Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/May 1894/Cause and Effect in Education



I DO not know when the intellectual life is born. If we consult our own very different and individual experiences we would reach a variety of answers. But I shall at least express the experience of a large body of people in saying that this intellectual birth begins when for the first time we apprehend the principle of causation.

In any age there are but few who have attained the intellectual life. The vast majority of the race are still absorbed with the vegetative and animal functions of life. One would say that the birth of the spirit is not yet. Even among those called enlightened the major part merely assent to the principle of causation. They can not be said to apprehend it as an experience of their own intelligence. If you propound the principle to average men and women they will unhesitatingly agree with you. It takes no great cleverness to see that a denial would mean an impossible contradiction. In the sequence of events, causes are followed by adequate and commensurate effects; back of all effects are adequate and commensurate causes. This does very well as an abstract sentiment. But in the next comment which these good people make upon human affairs, it is more than probable that their denial of causation will be quite as direct and explicit as if expressed in so many words. And this is notably the case if the comment be upon those affairs which involve long-standing traditions, as when the talk turns upon political or social or religious issues.

The difficulty of being consistent is a great difficulty. The ability to be consistent is a proper test of intellectual progress. A great advance has been made when the beliefs in one department of thought are not entirely contradicted and neutralized by the beliefs in another department; when even a small residue of positive philosophy remains; when our science does not contradict our religion, and our religion our politics, and our politics our sociology.

How shall one attain even a moderate degree of reason? It is a large task to make the beliefs in any one bundle harmonize. It is a still greater task to make the bundles themselves harmonize with one another. In the autobiography of John Stuart Mill we have the record of such an attempt, and I know of no book in the language, which so stimulates one's desire to undertake a similar task.

Turning now from the workers to their work, the same principle will serve as an adequate test of progress. Any branch of knowledge becomes a science only when the relation between cause and effect is rigidly established, and the capricious and accidental are as rigidly eliminated. Comte found his test of science in the power of prediction. There is no science, unless under certain given conditions we can say precisely what will happen. But this, I take it, is only another way of saying the same thing: we can predict only when we have perceived the causal relations.

The most common affairs of life have not yet been reduced in practice to a science. Bread-making, for example, is still a black art. You put flour and water and yeast and salt and lard together, and do certain things to it, and then trust to the gods to make it into bread. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Sometimes you have good bread and more often you don't. Yet I once met a man, an ex-college professor, who said that he always had good bread. His recipe was simple: he made the conditions invariable and the results were likewise invariable. We have all heard of the lady who, when her servant was out, put wood and paper and coal together, applied a match, and then went upstairs and prayed that she might have a fire.

Practically we do not disapprove of this condition of affairs. For the most part, it amuses us.

But the less domestic sciences afford better illustrations of the realization of the principle. In the hands of Kepler, for instance, astronomy failed to be a science. With wonderful skill he applied his knowledge of conic sections to the motions of the planets. Yet he could offer no better explanation of these motions than the suggestion that each planet was the chariot of an indwelling, guiding spirit. We could predict nothing of these imaginary charioteers, for the laws which might be presumed to govern them were quite beyond the limits of investigation. But with the introduction of the conception of universal gravitation, the study of astronomy took rank as a recognized science, and its observed phenomena were reducible to an orderly sequence of cause and effect. It is true that gravitation itself remains as profound a mystery as the charioteers of Kepler, and in substituting the one for the other we have not explained the universe. But we never hoped to do that. The superiority of gravitation lies in this, that it is the cause of uniform and measurable effects. Under Kepler's conception of things, the perturbations of Uranus might be ascribed to a little caprice on the part of the charioteer. Under Newton's conception such a disposition of the irregularities would be impossible. They could result only from the attraction of a definite amount of matter acting at a definite distance. When Adams and Leverrier had completed their calculations. Dr. Galle knew exactly where to point his great telescope, and, as we all know, it pointed to Neptune.

It was the same with geology. Sir Charles Lyell substituted for the unimaginable cataclysms of the older geologists the slow and simple operations of Nature's present forces. It was his work which changed geology from a wild dream into an accurate science, and to-day we hold this principle of causation as the check and test of all geological speculations.

