Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/September 1881/Progress of Higher Science-Teaching

627447Popular Science Monthly Volume 19 September 1881 — Progress of Higher Science-Teaching1881William Henry Stone




IT is doubtful whether the generality of well-educated men fully appreciate the great, the radical, and the almost revolutionary change which has in the past thirty or forty years come over the scope and spirit of English liberal education. Indeed, it can hardly be termed a change; but might be more correctly designated as a substitution of one branch of human knowledge for another. For, whereas, in the first forty years of the present century, the dead languages, especially Latin and Greek, history, logic, and metaphysics, fairly held their own against the computative sciences of mathematics, mechanics, physics, and chemistry, and the systematic or classificatory subjects of botany, geology, and zoology as topics of teaching and examination, they seem at the end of the second forty to have been all but superseded. No doubt in the main the revolution, great as it undoubtedly is, has proved salutary. Englishmen, with their characteristic tenacity of existing forms, had retained all but unchanged in their large public schools and in the older universities a form of intellectual culture which really originated in the middle ages, or at the latest with the restoration of learning. This is no mere figure of speech. The writer of the present remarks took his first childish lessons, after mastering the rudimentary arts of reading and writing, from "The Boke of Roger Ascham," and received his first rewards for saying, parrot-like by rote, the ancient farragos now only known by their initial words—"Propria quæ, maribus," "Quæ genus," and "As in preæsenti." Of the present generation, not one in a thousand has ever even heard of these mediæval aide-mémoires, or of the somewhat more useful scholastic scheme of syllogisms, beginning with the cabalistic formula, "Barbara Celarent." Later on, he and his companions were expected weekly to manufacture, nolentes volentes, a certain quantity of poetry!—God save the mark!—in the Latin and Greek tongues. He can well remember his father's remonstrance on finding him working at "that nasty chemistry, when you have not done your Latin verses." Perhaps the most singular travesty of teaching was the inculcation of that laboriously useless heap of conflicting rules termed the "Greek accents." It was well known to every scholar that they were non-existent in classical times; that they were probably prosodiacal; that they sprang up about the time when Greek was going out of use as a spoken language; and that, except in very few instances, they now served no purpose whatever. In spite of this, they were steadily and perseveringly thrust down the throats of schoolboys, insomuch that ignorance of the hideous pedantry of a mediæval grammarian might involve the pain and humiliation of corporal punishment.

That all, or most, of this has been swept away is ground for unmixed satisfaction. But it does not absolutely follow that what is being substituted for it is beyond comment or improvement. There may be errors and pedantries developing in the new as in the older system. Nor are they difficult to point out.

The teaching of science has tended to give an impulse to the computative, to the disadvantage of the judicial and appreciative functions of students' minds. Indeed, the computative faculty, so highly developed at times in men not otherwise liberally educated, is not the widest in intellectual scope, nor the fittest preparation for some branches of life-work. Men in after-life are called upon to use their imaginative powers, to sift evidence, and to weigh symptoms, as well as to solve problems. They may adopt artistic or literary pursuits, they may choose the professions of law or of medicine. In all these, the attempt to reduce the subject-matter laid before them to the strict conditions of an equation or a ratio, so far from being a fruitful mental effort, may absolutely prove a hindrance. There is a common type of mind which fails to see a proof which is not of the character of demonstration, and which, in its absence, neglects to use the faculty of judgment and decision so necessary in the common affairs of business.

The computing school, and especially those who teach its physical branches, very correctly and consistently insist upon the solving of problems as a test of thorough knowledge. Mr. Day, whose work appears to be mainly performed "in the laboratory of King's College, under the direction of Professor Adams," in an excellent collection of questions upon electrical measurement, says, "It is now universally admitted that numerical exercises are necessary in the study of the experimental sciences, both as giving practice in the application of the various theories, and as affording tests of ability to comprehend as well as to apply that which has been learned."

It must be remembered, however, that, even among advanced and professed mathematicians, the faculty of solving problems is very unequally distributed—a fact which is openly recognized at the great mathematical University of Cambridge. The problems themselves are often open to comment, as partaking of the nature of enigmas, or riddles, rather than as fair tests of knowledge. Like riddles, moreover, they exercise a kind of fascination on their concocters, and are very liable to figure in papers of questions. The writer, for instance, has seen in a paper on physics a question which involved an indeterminate equation, and of which the solutions were infinite in number. Surely this should have been relegated to its kindred algebra. But an instance which has occurred within the present year is so exceptional as to deserve quotation. It was a pass, not an honors paper. set for matriculation—the primary and initial step of the whole university career; a gate to further knowledge, which should be prudently left as wide open as is consistent with a reasonably high standard. The paper consisted in all of sixteen questions, and is therefore too long for quotation in full. Of these, says the heading—

"Not more than eight questions are to he answered, of which at least two must be selected from Section A.


