Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/June 1878/Scientific Courses of Study




SOME years ago, a clergyman in one of our Western States became deeply impressed with the conviction that the town in which he lived ought to contain a college. In due time a charter was secured, and a board of trustees appointed. They met, organized, conferred upon the aforesaid clergyman the degree of D. D., and then adjourned forever. I give the story as I heard it, without undertaking to vouch for its truthfulness. It savors somewhat of extravagance, and yet has a sound of probability. Everybody has heard of the establishment of so-called "colleges" upon similarly slender foundations. They exist in almost every Southern or Western State, and because of them our really good institutions suffer continual discredit. In education, as in all other things, the realities are brought into disrepute by the shams.

Suppose now that the college described above had continued through several successive stages the career so auspiciously begun. It would probably have opened with its clerical founder for president, and a force of one or two professors (should not this be written professers?) to help him. It would have announced all sorts of courses of study—a classical course, a scientific course, a mixed literary or ladies' course, a business course, a normal course, and so on, to the limit of its founder's power of invention. These courses, having been organized with various degrees of incapacity, would in due time be supplemented by departments of art and music; and, in short, there would grow up an institution claiming to do all things, but unfit to do any one thing decently. The classics would be taught by a mere grammarian unacquainted with modern philology; the sciences by a teacher destitute of special scientific training; the normal department by an amateur educator; and book-keeping by somebody who had never attempted actual business. Degrees would be given by the dozen to students who had never learned anything but dilettanteism, and whose ideas of scholarships would, as a rule, be limited by the attainments of their teachers.

Does anybody doubt the existence of such colleges as I have sketched? It would be easy to point out twenty institutions in different parts of the county, any one of which would answer tolerably well to my description. Between these extremes and the respectable colleges there are many intermediate grades. There are some schools in which thoroughly good work is done of a low order—work which carries the student to about the point where a fair junior year should begin, and which is honest so far as it goes. The only objection to these schools is, that they call themselves colleges, and confer college degrees. That they have a great value, nobody can doubt. Many and many a country lad who would otherwise remain ignorant gets in one or another of them the foundations of an education. If they would but abandon the college name, cease to grant diplomas, and call themselves academies or high-schools, they would then deserve only praise. It is their pretension to be more than they really are which is so damaging to the cause of higher education.

With all these lower institutions the true colleges have to compete. Every college is directly impeded in its work by their existence. The institution which provides low-grade courses for imperfectly prepared students, actually encourages defects in the preparatory schools, and every other college suffers in consequence. All or nearly all of our universities are in part dependent upon the income received from students. They must get students, or perish; and hence the competition for numbers, which is continually tending to keep down the standards. Nearly every respectable college in America is hindered in this way. Even Harvard and Yale, old and powerful as they are, feel the bad influence. Perhaps the Johns Hopkins University, protected by its great wealth, may escape from the evil tendency.

Not many years ago, partly in consequence of the growth of the natural and physical sciences, and partly because of a popular demand for an education not exclusively classical, a number of American colleges established scientific schools. Naturally, the larger universities led off in this movement, and the smaller soon followed; only the latter, as a rule, inaugurated not separate schools for science, but scientific courses, so called, parallel with the courses in classics. As might reasonably be expected, the attempts at first were crude; nobody knew exactly what was wanted; vagueness characterized the entire subject. The classicists rather distrusted the new policy; looked upon it as an effort to degrade true education; and generally gave it the cold shoulder. Still, they were obliged to concede something to the new education; and their concessions, wrung from them by popular pressure, were seriously affected by the competition for students of which I have already spoken. Even respectable Eastern colleges yielded ground, and established courses of study which were obviously meant to be easier than the older curriculum, in order that they might swell their numbers by attracting students too badly prepared, too stupid, or too indolent, to do the regular, traditional, solid work. In short, there sprang up by degrees, all over the country, courses of study requiring but little preparation on the part of the student to enter them, and not much exertion to remain and graduate afterward. They were, in many cases, mere waste-heaps, in which the college rubbish was allowed to gather, there to remain for four years fermenting before being finally cleared out of the way.

