Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Choice Mencken

Selections from A Mencken Chrestomathy
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. 1949.

XIV. American Immortals: Mr. Justice Holmes

I find it hard to reconcile [Holmes's opinions] with any plausible concept of Liberalism. They may be good law, but it is impossible to see how they can conceivably promote liberty. My suspicion is that the hopeful Liberals of the 20s, frantically eager to find at least one judge who was not violently and implacably against them, seized upon certain of Mr. Justice Holmes's opinions without examining the rest, and read into them an attitude that was actually as foreign to his ways of thinking as it was to those of Mr. Chief Justice Hughes. Finding him, now and then, defending eloquently a new and uplifting law which his colleagues proposed to strike off the books, the concluded that he was a sworn advocate of the rights of man. But all the while, if I do not misread his plain words, he was actually no more than an advocate of the rights of law-makers. There, indeed, is the clue to his whole jurisprudence. He believed that the law-making bodies should be free to experiment almost ad libitum, that the courts should not call a halt upon them until they clearly passed the uttermost bounds of reason, that everything should be sacrificed to their autonomy, including, apparently, even the Bill of Rights. If this is Liberalism, then all I can say is that Liberalism is not what I thought it was when I was young. . . To call him a Liberal is to make the word meaningless.

Let us, for a moment, stop thinking of him as one, and let us also stop thinking of him as a littératur, a reformer, a sociologist, a prophet, an evangelist, a metaphysician; instead, let us think of him as something that he undoubtedly was in his Pleistocene youth and probably remained ever after, to wit, a soldier. Let us think of him, further, as a soldier extraordinarily ruminative and articulate – in fact, so ruminative and articulate as to be, in the military caste, almost miraculous. And let us think of him still further as a soldier whose natural distaste and contempt for civilians, and corollary yearning to heave them all into Hell, was cooled and eased by a stream of blood that once flowed through the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table – in brief, as a soldier beset by occasional doubts, hesitations, flashes of humor, bursts of affability, moments of sneaking pity.

XVI. Economics: Capitalism

All the quacks and cony-catchers no crowding the public trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalistic system is on its last legs, an will presently give place to something more "scientific." There is, of course, no truth in this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the current wizards would be any better. The most that may be said is that the capitalistic system is undergoing changes, some of them painful. But those changes will probably strengthen it quite as often as they weaken it.

We owe to it almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale, and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all. it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.

XVII. Pedagogy: The Educational Process

That ability to impart knowledge, it seems to me, has very little to do with technical method. It may operate at full function without any technical method at all, and contrariwise, the most elaborate of technical methods cannot make it operate when it is not actually present. And what does it consist of? It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children, for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a kind of passion. A man who knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats it, sleeps it and dreams it – this man can almost always teach it with success, no matter how little he knows of technical pedagogy. That is because there is enthusiasm in him, and because enthusiasm is as contagious as fear or the barber's itch. An enthusiast is willing to go to any trouble to impart the glad news bubbling within. He thinks that it is important and valuable for to know; given the slightest glow of interest in a pupil to start with, he will fan that glow to a flame. No hollow hocus-pocus cripples him and slows him down. He drags his best pupils along as fast as they can go, and he is so full of the thing that he never tires of expounding its elements to the dullest.


  1. Perfect ... oh that state school teachers from the US to Australia (where I live) could be replaced by such people, unfettered by teacher's colleges degrees.

  2. Indeed, to be free of the pedagogical torture from the Gradgrinds of the teacher's colleges with their nutty theories!