The science of chemistry was born when the principle of the conservation of matter became established, and men stood face to face with the necessary relation between cause and effect; when they realized their own inability to bring matter out of nothingness, or to make it pass into nothingness again. Similarly, physics, as a science, came only with the recognition of the principles of the conservation of energy and the correlation of forces. It is difficult for us, standing on the vantage ground of the present, to realize into what an abyss we should suddenly plunge if we lost sight for one moment of these gains and passed into a world of thought in which energy came and went and matter appeared and disappeared. It would practically be a world of insanities.

Almost in our own generation we have seen the birth of the science of biology, and we all remember very vividly the bitter pain of its birth. As a branch of study, it has existed from the very earliest days when man first began to observe animated Nature; but it remained a body of isolated facts until the work of Darwin and Wallace established the causal relations involved in evolution, and suggested the mode by which this process of unfolding had been brought about.

It would be very easy to enlarge these illustrations in what we call the "natural" sciences, but it is hardly necessary. The point is probably established.

In those branches of inquiry which have to do with human rather than with purely physical activities, we shall find precisely the same thing; but in this case their history is so complex that the recognition of the principle of causation, and its application to human affairs, have been correspondingly slower. Even now it is far from complete. Nevertheless, in this study of the human spirit, we have all along been blindly trying to establish the principle of cause and effect. In the half-science which has grown out of this attempt, the failure has come, not from a wrong end in mind—and this is to be particularly noted but—rather from the establishment of fictitious causal relationships. In the complex operations of the human spirit we have observed definite results; we have sought for causes; we have not been wise enough to find them; but we have found something which we mistook for causes, and so we have built up a system founded on false relationships. The mistake is difficult to rectify. These imaginary causes must first be swept away. The true science comes only when the true and adequate cause is discovered.

We are witnessing to-day the rehabilitation of the sciences of the human spirit. In all of them the reforming process is the same. It is the mending of the old mistake; the getting rid of the fictitious causations, and the search for the true ones. Thus, for example, the fertile thought in modern sociology is the growing recognition of the fact that national characteristics are the direct outgrowth of the material conditions surrounding the nation—the climate, the soil, the food. The evil of intemperance is being met and vanquished on the same ground, not by prohibitions and pledges, but by the substitution of such a rational diet and such rational life conditions that an exhausted physical system will no longer crave the false stimulus of intoxicants. If a young man drinks to excess we no longer put the blame upon the devil, although in giving up this cause we have certainly dispensed with a great convenience. We put the blame nearer home. The careful housekeeper, overbusy with much scrubbing, has had something to do with it, if in her eager pursuit of dust she has forgotten to provide wholesome, nutritious food for the vigorous, healthy organisms committed to her charge. The home conditions have had something to do with it if they have offered attractions so meager as to be quite outweighed by the anæsthesia of drunkenness.

This modern search after true causation is merciless in its operation. It is a two-edged sword. It is tracing home the source of social distempers to men and women who have hitherto been complacently patting themselves upon the back and putting the blame upon the world, the devil, God, Providence—in a word, upon anything rather than upon their own ignorance.

Among the many activities concerning themselves with the welfare of the human spirit, there is none more complex, more difficult, or more important than that activity which we sum up under the name of education; but the history of its growth is much the same history as that of the sciences, "natural" and "human," which we have just been sketching. If it is to become a science, it is to become one by precisely the same process as these have done—that is to say, by the establishment within itself of true causal relations.

In all of this, one is but the chronicler of the obvious, and says nothing that is new. But probably the verities are mostly old. It is only their restatement that is new. Let us be honest. Let us acknowledge that what we most need is, not so much any fresh accession of truth, as a more sincere and persistent effort to live up to such measure of it as we have.

And yet this very obvious thing has not been done. One can not honestly say that the education of to-day rests upon a scientific basis. It seems to us absurd now that Kepler should have referred the planetary motions to an indwelling will. But we are doing things even more absurd in the name of education. We observe tendencies in children: we refer them to false causes. We desire a certain development: we set in motion the wrong machinery. In a word, as scientists we are causationists; as educators we are not.

Now, what is to be done about it? Modern educators are for the most part sincere, enthusiastic, devoted. Even to those who teach simply for the salary, there must come occasionally an altruistic thrill. Why then do we fail so dismally? Why are we all so blind?