Along with the call for scientific studies came a demand for the higher education of women. Some distinctively female colleges were established, but in the majority of instances coeducation was tried. Again the spirit of false competition for students told against true learning. At first but few girls were well prepared for admission to college; and, consequently, immature students were accepted. They could not well carry on advanced studies; and so, to suit them, in many places special "courses for ladies" were organized; and these were in some instances identical with the courses in science. Thus two distinct movements, both good in themselves, were made to work together for evil. The old classical system of education was well established, was governed by the traditions handed down through centuries of experience, and was therefore able to hold its own. The competition for students, therefore, chiefly affected the new system, and in the direction of science it exerted its strongest degrading influence. The demand was for good scientific education on the one hand, and for the advancement of women on the other; the first result in many cases was the establishment of shams. That women should be admitted to the colleges was right and just; but that low standards should be set up for badly-prepared students, either male or female, was never intended by the advocates of the new departure.

We now see that the general low character of our scientific courses of study may be traced to two distinct causes: first, to the crudeness due to the novelty of the subject; and, second, to the competition for students. With the latter cause we have in the present paper little to do, save to distinctly recognize its baneful action. The former is the one to be particularly discussed.

When courses of study in science were first proposed, our colleges were controlled almost exclusively by men of classical training and bias—men wholly outside of scientific life, unacquainted with scientific work, the scientific method, or the scientific spirit. Upon these men devolved at first the organization of the new courses. With them, study was mainly a matter of book-work; such as recitations and written exercises, aided by an occasional lecture. Laboratory or experimental instruction was rarely thought of, save when a professor exhibited a few specimens upon his lecture-table, or performed some showy experiment. Students went to the professor of chemistry much as they would go to see a conjurer; expecting to be stunned, dazzled, and delighted, but dreaming of no real study except an occasional recitation and the cram for examinations at the end of a term. Mental discipline from such study was out of the question; real scholarship had nothing to do with it; systematic research on the part of either student or professor was almost unheard of. The study of science consisted in empirically memorizing a few disconnected facts, without reference to their mutual relations, or to the growth of any specific department of knowledge. This was the rule; but, fortunately, there were some exceptions. In a few of the larger colleges a better state of things existed—a state which was by no means perfection, but one which afforded a starting-point for healthy growth and improvement. In these colleges the scientific work was controlled by distinctively scientific men, and under their guidance the adverse influences were in part at least overcome. From such centres the scientific spirit has spread; and, now that the early crudeness has worn away, we are able to see clearly what a scientific course of study ought to be, and in what quarters our greater deficiencies lie.

Now, the problem before us is easily stated. It is to devise a course of study in which language is subordinate to the natural and physical sciences, and which shall be fully equal in requirements for admission and in subsequent mental training to the old-fashioned classical curriculum. In such a course the student must receive as solid and systematic a training as was ever furnished by a study of the classics; and for less than this no diploma should be granted. Of course, it is to be understood that the two systems of education cannot lead to identical results: each is in certain respects superior to the other; the equality between them is to be found in an average, and not in a coincidence of details. The classical student will more keenly appreciate the exact meanings of words; but his scientific rival will gain a deeper insight into things: the one may perhaps be more facile and elegant in literary expression; the other, stronger in powers of thought.

First, let us discuss the requirements for admission to scientific courses—what is, and what ought to be done. For entry upon an ordinary classical course a student is examined in the so-called "English branches," in Latin, in Greek, and in mathematics; the amount required of each being different in different institutions. For the scientific course we may properly demand the same English branches and mathematics, so that the question really is, "What shall we substitute for the Latin and Greek?" Now, every good high or preparatory school furnishes instruction in a variety of topics available for this purpose. If the classical student is obliged to know some classics before he can enter college, why should not the scientific student be required to know some science? Or, instead of this, a certain amount of preparation in modern languages might be demanded. French, German, chemistry, and physics, make a good list from which to select subjects, and any two of these might be chosen.[2] These studies, properly learned, will cover the ground, and, at the same time, bear directly upon the subsequent work of the scientific course. If a college cannot get students well fitted in the subjects named above, substitutes might be accepted; as, for instance, additional mathematics or Latin. The Latin, however, is to be regarded merely as a makeshift; a sort of token that the student has had a certain amount of mental discipline. It should never be demanded except when the other more important studies are lacking. But the essential thing is, that the candidate for admission shall have spent as much time and done as much work in preparation for college as the student who intends to follow classical studies. This requirement is not severe by any means, and it is unquestionably just. A scientific course of study ought not to be established upon any weaker basis.

