Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/August 1895/The Nervous System, and its Relation to Education

Popular Science Monthly Volume 47 August 1895  (1895) 
The Nervous System, and its Relation to Education by John Ferguson


By JOHN FERGUSON, M. A., M. D., Ph. D.,


JOHN LOCKE, the physician and philosopher, long ago said that all our knowledge came from experience. Throughout his Treatise on the Human Understanding he develops this view of the acquisition of knowledge. This was followed by the writings of David Hume, the Scottish historian and metaphysician, who held that we knew nothing of objects in themselves, but only through their qualities; or, in other words, that we know of nothing but ideas. This was in turn followed by Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, who took the ground that, though all our knowledge did not come from experience (as taught by Locke), yet it all came by experience. He held firmly to the ground that we had intuitions, or an a priori knowledge. It was this intuitive power that enabled us, by experience, a posteriori, to acquire knowledge of the qualities and of the forms of matter. Later came those who, like Ribot, Spencer, Romanes, have taught that there is no science of mind apart from the operations of the nervous system; that the operations of the brain constitute what is known as mental processes. Differing from these, the late T. H. Green held, as did Kant, that there is a science of ethics and psychology, independently of the study of physiology.

Fortunately for the purposes of this article, it will not be necessary to review the opinions of the above writers; it will not be necessary to prove which of the many views is correct. This much is definitely known: that certain physiological laws govern the human body, so as to determine what we know and how we came to know it. The intuitions of Kant, the common sense of Locke and Reid, the skepticism of Hume on knowledge, the idealism of Berkeley, need not detain us, as they have no special interest for the present. The object before us is to show that we come by our knowledge through, experience, and in what manner experience acts upon our nervous system.

It is, therefore, the nervous system which we have to do with in every system of education. It will go with the saying that the better the condition of health in the nervous system, the better will it be for the plans of education. One of the fundamental laws that must govern all methods of education is the care of the health of those who are being taught. A normal condition of the conducting nerves and perceptive centers is necessary to a normal type of the perceptions gained by experience. In all schools and colleges sanitary principles ought to have the most thorough consideration. Impure air, either from bad ventilation or drainage, may do more harm to a number of children than the most eminent teacher can do good. If the brain is not well supplied with an abundance of nourishing and pure blood, its functions can not be well performed. It is a poor waste of time to teach a child, unless what is taught is imparted under such circumstances as to be remembered; and how can impressions made upon the brain become fixed and retained unless it is in a fit condition of health, activity, nutrition, and rest? Mens sana in corpore sano is now and always will be true.

Granting that the school or college is in a sanitary condition, and that there is a proper mixture of recreation in the hours of study, the individual characteristics of each pupil deserve to be taken into account. No teacher does his duty who does not make each pupil placed under his charge a careful character study. It is true this takes much time and requires much judgment; but it is far more than repaid by the greater progress that can afterward be made by the teacher with such a pupil. Some children who may be naturally truthful are, nevertheless, extremely sensitive to pain, and as a consequence will lie to escape punishment. Others, again, are instinctively prevaricators; while some are so constituted as to have no fear of corporal punishment. The hope of reward will stimulate one child to diligence; but no such result is produced in a second. One will study from a love of the work; whereas another looks upon all study as a useless waste of time, and a weary drudgery. Individualism should therefore play an important role in the management of every school. The teacher must ever fall far short of true success who does not or who can not become familiar with the many differences thus to be found in the mental and ethical qualities of his class.

Prenatal and postnatal influences may have seriously impaired the child's health, and especially that of its nervous system. Nature has done much to protect her works from the destructive and injurious effects of their environments. But, in spite of this, the conditions of life and development may have been so bad that the child is started on its journey with an organism full of twists and irregularities. Mirabeau was once asked when he would commence the education of a child. "Twenty years before it is born" was the philosophic answer. The prenatal influences of heredity can not be overestimated. An unhealthy, depraved, immoral, and vicious parentage tells its sad tale through the offspring. Tennyson is as correct to science as he was poetical when he said:

"'Tis the blot upon the brain
That will show itself without."

