Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/April 1893/Editor's Table
Shakespeare, who knew a good deal, in enumerating some of the ills of life, coupled with "the insolence of office," "the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes." For a present-day commentary on these familiar texts we refer our readers to the article by Dr. E. W. Claypole, which appears in this number, under the title of Prof. G. F. Wright and his Critics. Prof. Wright is a man who has for many years past been devoting so much of his time as he could spare from other duties to the study of a certain class of geological phenomena—those connected with the so-called Glacial period. Not being aware that there was any apostolical succession in science, but thinking rather that it was a field which any one might enter and cultivate to the best of his ability, Prof. Wright did not seek any official consecration for his labors, but simply went ahead, read all he could read, saw all he could see, worked over his materials as carefully as he knew how, and after some time produced a book which had the good fortune to be favorably received both in this country and in Europe. This book was guarded in statement, modest in tone, and scientific in method and spirit. The learned world found a good deal in it that was of value, and general readers must have deemed it interesting, for, though only four years old, it has already passed into a third edition. There was nothing in this, one would suppose, to provoke the wrath or jealousy of other scientific workers. Nevertheless, in a certain quarter, wrath was stored up for the author; the storm center was at the national capital, and its core, if we may use the expression, was in the Geological Survey. Of all arrogant things in the world official science is perhaps the most arrogant, and of all obstructive things official science is perhaps the most obstructive. The gentlemen of the Survey, or a number of them at least, were outraged to think that, while they were pottering in the leisurely fashion natural to Government officials over the questions in which they deigned to interest themselves, a man like Prof. Wright, who devoted only a portion of his time to geology, should have the audacity to come forward and express his views on one of those questions. They did not at first attack his book on The Ice Age in North America, but they apparently determined to watch the subsequent movements of this dangerous man, and, if occasion offered, to empty on him the vials of their official displeasure. The occasion was given by the publication of his book on Man and the Glacial Period; and then, all along the line, began a withering—or what was meant to be a withering—fire of criticisms on the professor and his work as a geologist. His one unpardonable sin would seem to have been that he had taken the word of scientific prophecy out of the mouths of the priestly caste at Washington. Had he only kept silence, they would, in their own good time, have told the world as much as it was good for it to know about the Glacial epoch and the antiquity of the human race. But, by his untimely publications, he had disturbed their sacred broodings over these momentous problems, and made it necessary for them to raise a warning cackle—like the sacred geese of Rome—to save the citadel of scientific truth from sack and pillage. Is it any wonder that the cackle was noisy and harsh and unamiable? Under circumstances so distressful how could it be otherwise? Some samples of it are given in Dr. Claypole's article, which will he found most instructive reading by all who care to know in what terms official science is pleased to express itself when its ire is roused, and also what extensive means a widely ramifying body like our national Geological Survey possesses for attacking and discrediting the work of individual scientific laborers that happens to have been conducted on lines which the ruling spirits of that body do not approve.
The question arises, How much does the country really want of this kind of thing? In granting an appropriation for the Survey did it mean to endow a Holy Inquisition or a Sacred Congregation of the Index? We think not. The methods of such institutions make neither for the moral dignity nor for the advancement of science.
The articles which Dr. J. M. Rice is contributing to The Forum on the public-school system of this country tend to bear out our contention in these columns, a couple of months ago, that but a small part of the special teaching ability existing in the community finds its way into the public schools. Speaking of the schools of this city, Dr. Rice says: "The typical New York city primary school, although less barbarous and absurd than the one just described, is nevertheless a hard, unsympathetic, mechanical drudgery school, a school into which the light of science has not yet entered. Its characteristic feature lies in the severity of its discipline—a discipline of enforced silence, immobility, and intellectual passivity." After describing how certain lessons are given, the writer goes on to say: "By the use of this method the child is actually prevented from exercising his reasoning faculties, and reading is converted into a pure and simple process of memorizing word-forms." Think of it: taxes being taken, and an elaborate system maintained, with the ultimate result of actually impairing the intellectual powers of the children! But that, we fear, is not the only damage. What must be the effect on the moral nature of "hard, unsympathetic, mechanical" methods? What must be the reaction from the remorseless discipline which Dr. Rice declares to be the "characteristic feature" of these schools? There can be little doubt that such a discipline hardens the nature, and that it must actually incline many to criminality there is too much reason to fear.
"It is not difficult," says Dr. Rice, "to account for the low standard of the New York schools; indeed, under existing conditions, it would be surprising if the instruction were of a higher order." He then proceeds to describe those conditions. In the first place, there is no incentive to teach well. Upon this point we feel like remarking that to say that a teacher has "no incentive to teach well" presents to our mind nearly the same incongruity as to say that a preacher has no incentive to preach well. We are far from maintaining that a teacher is not the better for incentives, but if there is any profession which might supply its own incentives, it seems to us to be that of teaching. It is certainly not too much to say that the true teaching spirit must be sadly lacking when teachers do not take sufficient interest in their work to do it at least to the best of their ability. The fact, of course, is that the position of teacher under our public-school system is sought after just as any other public office would be. The man who goes to Washington, to Albany, or to the City Hall, in search of an office, does not, in general, canvass very narrowly his fitness for the office; what he canvasses is the fitness of the office for him from a pecuniary point of view; and so precisely with the offices which our school boards have to bestow. To return, however, to the lack of incentive. This lack consists chiefly in the fact that no penalty or disadvantage attends poor teaching. "In New York city," we read, "teachers are rarely discharged even for the grossest negligence and incompetency. In order that a principal may be discharged, sixteen of the twenty-one members of the Board of Education must vote against her; and, for many reasons, it is practically impossible to secure that number of adverse votes."
