Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/March 1877/Education as a Science II




MARCH, 1877.





The Retentive Faculty.

THIS is the faculty that most of all concerns us in the work of education. On it rests the possibility of mental growths or capabilities not given by Nature.

Every impression made upon us, if sufficient to awaken consciousness at the time, has a certain permanence; it can persist after the original ceases to work; and it can be restored afterward as an idea or remembered impression. The bursting out of a flame arouses our attention, gives a strong visible impression, and becomes an idea or deposit of memory. It is thought of afterward without being actually seen.

It is not often that one single occurrence leaves a permanent and recoverable idea; usually, we need several repetitions for the purpose. The process of fixing the impression occupies a certain length of time; either we must prolong the first shock, or renew it on several successive occasions. This is the first law of memory, Retention or Acquisition: "Practice makes perfect;" "exercise is the means of strengthening a faculty," etc. The good old rule of the schoolmaster is simply to make the pupil repeat, rehearse, or persist at a lesson until it is learned.

All improvement in the art of teaching consists in having regard to the various circumstances that facilitate acquirement, or lessen the number of repetitions for a given effect. Much is possible in the way of economizing the plastic power of the human system; and when we have pushed this economy to the utmost, we have made perfect the Art of Education in one leading department. It is thus necessary that the consideration of all the known conditions that favor or impede the plastic growth of the system should be searching and minute.

Although some philosophers have taught that all minds are nearly equal in regard to facility of acquirement, a schoolmaster that would say so must be of the very rudest type. The inequality of different minds in imbibing lessons, under the very same circumstances, is a glaring fact; and is one of the obstacles encountered in teaching numbers together, that is, classes. It is a difficulty that needs a great deal of practical tact or management, and is not met by any educational theory.

The different kinds of acquirements vary in minor circumstances which are important to be noticed after exhausting the general or pervading conditions. The greatest contrast is between what belongs to intelligence, and what belongs to the feelings and the will. The more strictly intellectual department comprises Mechanical Art, Language, the Sensible World, the Sciences, Fine Art; and to each-of these heads may attach specialties not hard to assign.

General Circumstances favoring Retentiveness.—1. The physical condition. This has been already touched upon, both in the review of physiology, and in the remarks on discrimination. It includes general health, vigor and freshness at the moment, together with the further indispensable proviso that the nutrition, instead of being drafted off to strengthen the mere physical functions, is allowed to run in good measure to the brain.

In the view of mental efficiency, the muscular system, the digestive system, and the various organic interests, are to be exercised up to the point that conduces to the maximum of general vigor in the system, and no farther. They may be carried further in the interest of sensual enjoyment, but that is not now before us. Hence a man must exercise his muscles, must feed himself liberally and give time to digestion to do its work, must rest adequately—all for the greatest energy of the mind, and for the trying work of education in particular. Nor is it so very difficult, in the present state of physiological and medical knowledge, to assign the reasonable proportions in all these matters, for a given case.

Everything tends to show that, in the mere physical point of view, the making of impressions on the brain, although never remitted during all our waking moments, is exceedingly unequal at different times. We must be well aware that there are moments when we are incapable of receiving any lasting impressions, and there are moments when we are unusually susceptible. The difference is not one wholly resolvable into mere mental energy on the whole; we may have a considerable reserve of force for other mental acts, as the performance of routine offices, and not much for retaining new impressions; we are capable of reading, talking, writing, and for taking an interest in the exercises; we may indulge emotions, and carry out pursuits, and yet not be in a state for storing the memory, or amassing knowledge. Even the incidents that we take part in sometimes fail to be remembered beyond a very short time.

What, then, is there so very remarkable and unique in the physical support of the plastic property of the brain? What are the moments when it is at the plenitude of its efficiency? What are the things that especially nourish and conserve it?