It matters nothing whether the views of Darwin shall stand the test of future investigation, that acquired characteristics can be inherited; or the views of Weissman, that they can not. The fact remains that a weak and diseased nervous organism is much more liable to take on a perverted growth and development than one that is ushered into the world free from such blemishes. One of the prime objects in every system of education ought therefore to be the studious care given to the health of the scholars, so as to avoid damaging those who are as yet sound, and in order to remove as far as possible the blots that have already been made upon the nervous mechanism of others, and that must show themselves without.

"Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu (There is nothing in the intellect that has not first come through the senses)." Philosophy and experience alike confirm the truth of the above. When the child is born, its mind is like a sheet of white paper, as Locke expresses it; but soon there begin to be impressions made upon it, as characters may be inscribed upon the paper. It is now some two hundred and seventy-five years since Comenius recognized that children gain their knowledge through the senses, and that these should be properly educated on suitable objects. He strongly urged that matter, and not form, should be presented to children. We should "cease to persuade, and begin to demonstrate; cease to dispute, and begin to look." An old Latin writer puts it thus: "Iter longum est per precepta; breve et efficax per exempla (The way is long by precept; short and effective by example)."

With Kant and Green I agree that there are certain a priori intuitions, such as those of time and space. But I also agree with Kant, Locke, Reid, Spencer, and others, that our knowledge comes through experience. It is of the utmost importance that the experiences to which a child is subjected should be of a proper kind; that they should be of such a kind as to develop the mind in wise directions, and store it with ideas of a useful and ennobling nature. The teachers under whom a child is placed, the company it is allowed to keep, the books it is permitted to read, should be the subject of 'the greatest care. John Stuart Blackie once said that the most inspiring thing for a young man was to be placed in the company of great and good men; and next to being in their company was to read their books and to read about them.

But while it is of the greatest importance that the experiences to which the child is exposed are of the best possible character, it is no less important that the nervous system and the sense organs of the child be in a sound and normal condition. The state, through the public-school system, is supplying buildings and teachers at great expense. All this outlay is for the purpose of imparting learning to the rising generation. Is it not right and proper that the state should see that the children upon whom this enormous sum of money is being spent are in a fit condition to receive the education that is offered? One would hardly think of any government spending millions upon an army, and making no selection of the men who were to form this army. Further, when the authorities had selected the men for the army, they would surely see that the benefits of training and drill would not be destroyed by dissipation and irregular habits among the soldiery.

Thus I think it is clearly the duty of the state to exercise its authority in the suppression of injurious books, papers, and advertisements. It is high time that stringent steps were taken in this direction. It does seem strange that large sums are paid annually to furnish children with good reason and morals, and at the same time numerous presses are turning out tons of reading matter of the most degrading and perverting nature. There is still another reform that could be well introduced. A proper medical inspector should be appointed to examine schools and determine their sanitary condition. All matters of drainage, heating, lighting, and ventilation would be subjects for his consideration. It is hardly to be expected that the nervous system and special senses of the pupils will be healthy if these children are pent up for a good portion of the day in an unhealthy schoolroom. Further, it ought to be the duty of this medical inspector to give the pupils of each school under his control regular instruction on hygiene, and especially on the hygiene of study and the care of the sense organs. A teacher may be a very intelligent person, yet the ordinary reading he may have bestowed upon these topics would not enable him to do them the same justice that a well-educated and experienced medical practitioner could. Cases of melancholia, hysteria, chorea, epilepsy, defects of vision, and such like, would be sent home by him for proper rest and treatment.