But how many of the colleges which grant the Bachelor of Science degree come up to this mark? Unfortunately, very few. As a general rule, not only in Ohio, but throughout the West, the requirements for admission to a scientific course are the same as for the classical course, minus the classics. In some instances a portion of the Latin requirement is retained, and in a few more other studies are substituted in part for the classical branches. In one college, a little more mathematics is demanded of the candidate for admission in science; in another, the elements of a modern language are required. But in very many cases there seems to be not even an attempt to really equalize the two courses of study.

From these facts we see that the average student in a scientific course enters upon his work with a mind less mature than that of his fellow in the classics. Both stay in college for four years, and then receive baccalaureate degrees. Is it strange that in most cases the classically trained scholar comes out ahead? Is it just to attribute his advantage to any lack of educational value upon the part of the sciences? In short, is the comparison between the two systems of education at all a fair one? Obviously, it is not. Until both systems have been tested side by side, both properly developed and with equally good student material to work upon, no reasonable comparison between them can be made. As long as the poorer students are concentrated in one course, and the better prepared in the other, the sciences will be at a grave disadvantage.

So much concerning the requirements for admission. Now let us consider the course of study afterward—what is it now, and what ought it to be? Surely we should expect to find the scientific students learning more science than is taught in the classical courses. Reasonable, however, as this expectation is, in many cases it will be disappointed. If we look over the catalogues of even our Ohio colleges, we shall find that in great measure the purely scientific studies are the same in both courses; the same amount of chemistry, of physics, of zoölogy, of geology, and so on. In one catalogue I find the classical course fully laid out, and after it the explicit statement that "the scientific department will embrace all the above course, except the classics." In a few institutions the scientific student does get a trifle more of science than his neighbor, as much as an extra term in physical geography or surveying. Some of these courses of study have absolutely no right to the name of scientific. Here is the beginning of such a course in an Ohio college:

Freshman YearFirst Term.—In the classical course, Latin, Greek, and algebra. In the scientific course, the same algebra, easier Latin, and Old Testament history. Second Term.—Classical course: Latin, Greek, and algebra, continued; geometry and physiology, taken up. Scientific course: The same mathematics and physiology, easier Latin, and New Testament history.

Sophomore YearFirst Term.—Classical course: Latin, Greek, zoölogy, geometry. Scientific course: Easier Latin, the same geometry, "physical geography, and geography of the heavens." Second Term.—Classical course: Latin, Greek, trigonometry, conic sections and analytics, botany. Scientific course: The same mathematics and botany, general history, Paley's "Natural Theology." And so on to the end of the senior year.

In this particular instance the scientific course contains one term in physical geography over and above the amount of science taught in the classical department; and, in the main, substitutes for Greek some sort of theological instruction. Perhaps a portion of the latter might be put under the head of Paley ontology, and in that sense be regarded as essentially scientific. But, to speak seriously, the course, as a whole, however respectable it may be from some points of view, has certainly no right to the scientific title. It is an easy, trivial course, fitted to accommodate inferior students, and ought, in common honesty, to be called by some definite and appropriate name. To call such a course "scientific" is simply dishonest. This case, I am sorry to say, is by no means an exceptional one. Scientific courses of this type are exceedingly common; and, because of their existence, scientific studies often fall into disrepute. There are in Ohio, fortunately, quite a number of colleges which give scientific instruction of a very much higher order than is here indicated, where faithful efforts are made to put the scientific and classical courses upon an equal footing, and which fall short only because of the lower standard for admission to the former. There are still others, and some of our best colleges among them, which refuse point-blank to establish special courses in science at all, on the ground that they have neither the means nor the appliances to make such work as effective as it ought to be. These institutions deserve the highest credit. Although I am fully convinced that the new education is far superior to the old, I also recognize the fact that any genuine work is better than any sham; and that a good drill in the classics is immeasurably better than a mere trifling with science. The former is scholarly; the latter is not. It is a truism to say that a college had better do one thing well than two things badly; but this truism is too often forgotten or overlooked. It would be a decided gain if some of our colleges could make the scientific course the one thing well done, but, in default of that, it is cheering to know that the other is properly attended to.

