Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/August 1885/An Experiment in Primary Education I

Popular Science Monthly Volume 27 August 1885  (1885) 
An Experiment in Primary Education I by Mary Putnam-Jacobi




IN modern times education has been recognized to be something more than an elegant luxury, designed exclusively for the benefit of the "upper classes." It is a force, and a potent and indisputable means, not only for the training but for the evocation of forces. It is able, not only to convey information, but to increase power. It is not simply a social convention, but a real means for attaining real ends. The final ends of education are efficiency and repose. The educated person is he who knows how to get what he wants, and how to enjoy it when he has got it.

When a "higher education" is demanded, for any class of persons—as women—it means that it has become desirable to train their faculties for more difficult work than that traditionally assigned to them, and also that it is desirable to enable them to get more enjoyment out of any work that they do. The necessary correlative of the possession of powers is the opportunity for their exercise. The existence of a larger class of effectively educated women must increase their demand for a larger share in that part of the world's work which requires trained intelligence. Of this, literature and other art is one and only one portion. The work of the professions, of the upper regions of industry, commerce, and finance, the work of scientific and of political life, is the work appropriate to the intelligences which have proved themselves equal to a course of training at once complex and severe. A person destined to receive a superior education is expected to develop more vigorous mental force, to have a larger mental horizon, to handle more complex masses of ideas, than another. From the beginning, therefore, he must not merely receive useful information, but be habituated to perform difficult mental operations, for only in this way can the sum of mental power be increased. The order, arrangement, and sequence of the ideas he acquires must be as carefully planned as is the selection of the ideas themselves, because upon this order and internal proportion his mental horizon depends. He must be trained in feats of sustained attention, and in the collocation and association of elementary ideas into complex combinations. Since ideas are abstractions from sense-perceptions, he must be exercised in the acquisition of accurate, rapid, far-reaching, and delicate sense perceptions, in their memorization, and in the representative imagination which may recall them at will, and be able to abstract from them, more or less remotely, ideas. Habits of rich association of ideas must be formed, and of pleasure in their contemplation. And very early must be offered to the child problems to be solved, either by purely mental exertion, or by that combined with manual labor. And all this care must be taken for girls as well as for boys, so soon as it is seriously agreed that girls may be admitted to a superior as well as to a primary education.

The first intellectual faculties to be trained are perception and memory. The subjects of the child's first studies should therefore be selected, not on account of their ultimate utility, but on account of their influence upon the development of these faculties. What sense is there, then, in beginning education with instruction in the arts of reading and writing? If literature were the main business of life, or if, as was at one time supposed, education meant nothing else but acquaintance with literature, there would be some logic in the extraordinary prominence habitually assigned in education to the study of modes of literary expression. But, from the modern stand-point, that education means such an unfolding of the faculties as shall put the mind into the widest and most effective relation with the entire world of things—spiritual and material—there is an exquisite absurdity in the time-honored method. To study words before things tends to impress the mind with a fatal belief in their superior importance. To study expression before subjects of thought have been accumulated, is to cultivate the habit, always prevalent in civilized life, of talking fluently without having anything to say. To direct attention to sets of arbitrary signs before attention has been trained by contemplation of real objects, teaches the mind to place conventional and contingent facts on the same level with necessary truths. We thus weaken in advance the power of belief in necessity and reality. Without such power the mind becomes inevitably the prey to a skepticism generated much less by contradictions in the outside world, than by the weakness of its internal organism. What other result should logically be produced, when, to the opening mind, as it turns eagerly to the wonderful world in which it awakens and finds itself, we offer for contemplation, exercise, and earliest sustenance, the alphabet, the abstruse structure of words to be spelled, the grammar of sentences to be construed, the complex gymnastics of copies to be written? When to the reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and composition in English, we add that of similar exercises in two or three other languages, we evidently describe the education, first, of the children in our public schools, then of those of the so-called "upper classes"; and show that all is a prolonged study of words.