"1. State your reason for regarding a pound as a unit of mass and not of force. What is the most convenient unit of force when a foot, a pound, and a second are units of length, mass, and time, respectively?

"2. State the conditions necessary for the equilibrium of a body free to move in one plane. To what do these conditions reduce when one point in the body is fixed?

"3. A solid right circular cone of homogeneous iron is 64 inches in height, and its mass is 8,192 pounds. The cone is cut by a plane perpendicular to the axis, so that the mass of the small cone removed is 686 pounds. Find the height of the center of gravity of the truncated portion remaining, above the base of the cone.

"4. A heavy body starting from rest slides down a smooth plane inclined 30° to the horizon. How many seconds will it occupy in sliding 240 feet down the plane, and what will be its velocity after traversing this distance? [g 32.]

"5. What is the 'kinetic energy' of a moving mechanical system? A shot of 1,000 pounds moving at 1,600 feet per second strikes a fixed target. How far will the shot penetrate the target exerting upon it an average pressure equal to the weight of 12,000 tons?"

If it be borne in mind that judgment on the five momentous mathematical generalizations (for they are hardly within the pale of physics proper) was demanded of boys averaging sixteen or seventeen years of age, fresh from school, it will be evident that the race of schoolmen and of De Morgan's "Conundrum"-makers is not yet extinct, and that the current rumor of the award having been returned to the examiners for mitigation may have some foundation in truth.

It is interesting to note how this radical change in the scope and subjects of education has reacted on our older and on the more recently founded universities. Far in the van stands that of Cambridge. Here, from the traditional character of the instruction given, little modification was required to bring modern requirements into harmony with the older teaching. Ever since the appointment of the great author of the "Principia," the discoverer of the binomial theorem, and of the "Fluxionary Calculus" to a junior fellowship in Trinity College, a. d. 1667, physics and mathematics have had their full and abundant share in the curriculum of this university. If, therefore, there has been a greater leaning toward physics and applied, as distinguished from pure mathematics, it has been accomplished, almost unperceived, under the guidance of men like Stokes, Thomson, Clerk Maxwell, and his successor, Lord Rayleigh, who combine the highest powers of numerical analysis with the imaginative, constructive, and inventive faculty of Wheatstone and Faraday.

At the sister University of Oxford the case is very different. Here the method of the schoolmen and the misrepresented teaching of Aristotle reigned supreme until our own time. The anachronism was indeed expressed in concrete form by a single word. The "science" which up to 1852 formed one foot of the tripod, with scholarship and history, on which honors were adjudged, was the science of a thousand years before, the metaphysics and moral philosophy of the Stoics of those who, proposing to teach it, wrote over the entrance to their school, οὕδεμετος ἀγεομετρήτος εἵσιτο, which, in the terms we are now using, may fairly be translated, "Let none unacquainted with physics enter." It was a purely mental analysis of the great problems even then seen to underlie our simplest conceptions of the universe. The change required in this center of learning was therefore from metaphysics to physics; it was a scientific putting of the cart before the horse; a substitution of Pythagoras or Archimedes for Plato or Aristotle, as the latter then and there were studied; namely, in his dogmatic treatises on ethics, politics, rhetoric, and metaphysics, and not in his far stronger genius as a natural historian and zoölogist.

Is it to be wondered that the wrench thus suddenly given produced molecular change; that the impulse overran the neutral point; and that those who previously had been commended for accurate knowledge of the metaphysical attributes of God should require time to learn the internal economy of a Holothurian, the exact chemical constitution of ethylic-diethyloxamate, or the formula for Carnot's reversible heat-engine? Even now, within an ace of thirty years from this intellectual cataclysm, poor old Oxford is only just recovering from a protracted state of vertigo, and settling down again to useful work. It is sad that she should have to chronicle the early loss of one who has been a main agent in the revolution. The Linacre Professor of Physiology [Dr. Rolleston], who began as an orthodox first-classman in the school of Litteræ Humaniores in 1850, dies in 1881 at the age of fifty-two, an advanced exponent of modern views in anthropology.— Popular Science Review.