Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/Science in the High School




APRIL, 1890.




THE purpose of science-teaching as a part of general education is this to train the judgment through its exercise on first-hand knowledge. The student of science is taught to know what he knows and to distinguish it from what he merely remembers or imagines. Our contact with the universe is expressed in what we call science. Throughout the ages, the growth of the human mind has been in direct proportion to the breadth of this contact. To the man without knowledge of science, the universe seems small. Science is our perception of realities; and as the realities come year by year to occupy a larger and larger place in our life, so the demand for more and better training in science will long be an urgent and growing one. But science should hold its place in the schools by virtue of its power as an agent in mental training, not because of the special usefulness of scientific facts, nor because knowledge of things has a higher market value than the knowledge of words.

The time will come when the study of the objects and forces of nature will be as much a matter of course in all our schools as the study of numbers, but the science-work of the next century will not be the work we are doing now. The science in our schools is too often a make-believe, and the schools will lose nothing when every make-believe slips out of the curriculum. Deeply as I am interested in the progress of science, both in school and out, with Prof. Huxley "I would not turn my hand over" to have biology taught in every school in the land, if the subject is taught through books only. To pretend to do, without doing, is worse than not to pretend. The conventional "fourteen weeks" in science gives no contact with nature, no training of any sort, no information worth having; only a distaste for that class of scattering information which is supposed to be science.

There is a charm in real knowledge which every student feels. The magnet attracts iron, to be sure, to the student who has learned the fact from a book, but the fact is real only to the student who has himself felt it pull. It is more than this, it is enchanting to the student who has discovered the fact for himself. To read a statement of the fact gives knowledge, more or less complete as the book is accurate or the memory retentive. To verify the fact gives training; to discover it gives inspiration. Training and inspiration, not the facts themselves, are the justification of science-teaching. Facts enough we can gather later in life when we are too old to be trained or inspired.

What is true of one science is true of all in greater or less degree; and I may take the science of zoölogy for my illustration simply because it is the one nearest my hand. In very few of our high schools has the instruction in zoölogy any real value. For this unfortunate fact there are several causes, and some of these are beyond the control of the teachers. In the first place, the high-school course is overloaded, and the small part of the course given to the sciences is divided among too many of them. A smattering of one science is of little value, either for discipline or information. A smattering of many sciences may be even worse, because it leads the mind to be content with smattering. Indeed, so greatly have our schools sinned in this respect that many writers on education seem to regard science as synonymous with smattering, and they contrast it with other branches of learning, which are supposed to have some standard of thoroughness. Most of our colleges have, at one time or other, arranged courses of study not approved by the faculty, in response to the popular demand for many studies in a little time. Such a course of odds and ends is always called "the scientific course," and it leads to the appropriate degree of "B. S."—Bachelor of Surfaces.

The high school can do some things very well, but it will fail if it tries to do too much. Unfortunately, the present tendency in our high schools is in the direction of such failure—to do many things poorly rather than a few things well. Each high school aims to give a general education; to be a university in a small way a university for the poor—a poor university. In the words of Lowell, "The public schools teach too little or too much; too little, if education is to go no further; too many things, if what is taught is taught thoroughly. And the more they seem to teach, the less likely is education to go further; for it is one of the weaknesses of democracy to be satisfied with the second best, if it appear to answer the purpose tolerably well and is cheaper, which it never is in the long run." In other words, we try to satisfy the public by a show of teaching those subjects which we can not really teach. And so, in the sciences we study books instead of Nature, because books are plenty and cheap, and can be finished quickly, while Nature herself is accessible only to those who want something of her.

The high school would do well not to attempt to give a general view of science. This is possible only in a "Chautauqua course" or in a "school of all sciences." It is better to select some two or three of the number, a physical and a biological science, perhaps, and to spend the available time on these. The choice should depend mainly on the interest or the skill of the teacher. Teach those sciences that you can teach best.