Words are fossils, which, according to the understanding had of them, are a heap of meaningless stones, or the incarnation of a bygone life. When the child has once learned to handle present existences, he will be prepared to understand the reflections of a past life in language. When he has had some experience in framing complex abstractions, he can then appreciate the complex abstractions of speech. But, until then, language should not be to him an object of thought, but only an organ of thought. It is not to be driven into him, but only out of him, through the urgent consciousness that something must be said. The inflections, intonations, and emphasis of speech, uttered or written—and which include grammar, rhetoric, punctuation, style—must arise spontaneously, as natural clothing of the idea, which insists upon making itself understood. An idea which is once sufficiently vivid in the child's mind can hardly fail to "climb to a form in the grass and flowers" of picturesque baby-speech.

On this principle it might be useful to precede study of either spoken or written language by study of gestures and signs. At all events, in my own experiment, the child was taught algebraic signs as a means of concisely expressing certain relations, long before any attempt was made to learn how to write. Thus the important, fundamental idea was early conveyed to her mind that all arts of expression were subordinate in importance to the subject expressed. Deliberate study of the arts of expression, which is equivalent to the study of literature, rhetoric, and style, was reserved until after many years of study of things should have accumulated impressions and ideas which spontaneously sought an outlet. Further, the child was taught to draw in simple combinations of lines for many months before attempting to write. When this difficult and complex muscular exercise was approached, she began it with unusual ease, and in a few weeks, at the age of six, already commanded a firm and legible handwriting. Further, and for the same purpose, no set copy-book was used from which meaningless sentences could be imitated; but the child proceeded at once to utilize the art of writing in precisely the same way that humanity has done in passing from barbarism with spoken traditions, to civilization with a recorded history. She recorded at first with printed, afterward with script characters, the history of a group of hyacinths, whose development she watched from birth to death. The writing, though compelled to be carefully done, was recognized as no end in itself, but as a means to preserve a connected history of a series of interesting events, otherwise liable to lapse into oblivion. The art was thus approached as all arts should be, from the stand-point of its real genesis, and tended to place itself in the same relative position in the child's mind that it had occupied in the real history of the world.

Study of the pathological conditions of writer's cramp, and of the numerous brain-lesions which have so marvelously dissected the faculty of comprehending verbal and written signs, has revealed a hitherto unsuspected complexity in the muscular movements involved in writing, and of the mental processes necessary to language.[1] The discovery has not yet modified the glaring crudity of the educational methods which persist in beginning mental training with a forced drill in these complex processes and gymnastics.

Not speech abstractions, the highest conquest of the mind, but the development of the visual conceptions, which are its earliest spontaneous achievement, should be the first object of systematic training. Forms and colors are the elements of all visual impressions; and these are, moreover, susceptible of a scientific classification which can, from the beginning, be rendered appreciable to the child. It is upon forms and colors, therefore, that both perception and memory must first be exercised. The visual impression should be amplified up to the point at which it is able to fix itself on the mind by its own momentum; therefore, without conscious effort. When the mind has accumulated a stock of reminiscences which can not be forgotten, it will, by so much, have enriched its structure and enlarged its furniture. It is then prepared for voluntary efforts at recollection.

The amplification of the impression is effected in two ways: 1. The impression may be associated with an action on the part of the child, as when he arranges building-blocks into definite forms. 2. The outlines of the object itself may be magnified, and at the same time roughened, by being copied with sticks, as may be done in the first attempts at map-drawing. The copy substitutes a schematic outline for the real one, but by the very fact blends a mental conception with the simple visual image. This necessity for amplification is very important, and, as it seems to me, very often overlooked. It is strictly in accordance with the physiological law in neuro-dynamics, that a stimulating impression must vary in intensity inversely to the susceptibility of the nerve-element to be impressed. The more developed and vigorous the mind, the slighter the object that is perceived and remembered; and, as Mr. Froude remarks, men of genius always have tenacious memories. Conversely, the relatively feeble mind of the young child requires a large object to awaken its prehensile faculties. If the memory of children for what has once impressed them is often remarkable, it is because the infantile period of mental development bears much analogy with the character of genius.

