely disintegrated. We have not been able to obtain full statistics of the nervous diseases in this country during the period mentioned, but that they have enormously increased is sufficiently patent without the proof of figures. It is not without foundation that we have earned the reputation of being a fast people; pulpit and press, at home and abroad, have again and again prophesied that we are going all to pieces; but, John Gilpin like, we gallop on — cannot stop if we would. Within a space of fifteen years one of the greatest wars in history is fought, a disintegrated union restored, and deep financial gulfs safely bridged, to say nothing of the opening and development of the great Northwest, and the spanning of the continent with iron and steam. Black Fridays blacken forever thousands of homes, a Credit Mobilier engulfs men who are the pride of the nation, a noble, stalwart Greely falls the victim of overwork and political intrigue, and we scarcely stop to even ask why. Who can ever estimate the nerve power that burned up with Chicago and Boston?

In the hospitals, and in private practice, the physicians of Chicago are called upon daily to prescribe for those who, to use their own language, “have never been well since the fire,” and, as might be expected, the disorders are of a nervous character-a case in point proving the effect of sudden calamity upon the human system. The more complicated the organization the greater are the chances for irregularity in its action; especially must this be true of those organs which are the centre of all action, as the brain and spinal cord. Where all functions are performed by one set of organs the danger of irregularity is at its minimum. It is impossible to destroy a polyp by destroying any part of it; as long as there is life in a piece of it the functions of the animal go on; but when we reach the complex structure of man, where there is a separate organ for each function, the danger of irregularity is at its maximum, and the nerve force, which regulates and controls this vast and complicated machinery, is the first to suffer.

The development of intellect is becoming the disintegrator of intellect. Each new discovery, each new invention, is an added care, a new source of disease. The intensity of life force is increasing, while the amount of life force is decreasing. The causes, as has been intimated, are partly natural, largely educational. Our climatic influences are favorable to just such a development as we find. We are just far enough removed from freezing and boiling to escape the depressing influences which follow an excess of either, while we have sufficient of both to make up the variety which is necessary to sharpen vitality. We use a great amount of strong, stimulating food. We are largely a meat-eating people; hence, our restless activity and deeds of violence. It is the glaring eye and ceaseless pacing to and fro of the caged lion humanized. Cause and effect have so reacted upon each other that now we say with truth our nature demands stimulants. And so the people of the United States are unrivalled in their consumption of tea, coffee, tobacco and alcohol, while the trade in opium is growing larger every year. The fever heat of business, politics and religion, is almost the mechanical equivalent of highly oxygenized air and highly stimulating food. That people wear out faster in this country than elsewhere, is not due to climate wholly, nor to the excessive amount of work performed. The work we do is not half so exhausting as the worry about what we can not do, and the positions we can not attain. A restless anxiety is characteristic of American physiognomy, from the child at school to the man at his desk. Even at places of amusement, the depressor muscles have the advantage of the levators. Whenever your mirror shows you an anxious countenance, take warning. It is the face of an enemy inhabiting your body, and will soon have full possession ­— an enemy far more to be dreaded than pestilence or famine, because so subtle and impalpable.

Again, there is just enough of the cosmopolitan element in our blood to give fire to that blood. An exclusive nation, like an exclusive family, necessarily becomes dormant and sluggish. We are somewhat in danger from the other extreme; but just now the mixture seems to combine the highly vitalized elements of all its ingredients, so that the boy in whose veins flows the blood of England, France and Germany, though sweeping the crossings to-day, expects to control finance or government to-morrow; and his expectation is not too great.