Children learn best what they like best. Pleasure in their studies is an all-important factor. I remember once reading in an old book a conversation that took place between Sir Walter Scott and the driver of a stagecoach. Scott was sitting on the seat along with the driver. The conversation turned upon a group of children coming out of an old-fashioned schoolhouse. The driver remarked that the teacher had great influence with his classes, and that his pupils made much progress in learning. Whereupon Scott inquired after the reason for such a happy state of affairs. He was informed by the stage man that the teacher worked on the lines of the old proverb that, "to be successful with children, you must allure the ear, inform the mind, and then impress the heart." This teacher was wise in his day. He sought to win the affections of the child. He established a confidence between himself and his pupil—in other words, he tried to make things agreeable. This accomplished, he commenced to fill the pupils' minds with new thoughts and new relations. The world of ideas was opened up to the child, which was made to see, feel, hear, and remember as it had never done before. On this an ethic or moral system was planted. The late George Paxton Young, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Toronto, often repeated in my hearing that, when he was a boy, he would have been punished for using a translation in the study of a Greek or Latin author. Now, however, if he had had his way, he would punish a student who would not make use of such an aid to promote his advancement and increase his pleasure in the study of the classics. "Pleasure and pain," said Locke, "are the hinges on which all our passions turn." The school life of the child ought to be so managed that its search after knowledge would be one continuous pursuit of pleasure.

Then, again, while it is necessary to present objects to the various senses in order that an acquaintanceship with them may be formed, it is equally necessary that these objects be properly selected and graded according to the age and understanding of the learner. When a pupil is not learning, it is not the fault of the child so much as it is of the teacher. Things have not been presented to the child in proper order or of suitable kind. It is quite true the child may be dull. Its mental development may be a long way behind that of another child of the same age; but this is not the fault of the child. It is the duty of the teacher to take things as he finds them, and to grade his teaching to meet the capacities of the pupil. The age of the pupil does not enable one to decide what may be the degree of perceptive power. This must be tested. It is an utter waste of time to present to a child too complex thoughts or ideas; it must be conducted from the simple to the complex. A child is often found fault with for not giving attention to study. The truth is that things have not been presented to it in such a manner as to interest it. In all cases where the matter is brought under the child's notice in such a way that it clearly understands it, there will not likely be much ground for complaint on the score of lack of interest. But a still further reason for lack of interest in study is that too often the teaching seems to the child to have no connection whatever with its outside life. Children soon learn to make inductions from their experience. If they can see no connection between what they are being taught and their experiences in life, there will certainly be a want of interest in their studies. It is a matter for congratulation that so much has been done in this direction. The natural method of teaching has made great progress, but much remains yet to be done. The most primitive schoolhouse in the land affords abundant facilities for the education of the child's senses, and, through them, its powers of observation. It is all contained in the simple question, Does the teacher understand the rational method of appealing to the child's intellect through its senses?

The teacher ought to be a close student of Nature. There is placed under his control a large number of young persons of the most varied possibilities. In the schoolroom we have a collection of members of the highest order of animal life. Every member of the class should be made to realize that there is the possibility of a great future in store for him. The imagination and ambition should be enlarged in wise directions. It is quite true these ambitions may never be realized; but the mental stimulus they give the growing youth is of a most valuable character. A high code of ethics should be found in every school; but this must have its fountain head with the teacher. I am not confounding ethics with religion. There was a high ideal of ethics in Plato and Aristides, though pagans; there was a high code of ethics revealed in the life of Darwin, though an agnostic; and there was a high code of ethics running through the life and writings of F. D. Maurice, who was a beautiful type of Christian character. Schiller, the German poet, has truly said: "It is an admirable proof of infinite wisdom that what is noble and benevolent beautifies the human countenance; what is base and hateful imprints upon it a revolting expression." Through the child's senses, feelings, and affections you must reach its soul, whatever this may be regarded to mean by different schools of thought, avoid inflicting scars upon it, and endeavor to erase those that may unfortunately have been made by former bad environments. Such a work as Mantegazza's Expression and Physiognomy should be in the hands of every teacher.

