Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/June 1894/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE POSSIBILITIES OF EDUCATION.

THE article from the pen of Prof. C. Hanford Henderson, which appeared in our last number under the title of Cause and Effect in Education, is one deserving of more than passing attention. The point he sought to make was that education as an art can hardly be said as yet to have entered on its scientific stage, seeing that it is still haunted by so many unverified a priori conceptions, and that the true limits and conditions of successful working are still far from being generally understood. The general subject is one which has been very often discussed in these columns, but it is also one on which there always seems to be another word to say.

Education, from one point of view, is a debt which the adult generation owes to that which is to succeed it. This civilization to which we have attained, these general ideas, these intellectual resources, these moral principles, these habits and customs of proved utility—how are they to be passed on to those who are to succeed us? By education—that is to say, by mental contact and moral sympathy between those who know and those who as yet do not know. That is the problem in its most general aspect. Here we may make two reasonable assumptions; the first, that all we have learned the rising generation may also learn; the second, that possibly, nay probably, it is not worth the while of the rising generation to learn all that we have learned. We can not teach our children more than we know, but we can teach them less than we know, and so leave room for their own independent acquisitions. It behooves us, therefore, to sift our knowledge and whatever else we have to impart, and consider very carefully what is worth passing on and what is not. Much good, we believe, would come from a serious and earnest facing of this question, What should I teach or have taught to my child in its own best interest? Things which we ourselves have learned, perhaps with considerable effort or at considerable cost in other ways, we are apt to attach a fictitious value to, simply because they have cost us dear; but the spirit of virtuosity should not enter into education; let the child become a virtuoso after his own fashion later if circumstances lead him to do so, but meantime let our chief effort be to give him a free and healthy mind in a free and healthy body.

One thing is certain: every child, every human being, wants the full use of his senses and other natural faculties. Eyes were made to see with, ears to hear with, vocal organs to speak and sing with, and hands to feel with. Any system of education, therefore, that is inspired by true benevolence toward the child will start by taking stock of his natural endowments, so as to correct, as far as possible, any defects that may attach to them and provide for their fullest development. Children are often far from perceiving the benevolent intent in the systems of education to which they are subjected; and it is little wonder, in general, that it should be so. But, if an effort were being vigorously made to carry every natural faculty they possessed to its perfection—to make the eyes quick and true, the voice sweet and full, the hearing sensitive and discriminating, the bodily movements vigorous and graceful, and so on—the beneficence of the process would impress itself even on the juvenile mind, and thus half the battle would be gained, for we want the children's confidence before we can do them much good. Nothing, we believe, would do so much toward the development of the all-important quality of self-respect as a careful physical training. It would, on the one hand, promote individuality, inasmuch as the child would be made to feel what he or she was capable of individually, and, on the other, it would promote a true comradeship, as it would awaken a consciousness of that common physical nature, with its varied powers, of which all partake.

Here, therefore, is a part of education about which there can be no mistake—a preparation for perfect living in the physical sense—that perfect living which economizes both mental and moral force, and places the individual in a position of advantage for the accomplishment of all the ends of life. Under a system which made due provision for this kind of training, questions of diet, of clothing, of exercise, of ventilation, of bodily habits, and so forth, would, of course, be carefully considered, and whatever was best in all these respects would be suitably held up for guidance and instruction. It is true that there is much that is defective from a hygienic point of view in the home life of nearly all classes, and on that very account it is important that true hygienic principles should be inculcated, in a manner as free as possible from pedantry, in the schools; for if the children can be taught simply and clearly the conditions on which their health and comfort depend, they will themselves exert a wholesome influence in the household.

What Paul said to the Athenians might be said to-day to ourselves: We are in all things too superstitious, and particularly in the matter of education. Instead of seeking as we do now to see how much we can cram into youthful minds, or in other words how much ot the elastic force of the brain we can destroy—for that is what it comes to in at least a multitude of cases—we should consider all so-called knowledge contraband of the childish mind until its assimilable character has been fully demonstrated. When we are satisfied that it will act as food and not as the mere stuffing of the taxidermist to bulge out the intellectual nature into a conventional shape, let us impart it, and not before; but do not let us give too much even of food, remembering that the animal which goes in search of its own food gets the highest and best development, the most ingeniously adapted structure, the widest range of faculty. The most fatal fault we can commit is that of unduly taming and domesticating the mind, so to speak, so that it expects to be fed by others, instead of going abroad to see what the universe will do for it.

The more we expect from education, the less we are apt to get from it in the way of useful results. We form an idea of a highly rationalized man of refined intellectual and artistic tastes, with perhaps a large element of moral idealism, and generally "up to date"; and that we set up, as Nebuchadnezzar did his brazen image, for all the world to bow down to. The object of education, we think, is to produce something like that. Well, education isn't going to do it. Men of that kind have always been exceptional, nor is it education that has given them the qualities we so much admire. If education had done it for them, why then, doubtless, it could do it for others; but what do we see? From the same form in school, perhaps from the same household, one will rise to honor and another sink to dishonor; one will become conspicuous in society, another will never emerge from obscurity. But what education will do, if we work on natural lines, if we are not too fussy over it, and are careful not to give it in too large doses, will be to liberate and more or less wisely direct a vast amount of intellectual power which at present we confine and almost paralyze. Good and sensible people are often heard groaning over the vulgar and frivolous enjoyments which alone seem to afford any pleasure to the multitude; and there is some reason for the plaint, though the multitude may not be so much to blame as is supposed. It is a question of intellectual energy. The man or woman who has much of it to spare will not be a frequenter of the mere spectacular drama, nor a devourer of coarsely sensational novels. What excuse is sometimes given by our busy men for their very inferior taste in literary, dramatic, and other matters? Oh, that they are so fagged out by their day's work that they want the stimulus of something sensational. The excuse is worked for all that it is worth; but in some cases there is something in it. As regards a much larger number, however, both of men and of women, the trouble probably is that their intellectual faculties were not only not strengthened or invigorated by their early education, but were more or less dwarfed and numbed. If a youth were to go through an alleged course of athletic training and were to come away with dwindled muscles and a more languid condition of body than he had when he began, we could at once, on the evidence of our senses, pronounce the whole thing a fraud. The mind, unfortunately, does not admit of the same simple measurements as the muscles, and we can not therefore so easily detect the fraud when, after from five to ten years of schooling, a young person steps out into the world with less of intellectual apprehensiveness and less of available mental vigor than he or she had as a little child. Yet, that this has been, and still is, a not infrequent result, who will deny?