It is easier to ask questions than to answer them; to declare one's self a sinner than to become a saint. But the world is old. It has met many sorrows. We ought from these to be able to learn some lessons. We ought to be able to reach some fertile thought capable of transforming education into a science.

Few problems have had greater play of thought about them than this very problem of education, and it has been thought of a high character. The various lines which this thought has taken are to be found in the histories of education. It is noticeable in glancing over this curious history that all lines converge in this one point, that each system of education which they represent is the somewhat retarded reflection of the Zeitgeist—the belated product of the great time-spirit of the age in which they happened to be born. Resting, as education does, upon all the other sciences, it is inevitable that its fruition should follow theirs. With religion and ethics and sociology and biology in a state of incoherence and empiricism, it was manifestly impossible for education to be rational. It was first necessary that the foundation sciences should be reduced to order, and the sequence of cause and effect established within their own borders. This has been done in part. It is the peculiar glory of these closing years of the nineteenth century that they have witnessed a unification of knowledge such as previous ages had not the power even to dream of. These many sciences upon which education rests have been shown to be but so many manifestations of one science, and the phenomena which they study but the operations of one law. And this law expresses the orderly sequence of the universe, the inviolable following of cause and effect, the exclusion of exterior, unmeasurable agencies, the uniform unfolding of the present out of the past—in a word, it is the great law of evolution. The system of education which is the proper flower and fruit of this accumulated science is clearly a system which proceeds upon this universal principle of development.

We liave said that the reflection of the time-spirit which education represents is always and necessarily a somewhat retarded image. It follows the time-spirit. It can not precede it. But were this all, the problem of education would be vastly easier than at present. Fallen as we are upon a scientific age, it would be a comfort to believe that the image of it shown in education would surely conform to it, however slowly. But unfortunately the plate upon which this reflection is thrown is far from free. It bears already the deep impressions of many previous images. At any moment our education reflects not only the living Zeitgeist, but also, and even more clearly, the dead standards of a long past. It is seldom that a man arises among us who has sufficiently clear vision to distinguish these several images and apply the upper one to the needs of childhood. It is comparatively easy to refute a sophistry with a new face. It is tremendously difficult to escape the power of a sophistry to which you have been born, and in the presence of whose illogic you have always lived. It takes genius to escape.

But suppose now for one brief moment that we could apply a sponge to this complex plate of ours not from the front, for that would remove the image we most wish to preserve; but from the back, removing image after image until we came to the last and uppermost—what do you think we should remove, and what let stand, in our current education? I think we should erase much and leave but little. Let us see.

The human infant is a much less complex thing than we are wont to think. It is plastic and general; for the most part a mere bundle of possibilities. And we stand to it in the relation of Fate or Destiny. We have given to us a tiny organism with little individual will or intelligence. The influences to which we subject this organism constitute the educative process.

There are two elements to be considered. First of all, there is wrapped up in this tiny ball of organized matter an inherent tendency more inexorable than the predestination taught by Calvin. We call it heredity. It is the gift, for good or ill, of fathers and great-grandfathers, of mothers and great-grandmothers, for many generations back. The fairy godmothers who come in the story book to every child's christening represent a scientific fact. The talents they bestow, the fatal limitations they inflict, are not by chance. They are the qualities of ancestry.

A system of education neglecting this element of heredity neglects a determining cause, and is fundamentally unscientific. But it is an element largely beyond the control of the teacher. All he can do is to develop these germs, or discourage them, as heredity seems good or bad. Even in this very moderate function he blunders, for the most part, terribly.

The second element is the one with which we have practically to deal. It includes all post-natal influences. In science we call it environment.

It is a long-standing debate as to which of these elements is the stronger. We need not enter the controversy. The balance of present evidence seems to support that view of the matter which gives the greater influence to environment. In this lies the hope of the educator. We mean to get the best of the dead great-grandmother. Mr. Fiske has pointed out that in the increased helplessness of the human infant, in its greater freedom from inborn instincts, in the lengthening days of the plastic period of infancy are to be found the possibilities of a far greater individual advance.