But the teacher must carry his studies in this direction further than that of mere expression and physiognomy. He ought to be a careful student of physiology and the laws of health. A thorough knowledge of the scientific principles of healthy exercise and study enhances a teacher's usefulness. If the adage "knowledge is power" be true anywhere, surely it is true here. Possessed of a knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system—a task which any intelligent teacher could master in a few months—he can deal with the whole question of the education of his class under a new and clearer light. Much that was a mystery to him regarding the acquisition of knowledge will become plain. The complex memory of a flower will be resolved into the memories of its several qualities, that were carried to the brain by conducting nerves. The association of ideas and the laws governing the same will be as simple as a lesson in elementary botany. The smelling of a rose reviving the memory of its color will cease to be an enigma. It will then become clear how a person may lose the power of speech and still be able to write and read; or how he may be able to read and write, although unable to hear spoken words; or, again, how he may have lost the power of hearing spoken words, and yet be able to speak, read, and write.

If any one should say that such a knowledge of the physiology of the nervous system in its relation to the acquisition of learning is of no use to the teacher, then I would reply that it is not necessary for the engineer to understand the engine he is running, the mariner the course he is sailing over, nor the farmer the nature of the soil he is tilling. The teacher has a number of young human beings placed under his charge. He is guiding them into the wide ocean of truth and thought. He is laying the foundations on which the future structure of their intellectual and moral natures are largely to be built. He is working with one of the grandest mechanisms known to man—the brain of the child! He ought therefore to know not only what he has to teach, but the subject that has to be taught and the best methods of teaching it. It can not be too strongly urged that if there be any derangement or want of harmony in these factors much of the good that might follow is lost. In order that the relationships between the nervous system and education be properly maintained the teacher must be thoroughly familiar with all three great divisions of his work—the things to be taught, the methods of teaching them, and the brain and sense organs that are to be developed. When the teacher has made himself master of the channels through which the child must acquire its knowledge it becomes an easier and a far more interesting work for him to select topics within the range of the child's understanding and experience. If he is a wise teacher he can build up the child's powers of observation for natural phenomena by leading from simple experiences to those that are more complex. But the great beauty of such teaching is that the child itself feels an interest in its work. It is learning as a pleasure and not as a drudgery.

People in general know what is meant by a natural or rational method of doing a certain task or carrying on to completion a given work. It is astonishing that the very opposite of a natural system should have prevailed so long in the important matter of the education of children throughout the schools of all countries. There have not been wanting some who, at different periods, have called attention to the wrong methods in vogue; but until recent years no very decided advance has been made. Too much importance can not be attached to the fact that in all well-regulated schools such subjects as botany, chemistry, and zoölogy should be taught by means of the objects under study. How much more natural it is to take a rose flower and carefully explain all its parts by pulling it to pieces than to attempt to give a class of young children a knowledge of the same flower by talking about it, without the object being in the hands of the teacher and class! By means of the objects the analogies and differences between the root, stem, and branch, or between the leaf, flower, and seed, can be shown and demonstrated to the class. Lessons conducted properly in this manner become a delight to children, and they come to regard their teacher as a true friend.

Let us examine how we come by a general idea, concept, or notion. Here we must call in the aid of language in naming abstractions. Under this there are ideas of complex character that exist in the mind without the need of language. Still more fundamental than these are simple conceptions carried to the perceptive centers by the ingoing nerve currents. Take the example of an ordinary cube. The child looks at it, and there is a visual impression formed of its color, of the length of each side, of the area of a surface, of the combination of the surfaces so as to give rise to the idea of solidity. The simple ideas are combined into the more complex idea—the visual one of a cube. But by the aid of touch other qualities can be ascertained. The hardness, weight, sharpness of edges and angles, smoothness or roughness of surfaces, form the tactual idea of a cube. But the visual and tactual ideas are still further combined into a general idea or concept to which the name cube is given. In this general idea or concept other qualities may enter, as, for example, the taste of the cube, if it is a sapient object. When the word cube is spoken, it recalls some, or all, of these qualities, according to the knowledge and observation of the person to whom the word is addressed. In the case of a child, the word cube may convey no definite recollection of the object mentioned. The child may not have been taught to observe the surfaces, edges, angles, etc., of a cube. The word will, therefore, recall only so many memory pictures of the cube as the child has acquired. But point out some new quality in the cube, and a new memory picture of the cube is formed in the child's mind. When in future the word cube is spoken the child will have a more complete memory of it—in other words, a more complete knowledge of it. The process can be continued until all the qualities of the cube are known to the child, and form parts of its concept or notion of the cube. This notion, or memory, is represented in language by the word cube. The simple ideas or conceptions of its color, shape, weight, hardness, go to form the general idea.

