Social Panaceasby@hgwells
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Social Panaceas

by H.G. WellsNovember 22nd, 2022
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An Englishman looks at the world by H. G. Wells, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series.
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An Englishman looks at the world by H. G. Wells, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.


(June, 1912.)

To have followed the frequent discussions of the Labour Unrest in the Press is to have learnt quite a lot about the methods of popular thought. And among other things I see now much better than I did why patent medicines are so popular. It is clear that as a community we are far too impatient of detail and complexity, we want overmuch to simplify, we clamour for panaceas, we are a collective invitation to quacks.

Our situation is an intricate one, it does not admit of a solution neatly done up in a word or a phrase. Yet so powerful is this wish to simplify that it is difficult to make it clear that one is not oneself a panacea-monger. One writes and people read a little inattentively and more than a little impatiently, until one makes a positive proposal Then they jump. "So that's your Remedy!" they say. "How absurdly inadequate!" I was privileged to take part in one such discussion in 1912, and among other things in my diagnosis of the situation I pointed out the extreme mischief done to our public life by the futility of our electoral methods. They make our whole public life forensic and ineffectual, and I pointed out that this evil effect, which vitiates our whole national life, could be largely remedied by an infinitely better voting system known as Proportional Representation. Thereupon the Westminster Gazette declared in tones of pity and contempt that it was no Remedy—and dismissed me. It would be as intelligent to charge a doctor who pushed back the crowd about a broken-legged man in the street with wanting to heal the limb by giving the sufferer air.

The task before our community, the task of reorganising labour on a basis broader than that of employment for daily or weekly wages, is one of huge complexity, and it is as entirely reasonable as it is entirely preliminary to clean and modernise to the utmost our representative and legislative machinery.

It is remarkable how dominant is this disposition to get a phrase, a word, a simple recipe, for an undertaking so vast in reality that for all the rest of our lives a large part of the activities of us, forty million people, will be devoted to its partial accomplishment. In the presence of very great issues people become impatient and irritated, as they would not allow themselves to be irritated by far more limited problems. Nobody in his senses expects a panacea for the comparatively simple and trivial business of playing chess. Nobody wants to be told to "rely wholly upon your pawns," or "never, never move your rook"; nobody clamours "give me a third knight and all will be well"; but that is exactly what everybody seems to be doing in our present discussion And as another aspect of the same impatience, I note the disposition to clamour against all sorts of necessary processes in the development of a civilisation. For example, I read over and over again of the failure of representative government, and in nine cases out of ten I find that this amounts to a cry against any sort of representative government. It is perfectly true that our representative institutions do not work well and need a vigorous overhauling, but while I find scarcely any support for such a revision, the air is full of vague dangerous demands for aristocracy, for oligarchy, for autocracy. It is like a man who jumps out of his automobile because he has burst a tyre, refuses a proffered Stepney, and bawls passionately for anything—for a four-wheeler, or a donkey, as long as he can be free from that exploded mechanism. There are evidently quite a considerable number of people in this country who would welcome a tyrant at the present time, a strong, silent, cruel, imprisoning, executing, melodramatic sort of person, who would somehow manage everything while they went on—being silly. I find that form of impatience cropping up everywhere. I hear echoes of Mr. Blatchford's "Wanted, a Man," and we may yet see a General Boulanger prancing in our streets. There never was a more foolish cry. It is not a man we want, but just exactly as many million men as there are in Great Britain at the present time, and it is you, the reader, and I, and the rest of us who must together go on with the perennial task of saving the country by firstly, doing our own jobs just as well as ever we can, and secondly—and this is really just as important as firstly—doing our utmost to grasp our national purpose, doing our utmost, that is, to develop and carry out our National Plan. It is Everyman who must be the saviour of the State in a modern community; we cannot shift our share in the burthen; and here again, I think, is something that may well be underlined and emphasised. At present our "secondly" is unduly subordinated to our "firstly"; our game is better individually than collectively; we are like a football team that passes badly, and our need is not nearly so much to change the players as to broaden their style. And this brings me, in a spirit entirely antagonistic, up against Mr. Galsworthy's suggestion of an autocratic revolution in the methods of our public schools.