President Hill, of Rochester University, has well said: "Thousands of our youth have studied chemistry without ever seeing an experiment, physics without seeing an air-pump, and astronomy without ever looking through a telescope. A professor of the ancient type maintained that this is a great advantage, like the study of geometry without figures, because it stimulates the imagination. It is an invigoration of stupidity and conceit, sealing the mind to reality by substituting subjective fancies for experimental proofs, and the pretense of knowing for clear ideas. Its effect upon the morals is as pernicious as its effect upon the mind, for it weakens the reverence for truth and engenders the habit of mental trifling."

Even so wise a schoolmaster as Dr. William T. Harris excludes science-teaching (and science-teaching with him means simply giving information about scientific subjects) from the fundamental requirements of education, because the knowledge of nature is not one of the five windows through which the soul looks out on life. These windows, according to Mr. Harris, are reading and writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and history. The simile is a happy one. The soul, confined in the watch-tower of mediæval education, looks out on the world through these five windows, and they are but windows, for they give no contact with the things themselves. The study of nature throws wide open the doors, and lets the soul out to the fields and woods. It brings that contact with God through his works which has been, through all the ages, the inspiration of the poets and prophets, as well as of those long-despised apostles of truth whom we call men of science.

A second difficulty is this: Our towns will not pay for teachers enough to do the work as it should be done, and of the few teachers we have the people make no demand for thorough preparation. Very few of them are broadly educated or have had any scientific training whatever. And such teachers are expected to teach a dozen subjects each, and therefore have no time to make good their defective preparation. Thus good teaching of science can not be expected, for streams do not rise higher than their sources. The only remedy for these conditions seems to lie in the gradual education of the people. A series of object-lessons, showing the difference between a good teacher and a poor one, is the most effective means of causing good work to be appreciated.

But taking things as they are, even with uneducated teachers and teachers crowded for time, fairly good work may be done by the use of good methods. A great deal will depend, not on the kind of books you use, but on the kind of books you avoid. Most of the current text-books of elementary zoölogy are simply pernicious so far as your purposes are concerned. Even if these books were well digested and accurate in their statements of fact, which is rarely the case, they are based on incorrect principles. They are not elementary but fragmentary in their character. It is a great mistake to suppose that, because a book is small and says very little about each one of the animals of which it treats, it is thereby rendered elementary. Fragments are not necessarily elements. A fragment of rock is as hard to digest as a bowlder. Elementary work in science should treat of but few things, but the impressions it leaves with the child should be very clear ones. The ideas derived from the common text-books are of the vaguest possible character. These books are the parasites, not the allies, of science. They bear the same relation to the progress of science that barnacles bear to the progress of a ship. If you keep clear of these, you can not go far astray. Let us recall the words of Agassiz to the publisher who tried to induce him to write a schoolbook on zoölogy:

"I told him," he said, "that I was not the man to do that sort of thing; and I told him, too, that the less of that sort of thing which is done the better. It is not school-books we want, but students. The book of nature is always open, and all I can do or say shall be to lead students to study that book, and not to pin their faith to any other." And at another time he said, "If we study Nature in books, when we go out of doors we can not find her."

The essential of method is that we allow nothing to come between the student and the object which he studies. The book or chart or lecture which can be used in place of the real thing is the thing you should never use. Your students should see for themselves, and draw their own conclusions from what they see. When they have a groundwork of their own observations, other facts can be made known to them as a basis for advanced generalizations, for the right use of books is as important as their misuse is pernicious; but work of this sort belongs to the university rather than to the high school. You do not wish to have your students tell you from memory the characters of the Sauropsida as distinguished from the Ichthyopsida. What you want is the answer to their own questionings of the frog and the turtle.

I was lately present at a high-school examination in zoölogy. The teacher gave a number of the stock questions, such as "Describe the Gasteropoda." "What are the chief differences between the domestic turkey and the turkey of Honduras?" "How do Asiatic and African elephants differ?" "On which foot of the ornithorhynchus does the webbing extend past the toes?" and so on. At last he said: "I will now give you a practical question: A few days ago we had a frog in the class, and all of you saw it; now write out all the characteristics of the sub-kingdom, class, and order to which the frog belongs."

