Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/July 1893/Education and Selection
|EDUCATION AND SELECTION.|
MOST of the controversies which are rife in reference to the vital question of education appear to have originated in failure to rise to a sufficiently general point of view of the subject—to a national, international or perhaps an ethnic view. M. M. Guyau, who, in his Education et l'Hérédité, has discussed problems relative to morals, religion, aesthetics, and education, from the sociological point of view, has put the question into a really scientific form: Given the hereditary merits and faults of a race, to what extent can we by education modify the existing heritage to the advantage of a new heritage? For nothing less is involved; we have not only individuals to instruct, but a race to preserve and increase. Education, therefore, must rest on the physiological and moral laws of the cultivation of races. We do not overlook this in breeding useful animals, but in dealing with human beings we forget it—as if the education of men was concerned only with individuals.
The ethnic point of view is the correct one. We need, by education, to create hereditary qualities physically and intellectually useful to the race; besides cerebral and physiological heredity, we should assure such social hereditary forms as traditions, customs, social conscience, and public opinion. Society is, in fact, an organism endowed with a certain collective consciousness, although it is not concentrated in a self. We should, therefore, regard as a form of heredity and organic identity through ages, everything that maintains among a people continuity of character, spirit, habits, and aptitudes; in short, a national consciousness and a national will.
It being admitted that the ultimate aim of education is to insure the development of the race, the question arises as to the best means of insuring it. There is one which we desire to set prominently in the light—selection. The history of mankind shows us the struggles of races, nationalities, and individuals—not for life only, but for the progress of life under all its forms, including intellectual, aesthetic, and moral life. In our talk about the struggle for existence we forget the metamorphosis which selection undergoes in passing from the domain of brutal into that of intellectual and moral forces. We have, therefore, to reach a comprehension of the analogies and the differences between natural and social selection. As a first step toward this, we should ask to what extent ideas rule the world, and how a selection of ideas is first induced in the brain by education. We might call this psychological selection. The power of instruction and education. which some exaggerate and others deny, is simply the force of ideas and feelings. We can not bring too much scientific exactness to the determination of the extent and limitations of this force. We start from the principle that every idea tends to realize itself; and it does so in fact, if it is not counterbalanced by a superior force. The principle of the struggle for existence and of selection is applicable, therefore, to ideas not less than to living individuals and species. A selection is produced in the brain in favor of the strongest and most exclusive idea, which carries the whole organism. The child's brain is a battlefield of ideas and the impulses they generate; every new idea is an additional force encountering ideas already installed and impulses already developed. Education is, then, a work of intellectual selection. Let us suppose a mind still void, into which is abruptly introduced the representation of movement, the idea of some action, as of raising the arm. The idea being solitary and without any counterpoise, the disturbance begun in the brain takes the direction of the arm, because the nerves abutting in the arm have been disturbed by the representation of it; consequently the arm rises. To think of a movement is to begin it. A movement once existing can not be lost, but is communicated as of necessity from the brain to the organs—unless it is arrested by some other representation or impulsion. This propagation of motion is assured physiologically by the symmetry of the limbs, which tend to execute the same movement in succession. The brain provides the theme and the limbs reproduce it, and we have sympathy and synergy of the organs. The contagion of the idea to the limbs is infallible if the idea is solitary or predominant. We call this the law of idea-forces.
Chevreul's well-known experiments with the exploratory pendulum and the divining rod show that, if we represent to ourselves a motion in any direction, the hand will unconsciously realize it and communicate it to the pendulum. The tipping table realizes a movement we are anticipating, through the intervention of a real movement of the hands, of which we are not conscious. Mind-reading, by those who divine by taking your hand where you have hidden anything, is a reading of imperceptible motions by which your thought is translated without your being conscious of them. In cases of fascination and vertigo, which are more visible among children than among adults, a movement is begun the suspension of which is prevented by a paralysis of the will, and it carries us on to suffering and death. When a child, I was navigating a plank on the river without a thought that I might fall. All at once the idea came like a diverging force, projecting itself across the rectilinear thought which had alone previously directed my action. It was as if an invisible arm seized me and drew me down. I cried out, and continued staggering over the whirling waters, till help came to me. The mere thought of vertigo provoked it. The board lying on the ground suggests no thought of a fall when you walk over it; but when it is over a precipice and the eye takes the measure of the distance to the bottom, the representation of a falling motion becomes intense, and the impulse to fall correspondingly so. Even if you are safe, there may still be what is called the attraction of the abyss. The vision of the gulf as a fixed idea, having produced an "inhibition" on all your ideas and forces, nothing is left but the figure of the great hole, with the intoxication of the rapid movement that begins in your brain and tends to turn the scales of the mental balance. Temptation, which is continual in children because everything is new to them, is nothing else than the force of an idea and the motive impulse that accompanies it.