It seems to me that for several years no abstract statements should be made to a child, except such as may be, at least schematically, represented by tangible objects, and at every new point of even advanced studies recurrence to such schemas may be usefully made.

Perception and memory should be indissolubly associated. There are two prevalent errors of method which I have noticed: to expect a child to remember what it has never perceived; and to allow it to perceive without any systematic representation of the object in memory. In the earliest training, contemplation of an object is insufficient to fix its outlines on the mind: it must be handled as well as seen. In my own experiment with a child of four, Froebel's building blocks were used to construct definite models; but these, once framed, were repeated from memory. Sometimes the details of an exciting story, as that of "Blue-Beard," were associated with the different details of the model, so that these were more vividly remembered.

By building in succession the different rooms in which the various acts of the tragedy were supposed to have occurred, the child learned, on the one hand, mathematical outlines; on the other hand, to remember history by, in a degree, acting history herself. The principle of this method is applicable to much more advanced studies.

President Hill, in his eloquent little book on the "True Order of Studies," emphatically insists on the necessity for a selection of studies which differ widely from the conventional programme. "We awake to consciousness," he observes, "through the fact of motion which reveals to us an outer world, and a universe of space and time in which that world of matter moves. These space and time relations are the earliest objects of distinctly conscious intellection; the first objects concerning which our knowledge takes a scientific form. This was true of the race, and it is true of the individual. Before the child has a clearly intellectual life on any other subjects, it attains a very definite power to distinguish the square, the circle, the oval, the spiral; and also to recognize the rhythm of verse and music. Out of space and time arise through the suggestions of the material world three principal sciences: geometry, arithmetic, algebra. In considering space we are led to imitate the act of the Divine Intellect, which has geometrized from eternity. Geometry is the earliest and simplest of all possible sciences." The writer proceeds to point out that "the earliest abstraction from the idea of form is that of number, and out of this idea is evolved the earliest of the truly abstract sciences, namely, arithmetic. But because this science is based upon an abstraction, and not upon a direct perception, it should be made to follow, and not, as is usually the case, precede geometry." Again, "the earliest suggestions of motion reveal to us time as well as space. But space is external to the mind; time enters into our spiritual consciousness, and measures our flow of thought."

To this might be added the anatomical consideration that the formation of space conceptions is the function of the cerebrum, from the impressions furnished by the optic nerve; while the conceptions of time are elaborated in the cerebellum from the experience in successions of events furnished by the auditory nerve. Space conceptions are objective, static; time conceptions, from the beginning subjective, are at first successive, then become progressive, finally causal, dynamic—when the conception of cause arises from consideration of the sum of antecedent events. Thus this second series of conceptions soon impinges upon moral considerations; the first remains within the sphere of perceptive intelligence. To space, or optic nerve conceptions, belongs symmetry; to time, or auditory nerve conceptions, belong harmony and rhythm.

These ultimate ramifications of the primary psychic phenomenon must be held in mind at the moment of beginning to systematize the visual and auditory perceptions which lie at their basis.

All object-teaching may be made useful as a means of training to independent observation. But the study of ordinary, i. e., of complex objects, is necessarily empirical, whereas geometric forms can be at once submitted to scientific generalizations, can therefore at once initiate the child into scientific method. Dr. Hill recommends the study of geometry to be begun at the age of eight. The child upon which my own experiment was performed began the study of geometric elements before she was four. Some details of her education may perhaps be quoted as the best way of illustrating certain abstract principles. At the age of four and a half she had learned the following elements: straight, curved, slanting, and half-slanting lines, also to distinguish perpendicular and horizontal lines, and to draw either straight or curved lines parallel to each other. She was well acquainted with all forms of the triangle, equilateral, isosceles, right angle, and scalene. She knew a rectangle and a square, and the relations to each of the slanting and half-slanting line. She knew also, and was especially fond of, the trapezium, trapezoid, the pentagon, hexagon, etc., the circle and semicircle; and, in solid figures, knew the cube and its apparent relations to the square. She did not merely know the names of these things, but to her eye the whole perceptible universe arranged itself spontaneously into these fundamental forms; for she was incessantly disentangling them from the complex appearances of surrounding objects. Thus a horse-railroad interested her as an illustration of parallel straight lines which never met, the marks of carriage-wheels as parallel curved lines, the marks of horseshoes, as "dear little curves." She learned that the curved line was the line of living things, and that straight lines belonged exclusively to artificial objects. At dinner she divided her cake into squares or cubes, and made pentagons and octagons with the knives and forks. She learned that by increasing the number of sides a plane figure gradually progressed from a triangle to a circle; and thus, on first seeing a cylinder, at once compared it to a circle, because "it had ever and ever so many sides," and not to a prism with which the superficial resemblance might be supposed to be more striking.