Although there is still wanting a careful study of this whole subject, the patent facts appear to justify us in asserting that the plastic or retentive function is the very highest energy of the brain, the consummation of nervous activity. To drive home a new experience, to make an impression self-sustaining and recoverable, uses up (we are to suppose) more brain-force than any other kind of mental exercise. The moments of susceptibility to the storing up of knowledge, the engraving of habits and acquisitions, are thus the moments of the maximum of unexpended force. The circumstances need to be such as to prepare the way for the highest manifestation of cerebral energy; including the perfect freshness of the system, and the absence of everything that would speedily impair it.

To illustrate this position, I may refer to the kind of mental work that appears to be second in its demand on the energy of the brain. The exercise of mental constructiveness—the solving of new problems, the applying of rules to new cases, the intellectual labor of the more arduous professions, as the law, where a certain amount of novelty attends every case that occurs—demands no little mental strain, and is easy according to the brain-vigor of the moment. Still, these are exercises that can be performed with lower degrees of power; we are capable of such professional work in moments when our memory would not take in new and lasting impressions. In old age, when we cease to be educable in any fresh endowment, we can still perform these constructive exercises; we can grapple with new questions, invent new arguments and illustrations, decide what should be done in original emergencies.

The constructive energy has all degrees, from the highest flights of invention and imagination down to the point where construction shades off into literal repetition of what has formerly been done. The preacher in composing a fresh discourse puts forth more or less of constructiveness; in repeating prayers and formularies, in reading from book, there is only reminiscence. This is the third and least exigent form of mental energy; it is possible in the very lowest states of cerebral vigor. When acquisition is fruitless, construction is possible; when a slight departure from the old routine passes the might of the intelligence, literal reminiscence may operate.

Another mode of mental energy that we are equal to, when the freshness of our susceptibility to new growths has gone off, is searching and noting. This needs a certain strain of attention; it is not possible in the very lowest tide of the nervous flow; but it may be carried on with all but the smallest degrees of brain-power. When the scholar or the man of science ceases to trust his memory implicitly for retaining new facts that occur in his reading, observation, or reflection, he can still keep a watch for them, and enter them in his notes. So in the hours of the day when memory is less to be trusted, useful study may still be maintained by the help of the memorandum and the note-book.

The indulgence of the emotions (when not violent or excessive) is about the least expensive of our mental exercises, and may go on when we are unfit for any of the higher intellectual moods, least of all for the crowning work of storing up new knowledge or new aptitudes. There are degrees here also; but, speaking generally, to love or to hate, to dominate or to worship, although impossible in the lowest depths of debility, are within the scope of the inferior grades of nervous power.

From this estimate of comparative outlay, we may judge what are the times and seasons and circumstances most favorable to acquirement. It may be assumed that in the early part of the day the total energy of the system is at its height, and that toward evening it flags; hence morning is the season of improvement. For two or three hours after the first meal, the strength is probably at the highest; total remission for another hour or two, and a second meal (with physical exercise when the labor has been sedentary), prepares for a second display of vigor, although presumably not equal to the first; when the edge of this is worn off, there may, after a pause, be another bout of application, but far inferior in result to the first or even to the second. No severe strain should be attempted in this last stage; not much stress should be placed on the available plasticity of the system, although the constructive and routine efforts may still be kept up.

The regular course of the day may be interfered with by exceptional circumstances, but these only confirm the rule. If we have lain idle or inactive for the early hours, we may of course be fresher in the evening, but the late application will not make up for the loss of the early hours; the nervous energy will gradually subside as the day advances, however little exertion we may make. Again, we may at any time determine an outburst of nervous energy by persistent exercise and by stimulation, which draws blood to the brain, without regard to circumstances and seasons, but this is wasteful in itself and disturbing to the healthy functions.

As a general rule, the system is at its greatest vigor in the cold season of the year; and most work is done in winter. Summer studies are comparatively unproductive.

The review of the varying plasticity in the different stages of life might be conducted on the same plan of estimating the collective forces of the system, and the share of these available for brain-work, but other circumstances have to be taken into the account, and I do not enter upon the question here.