The force of an idea is greater as the thought is more distinctly selected than others in the consciousness. This selection of an idea that becomes so exclusive that the whole consciousness is absorbed in it has been called monideism. The state is like that of a hypnotized person. The hypnotizer creates an intellectual void in the brain by inducing artificial sleep, and suggests a thought which, being alone and unhampered, is at once realized in movements; and hypnotic suggestion is nothing else than this artificial selection of a single idea to the exclusion of others. The same force of the idea prevails in natural somnambulism. The somnambulist no sooner thinks of anything than he performs it, with his hands and feet as well as with his brain. The movement of the overexcited brain is so lively and the resistance offered by the sleeping organs is so weak that the impulse is communicated to the limbs by the mere fact that it has been conceived. The kind of dream in which children sometimes live is not without some analogy with somnambulism. The fixed idea is another example of the same phenomenon which is produced in the waking state, and increasing may go on to monomania—a kind of unhealthy monideism. Children, having few thoughts, would be likely to have fixed ones, except for the mobility which perpetual novelty causes in them. In this way all the facts may be explained that are grouped under the name of auto-suggestion. Generalizing the law, we might say that every conceived idea is an auto-suggestion, the suggestive effect of which is counterbalanced only by other ideas producing a different auto-suggestion. This fact is especially exemplified in children, who execute very quickly what passes in their heads.
The force of example is likewise brought back to the communicative and selective force of all representation. In the same manner is explained the form of suggestion in which the idea suggesting the act occurs not to one's self, but is introduced by another. In this line M. Guyau has pointed out a possible application of suggestion in moral therapeutics "as a corrective of abnormal instincts or as a stimulant of too weak normal instincts." He looks upon suggestion as an instinct in the nascent state created by the hypnotizer. Many and important results have been realized from suggestion since his remark was made. Of course, M. Guyau does not advise, but expressly condemns the introduction of hypnotism into normal education. He cites these pathological facts in order to deduce from them consequences relative to the normal condition. He considers hypnotic suggestion as simply the unhealthy and grossly artificial exaggeration of suggestive phenomena which are produced in a state of perfect health. Normal suggestion, which alone should find a place in education, is psychological, moral, and social; it consists in the transmission of ideas or impulsive feelings from one person to another, and in the possibility of fixing them. While in the normal condition we are not under the power of a determined magnetizer, it does not follow that' we are not "accessible to an infinity of little suggestions; now acting contrary to one another, now acting cumulatively and producing a very sensible average effect." Children in particular are open to all the suggestions of the medium. The state of an infant on coming into the world is compared by M. Guyau to that of a hypnotized person. There is the same absence of thoughts of its own or the same predominance of a single thought. "Everything that the infant will hear or see will therefore be a suggestion. This suggestion may be the foundation of a habit which may be developing during the child's whole life, as impressions of terror inculcated in children by nurses often do." If the introduction of new feelings is possible by a wholly physiological means, it should be equally possible by psychological and moral means.
Suggestion, which creates artificial instincts capable of balancing hereditary instincts, constitutes a new power comparable with heredity. Education, says M. Guyau, being a collection of co-ordinated and reasoned suggestions, we can understand the importance, the efficiency which it may acquire in both a psychological and a physiological respect. In our own view, suggestion is only a particular instance of the more fundamental law of idea-forces which rules in all pedagogic science.