The habit of looking for the forms of things led the child to the spontaneous observation of the alphabet, which she taught herself by incessantly copying the letters until she was familiar with them.[2] It was at this time that her education devolved upon me, and I began to effect the transition from a simple descriptive study of geometric forms toward some conception of their necessary relations. At first the purely descriptive study of geometric forms was continued, and, for several months and by the help of wooden models, extended from plane to solid figures. Later, when she was five and a half, some necessary relations were taught. Thus the child learned that three was the smallest number of straight lines which could include a space, by building with colored sticks an imaginary fence around a field in which a goat was to be inclosed. It was obvious that, when only two sides of the fence were completed, the goat would be able to run out and wreak all the destruction in the garden which might be anticipated from a reckless and unrestrained goat. An indissoluble association of ideas was thus established between a geometric necessity and the logic of events.

The second axiom taught was the equality of any two objects which were demonstrably equal to the same third. This was learned when the child was five years old; and illustrated in the first place by its applicability to the solution of problems otherwise insoluble. Thus, if it became necessary to compare the height of two girls, one of whom lived in Syracuse and the other in Boston, but unable to visit each other, a common measure was suggested in the person of a third girl living in New York, of more peripatetic habits, and able to travel from one place to another. By the same device the lesser difficulty was overcome, of comparing the length of a floor and the ceiling of a room through the medium of the wall. Ultimately the problem was illustrated by the less conspicuous mechanisms of colored sticks, and then the first algebraic signs of equality and inequality were taught, thus preceding all knowledge of writing. When the idea had been thus copiously illustrated and perfectly grasped, the verbal axiom ("things equal to the same things," etc.) was, by exception, given, and learned with ease. This was proved by the child's remark on one occasion of applying the axiom, "I knew what I was thereforeing." In a similar way were taught some other axioms thus, that equals being added to equals the wholes are equal, and that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. The last axiom—was illustrated graphically by observation of a large complex fungus which the child happened to pick up during a walk. Each part was apparently independent, yet so inseparable from the whole in which it inhered, and the whole was so obviously composed of these aggregated segments, that the axiom in question seemed to the child simply descriptive of the object.

Thus the mind was early initiated into the recognition of necessary truths, however few, lest otherwise it should never acquire that sense of reality and necessity which is essential to all forcible mental and moral action.