There are many details in the economy of the plastic power that have a physical as well as a mental aspect. Such are those relating to the strain and remission of the attention, to the pauses and alternations during the times of drill, to the moderating of the nervous excitement, and other matters. These should all find a place under the head of the Retentive function. It is expedient now to take up the consideration of the subject from the purely mental side.

2. The one circumstance that sums up all the mental aids to plasticity is Concentration. A certain expenditure of nervous power is involved in every adhesion, every act of impressing the memory, every communicated bias; and the more the better. This supposes, however, that we should withdraw the forces, for the time, from every other competing exercise; and, especially, that we should redeem all wasting expenditure for the purpose in view.

It is requisite, therefore, that the circumstances leading to the concentration of the mind should be well understood. We assume that there is power available for the occasion, and we seek to turn it into the proper channel. Now, there is no doubt that the will is the chief intervening influence, and the chief stimulants of the will are, as we know, pleasure and pain. This is the rough view of the case. A little more precision is attainable through our psychological knowledge.

And first, the will itself as an operating or directing power, that is to say, the moving of the organs in a given way under a motive, is a growth or culture; it is very imperfect at first, and improves by usage. A child of twelve months cannot by any inducement be prompted readily to clap its hands, to point with its forefinger, to touch the tip of its nose, to move its left shoulder forward. The most elementary acts of the will, the alphabet of all the higher acquisitions, have first to be learned in a way of their own; and until they have attained a sufficient advancement, so as to be amenable to the spur of a motive, the teacher has nothing to go upon.

I have elsewhere described this early process, as I conceive it, in giving an account of the development of the will. In the practice of education, it is a matter of importance as showing at what time mechanical instruction is possible, and what impedes its progress at the outset, notwithstanding the abundance of plasticity in the brain itself. The disciplining of the organs to follow directions would seem to be the proper province of the infant school.

Coming now to the influences of concentration, we assign the first place to intrinsic charm, or pleasure in the act itself. The law of the will, in its side of greatest potency, is that pleasure sustains the movement that brings it. The whole force of the mind at the moment goes with the pleasure-giving exercise. The harvest of immediate pleasure stimulates our most intense exertions, if exertion serves to prolong the blessing. So it is with the deepening of an impression, the confirming of a bent or bias, the associating of a couple or a sequence of acts; a coinciding burst of joy awakens the attention, and thus leads to an enduring stamp on the mental framework.

The ingraining efficiency of the pleasurable motive requires not only that we should not be carried off into an accustomed routine of voluntary activities, such as to give to the forces another direction, as when we pace to and fro in a flower-garden; but also that the pleasure should not be intense or tumultuous. The law of the mutual exclusion of great pleasure and great intellectual exertion forbids the employment of too much excitement of any kind, when we aim at the most exacting of all mental results—the forming of new adhesive growths. A gentle pleasure that for the time contents us, there being no great temptation at hand, is the best foster-mother of our efforts at learning. Still better, if it be a growing pleasure; a small beginning, with steady increase, never too absorbing, is the best of all stimulants to mental power. In order to have a yet wider compass of stimulation, without objectionable extremes, we might begin on the negative side, that is, in pain or privation, to be gradually remitted in the course of the studious exercise, giving place at last to the exhilaration of a waxing pleasure. All the great teachers, from Socrates downward, seem to recognize the necessity of putting the learner into a state of pain to begin with; a fact that we are by no means to exult over, although we may have to admit the stern truth that is in it. The influence of pain, however, takes a wider range than here supposed, as will be seen under our next head.

A moderate exhilaration and cheerfulness, growing out of the act of learning itself, is certainly the most genial, the most effectual means of cementing the unions that we desire to form in the mind. This is meant when we speak of the learner having a taste far his pursuit, having the heart in it, learning con amore. The fact is perfectly well known; the error, in connection with it, lies in dictating or enjoining this state of mind on everybody in every situation, as if it could be commanded by a wish, or as if it were not itself an expensive endowment. The brain cannot yield an exceptional pleasure without charging for it.