Ideas have been sometimes despised and treated as having hardly any influence on the conduct. The philosophers of the eighteenth century, with Descartes and Pascal, on the contrary, regarded the feelings and passions as confused thoughts, as "precipitations" of thoughts. There is truth in this. Under all our feelings there is a collection of imperfectly analyzed ideas, a flood of hasty and confused reasons, on the mass of which we are lifted up and borne off. On the other hand, there are feelings under all our ideas which breed even under the cooling cinders of abstractions. The mind itself has a force, because it arouses all the feelings which it summarizes. Thus the simple words "honor" and "duty" resound through our consciousness in infinite echoes, giving rise to legions of images.
We talk of dead formulas, but they are few. The idea and the word are formulas of possible actions and of feelings ready to pass into acts; they are "verbs." Every feeling, every impulse that comes to the point of formulating itself into a kind of fiat, ac-' quires by that fact a new and in some sort creative force. It finds itself cleared up, defined, specified, and squared with the rest, and thus directed. It is this that renders formulas relating to actions powerful for good or evil. A child has a vague temptation, an inclination he can not account for. Pronounce the formula to him, change the blind impulse into a clear idea, and you give him a new suggestion, which will, perhaps, cause him to fall on the side to which he is inclining. On the other hand, there are formulas and generous suggestions that need only to be pronounced to carry entire masses. It sometimes falls to the man of genius to translate the aspirations of his epoch into ideas; he pronounces the word and a whole people follow. Great moral, religious, and social revolutions occur when feelings, long restrained or hardly recognized, come to be formulated into ideas or words. The way is then opened, the object is revealed with the means, selection takes place, and all the desires are turned at once in the same direction, like a torrent that finds a point where passage is possible.
Conduct depends, therefore, to a large extent on the circle of the ideas which one has received under the influence of experience, social relations, and æsthetic and intellectual cultivation. Every man possesses at the bottom a collection of general notions and maxims which becomes the source of his resolutions and actions, because the aggregate is, fused into a sentiment and a habit. The tendency to translate everything into maxims is manifested even in children, because the maxim is a generalization that satisfies the thought. If, then, the circle of ideas proves incomplete at any important point, if false notions or immoral maxims insinuate themselves, we are condemned to incurable weakness or to vice, like a nation whose code contains bad fundamental laws.
The mental faculties, like the physical faculties, develop in the individual into a relation of reciprocal action; but mental activity is more dependent than the other. If you have false ideas on a point of fact or reasoning, it is possible for me in a little while to enable you to put your finger on your error, or by a demonstration to convince you of it. But it will take months or years to modify a feeling, an inclination, or a habit. Intelligence is, therefore, more flexible, more movable, more progressive, than the rest of our constitution, and for that reason we can act upon it with more facility. Put over the eye of a near-sighted man glasses that will make things visible to him, and he will be obliged to agree that he sees them; show an ignorant man a drop of water in the microscopic field, and he will have to recognize that it is inhabited. Intelligence is to the other faculties of our mind what the eyes are to the organs of our body—a touch at a distance. Hence intellectual activity has a superior power to direct and transform the other kinds of activity. As it discovers new sides in things, it thereby produces a double effect. It excites new feelings and opens new ways to action. Every new idea tends thus to become a sentiment and an impulse, and consequently an idea-force. The intelligence is the great instrument of voluntary selection. It is a shortening means of evolution; it accelerates and accomplishes in a few years selections that might otherwise have required centuries.
If, instead of the individual, we regard the social organism, we shall find that here, too, the diverse activities and the diverse products of civilization are conditioned upon one another, while the products of intelligence and knowledge stimulate or direct all the social functions. Religious, moral, æsthetic, political, and economical creations are determined by the progress made by mankind, whether in the real knowledge of things or in the discovery of new ideals. Instruction is a motor of prime importance in the social mechanism; but on condition that it is brought to bear on truly directive and selective ideas, on those which, by their intimate relation with feeling and will, conspicuously merit the name of idea-forces.