Now, having seen what the scientific courses often are, we find ourselves in a position to discuss what they ought to be. As the name indicates, science should predominate in them, but not necessarily to the exclusion of other things. French, German, mathematics, English literature, logic, and possibly some drawing, ought to be included; the relative proportions of these branches varying with circumstances. A certain range of election should be allowed the student, since different students have very different needs. No prescribed course of study can be devised which shall be universally acceptable and invariably productive of beneficial results. If every student attempts to study everything, no thorough work can be done in any department. A college certainly ought not to be an institution for the encouragement of diffuseness. Scholarship and the character formed by scholarship are its true aims. A student does not gain breadth of mind by dabbling a little in a dozen different things—superficiality and the consequent narrowness are the natural results of such a course. The title "Bach, elor of Science" ought not to be equivalent with "Bachelor of Sciolism."

I have spoken of French and German as essential studies in a scientific course. Let me emphasize their importance. At the present day no branch of advanced study can be carried far without the assistance of these languages. Every science and every art is aided by them. Three-fourths of all the researches and of the books written upon pure science are in one or the other of these tongues. Surely a Bachelor of Science ought to graduate fitted for advancement in the studies which he prefers. French and German will be absolute necessities in his equipment; without them he can scarcely develop in any direction. This, to a lesser degree, is true of the classical graduate also. What good work in philology can be done by a man unacquainted with German? What study of literature, art, music, law, medicine, or theology, is not aided by the modern languages? Surely, then, any course of study which omits to provide facilities for learning both French and German is essentially defective, and ought to be revised.

I am sorry to say that a considerable number of our colleges do not come up to this requirement. There are several in Ohio in which there seems to be absolutely no instruction in modern languages furnished. There are others, and among them some institutions of high repute, in which these studies are exclusively elective; a student may take them or not, as he chooses. This is wrong, and for the reasons given above. In the scientific courses, at least, no student should receive a degree unless he is able to use French and German reference-books at sight. Some of our colleges insert Latin among the required freshman studies of the scientific course. This should be crossed out, in order to make room for the more important modern languages. A moderate amount of Latin, however, may well be retained upon the list of elective studies for the benefit of those students who are more especially interested in biological science. But this amount, useful in connection with scientific nomenclature, is very small, and can be acquired in a comparatively short time. For the mathematician, astronomer, chemist, or physicist, none at all is needed.

The quantity of mathematics to be prescribed will naturally vary with circumstances. Probably the best way is to require every student to go through plane analytics; and, after that, to give him opportunities for mathematical electives. The scholar whose particular tastes lead him to the special study of physics, will take up the calculus and mechanics. The chemist will find the calculus of value, but not by any means necessary. The biologist needs no more than the prescribed amount of mathematics, and would probably carry the study no further. As for English literature, logic, and drawing, but little need be said. One study puts before the student good models in composition, another teaches him the laws of exact thinking, the third enables him to represent pictorially what he sees. All three studies give him power, and two of them help to train his sense of beauty.

Now for the main features of the course—the natural and physical sciences. How shall they be taught, and with what purposes in view?

It is a proposition of self-evident truth that a scientific course which gives the student no real insight into the aims and methods of scientific research and scientific thought is a failure. Certainly, a Bachelor of Science ought to clearly understand what science is, what it has accomplished, and what it is trying to do. He should be able to appreciate both its capacities and its limitations, and have some idea of the relations which connect its several branches. He must see that Nature is an organized whole, with all its parts dependent upon one another, governed by inviolable laws, subject to no caprices. If he fails to gain these broad, general conceptions, his work will remain incomplete, and of little intellectual value. Such statements as these are undoubtedly truisms; and yet there are many colleges in which their force is seemingly never recognized.

In order that these general purposes may be properly carried out, it is best that every student should choose some one science as a specialty. Close and exact work can hardly be done otherwise. He who divides his time equally among all the sciences will not catch the real spirit of any one. He will merely pick up information empirically, without gaining genuine insight into anything, or acquiring much intellectual power. Not that he should confine himself to a single branch alone, for that would not be in accordance with the principles already laid down; but he ought, in his special science, to do as much work as in all the others collectively.[3]