Next to pleasure in the actual, as a concentrating motive, is pleasure in prospect, as in learning what is to bring us some future gratification. The stimulus has the inferiority attaching to the idea of pleasure as compared with the reality. Still it may be of various degrees, and may rise to a considerable pitch of force. Parents often reward their children with coins for success in their lessons; the conception of the pleasure in this case is nearly equal to a present tremor of sense-delight. On the other hand, the promises of fortune and distinction, after a long interval of years, have seldom much influence in concentrating the mind toward a particular study.

Let us now view the operation of pain. By the law of the will, pain repels us from the thing that causes it. A painful study repels us, just as an agreeable one attracts and detains us. The only way that pain can operate is when it is attached to neglect, or to the want of mental concentration in a given subject; we then find pleasure, by comparison, in sticking to our task. This is the theory of punishing the want of application. It is in every way inferior to the other motives; and this inferiority should be always kept in view in employing it, as every teacher often must with the generality of scholars. Pain is a waste of brain-power; while the work of the learner needs the very highest form of this power. Punishment works at a heavy percentage of deduction, which is still greater as it passes into the well-defined form of terror. Every one has experienced cases where severity has rendered a pupil utterly incapable of the work prescribed.

Discarding all a priori theories as to whether the human mind can be led on to study by an ingenious system of pleasurable attractions, we are safe in affirming that if the physical conditions are properly regarded, if the work is within the compass of the pupil's faculties, and if a fair amount of assistance is rendered in the way of intelligible direction, although some sort of pain will frequently be necessary, it ought not to be so great as to damp the spirits and waste the plastic energy.

The line of remark is exactly the same for pain in prospect, with allowance for the difference between reality and the idea. It is well when prospective pain has the power of a motive, because the future bad consequences of neglect are so various and so considerable as to save the resort to any other. But since the young mind in general is weak in the sense of futurity, whether for good or for evil, only very near, very intelligible, and very certain pains, can take the place of presently-acting deterrents.

In the study of the human mind, we need, for many purposes, to draw a subtile distinction between feeling as pleasure or pain, and feeling as excitement not necessarily pleasurable or painful. This subtilty cannot be dispensed with in our present subject. There is a form of mental concentration that is properly termed excitement, and is not properly termed pleasurable or painful excitement. A loud or sudden shock, a rapid whirling movement, stirs, wakens, or excites us; it may also give us pleasure or pain, but it may be perfectly neutral; and even when there is pleasure or pain, there is an influence apart from what would belong to pleasure or pain, as such. A state of excitement seizes hold of the mind for the time being and shuts out other mental occupations; we are engrossed with the subject that brought on the state, and are not amenable to extraneous influences, until that has subsided. Hence, excitement is preeminently a means of making an impression, of stamping an idea in the mind; it is strictly an intellectual stimulus. There is still the proviso (under the general law of incompatibility of the two opposite moods) that the excitement must not be violent and wasting. In well-understood moderation, excitement is identical with attention, mental engrossment, the concentration of the forces upon the plastic or cementing operation, the rendering permanent as a recollection what lies in the focus of the blaze. Excitement, so defined, is worthless as an end, but is valuable as a means; and that means is the furtherance of our mental improvement by driving home some useful concatenation of ideas.

Another subtilty remains—a distinction within a distinction. After contrasting feeling as excitement with feeling as pleasure or pain, we must separate the useful from the useless or even pernicious modes of excitement. The useful excitement is what is narrowed and confined to the subject to be impressed; the useless, and worse than useless, excitement is what spreads far and wide, and embraces nothing in particular. It is easy to get up the last species of excitement—the vague, scattered, and tumultuous mode—but this is not of avail for any set purpose; it may be counted rather as a distracting agency than as a means of calling forth and concentrating the attention upon an exercise.