Now, grant that the teacher understands how the visual impressions are carried by the eye to a certain center in the brain; how the tactual are carried by conducting nerves to another center; and how the impression of the spoken word is carried by the ear to still another center. Further, he is supposed to know how these centers are connected with each other, so that hearing the word cube spoken recalls the memories of its shape, surfaces, angles and edges.

Armed with such a knowledge of the mechanism of the nervous system as the basis of thought, the teacher has a magic wand in his possession by means of which he can stimulate his pupils, and make what would otherwise be dreary enough work more interesting than a high-class novel or the story of an exciting adventure. There will then exist in the teacher's mind a reason for the natural method of teaching by appealing to the child's experience of things, and for showing it the object about which a certain lesson is to take place. The Ding an sich of Kant becomes known inductively, as Spencer and Romanes have shown, through an experience with its qualities. This sort of knowledge does not lead to either the idealism of Berkeley nor the skepticism of Hume, but to a true, scientific psychology as expounded by Wundt and Ribot.

In the past, and indeed at present, far too much time has been spent in instructing the child by telling it certain facts, and not enough time in teaching the child how to observe for itself. We can not see through other people's eyes, nor is their reasoning our reasoning. The power to repeat certain formula) or to give answers to certain questions does not indicate knowledge on the part of the child. The great object of education is to make the individual capable of solving his own problems, of doing his own reasoning, of looking after his own affairs, of performing his duties as a citizen, of improving himself socially and morally, and of earning an honest living.

Thus it becomes clear that our knowledge is an aggregation of sensuous impressions. These senses must be made the special object of study and care on the part of the teacher. His great duty is, not so much to tell his pupils what to do or how things happen, as to instruct them how to find out for themselves. There are a number of avenues through which he can reach the child's internal mind. These avenues must be made use of, and the child must be taught how to use them for its own advancement. The ears can be educated, but only practically, to recognize what is meant by pitch, volume, quality, loudness, intensity, harmony, etc., in musical notes. Only by practice can the child be brought to recognize the many shades of color, the divergence of angles, the approximate lengths of objects, or the rapidity of motion in a passing object. The method of Zadig could be made use of in endless variety. A horse's footprints are seen in the sand. The child could be tested on its powers of observation as to whether the horse had been walking, trotting, or galloping; whether he was a large animal or not; whether shod or not, and if the shoes were new; or whether the horse was lame, as might be indicated by one of the footprints. In like manner the tactile and muscular senses may be developed and rendered extremely acute in their power of fine distinctions as to quality, weight, firmness, shape, composition, and such like of the objects that are made the subjects of study. See, for example, what a blind person can do, guided by the sense of touch and the muscular sense.

What has been said by no means exhausts the important relationships of the nervous system to the many problems of education. It is now time that a knowledge of physiological psychology should form a part of the qualifications of every person who becomes a public teacher. It is to be feared that there are many teachers at the present moment who know literally nothing of the wonderful organisms under their charge. We do not so act in business affairs. We do not permit a man to take charge of a locomotive until he has acquired a knowledge of the engine. But we allow men to become the educational engineers of our children without exacting from them the slightest knowledge of the beings they are going to take charge of. I need not state the case more strongly than that this should cease.

One word more. The time has come when strong opinions ought to be expressed against the too prevalent custom of crowding the child with studies and cramming its mind with disconnected facts. Away with the idea that such is education! It is not. Such a system is only a means of injuring the child's health and interfering with its proper mental development. The child's brain and nervous system must be developed along judicious lines, and through this development the mind is enlarged. Nothing is education that does not foster and bring about this result. I can not do better than end this article by quoting the resolution passed at the recent meeting of the Canada Medical Association: "That the system of education in force in the Dominion draws too largely upon the brain tissue of children and materially injures their mental and bodily health."