There is, therefore, a medium between prepossessions for and against education. If education does not manifest all the power of which it is capable, it is because it is rarely directed toward its true end and by means adapted to that end. From this results a loss of living forces by the mutual neutralization and disorder of ideas. We sow ideas, as it were, at haphazard in the mind. They germinate in like manner according to the chances of circumstances, of internal predispositions and of the external medium. This is fortuitous selection, as in the domain of material forces. It is not sufficient to instruct; instruction itself must become an education, a process of reflected and methodical selection between ideas that tend to assume reality in acts. We say continually, instruction; other peoples say cultivation, and they are right. The former word leads us to consider the material bearing of what is acquired; the latter the degree of fertility gained by the mind. Education should not be a simple acquisition of knowledge, but a cultivation of living powers for the purpose of assuring the preference of the highest idea-forces.
After psychological selection, internal to the individual, we have to consider social selection, which takes place between different individuals, or between races or peoples. There are, for any race, physiological and psychological essential conditions of superiority. The race must first of all be physiologically strong, and here only are the ordinary laws of selection applicable, because we are in the domain of life. The sound mind can not exist except in the sound body; all the delicacies of mind are not worth as much to a race as health, vigor, and fertility. Even geniuses can not be born except of a strong race; the intellectual faculties can not be kept up long and advance, except among a vigorous people, and selection can not be efficient and produce the best by nature—a necessary condition of all progress—except in a fruitful and numerous and consequently strong race. Whenever, therefore, we overwork the mind at the expense of the body, we lower the physiological, and therefore the intellectual, level of the race; for generations physiologically weakened will sooner or later suffer the weakening, with their cerebral power, of their mental capacity. The laws of heredity are fatal: to bequeath impoverished organs to children is to prepare for what Pascal would call the stultification of the race at a more or less distant epoch. In the struggle and selection of peoples as recorded in history, when young and perhaps barbarian blood has not been infused with the aged body of a nation, it has fallen steadily, become sterilized, and disappeared or declined, while other peoples were ascending.
Instruction may, we think, lead to two kinds of results: either in dynamic effects—that is, augmentation of cerebral force—or in purely mechanical effects; like scientific and literary routine. In the former case, it acts upon heredity and can produce a hereditary transmission of cerebral force; in the second case, it does not act, or it acts mischievously to the exhaustion of the nervous system. It is intellectual force, not acquired knowledge, that is transmitted by heredity from one generation to another. Hence the criterion which we propose for estimating methods of education and teaching; if there is an augmentation of mental, moral, and æsthetic force, the method is good; if a simple storing up in the memory, the method is bad, for the brain is not a storehouse to be filled, but an organ to be fortified.
The physical and mental inconveniences of overwork may, therefore, very properly occupy attention at this time. Good scholars—those who wish to succeed in an examination or enter certain schools—are the ones who are overworked under our present systems; for the majority of pupils there is no overwork, but simply almost complete loss of time, years passed in wearing out the benches of the school. Of all that is paraded before their minds they retain nothing but a few vague and confused notions; they attend, as idlers, the excursions of their successive professors through all kinds of sciences, and what is overwork for the others is for them only intellectual vagabondage. If all children were overworked, the race would soon be lost. The idle, says M. Guyau, save it physically. On the other hand, unfortunately, they contribute to keep it in intellectual and moral mediocrity, and to give a false direction to public affairs. The advantages of their idleness might have been preserved without suffering its inconveniences if instead of requiring from all so much knowledge, most of which is useless, we had required strictly necessary knowledge and such moderate number of the finer branches as would lift up the mind while interesting it. In this way we could suppress a large number of the idlers without falling into overwork and without depreciating the race under pretense of elevating it. We need not concern ourselves about the number of things a child knows, but about the way he knows and has learned them, and about the general vigor he derives from his exercises, which alone gives a net profit to the species. How does the earth recreate itself? In the sun, the air, and the rain, by the free action of forces which work upon it incessantly. Quiet on the surface, it works and buds beneath. So with the mind. We should at certain times let Nature act, and not interrupt the unconscious and spontaneous work of organization that is going on in the depth of the brain, as we let the force which is germinating grass and oaks work in the depth of the soil, in solitude.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.
From the ages of persons who have died in France during the last thirty-two years, M. Turquan computes that the average length of life in that country has been about thirty-eight years for women, thirty-six years for men, and thirtyseven years for the whole. This is now exceeded, and the average has risen to more than forty years.