The other conditions to which Dr. Rice refers as unfavorable to the production of a high type of teaching are, briefly, lack of proper supervision, a generally chaotic system of administration, and the predominance of private or political influence in connection with the selection of teachers and principals. "In selecting principals," we are told, "expert qualifications are not taken into account. Indeed, as a rule, the newly appointed teachers are better, professionally, than the principals. . . . Nearly all appointments are made by 'pulls,' merit being a side issue." This is bad, but we are not at the end yet of our discouragements. "In regard to the public," Dr. Rice observes, "the mere fact that things are muddled as they are proves that the citizens take no active interest in the schools." Strictly speaking, is it to be expected that they should? People take an active interest in things that they can directly and more or less visibly control; but this is not the case with the public schools. The action of the individual citizen upon the schools is a most indirect action, the result of which can seldom if ever be distinctly traced. Again, people take an active interest in things that immediately affect their comfort or welfare, but either no interest or a much diminished one in things that affect them only indirectly and perhaps remotely. Thus, if a man has a letter detained to his injury in the post office, he will promptly complain, because he knows that his complaint will probably bring home the fault and the responsibility to some particular individual, and secure, if not compensation for his loss, at least an increase of attention to avoid similar errors. He acts because his interests are directly affected, and because his action may be expected to produce some immediate effect of a beneficial kind. How different all this is from the case of a citizen whose children are not being as well educated as they might be in a public school, but, on the contrary, are being made the victims of a "hard, unsympathetic, mechanical" routine! What is he going to do about it? How, indeed, can he establish the fact in the first place? Must he not wait until somebody like Dr. Rice comes along to tell him about it, and if somebody else—some official of the Board of Education, or some partisan of the board—confidently pronounces Dr. Rice a crank and a busybody, how is the citizen going to decide? Then, supposing he does decide that the education is bad, what is next to be done? Why, canvassing and electioneering, with the interminable vista they open up of deals and dickers, of flatulent talk and endless mystification! Dr. Rice sees all this as well as we do, for what does he say? "That the schools of small cities may be improved in a comparatively short time is a matter that has been repeatedly demonstrated; but how to improve the schools of large cities is a problem that has never been solved."
We have left ourselves space to say but a few words of Dr. Rice's experiences in Boston. There he found better administration, owing principally to the fact that ward politics are kept at a greater distance. There incompetent teachers are removed as soon as their incompetence becomes manifest. And yet we read that "the Boston primary schools belong, in my opinion, to the purely mechanical drudgery schools. . . . The teaching is highly unscientific, and the teachers, though not really severe in the treatment of the pupils, are nevertheless cold and unsympathetic." In "one of the best" of the seven primary schools that Dr. Rice visited he found the reading in the highest (third year) class "expressionless, thoughtless, and mechanical." On the other hand, the Boston grammar schools were found, on the whole, to be highly efficient—a circumstance, however, which can in no sense be regarded as an offset to the inferior condition—if Dr. Rice's criticisms are well founded—of the primary schools.
To our mind it is perfectly plain that the modern world has not yet discovered the true method of grappling with the educational problem, and that sooner or later it will have to revert to individual responsibility and individual effort for its solution. We do not deny that relatively satisfactory results may here and there be reached under the present system; but any system which to a large extent prevents the special talent that is available for a given task from being applied to that task is fatally defective; and that, as we conceive, is the case with state education. The born educators, those possessing by nature the aptitudes and the sympathies required for educational work, those who could—granted, of course, proper training—redeem such work from drudgery and make it a true process of thought and soul development, will not in general take service in state-directed schools, and, at the same time, they will be debarred, by the competition of the state, from what would be their most congenial employment. Such is the dilemma; and the conclusion to which it points is that some day we must retrace our steps, and make education the business of the family to be obtained as other good things are obtained—as all best things are obtained—by effort and sacrifice.
The first regular meeting of the American Psychological Association, a short account of which is given on another page, was a very significant gathering. It is an evidence of the fact that a common bond of scientific interest in the study of mental phenomena is now sufficiently strong and sufficiently extended to warrant a comprehensive organization. This most disputed field of mental science has, in recent years, been rendered subject to an increasing extent to scientific methods, and a psychological laboratory is no longer regarded as a curiosity, but as an essential department in every higher institution of learning. It is notable that, since the foundation, some ten years ago, of the first laboratory, by Prof. G. Stanley Hall, at Johns Hopkins University, others have been instituted one after the other, so that at the present time there are more such laboratories in this country than in Europe. It was only natural that, when Prof. Hall became the President of Clark University, the formation of a strong psychological department should have been one of the prominent subjects to engage attention. Soon afterward, laboratories were founded by Prof. Cattell at the University of Pennsylvania, later at Columbia College; by Prof. Jastrow, at the University of Wisconsin, and at other institutions; and within the past year Harvard has set a noble example by equipping a magnificent laboratory and securing for its director that eminent psychologist, Prof. Muensterberg, of Freiburg. Yale has likewise founded a laboratory, and placed Prof. Scripture at its head; and another laboratory is soon to be opened in another prominent Eastern college. Nor does the list end here; it includes a dozen more colleges of various degrees of prominence. All this gives evidence of wide interest in a strictly scientific method of research, and promises to make the study of psychology something far different from what it has hitherto been. The organization of this small but influential body of men engaged in this work is therefore significant of a tendency of modern thought which seems destined to become particularly important in the development of American education. The society will find a welcome among the general body of scientific men, and its proceedings, while perhaps not very widely read, will undoubtedly constitute a worthy contribution to American scholarship.