We often hear a great outcry against the danger of making specialists. This outcry is only in part well-founded. A man who is so trained as to be blind to everything beyond his own department is indeed weak—whether that department be a science, art, music, theology, or commerce. A certain amount of versatility is essential to breadth of view; but it is not necessary that the student should be superficial. It is of the utmost importance that there shall be thoroughness somewhere; and yet this fact, of all others, is the one most frequently overlooked in our smaller colleges. If a student in classics were to ask the privilege of continuing both Latin and Greek through the whole four years of his college course, his teachers would probably regard the desire as eminently praiseworthy, and deserving of encouragement. And yet he would be in a measure becoming a specialist in those languages. Why, then, should it not be considered equally praiseworthy for a student to seek similar thoroughness in some department of science? If a college course aims to develop the character of the student, depth should be considered as well as breadth; and both are secured by combining the study of a special branch with accessory work in half a dozen others.

The method of study is also important, and just here is where many otherwise good institutions fail. Every student of science should meet Nature at first hand, and learn to observe her phenomena for himself. Lectures and text-books are but minor accessories to study; in the sciences they play a wholly subordinate part; in the laboratory, the field, and the museum, the chief work is to be done. No matter what branch of science is to be pursued, the student from the very first must meet it face to face. The biological sciences ought to be studied in the field, collecting; in the museum, classifying; in the laboratory, with the microscope and the scalpel. Far too often is the study of natural history degraded into a mere memorizing of classifications; as if the transitory part of science were more valuable than the permanent! The student must see, handle, dissect, and investigate, for himself. He is to study the phenomena of life, and not merely the external appearance of a lot of stuffed specimens. Chemistry, and physics also, is to be studied chiefly in the laboratory. It is not enough for a student to see experiments, he must himself perform them. Thus only can he learn the true scope of these great sciences. By a proper drill in qualitative analysis, he learns to observe closely, and to reason from his facts to their interpretation. Quantitative analysis gives him accuracy of manipulation, and an insight into the absolute value of experiment. This insight also results from delicate practice with instruments of precision in physics; a kind of exercise of the very highest educational value. If the course of study in any science can be capped by an original research leading to the discovery of new facts, so much the better. In a German university the candidate for a doctoral degree in science is absolutely required to carry out such a research, and to submit a dissertation upon it. This is not a severe requirement—every student who has been decently trained is able to come up to it, all the popular notions about the mysteriousness of scientific research to the contrary notwithstanding. Why should we not aim to equal the German standard?

But, because I lay this stress upon the experimental method in scientific study, I do not therefore undervalue lectures and text-book work. These are valuable auxiliaries to a scientific education, although they need to be handled carefully. The teacher must be in a great measure independent of the text-book, able to make up its deficiencies, and to correct its errors. In lecturing, he must be fully awake to the importance of research, and should lose no opportunity of suggesting to his classes good subjects for investigation. If there is an unsettled question, he may call the attention of his students to it; if he sees a gap in some series of observations, let him point out how easily it might be filled. By instruction of this kind the scientific spirit is awakened, and given food for growth. In the selection of text-books, great care must be exercised. On this point many and many a college catalogue unconsciously betrays the incapacity of certain teachers. A bad book on a college list indicates poor judgment and slight knowledge on the part of the professor who chose it. If a college were to announce as its text-book in German, "German in Six Lessons without a Master," we should all be skeptical as to the quality of its teaching. What, then, shall we think of the institution in which science is taught upon the basis of the well-known "Fourteen Weeks Series?"

Now, to sum up. It seems plain that our scientific courses of study need to be remodeled. We should demand more for admission, and make them equivalent to the courses in classics. Before receiving a degree, a student should know some one science fairly well, understand the bearings of the others, have a good training in mathematics, literature, and logic, and be able to read easy French and German prose at sight. Are these demands extravagant? Are they not rather moderate and within bounds?

  1. Read before the Ohio College Association, December 27, 1877,
  2. The University of Cincinnati, for admission to the scientific course, requires algebra, to permutations and combinations; the whole of geometry; the whole of plane trigonometry; elementary inorganic chemistry, including familiarity with laboratory manipulations; elementary physics (Balfour Stewart or Norton); and the elements of either French or German.
  3. In the University of Cincinnati every regular student, whether classical or scientific, is obliged to choose a specialty. This study must be announced to the faculty at the beginning of the sophomore year, and is to be continued to the end of the course. This modification of the elective system insures thoroughness in something, and bids fair to yield most excellent results.