The largeness of our territory has its influence. Where such vast areas are to be improved the irresistible tendency is to hurry. Towns spring up like mushrooms, and the people are as mushroomy as the towns — the reaction of their work upon their characters. Contrast the hurly-burly western farmer who runs a half dozen farms, with the slow, careful Scotch or German gardener, who cultivates a patch to its utmost, never allowing even a dried leaf or old bone to go to waste. Just here there is strong contrast between our own East and West. Here the land and the pork and the corn are so abundant, we have cultivated a sort of plenty-more-where-this-came-from air. Frugality and economy are almost unknown. We are nearly wanting in that strong, staid middle class who have laid up a competency by saving the pennies. Again, our form of government fosters excessive ambition. Where position and occupation are determined by the circumstances of birth, there is less incentive to find a higher position or occupation. The mind is more or less resigned to what is understood to be inevitable; hence, greater contentment. But where our possibilities lie within our own power the mind strains itself to the utmost to reach its own ideal. Though here, as elsewhere, the two ruling ambitions are money and politics. In this country a man is allowed ten years in which to make a fortune. If he does not succeed in that time he is advised to go to stealing; and he generally goes, while the scores of would-be presidents convert their disappointment into softening of the brain and paralysis. Our young men have no encouragement to be honest, because criminals occupy the chief places, and no questions are asked as long as their money lasts. There is no country on the globe that offers such inducements as America offers for the gratification of unbounded ambition. There is scarcely a height we do not attempt to climb. The superabundance of our activity makes us dare to grapple with forces beyond our power. It was unpalatable, but yet we had to acknowledge the point to a quiet bit of satire in the Saturday Review, directed against the presumption of Americans; how the staid solons of the English nation were surprised by the sudden lighting down in their midst of a young American woman, to instruct them in social and political economy. No doubt the woman was capable of teaching them many things, but who but an American would have thus ventured?

Among the other educational causes of our excessive life, the press stands deeply criminated on account both of the super-abundance and super-frothiness of its matter. The average citizen disposes of two or three dailies; our monthly literature is of gigantic proportions, and still growing, and of making of books there is “literally no end;” and the paper, magazine or book that does not savor highly of sensation finds few readers. After having aroused this abnormal taste for the sensational, the press systematically proceeds to feed it. There is not possibly time to digest this enormous amount of reading, consequently it is skimmed over, and begets in the skimmer a sort of quick-wittedness, not thoughtfulness. Before there is time to follow one suggestion to its logical conclusion another has taken its place; hence we have keen perception but deficient reason. The processes of reasoning are slow. The too rapid succession of events is incompatible with the highest development of the ideational or reflective. The country boy who reads but one newspaper a week or month thinks on what he reads. While he ploughs he ponders it and draws his own strong common-sense conclusions. The result is, the second or third generation of city-bred boys take the places of clerks and secretaries, while the country boys become the leaders in business and the professions. The premature ripeness of the city must be reinforced by green country brain. We are not prepared to say, with Disraeli’s hero, the invention of printing is the greatest misfortune that ever befell mankind, nor could we like Gov. Wise, of Virginia, be thankful that no newspaper was printed within forty miles of us; but while we count the blessings we also recognize the glaring abuses of this mighty tongue of civilization.

Again, our public school system, or rather our high-pressure system, is one of the initial forces in this universal rush, while our seminaries are a sort of mixture of Blimber and Squeers. Every teacher in the land, holding tight rein on every boy and girl, applies the whip, in the shape of black or credit marks, and cries “faster.” The teacher who can get his pupils on the fastest is the best teacher; so he who would be inclined to linger in academic shades, as of yore, dare not yield to the inclination, lest he lose his living. Parents co-operate with teachers; so, between the two, the child is transformed into a little hungry, worrying animal, that can neither eat nor sleep, lest he fail to be “punctual,” “perfect,” or “promoted.” The word “tardy,” like a horrid nightmare, haunts the dreams of modern childhood. The great object of the student is to get through. The young men are feverish to get into business for themselves, and the young women are feverish lest they become old maids, or strong-minded, the two terrors of modern girlhood.

The teachers are even more worn out and nervous than the scholars. As a class they are self-made, which means overworked brain and undeveloped muscle. Theoretically school-teaching is a healthful occupation, for the constant association with healthy youth is advantageous; but practically we fail to find a healthy school-teacher. “Burnt out” best describes their condition, owing mainly to in-door life, vitiated air, want of physical exercise, and the daily expenditure of all the nerve power their systems can generate. Blessings on the brain that shall invent a perfect system of ventilation for school-houses, churches and halls.