The true excitement for the purpose in view is what grows out of the very subject itself, surrounding and adhering to that subject. Now, for this kind of excitement, the recipe is continuous application of the mind in perfect surrounding stillness. Restrain all other solicitation of the senses; keep the attention upon the one act to be learned; and, by the law of nervous and mental persistence, the currents of the brain will become gradually stronger and stronger, until they have reached the point when they do no more good for the time. This is the ideal of concentration by neutral excitement.

The enemy of such happy neutrality is pleasure from without; and the youthful mind cannot resist the distraction of a present pleasure, or even the scent of a far-off pleasure. The schoolroom is purposely screened off from the view of what is going on outside; while all internal incidents that hold out pleasurable diversion are carefully restrained, at least during the crisis of a difficult lesson. A touch of pain, or apprehension, if only slight, is not unfavorable to the concentration.

A very important observation remains, namely, that relationship of retention to discrimination which was stated in introducing the function of discrimination. The consideration of this relationship illustrates with still greater point the true character of the excitement that concentrates and does not distract nor dissipate the energies. The moment of a delicate discrimination is the moment when the intellectual force is dominant; emotion spurns nice distinctions, and incapacitates the mind for feeling them. The quiescence and stillness of the emotions enables the mind to give its full energies to the intellectual processes generally; and of these, the fundamental is perception of difference. Now, the more mental force we can throw into the act of noting a difference, the better is that difference felt, and the better it is impressed. The same act that favors discrimination favors retention. The two cannot be kept separate. No law of the intellect appears to be more certain than the law that connects our discriminating power with our retentive power. In whatever class of subjects our discrimination is great—colors, forms, tunes, tastes—in that class our retention is great. Whenever the attention can be concentrated on a subject in such a way as to make us feel all its delicate lineaments, which is another way of stating the sense of differences, through that very circumstance a great impression is made on the memory; there is no more favorable moment for engraving a recollection.

The perfection of neutral excitement, therefore, is typified by the intense rousing of the forces in an act or a series of acts of discrimination. If by any means we can succeed in this, we are sure that the other intellectual consequences will follow. It is a rare and difficult attainment in volatile years; the conditions, positive and negative, for its highest consummation cannot readily be commanded. Yet we should clearly comprehend what these conditions are; and the foregoing attempt has been made to seize and embody them.

Pleasure and pain, besides acting in their own character—that is, directing the voluntary actions, have a power as mere excitement, or as wakening up the mental blaze, during which all mental acts, including the impressing of the memory, are more effective. The distinction must still be drawn between concentrated and diffused excitement, between excitement in, and excitement away from, the work to be done. Pleasure is the most favorable adjunct, if not too great. Pain is the more stimulating or exciting; under a painful smart the forces are very rapidly quickened for all purposes, until we reach the point of wasteful dissipation. This brings us round again to the Socratic position, the preparing of the learner's mind by the torpedo or the gad-fly.

The full compass of the operation of the painful stimulant is well shown in some of our most familiar experiences as learners. In committing a lesson to memory, we con it a number of times by the book: we then try without the book. We fail utterly, and are slightly pained by the failure. We go back to the book, and try once more without it. We still fail, but strain the memory to recover the lost trains. The pains of failure and the act of straining stimulate the forces; the attention is aroused seriously and energetically. The next reference to the book finds us far more receptive of the impression to be made; the weak links are now reënforced with avidity, and the next trial shows the value of the discipline that has been undergone.

One remark more will close the view of the conditions of plasticity. It is, that discrimination and retentiveness have a common support in rapidity and sharpness of transition. A sharp and sudden change is commonly said to make a strong impression: the fact implied concerns discrimination and retention alike. Vague, shadowy, ill-defined boundaries fail to be discriminated, and the subjects of them are not remembered. The educator finds great scope for his art in this consideration also.