This section is from the book "Principles Of Sociology With Educational Applications", by Frederick R. Clow. Also available from Amazon: Principles of sociology with educational applications.
How far are institutions matters of real choice, and not merely products of evolution? There are critical times when a single decision, or the policy of a single leader or administrator, or the vote at some popular election, seems to give a turn to human affairs that is never after effaced. Such occasions come frequently under our own observation in relatively small matters of business or school. The trouble with these, however, is that the remote consequences have not yet appeared. History shows such occasions with their remote consequences set forth in a long perspective. One of them was the choice of Alexander the Great for a romantic career of conquest in the East instead of building up a strong Graeco-Macedonian state which later could have kept the Romans out and preserved Greek institutions. Such was the choice of Otto I of Germany to interfere in Italy, thus condemning both Germany and Italy to nine centuries of disunion and weakness. Such was the wish of Georgia in 1787 to continue the importation of slaves.
But such occasions are exceptional. Ordinarily leaders and cabinets and legislatures are borne along on a resistless trend of events like a canoe shooting a rapid; their choice is effective, not in going against the tide, but in making land at this point rather than that as they are carried along. Statesmanship consists in discerning the trend of affairs, and then in adjusting our institutions to the trend. Some shortsighted leaders or a whim of popular impression may choose not to do this, and so wreck the institution, in which case its place will be taken by another that will meet the conditions; or instead of wrecking it they may only condemn it to years of inefficiency, just holding the ground against something better. The far-sighted policy is to keep an institution from becoming rigid, to keep it adjustable so that it can be fitted to changing conditions.
The difficulties which beset any attempt to change old conventions and institutions are sometimes described in language which attributes some magical power to "tradition" or "custom," or finds some perverse preference in human nature for whatever is old. Doubtless there are persons who prefer the old to the new, without reason, just as a matter of habit; but that habit first had to be drilled into them by experience. And there is a reason for it. Whatever is old must have some measure of success behind it; it is the fortunate survivor of countless variations. Moreover, it is part of a great system of things which is also old for the most part; to change the single feature is likely to put it out of harmony with the system into which it has been fitted by a long process of natural selection.
Take the current discussion of the school curriculum, for example. Latin and algebra hold their place, not so much because school authorities revere the old, as because these old studies satisfy the first requirement of the classroom teacher, namely, a carefully graded course of work, in which definite assignments can be made and the attainments of the pupils graded according to uniform standards. These requirements are especially insistent with the teacher who has many and large classes to handle. Take again the criticism of the normal schools that they tend away from the pedagogical aspects of the common branches and toward advanced work in language, mathematics, history and science. Now it is not necessary to ascribe this tendency to the wish of the teachers to ape the colleges, or to any other ignoble aim. It is simply due to the fact that the professional aspects of the common branches, like most of the courses in education everywhere, have not yet been standardized so as to conform to the above requirements of the classroom teacher, and perhaps never can be; the straight academic work goes better and the students like it better, because it has been put into shape to be taught.
. . . Astronomers invent every year more delicate methods of forecasting the movements of the stars, but cannot with all their skill divert one star an inch from its course. So we students of politics will find that our growing knowledge brings us only a growing sense of helplessness. . . .
... It was easy in the old days to rely on the belief that human life and conduct would become perfect if men only learnt to know themselves.
. . . We, however, who live after Darwin, have learnt the hard lesson that we must not expect knowledge, however full, to lead us to perfection. ... - Wallas, Human Nature in Politics, pp. 168, 178.
If the best informed and educated of men are likely to reach the conclusion that in the more complicated issues of societal evolution it is just as well, and probably inevitable, to "trust nature," it is because they are better aware than are those who wish to tinker and meddle, of all the complexities and difficulties attendant upon an attempt at rational selection. ... It is only the shallow and half-educated who do not hesitate to evolve "programs" when it comes to the more derived and less knowable and verifiable societal processes. The truly wise stand aghast before the tangled skein and hesitate to take hold of it; they see that the multiplicity of causes behind societal phenomena, and the consequent impossibility of foreseeing effects, are likely to vitiate any rational procedure possible to the human mind as yet evolved. ... - Keller, Societal Evoluion, pp. 137-139.
(See also the selection on pp. 361, 362 from School and Home Education.)