The fact that the students of to-day have such a wealth of apparatus at their hands, printed instructions supplied them, text-books galore, has made them globe-trotters in the region of science. They lack the self-reliance, the initiative to devise expedients for accomplishing ends which the emigrant pioneers in science fifty years ago had to employ. Indeed, it is becoming a question whether using a dictionary to translate a Latin or Greek play is not a better training for the inquiring faculty than working in a modern physical laboratory, since at any rate the translator has to use some thought.
Thomson openly expressed his contempt for a university that spent its time merely in holding examinations, as did the Burlington House University of London at that time. One day I was in his lecture room puzzling over an examination paper that he had set, when he advised me to take the paper home to my lodgings, as I should be much more comfortable there. Such a permission was an upheaval of all my ideas about scholarship examinations; so, boy like, I asked him how he would know that I should not look at books. But he only replied, "When you bring me your answers to-morrow I shall know what you have got out of books." I expect he sent me to my lodgings partly to impress on me the important lesson that all the books that exist will not solve a new problem.
The incident left a deep, lasting impression on me, partly because at the public announcement of the examination results he referred to his method, and jokingly ended with the remark: "This course was on hydrodynamics, and when we got into deep water there was only one student who was still in his depth." What a young engineer can do, using all existing knowledge, is, of course, what an examiner should try to test, not what the examinee can remember and reproduce.
He had great belief that one of the main uses of a university was to form character. He, Rankine, Tait and some other professors had a long discussion in his house one evening after dinner. Would he have been justified in asking that the student who had that day thrown a paper dart at the blackboard when he himself was writing on it should declare himself. Thomson thought no! As a matter of fact the student owned up. He was asked to absent himself from the class, but, on the other students pointing out that he would lose his degree by not attending, Thomson readmitted him.
Thomson always began his nine-o'clock lecture by devoutly repeating the General Confession from the Church of England Morning Service. I do not know whether the other Glasgow professors did. There was never the slightest interruption; the Scotch student is naturally reverent, besides, the prayer was said by Thomson with such fervor and impressiveness that the most stanch freethinker, the most frisky dart-thrower, could not but respect the convictions of the teacher