At the beginning of the year, the child being four and a half, the study of elementary colors was added to that of form. It was begun logically with observation of the rainbow. The child was led to notice and distinguish its colors in their regular order, and subsequently to reproduce this order exactly by means of colored sticks. As this was a fundamental observation among those furnished by the universe of things, it was constantly allowed to recur in different combinations in the same way as the original theme of a musical symphony. Thus at first the colored sticks were laid parallel to each other in a simple package. Subsequently the study of form and color was combined by using the same colored sticks to construct angular geometric figures from the triangle to the decagon. Each figure consisted of seven of different sizes and colors, placed concentrically to each other, in the rainbow order. After several months a third complication was introduced, by imagining that each color represented a lineal bed of flowers, the flowers having been previously gathered by the child and their colors compared. At this time solid figures would be placed in the center of the innermost plane figure outlined by the sticks, thus bringing out clearly the relations of the sides of such solids to certain planes. Thus a cube would stand in a square, a tetrahedron or pyramid in the center of a triangle. This last case offered the occasion for a somewhat wide reach of fancy: for pictures were shown exhibiting pyramids in the Egyptian Desert, to imitate which the table was strewed with sand. Then the different triangles were outlined with sticks, representing successive beds of flowers breaking the desolation of the desert—thus, roses and pinks, then marigolds, then yellow snap-dragons, jonquils, and laburnums, then a bed of green leaves, another of periwinkles and blue bells, a sixth of hyacinths and a seventh of violets. Thus the entire exercise embraced conceptions of form, and of the relations of plane to solid geometric figures, conceptions of color, discovery of the origin of these in a grand cosmic phenomenon, utilization of colors as one means of classification in a new science, that of botany, impressions of beauty from the actual color combinations, and from reference, partly actual, partly from memory, to the lovely flowers suggested; finally, a large imagination of a distant land more or less distinctly suggested by the picture. The exercise was thus both orderly and complex; it required a prolonged effort of sustained attention, and implied the association of quite a number of different ideas into a single massive conception. Finally, none of these ideas were represented by a verbal formula, but each as the scarcely removed abstraction from a tangible object, that the child could freely handle. The exercise was thus a typical illustration of the methods which I have defined as suited to develop a higher order of intellectual capacity.

The second step in the study of cosmic phenomena, which had been begun by observation of the rainbow, consisted in study of the points of the compass. The child was first taught to construct, from Kindergarten tablets, figures which might serve to indicate the points of the compass; afterward she was obliged to recognize these points out-of-doors by reference to the rising and setting sun. Every morning she ascertained the direction of the winds and waves. She was then taught the points on a real compass, and how to direct her country walks by means of this instrument. This was her first initiation into the use of instruments of precision. It was gradually extended during the year by means of practical experiments with the mathematical compass, ruler, spirit-level, pulley, wedge, and balance. The use of the last instrument, together with that of measures, greatly simplified and abridged the labor ordinarily devoted in arithmetic to learning about weights and measures. The child was taught the metric system first, because it was logical, because it assimilated readily with American decimal currency, and because the mutual interconversion of weight and capacity practically demonstrated—e. g., by showing that a cubic centimetre of water weighed a gramme—prepared the way for the great idea, to come later, of scientific correlations. The English weights and measures were learned afterward, as historical accidents, not logical, but of some practical convenience, as purely contingent knowledge to be learned practically as the occasion presented itself. She was sent to the grocer's to buy a bushel of apples, compared quarts, pecks, etc., together, and was never troubled with the senseless memorization of tables.

After knowledge of the rainbow and the points of the compass, the third cosmic notion acquired was that of perspective. This was first learned by watching ships passing over the water near which the child was playing, and observing their diminution of size as the distance increased. This observation made a profound impression upon the child; it was, perhaps, the first time that she learned that appearances do not always correspond to the reality of things, and that simple perceptions must be constantly controlled by an effort of the reasoning intellect. A year later, thus, when the child was five years old, the subject of perspective was reviewed in a different connection. She tried to draw a cube, and was shown the device by which a slanting line is made to represent a retreat from the foreground to a distance. This new discovery proved as exciting as the first had been, and it was speedily tested on all the pictures hanging in the room. On the first occasion, perspective had appeared like a great and astonishing fact of the external universe; on the second, like an immense achievement of the human intellect, which had thus contrived to accomplish the apparently impossible—namely, the representation of solid objects on a flat surface. The lifting of such large horizons makes epochs in the history of the intellect! The study was not confined to the form or line, but extended to observation of the effect of light and shade—the darkness of a receding surface, the brightness of the nearest point of a spherical surface, etc. Then the child reproduced these effects in her own drawing.