But before I go on to that, let me first notice a still more comprehensive cry that has been heard again and again in this discussion, and that is the alleged failure of education generally. There is never any remedial suggestion made with this particular outcry; it is merely a gust of abuse and insult for schools, and more particularly board schools, carrying with it a half-hearted implication that they should be closed, and then the contribution concludes. Now there is no outcry at the present time more unjust or—except for the "Wanted, a Man" clamour—more foolish. No doubt our educational resources, like most other things, fall far short of perfection, but of all this imperfection the elementary schools are least imperfect; and I would almost go so far as to say that, considering the badness of their material, the huge, clumsy classes they have to deal with, the poorness of their directive administration, their bad pay and uncertain outlook, the elementary teachers of this country are amazingly efficient. And it is not simply that they are good under their existing conditions, but that this service has been made out of nothing whatever in the course of scarcely forty years. An educational system to cover an Empire is not a thing that can be got for the asking, it is not even to be got for the paying; it has to be grown; and in the beginning it is bound to be thin, ragged, forced, crammy, text-bookish, superficial, and all the rest of it. As reasonable to complain that the children born last year were immature. A little army of teachers does not flash into being at the passing of an Education Act. Not even an organisation for training those teachers comes to anything like satisfactory working order for many years, without considering the delays and obstructions that have been caused by the bickerings and bitterness of the various Christian Churches. So that it is not the failure of elementary education we have really to consider, but the continuance and extension of its already almost miraculous results.

And when it comes to the education of the ruling and directing classes, there is kindred, if lesser reason, for tempering zeal with patience. This upper portion of our educational organisation needs urgently to be bettered, but it is not to be bettered by trying to find an archangel who will better it dictatorially. For the good of our souls there are no such beings to relieve us of our collective responsibility. It is clear that appointments in this field need not only far more care and far more insistence upon creative power than has been shown in the past, but for the rest we have to do with the men we have and the schools we have. We cannot have an educational purge, if only because we have not the new men waiting. Here again the need is not impatience, not revolution, but a sustained and penetrating criticism, a steadfast, continuous urgency towards effort and well-planned reconstruction and efficiency.

And as a last example of the present hysterical disposition to scrap things before they have been fairly tried is the outcry against examinations, which has done so much to take the keenness off the edge of school work in the last few years. Because a great number of examiners chosen haphazard turned out to be negligent and incompetent as examiners, because their incapacity created a cynical trade in cramming, a great number of people have come to the conclusion, just as examinations are being improved into efficiency, that all examinations are bad. In particular that excellent method of bringing new blood and new energy into the public services and breaking up official gangs and cliques, the competitive examination system, has been discredited, and the wire-puller and the influential person are back again tampering with a steadily increasing proportion of appointments....

But I have written enough of this impatience, which is, as it were, merely the passion for reconstruction losing its head and defeating its own ends. There is no hope for us outside ourselves. No violent changes, no Napoleonic saviours can carry on the task of building the Great State, the civilised State that rises out of our disorders That is for us to do, all of us and each one of us. We have to think clearly, and study and consider and reconsider our ideas about public things to the very utmost of our possibilities. We have to clarify our views and express them and do all we can to stir up thinking and effort in those about us.

I know it would be more agreeable for all of us if we could have some small pill-like remedy for all the troubles of the State, and take it and go on just as we are going now. But, indeed, to say a word for that idea would be a treason. We are the State, and there is no other way to make it better than to give it the service of our lives. Just in the measure of the aggregate of our devotions and the elaborated and criticised sanity of our public proceedings will the world mend.

I gather from a valuable publication called "Secret Remedies," which analyses many popular cures, that this hasty passion for simplicity, for just one thing that will settle the whole trouble, can carry people to a level beyond an undivided trust in something warranted in a bottle. They are ready to put their faith in what amounts to practically nothing in a bottle. And just at present, while a number of excellent people of the middle class think that only a "man" is wanted and all will be well with us, there is a considerable wave of hopefulness among the working class in favour of a weak solution of nothing, which is offered under the attractive label of Syndicalism. So far I have been able to discuss the present labour situation without any use of this empty word, but when one finds it cropping up in every other article on the subject, it becomes advisable to point out what Syndicalism is not. And incidentally it may enable me to make clear what Socialism in the broader sense, constructive Socialism, that is to say, is.

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This book is part of the public domain. H. G. Wells (2004). An Englishman Looks at the World. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022, from

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