Having thus far analyzed this epidemic of the age, it is the part of the good physician to suggest the remedy, and “there’s the rub.” When the son of the King of Holland fell a victim to croup, his uncle, Napoleon I., proclaimed a concours, for the purpose of finding some remedy by which the mortality of the disease might be ameliorated. Eighty-three dissertations on croup were sent in, full of symptomatology and pathological anatomy, but remedy there was none. In this, the most important regard, Napoleon’s concours was a failure, and we find ourselves in much the same position as the physicians that made the failure. There is a stereotyped answer to all these questions — “remove the cause;” but when the cause has become a part of the patient’s existence, it is not easily removed. There is reason in the argument that our hurry is a necessity; that it is the only thing that keeps us from flying to pieces — the safety valve of our life. Certainly after the pressure of steam has been multiplied and remultiplied, the engine must fly; the great force must be rapidly converted into motion, or the very molecules of the machine will be forced into space. Manifestly the remedy does not lie in stopping the machine. But perhaps away back there, before the engine started, some father, or mother, or school-teacher, need not have remultiplied the pressure. Thus we find ourselves full of intense life, and the causes are continually acting to increase that intensity. It is physically and morally impossible for us to walk when every fibre of our being is ready to run. Could the usefulness of life be increased, and its purpose better consummated by this abnormal increase of vitality, it would be a question whether it would not be better to live fewer years and do better work. But the truth is, the friction of the machinery destroys the machine long before the work is done. Intensive life is incompatible with extensive life, and it is necessary to have the extensive life, because time is an essential element of all true development. We may force the fruit to ripen, but what is gained in time is lost in perfection. He who has forced his intellect to mature at the age of thirty cannot hope for the results that sixty years might bring.

It is a law of all life that rapid growth predetermines rapid decay. The converse is likewise true-slow growth, long life. Witness the soft maple and the oak. The master does not build his ship out of precocious timber, like the maple. So far from doing more and better work, in our great hurry, statistics show we do less and poorer work. Even the clothes we wear and the food we eat bear the unmistakable marks of haste; then the clothes are put on hastily, and the food is eaten hastily, thereby coming wide of the use for which clothes and food are intended. Our characters are reflected in our calicoes and muslins and dwelling houses; the rule is you can see through them all, they are so thin. We haven’t time to make them strong and substantial.

Our people in traveling abroad are surprised at the number of aged men who are engaged in active life, especially as statesmen. To-day the great men of England, France and Germany are old men; and yet English physicians are warning their countrymen. While our octogenarians are devoting themselves to pipe and slippers, or whiling away a second childhood, those of other nations are leaders in finance and government-men who through long and patient years have learned how to think, how to deliberate. Who of us act with deliberation? Where is there any deliberation in our senate or our legislatures? If a bill is not passed immediately we have learned it is a trick of its enemies to secure its defeat. You can count our thinkers in legislation upon your fingers. Even in those emergencies of life which demand the utmost haste, the mind that has been slowly and carefully disciplined is the mind for the emergency, so that for both rare and common uses the timber of slow growth is superior.

If it is dangerous to stop after having once started, it is equally dangerous Lever to start at all — for use is life.

It is the sacred law of all living matter, that all parts not in active exercise shall take on a lower form of life; thus come the degenerations of inactive tissue, and thus come the degenerations of inactive mind. The results of inactivity are even more deplorable than those of over work, for to death is added disgrace. To let one’s brain and muscle die for want of use is ignoble in the extreme. To overwork is fatal; but there is a kind of compensation in the honor of having done too much, which never comes to those who have not done enough. We say this for the benefit of those natural born lotus-eaters who might be inclined to take advantage of our plea against overwork.

The remedy we would suggest is the “golden mean” of Horace, that which Hume calls the best thing on earth. Moderation is the medicine for this modern mania, and to insure its success must be bred in the very bone of human beings. The trouble with us all is, just as we have by hard experience learned how to live, life is done; then we are ready to moderate, when the fire is all out, and nothing but ashes on the hearth. Americans need to learn three things: how to laugh, how to rest, and how to sleep. Art can do much to atone for the faults of climate. Though we can not breathe the joy-laden air of France or Italy, we can attain to considerable perfection in laughing, by persistent cultivation of the faculty. It is possessed by all men, and is a characteristic distinction between man and brute. We believe it a religious duty for people who are inclined to overwork, and somewhat disposed to look on the dark side of life, to go where they will be made to laugh in spite of the “blues.” It was our fortune once to sit near an old gentleman at one of Boucicault’s comedies. We went in the interests of hygiene, and were amply rewarded. The old man laughed so loud that the whole audience turned from the comedian to him. Opera glasses were leveled at him from every direction; but he laughed the louder, and being somewhat asthmatic, the effect was the most ludicrous possible upon those who sat near. At the close of the performance he straightened himself up and exclaimed aloud, “Well, this is good for the bile!” Being interested in all remedies for bile, we set it down as a never to be forgotten principle in our therapeutics. Other things being equal, we believe every good laugh adds at least an hour to one’s life.

