Recently I traveled five hundred miles to address an audience on methods of fitting health remedies to local health needs. I told of certain dangers to be avoided, of results that had always followed certain remedies, of motives to be sought and used, of community ends to seek. Not knowing the local situation, I could not tell them exactly what to do next, or how or with whom to do it; not seeing the patient or his symptoms, I did not diagnose the disease or prescribe medicine. Several members of the audience who were particularly anxious to start a new organization on a metropolitan model were disappointed because they were told, not just how to organize, but rather how to find out what sort of organization their town needed. They were right in believing that it was easier to copy on paper a plan tried somewhere else, than to think out a plan for themselves. They had forgotten for the time being their many previous disappointments due to copying without question some plan of social work, just as they copy Paris or New York fashions. They had not expected to leave this meeting with the conviction that while the ends of sanitary administration may be the same in ten communities, health machinery should fit a particular community like a tailor-made suit.
American-like, they had a mania for organization. I once heard an aged kindergartner—the savant of an isolated German village—describe my fellow-Americans as follows: "Every American belongs to some organization. The total abstainers are organized, the brewers are organized, the teachers are organized, the parents are organized, the young people and even the juniors are organized. Finally, those who belong to no organization go off by themselves and organize a society of the unorganized." Love of organization and love of copying have given us Americans a feverish desire for what we see or read about in Europe. When we talk about our European remedies we try to make ourselves believe that we are broad-minded and want to learn from others' experience. In a large number of cases our impatient demand for European remedies is similar to the schoolboy's desire to show off the manners, the slang, or the clothes picked up on his first visit away from home. With many travelers and readers European remedies or European ways are souvenirs of a pleasant visit, to be described like a collection of postal cards, a curious umbrella, a cane associated with Alpine climbing, or a stolen hymnal from an historic cathedral.
Experience proves, however, that just as Roman walls and Norman castles look out of place in New York and Kansas, so European laws and European remedies are too frequently misfits when tried by American schools, hospitals, or city governments. Yesterday a Canadian clergyman, after preaching an eloquent sermon, met a professional beggar on the street in New York City and emptied his purse—of Canadian money! Quite like this is the enthusiastic demand of the tourist who has seen or read about "the way it's done in Germany." The trouble is that European remedies are valued like ruins, by their power to interest, by their antiquity or picturesqueness, or, like the beggar, by their power to stimulate temporary emotion. But we do not sleep in ruins, go to church regularly in thirteenth-century abbeys, or live under the remedies that fire our imagination. We do not therefore see their everyday, practical-result side.
The souvenir value of European remedies is due to the assumption that no better way was open to the European, and that the remedy actually does what it is intended to do. Because free meals are given at school to cure and prevent undernourishment, it is taken for granted that undernourishment stops when free meals are introduced; therefore America must have free meals. Because it is made compulsory in a charming Italian village for every child to eat the free school meal, it is taken for granted that the children of that village have no physical defects; therefore let Kansas City, Seattle, and Boston introduce compulsory free meals. But when one goes to Europe to see exactly how those much-advertised, eulogized remedies operate from day to day, it is often necessary to write, as did a great American sanitarian recently, of health administration in foreign cities continually held up as models to American cities: "In spite of the rules and theories over here, the patient has better care in New York City."
We have been asked of late to copy several very attractive European remedies for the physiological ills of school children, and for the physical deficiencies of the next generation of adults: breakfasts or lunches, or both, at school for all children, rich as well as poor, whether they want school nourishment or not; school meals for the poor only; school meals to be given the poor, but to be bought by those who can afford the small sum required; free eyeglasses for the poor, for poor and well-to-do, for those who wish them, for those who need them whether they want to wear eyeglasses or not; free dental care; free surgical treatment; free rides and outings during summer and winter; country children to visit the metropolis, city children to visit country and village; free treatment in the country of all children whose parents are consumptives; free rides on street cars to and from school; city-owned street railways that will prevent congestion by making the country accessible; city-built tenements to prevent overcrowding, dark rooms, insufficient air and light; free coal, free clothes, free rent for those whose parents are unable to protect them properly against hunger and cold. Every one of these remedies is attractive. Every one is being tried somewhere, and can be justified on emotional, economic, and educational grounds, if we think only of its purpose. Let us view them with the eyes of their advocates.