This is all useless. The definitions of these classes and orders do not concern the child. To the working naturalist these names are as essential as the names of the stations on the road to a railway engineer. They belong to his business, but the names and distances of railway stations do not form part of any good work in primary geography. You do not need to teach your students that vertebrates are divided into mammals, birds, reptiles, batrachians, and fishes. It is not true in the first place, and, if it were, it is not relevant to them. Stick to your frog, if you are studying frogs, and he will teach you more of the science of animals than can be learned from all the memorized classifications that you can bracket out on a hundred rods of blackboard!

The prime defect in our schools is not, after all, that the teachers do not know the subjects they teach, but that they do not know nor care for the purpose of their teaching. In other words, they do not know how to teach. The book is placed in their hands by the school board, and they teach by the book. If the book comes to them wrong-side up, their teaching is forever inverted. That this is true, the statistics gathered last year from the high schools of Indiana, by Prof. Evermann, very clearly show. It is no wonder that a superintendent is needed for every dozen teachers. A good teacher should know the end for which he works, and then he can adapt his means to fit this end.

I once visited a large high school, one of the best in the country, with a science teacher whose studies have won him the respect of his fellow-workers. But for some reason, on that day at least, he failed to bring his own knowledge into the class-room. I heard him quizzing a class of boys and girls on animals—not on the animals of the woods and fields, not on the animals before them, for there were none, but on the edentates of South America. An especial point was to find out whether it is the nine-banded armadillo (novemcinctus) or the three-banded armadillo (tricinctus) which does not dig a hole in the ground for its nest. The book, written by a man who did not know an armadillo from a mud-turtle, gives this piece of information. It was in the lesson, and the students must get it. And on this and like subjects these boys and girls were wasting their precious time—precious because, if they do not learn to observe in their youth, they will never learn, and the horizon of their lives will be always narrower and darker than it should have been. Already the work of that day is a blank. They have forgotten the nine-banded armadillo and the three-banded, and so has their teacher, and so have I. All that remains with them is a mild hatred of the armadillo and of the edentates in general, and a feeling of relief at being no longer under their baleful influence. But with this usually goes the determination never to study zoölogy again. And when these students later come to the college, they know no more of science and its methods than they did when at the age of one year they first cried for the moon.

Darwin tells us that his early instruction in geology was so "incredibly dull "that he came to the determination, afterward happily changed, "never so long as he lived to read a book on geology or in any way to study the subject."

I once had a student, well trained in the conventional methods of non-science, who was set to observe the yeast-plant under the microscope. He had read what the books say about yeast, and had looked at the pictures. So he went to work vigorously. In a short time he had found out all about the little plant, and had made a series of drawings which showed it very nicely. By and by some one noticed that he was working without any object-glass in his microscope. He had not seen the yeast-plant at all, only the dust on the eye-piece. This is the vital fault of much of our teaching of elementary science. It is not real; it is not the study of nature, only of the dust-heaps of old definitions.

Yet nothing is easier than to do fairly good teaching, even without special knowledge or special appliances. Bring out your specimens and set them before the boys and girls. They will do the work, and do it eagerly; and they will furnish the specimens too. There is no difficulty about materials. Our New World is the "El Dorado" of the naturalists of Europe. You can get materials for a week's work by turning over a single rotten log. I once heard Prof. Agassiz say to an assembly of teachers, and I quote from him the more freely because he gave his life to the task of the introduction of right methods into American schools:

"Select such subjects that your students can not walk out without seeing them. If you can find nothing better, take a house-fly or a cricket, and let each one hold a specimen while you speak. ... There is no part of the country where, in the summer, you can not get a sufficient supply of the best of specimens. Teach your pupils to bring them in. Take your text from the brooks and not from the booksellers. ... It is better to have a few forms well studied than to teach a little about many hundred species. Better a dozen forms thoroughly known as the result of the first year's work, than to have two thousand dollars' worth of shells and corals bought from a curiosity store. The dozen animals will be your own. ... You will find the same elements of instruction all about you wherever you may be teaching. You can take your classes out and give them the same lessons, and lead them up to the same subjects in one place as another. And this method of teaching children is so natural, so suggestive, so true. That is the charm of teaching from Nature. No one can warp her to suit his own views. She brings us back to absolute truth so often as we wander."

  1. Read before the Indiana State Teachers' Association, December 26, 1889.