How to rest is not easily learned. If we were to speak from experience, we would say no natural born American knows how, or can ever learn how, to rest. Rest does not mean idleness; often the most idle are the most restless. We think for Americans it means to stop worrying. It seems as if Martha must have been the mother of us all, so prone are we to be cumbered by many cares. We ought to welcome as angels of mercy all agencies that can help us drive dull care away. The means to which we resort to do this will depend entirely upon our culture. What would be rest and enjoyment to one mind would be torture and disgust to one more cultivated. That principle of philosophy by which water seeks its level is true of the human mind, in all its varied functions, though fortunately, unlike water, mind may elevate the level of its own standard. To know how to rest is a fortune in itself. It is the cares, worries and anxieties, not the work of life, that are the fruitful source of the increase of disease.

Sleep is a wonderful power in the economy of nature. Shakespeare, with his unrivalled gift of divining nature’s secrets, has told us what science and experience prove:

Sleep, that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath;
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Shakespeare knew. When your anxious countenance is accompanied by sleeplessness, take double warning.

To those who have the interests of education in their hands, we must look for the beginning of this new regime of life. The high-pressure system must be abandoned. It makes mediocrity attempt impossibilities, and goads genius on to the next step — madness. It is unquestionable that our school-days, whether spent in school or street, give bias to the whole life; the hurry begun then and there ends in nervous disorder, premature age and death. The nervous strain under which the school children of this generation are working is perfectly fearful, and teachers are to blame. I speak from experience of a profession to which I claim the honor of belonging, (though possibly I teach more of rheumatism than of rhetoric,) than which there is no calling more honorable; but I am now dealing with the pathological, not the physiological, with the morbid, not the normal, condition of things. It would be a far pleasanter task to direct your attention to the many rare virtues of the profession; but the dangers of our educational system demand our attention. I know of a class in a high school that within the last three years have become almost hopeless invalids in consequence of the intense pressure under which they have been laboring. Usually, the girls are the first to suffer, because they have less outdoor exercise than boys. In spite of the promotions and the graduations, the boys will have their play, and it proves their salvation. Teachers must learn how to conserve the forces of life. Instead of sending themselves and their pupils home every night with every atom of vitality exhausted, they should always possess more or less reserved power, and teach their pupils how to acquire and hold the same. The broken sleep of one night is not able to make good the loss of the day, and soon the brain declares itself bankrupt. The teacher of the future must understand the mechanics of life and thought. Metaphysics have long been diligently investigated, but one might as well attempt to build a cathedral by commencing at the spire as to attempt perfect mental structures by commencing with metaphysics. The amount of work a mind can do depends directly upon the kind and amount of brain matter through which that mind works. There is no reason, except ignorance, why one’s mental income can not be as accurately measured as one’s business income. Every one is conscious when he has overdrawn his bank account; so might every one be conscious when he has overdrawn his brain account. It takes moral courage to stop just this side the fatal step. Large self-control is needful not to touch a dollar of the principal when the interest is all used up; and nothing but the staunchest self-control, based upon moral integrity, can withstand the fever of excitement which is goading us on, and robbing this age of its grandest results. Moral truth and law are ever found indispensable to the physical support and prolongation of human life; herein is a wide departure of man from the brute; and the foundations for these are seldom laid after we are fairly out in the world, and have begun the struggle for life.

Let no student be in haste to get through. Too many get through into the grave, or what is worse. Better add a year to the course than take one from it. It does not add in the least to one’s intellectual stature to look worn-out and spiritual like, and it’s no compliment to the spirits. Saints who have bodies are the very best kind of saints. Let none be betrayed by the poetry of “midnight oil.” That ancient lamp will do for an emblem or a frontispiece, but not for life.

Our purpose is accomplished if any are persuaded to find the golden mean which lies between wearing out and rusting out.



Source: The Physiology of Woman, Embracing Girlhood, Maternity and Mature Age, by Sarah Hackett Stevenson (Chicago: Fairbanks, Palmer & Co., 1883), pp. 213-230.