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JAMA 100 Years Ago
October 9, 2002


Author Affiliations

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2002;288(14):1788. doi:10.1001/jama.288.14.1788

Some of the newspapers in this country have picked up a press report of the recent utterances of a French physician that seek to establish a correlation between the increase of insanity and the spread of popular education. This is not a new idea; it has long been held that much of the increase of insanity is due to the increasing complexity in modern life and the educational demands are only the attempt to meet the changed conditions. It is not education that increases insanity; it is the condition that needs education as its antidote. The old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing is true enough, and a misused knowledge of reading devoted only to ephemeral and morbid publications, the dime novel and the yellow press does not conduce to the best mental health. This, however, hardly comes under the head of education, and it is a question whether the environments of modern civilization bear harder on the absolutely uneducated or the partially or imperfectly educated. There are a good many elements in the question to be considered, and judging from the effects of contact with civilization on savage or inferior races it would seem possible that even a very little tincture of modern culture would be, in its way, a safeguard. There is much truly said of the evil effects of overstrain in mental training, but that is an avoidable error and its results are not probably chargeable against education in general. There is little doubt that our modern civilization is hard on certain weaklings who would have been better off in some respects as regards their mental health if they had lived a hundred years ago, and to this fact is perhaps to be attributed considerable of the increase of insanity of the present day. It is a mistake, however, to credit any considerable part of this to education; it is an example of the fallacy of confounding the cure with the cause, which in one way or another we, as physicians, not infrequently meet. Education does not necessarily lead to happiness—it adds to our responsibilities and anxieties—and, as the preacher says, "with much wisdom there is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow"; but, after all, wisdom is the principal thing and the complete bliss of ignorance, were it desirable, is at the present time beyond the reach of even the poorest.