This, then, is the problem set before us as educators—so to shape these influences that the developing human spirit may approach perfection. It is not a new problem. It was before the Greeks. It was before the men of the middle ages. It has been constantly before our own people. But it has never been very satisfactorily solved.

The extent of our failure can be better realized when we remember that nearly all educational reforms have been forced upon the schools from without. They originated with men and women who were so fortunate as to escape the pedagogical blight. When we remember further that the men of mark in the great world of action and creative thought have either been educated in an irregular fashion, or, if they have gone to the academies and colleges, have never taken the courses too seriously, these facts are significant. They mean that education has too often been a thwarting of the spirit, an attempt to fit a square plug into a round hole, a pressure, a dead weight, rather than an unfolding. They mean, in short, that education has seldom, in practice at least, been reduced to a science.

We fail as Ptolemy failed, as Kepler failed, as the alchemists failed. We fail because we do not observe the true sequence of cause and effect in the life of the child. We shall succeed when we abandon our educational nostrums, our tonics, our pills, our philosopher's stones for turning ignorance into knowledge, our short-cut methods of salvation for making bad into good. We shall transform education into a science and educators into scientists when we give up these off-hand remedies, these false views of causal relationships, and come to recognize the simple fact that the child is an organism, and that the processes of growth and education must conform to the laws of organisms. We must part company with that fatal duality which separates body and spirit. We must look upon the child as a unit. We must see in it an organism which includes both body and spirit, an integer. Then we shall substitute true causation for false causation. To do this, will be to follow in the footsteps of Newton, to write the Principia for education.

To make a good telescopic lens we must have glass of a certain quality, high refractive power, freedom from flaws, perfect transparency. Then we must carefully fashion it into a certain prescribed form. How utterly stupid it would be for us to spend all our time and energy upon one half of the problem—the fashioning of the lens—and neglect the quality of the material! We can imagine no one insane enough to do such a thing. Yet in education we are guilty of this very insanity. It is no wonder that the result so often fails to disclose heaven.

Another illustration. Carbonic-acid gas, ammonia, and water vapor constitute the chief food of plants. But you may surround a plant with just such an atmosphere, and yet get little growth if the soil be unsuitable, and the vivifying sunshine be not there to transmute this food into vegetable fiber. I often stand in our crowded schoolrooms with the feeling that we have provided an atmosphere rich in the materials of knowledge—possibly over-rich—but that we have not seen to the root of the matter in trying to meliorate the life conditions of the child; and particularly that there is lacking the needed sunshine of a joyous, wholesome spirit to assimilate this food, and turn it into healthful human growth.

If a boy be up late at night; if he be routed out of bed early on the following morning, before the strong sleep of youth has spent itself; if he be flurried with little household cares, and the inconveniences of long transportation, is it a wonder that when at last he reaches the school, out of breath, and just in time to hear the morning lesson, we can do little with him? The marvel is that we should expect to. He had much better stay at home. Fond parents tell it of their children, and priggish children tell it of themselves, that they have not missed a single day at school in eight or nine or some other weary waste of years. There is no merit in this. The question is. What spirit did they take along, and what did the school profit them after they got there?

The life of an organism consists of nutrition, of growth, and of reproduction.

How often do we remember these cardinal facts in handling the human organism? The food of school children is of the most haphazard character; their growth, an accidental factor, and the holy mystery of fatherhood and motherhood too delicate a matter to mention to them. We err very grievously against the helplessness of childhood and youth in thus willfully neglecting the known elements in their development, and turning so persistently to imaginary and fictitious causes. We are practically denying the principle of causation.

One may not be willing to say that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile; but whatever theory of the origin and nature of the human spirit we may entertain, it must be admitted that the brain is its tool, and to have a wholesome manifestation requires a wholesome instrument. One need not be frightened—this is not materialism. I do not want the child to be merely a wholesome kitten—a beautiful, soulless Antinous. Let us think of him as a unit. When we say food, we have in mind ideas as well as oatmeal. When we say growth, we have in mind increasing perception as well as increasing stature. When we say reproduction, we have in mind the creative activities of the artist spirit, as well as the function of parenthood. But these things go together. It is neither an animal nor a spirit which presents itself at our door and submits to be educated. It is a monistic child.

