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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/August 1886/The Extension of Scientific Teaching

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | August 1886

THE EXTENSION OF SCIENTIFIC TEACHING.[1]
By Professor T. H. HUXLEY.

ONCE more reverting to reminiscence, the present state of scientific education surely presents a marvelous and a most satisfactory contrast to the time, well within my memory, when no systematic practical instruction in any branch of experimental or observational science, except anatomy, was to be had in this country; and when there was no such thing as a physical, chemical, biological, or geological laboratory open to the students of any university, or to the pupils of any school, in the three kingdoms. Nor was there any university which recognized science as a faculty, nor a school, public or private, in which scientific instruction was represented by much more than the occasional visit of a vagrant orrery.

At the present moment, any one who desires to obtain a thoroughly scientific training has a choice among a dozen institutions; and elementary scientific instruction is, so to speak, brought to the doors of the poorer classes. If the rich are debarred from like advantages, it is their own affair; but even the most careful public-school education does not now wholly exclude the knowledge that there is such a thing as science from the mind of a young English gentleman. If science is not allowed a fair share of the children's bread, it is at any rate permitted to pick up the crumbs which fall from the time-table, and that is a great deal more than I once hoped to see in my lifetime.

I have followed precedent in leading you to the point at which it might be fair, as it certainly would be customary, to end by congratulating you, as Fellows of the Royal Society, on the past progress and the future prospects of the work which, for two centuries, it has been the aim of the society to forward. But it will perhaps be more profitable to consider that which remains to be done for the advancement of science than to "rest and be thankful" in the contemplation of that which has been done.

In all human affairs the irony of Fate plays a part, and, in the midst of our greatest satisfactions,"surgit amari aliquid." I should have been disposed to account for the particular drop of bitterness to which I am about to refer, by the sexagenarian state of mind, were it not that I find the same complaint in the mouths of the young and vigorous. Of late years it has struck me, with constantly increasing force, that those who have toiled for the advancement of science are in a fair way of being overwhelmed by the realization of their wishes. We are in the case of Tarpeia, who opened the gates of the Roman citadel to the Sabines, and was crushed under the weight of the reward bestowed upon her. It has become impossible for any man to keep pace with the progress of the whole of any important branch of science. If he were to attempt to do so, his mental faculties would be crushed by the multitudes of journals and of voluminous monographs which a too fertile press casts upon him. This was not the case in my young days. A diligent reader might then keep fairly informed of all that was going on, without robbing himself of leisure for original work, and without demoralizing his faculties by the accumulation of unassimilated information. It looks as if the scientific, like other revolutions, meant to devour its own children; as if the growth of science tended to overwhelm its votaries; as if the man of science of the future were condemned to diminish into a narrower and narrower specialist, as time goes on.

I am happy to say that I do not think any such catastrophe a necessary consequence of the growth of science; but I do think it is a tendency to be feared, and an evil to be most carefully provided against. The man who works away at one corner of Nature, shutting his eyes to all the rest, diminishes his chances of seeing what is to be seen in that corner; for, as I need hardly remind my present hearers, that which the investigator perceives depends much more on that which lies behind his sense-organs than on the object in front of them.

It appears to me that the only defense against this tendency to the degeneration of scientific workers lies in the organization and extension of scientific education in such a manner as to secure breadth of culture without superficiality; and, on the other hand, depth and precision of knowledge without narrowness.

I think it is quite possible to meet these requirements. There is no reason, in the nature of things, why the student who is destined for a scientific career should not, in the first place, go through a course of instruction such as would insure him a real, that is to say, a practical acquaintance with the elements of each of the great divisions of mathematical and physical science; nor why this instruction in what (if I may borrow a phrase from medicine) I may call the institutes of science should not be followed up by more special instruction, covering the whole field of that particular division in which the student eventually proposes to become a specialist. I say not only that there is no reason why this should not be done, but, on the ground of practical experience, I venture to add that there is no difficulty in doing it. Some thirty years ago my colleagues and I framed a scheme of instruction on the lines just indicated, for the students of the institution, which has grown into what is now known as the Normal School of Science and Royal School of Mines. We have found no obstacles in the way of carrying the scheme into practice except such as arise, partly, from the limitations of time forced upon us from without; and, partly, from the extremely defective character of ordinary education. With respect to the first difficulty, we ought, in my judgment, to bestow at least four, or better five, years on the work which has, at present, to be got through in three. And, as regards the second difficulty, we are hampered not only by the ignorance of even the rudiments of physical science, on the part of the students who come to us from ordinary schools, and by their very poor mathematical acquirements, but by the miserable character of the so-called literary training which they have undergone.

Nothing would help the man of science of the future to rise to the level of his great enterprise more effectually than certain modifications, on the one hand, of primary and secondary school education, and, on the other, of the conditions which are attached by the universities to the attainment of their degrees and their rewards. As I ventured to remark some years ago, we want a most-favored-nation clause inserted in our treaty with educators. We have a right to claim that science shall be put upon the same footing as any other great subject of instruction, that it shall have an equal share in the schools, an equal share in the recognized qualification for degrees, and in university honors and rewards. It must be recognized that science, as intellectual discipline, is at least as valuable, and, as knowledge, is at least as important, as literature, and that the scientific student must no longer be handicapped by a linguistic (I will not call it literary) burden, the equivalent of which is not imposed upon his classical compeer.

Let me repeat that I say this, not as a depredator of literature, but in the interests of literature. The reason why our young people are so often scandalously and lamentably deficient in literary knowledge, and still more in the feeling and the desire for literary excellence, lies in the fact that they have been withheld from a true literary training by the pretense of it, which too often passes under the name of classical instruction. Nothing is of more importance to the man of science than that he should appreciate the value of style, and the literary work of the school would be of infinite value to him if it taught him this one thing. But I do not believe that this is to be done by what is called forming one's self on classical models, or that the advice to give one's days and nights to the study of any great writer is of much value. "Le style est l'homme même," as a man of science who was a master of style has profoundly said; and aping somebody else does not help one to express one's self. A good style is the vivid expression of clear thinking, and it can be attained only by those who will take infinite pains, in the first place, to purge their own minds of ignorance and half-knowledge, and, in the second, to clothe their thoughts in the words which will most fitly convey them to the minds of others. I can conceive no greater help to our scientific students than that they should bring to their work the habit of mind which is implied in the power to write their own language in a good style. But this is exactly what our present so-called literary education so often fails to confer, even on those who have enjoyed its fullest advantages, while the ordinary schoolboy has rarely been even made aware that its attainment is a thing to be desired.

  1. From the President's Address before the Royal Society, delivered at the Anniversary Meeting, November 30, 1885.