There are great possibilities of good in education if we will but recognize our proper rôle in the matter, and not try to usurp the place of the one consummate teacher—Nature. There are vast possibilities of evil in it if, planting ourselves on dogmas, traditions, and classicisms, or attaching too absolute an authority to our own generalizations, we seek to dominate the minds whose gradual evolution we should patiently watch and cautiously and tenderly assist. Most of us probably have more or less teaching to do: let us remember that, so far as this is the case, our art is not that of the taxidermist or constructor of lay figures, but that we have living tissue to deal with; and let us respect the mysteries of life and growth.

 

 
IS SOCIETY VULGAR?

Some weeks ago a prominent clergyman of this city was reported to have expressed the opinion that the "society" of to-day is vulgar. Reporters called upon him to ascertain if he really had said anything so dreadful, and he was obliged to confess that he had, and that he really thought he had spoken the truth. It is evident that whether he did speak the truth or not depends on the sense we attach to the word vulgar. If to be vulgar means to live plainly and without ostentation, then society is not vulgar, but very much the opposite. If to be vulgar means to take unconventional views of things, and to estimate men and women more according to their intellectual and moral qualities than by the wealth they possess and the figure they are able to cut in the world of fashion, then to say that society is vulgar is a cruel slander. If to be vulgar is to be unversed in social forms, but sincere in friendship, then society deserves no such reproach. Finally, if to be vulgar means to possess and cultivate individuality, to study the principles of taste, and to consider these as more entitled to respect than the dictates of fashion, to regard advantages of wealth and position as held in trust for mankind at large, and to make the enjoyment of pleasure secondary to the performance of duty, the accusation of vulgarity is very much beside the mark.

The word "vulgar," as we all know, means "appertaining to, or characteristic of, the multitude." We have not turned up the word in the dictionary, for we feel sure this definition will suffice. An infallible rule, therefore, for being vulgar according to the measure of your ability, is to keep your eye on others, so that whatsoever they do you may do also, irrespective of your own judgment as to the merits of the particular act or course of action. If you begin to study the right or wrong of the thing, to consider whether what suits, or seems to suit, others is also suitable to you—if, in a word, you bring private judgment and a moral or æsthetic conscience to bear on the matter—you at once run the risk of not being vulgar, and that is a risk which a good many persons do not care to run. "As well out of the world as out of the fashion" is the whole law and gospel of vulgarity, seeing that it is the maxim which compels people to abnegate and set at nought their private judgment, and act blindly in troops at the bidding of some unseen and possibly very despicable master of ceremonies.

We begin to see now, perhaps, what the eminent clergyman meant when he said that "society" was vulgar. He did not mean any of the things first hinted at. He was thinking of the essential meaning of the word. He saw, with a clearness of vision which it would be well if all ministers of the gospel possessed, that luxury does not shut out vulgarity, that so-called polite manners are not incompatible with it, that even educational acquirements may only, like varnish, bring out its grain more distinctly. He saw that "society," when all is said and done, lives mainly to eat and drink and nourish the bodily senses; that far from believing in and cultivating individuality, it represses it to the utmost; that, instead of discussing, like citizens of a free republic, the codes by which it is governed, it only asks to know that they have been imposed by some recognized authority; that, in a word, it is whatever is most commonplace, glorified by the power of gold. So he ventured to say it was vulgar, and, if it is not, then what is it? It is, broadly speaking, a region of tinsel, of monotonous routine, of rival vanities so alike in their expression that one is hardly to be distinguished from another, and of slavish imitation. The way of escape from this City of Destruction lies through the cultivation of individuality and thoughtfulness for others. As the essence of vulgarity is to be a selfish, unreflecting slave of fashion, so the farthest remove from it is to be a freely thinking, judging, and acting individual, seeking ever higher modes of life, and desiring to communicate as much of good as possible to others. The aim of education ought to be to rescue from vulgarity and win over to a broad humanity—to plant the law of reason in the mind and the law of love in the heart.

 

 

The several psychological works of Prof. James Sully are so widely read and frequently cited in America that their author needs no introduction to the readers of the Monthly. Accordingly, we feel that we are making a very welcome announcement in stating that Prof. Sully has consented to contribute to this magazine a series of articles embodying some of the studies of mental development in childhood that he has been making during the past few years. The first of these articles, under the special title, The Age of Imagination, will appear in our July number. It deals with what the author calls "the play of imagination, the magic transmuting of things through the sheer liveliness and wanton activity of a child's fancy." The mind of the child is still a little-explored country, and an examination of it under Prof. Sully's competent guidance will not only have the charm of novelty but will also furnish much helpful insight to all who have the care of children.