We shall never have a scientific system of education so long as we persist in considering only a part of the child's day, and only the exterior aspect of his life. It is useless to argue that these matters belong to the province of parents, and not of teachers, for we all know that they are sadly neglected. The day school can not succeed without the co-operation of the home. It is rarely forthcoming. The average American parent will make heroic sacrifices to give his children what he is pleased to call an education. To him, this means sending them to school—five hours out of twenty-four, five days out of seven. In this he only illustrates his supreme faith in machinery. Under what influences do the children come? With what other children do they associate? What happens to them for the rest of the time?

Who asks these questions?


Who knows the answers?


We fail, then, so lamentably as teachers, not because we are altogether unwise, or because our methods are altogether bad, but very largely because we have deficient organisms to work upon. We are stupidly trying to make bricks without straw. We are trying to educate without employing the means by which alone education can be accomplished.

A curious case has recently come to my notice of a little English girl who suddenly developed a propensity for stealing. Her parents were naturally much mortified. The child herself was very unhappy, for she felt keenly the withdrawal of affection on all sides. In despair she was taken up to London, to a child specialist. He examined her carefully, inquired into her manner of life, and finally pronounced the difficulty to be anæmia. He ordered her to be put to bed and given as many sweets as she would eat. In a short time the child regained her health, and with it her normal attitude toward life.

It is not probable that all moral disorders could be cured by so simple a prescription as sugar, but it is probable that the removal of organic disorders would remove many of their concomitants—moral disorders.

We close our eyes to this. The reflected image of our scientific Zeitgeist is faint compared to the deep-set images of a dead timespirit. These images have their home in the traditions and superstitions of society. They are the reflection of ignorance, not of knowledge. They belong to a metaphysical rather than to an experimental age.

What are some of these images?

Baffling the clear recognition of cause and effect in the life of the child, there still lingers, and lingers persistently, that monstrous fiction of a diseased imagination which men call sin. It is the image reflected from a theological as opposed to a religious age. It is an obstacle in very truth, for it turns us away from causal terms to a false nomenclature and a false treatment. We say that a boy is bad when we ought to say that his life conditions are unfavorable; that his parents and teachers are unwise. It is difficult to search out the true cause of wrong action. It is easy to call it sin. This is a stubborn image. It persists, for it has back of it immense vested interests. We have in our midst a vast organization which rests its whole excuse for being upon the reality of sin. Its sole function is to circumvent this enemy, and conduct man to God and heaven. It would be disorganizing to admit that in all this it is fighting a poor human fetich, whose shadow obscures from humanity the gracious face of the Eternal. Yet to abandon this nightmare would simply be to return to the pure teaching of Socrates. The monstrous entity of sin had for him no real existence. He found in the world vast ignorance, and he fought it. Virtue he regarded as the fruit of knowledge, and he cultivated it.

Another hideous image comes to us from a vulgar and ascetic age. It regards the uncovered human body as an object of shame. With such immodest ideas of modesty we attempt the development of an organism which we keep studiously out of sight. Little Margaret is very picturesque in her quaint gown and big hat. They conceal the fact that her poor little body is stunted and undeveloped, and will but ill withstand the emotions and functions of womanhood. Brother Jack is also a lively figure in bright kilt skirt and velvet jacket. His neck is thin, but it is surrounded by a very broad linen collar. We look at that and find him charming. His little legs are slender as broomsticks, but they are in thick black hose, and the red kilt attracts the eye. We look at that and are satisfied. He is active and noisy. We take it for granted that he is getting on finely. Were he in the bath-tub, we should think otherwise. Later, Jack goes to college. He breaks down. His mother says it is overwork. But this is not the truth. The truth is that he has not the brain power to cope with normal intellectual tasks. The fault is elsewhere than with the curriculum. In all this, the image cast by prudery makes us horribly unscientific. Worse still, it makes us hopelessly vulgar.

These are but two out of a large and bad company of images which to-day obscure the reflection of science in education. They make difficult the recognition of the simple fact that the child is an organic unity; and they make practically impossible the development of any system of education based upon this truth. So long as we allow this obscurity, and persist in this blindness, we shall have no science of education, however many schoolhouses we may build, for we shall be steadily doing violence to a principle which may not be violated—the sequence of cause and effect.