At this time the child began the study of geographical maps, as another method of emphasizing space conceptions. For so young a child the dissecting map was much simpler than would have been the attempt to make actual surveys of familiar localities, as is sometimes recommended. These were deferred till a little later. By the aid of the dissecting map, the child learned the outline of each of the United States, and their exact relations to each other, while still quite unable to read the names printed upon the models. In putting the map together, the compass was again brought into requisition, and the table on which the map was constructed turned until it faced the real north. The relative situation of places was always learned by reference to the compass, and not by arbitrary signs.

With so young a child it was impossible to associate much real information with these unknown states whose geometrical outlines she studied; therefore, every facility was offered to establish associations of fantasy, either with the shape of the pieces or with the names, association which the child usually discovered for herself. Thus, she described Virginia as a kneeling camel; Texas, for some reason which I could not appreciate, as a man leaning on his pipe; Maine, as a dog's head; Tennessee, as a boy's sled, etc.

The study of the one dissecting map was pursued uninterruptedly for six months. In a few weeks the child had learned to identify and name each piece, either on her model or on other maps, and could put each in its place. Before she left the map she was able to bound any State with the models, or verbally; also to make strips of successive States, beginning at any point and running in any direction. With the entrance upon her second year, at the age of five and a half, the child began the study of maps from "Cornell's Geography." But in a very little while these were exchanged for a large relief-globe. From the time the child began the study of this globe it became difficult for me to understand how any other method could ever be employed. The picturesque effect of the distinctly outlined continents, visible at a considerable distance, separated by vast tracts of desolate ocean, in which, as the child remarked, "one could easily drown," the mutual relations of parts whose perception need never be disturbed, as is incessantly done when the pupil passes from map to map—all these effects and impressions can be obtained from nothing else but from a globe of adequate size and in relief. The child, when just six, began to draw maps from this globe. On a single very large piece of paper would be represented whatever outlines were discoverable at the maximum distance and at a certain aspect of the globe. The latter was then revolved somewhat, the child remaining at the same distance, and a new map outlined as before, and so on until the entire globe had been, in the major outlines, copied by the child. It was reserved for months of future study to fill in the details in proportion to their successive natural, not political, importance.

Four different spheres of thought were prepared for by this study. First, and most obviously, the foundations were laid for all knowledge of physical geography. This foundation was laid in vivid sense impressions, and unalloyed with the singular mess of political, historical, and commercial details, with which even the best geographical textbooks for children are filled, and which are quite irrelevant to the main issue. When the child could with her finger trace the watercourses all around the world, she received a large fundamental impression not easily forgotten. Incidentally in this tracing she learned the value of canals at the Isthmuses of Suez and Panama. Secondly, a solid foundation was laid for history. The first map drawn was of Africa, on account of its simplicity of outline; but this involved the basin of the Mediterranean. The second map, passing eastward, took in the strongly accentuated outlines surrounding the Indian Ocean, and indicated the Himalaya and the high table-lands of Northern India. In the future it was intended, with these same outlines under the eye, and the picture of them deeply graven on the brain, to indicate the descent of Aryan ancestors from these table-lands toward the Mediterranean basin the germinal spot of our historical world; thence the further spread westward to the new hemisphere. The conception of an historical germinal spot was again prepared for in advance, by showing the child the cicatricule of a hen's egg, lying like the Mediterranean basin, on a globe. Thirdly, study of the systematized topography of the globe constituted the best initiation into the study of all topographical relations, including those involved in animal anatomy, and therefore this consideration was not among the least important. Fourthly, an important elementary philosophical training was obtained, as the child learned to analyze into their details the largest pictures offered by the globe, and to arrange these details into orders of successive degrees of generalization. Great care was taken that all pictures or outlines of the same magnitude, and hence visible at the same distance, should be studied at the same time, and not associated with less conspicuous details that required more minute attention. This rule of following successive degrees of generalization in geographical analysis is most imperfectly observed in text-books. It imposes itself in study of the relief-globe.

[To be continued.]

  1. See Kussmaul, "Stoerungen der Sprache"; also, Lichtheim on "Aphasia" ("Brain," January, 1885). The literature on these two subjects is already immense.
  2. This first year of the child's education was carried on in the Kindergarten of Mrs. Walton.