Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/August 1895/The Physical Element in Education




IT would be as unwise as it is impossible to expect that every person engaged in education should be able to survey the whole field. Each educator takes a part, and is very apt to think that his or her part is the most important. Education, until quite recently, has been so widely regarded as brain culture that the whole trend of education is to develop the mind as one organ of the body, as if mind resided in the brain alone. And even those who know and admit that the mind is something more than brain, disregard the fact in their systems of education, following almost unconsciously the old ruts. Thus Bain says in one place: "The organ of mind is not the brain by itself; it is the brain, nerves, muscles, organs of sense, and viscera." And yet, in Education as a Science, he says: "Now, when we inquire into the meaning of physical education, we find it to be the rearing of a healthy human being by all the arts and devices of nursing, feeding, clothing, and general regimen. Mill includes this subject in his article, and Mr. Herbert Spencer devotes a very interesting chapter to it in his work on Education. It seems to me, however, that this department may be kept quite separate, important though it be. It does not at all depend upon the principles and considerations that the educator, properly so called, has in view in the carrying on of his work. The discussion of this subject does not in any way help us in educational matters, as most commonly understood, nor does it derive any illumination from being placed side by side with the arts of the recognized teacher." And we have seen a Committee of Ten of the "recognized" teachers of our own land blocking out the time of the secondary schools without a single word of reference to the important matter of physical education.

The Committee of Fifteen, which lately met at Cleveland, Ohio, in their voluminous report on Education, did devote one short paragraph to physical culture. But they did not seem to grasp the vital connection between the growth of the mind and the development of the body; for they remark that "systematic physical training has for its object rather the will training than recreation"; and again: "Systematic physical exercise has its sufficient reason in its aid to a graceful use of the limbs, its development of muscles that are left unused or rudimentary unless called forth by special training, and for the help it gives to the teacher in the way of school discipline." The report makes physical culture subsidiary to other kinds of education; not as it should be considered—a fundamental and necessary part of education.

I have therefore thought that a few remarks on the physical element in education would be timely.

It is a suggestive fact that the ratio, by weight, of the brain to the body of a new-born infant is one to ten, while the ratio of the brain to the body of the average European adult man is one to forty-six. Does not this fact at the very outset of life point the way to a correct education? The body needs development till it attains maturity, if it is to have its appropriate growth. The brain needs care rather than special culture while the body is developing rapidly. Its appropriate culture for the years of growth is to be found in its supervision, direction, and control of the body.

If I were asked what should be the prime essential result of a man's education, I should say power, vigor. And by that I mean that a rightly educated man should have force in himself, of which he is master. And I do not hesitate to say that any education, however well it stores the mind with ideas or fills it with knowledge, and yet fails to cultivate this force, is so far a failure. I would extend my remarks so as to include similar statements about the education of woman. Her power may be of a different kind, but power she needs for the battle of life just as much as man needs his force. And until we educate our men rightly, and our women also to be in this respect real helpmeets to men, we shall not have on this continent a race which is to remain. What Dr. Clark says, in the Building of a Brain, may well be quoted here: "On this continent races have been born and lived and disappeared. Mounds at the west, vestiges in Florida, and traces elsewhere proclaim at least two extinct races. The causes of their disappearance are undiscovered. We only know they are gone. The Indian, whom our ancestors confronted, was losing his hold on the continent when the Mayflower anchored in Plymouth Bay, and is now also rapidly disappearing. It remains to be seen if the Anglo-Saxon race, which has ventured upon a continent that has proved the tomb of antecedent races, can be more fortunate than they in maintaining a permanent grasp upon this western world."

How shall we develop this power? Regarding the new-born child as a bundle of latent forces, how shall we draw out these forces so that they shall be active, and yet be directed and controlled by an enlightened will? Only general suggestions can be offered. The order of development is important. The earliest attention should necessarily be given to the physical powers. Nutrition is of the first importance. Next comes motion, the exercise of muscles, and through these a certain development of mind and will. And these phenomena of motion on the part of children are so common, and, when we wish them to be quiet, so exasperating to us, that we miss their great importance in development. How can children grow without continual motion? Consider how large a part of our physical economy is dependent on motion. We pour food into the stomach, but the stomach is a muscular organ and does a great part of its work through muscular motion. It is to a certain extent dependent for its tone on the vigor of the muscular system. After the food is converted into chyle and sent drop by drop into the blood and is then passed through the oxygenizing process in the lungs, what is it that pumps it along the arteries but another muscular organ, the heart? And how much help this flow of nutritious blood to the very extremities of the system, into every nook and cranny of every organ of the body, derives from the action of the voluntary muscular system, we can hardly estimate. But we know the life current is quickened by exercise and slackened by the cessation of exercise. There is another way in which we know the influence of the voluntary muscular system. When more exercise is taken, more food is required to repair the waste, and there is better circulation of the blood.

Again, consider the senses, those avenues of knowledge to the knowing mind. Take the eye. It is not only a combination of lenses with a retina behind them sensitive to impressions. The lenses are furnished with adjusting muscles. And the ball itself is fitted with other muscles to roll it in the socket and to direct it on objects which the will commands it to see. Then, too, there is the sense of touch, which, with sight, gives us knowledge of the outside world. How could it give us such complete information of our environment were it not supplemented by the muscles of the outstretched arm and the feeling hand? Our hearing is better because we have muscles to enable us to turn the head that we may listen. Smell and taste are more efficient because they are supplemented by muscles appropriate to their functions.

Then, if we take our social life, how large a part of it is dependent on speech! And speech itself would be impossible without the muscular power of taking and expelling breath and the movement of the muscles of the larynx. Without muscles the hand of the writer could not produce our books any more than the cunning hand of the artificer could work out the inventions of this inventive age. Knowledge itself, then, is dependent on muscles and the power of muscles on motion.

It is, therefore, a wise provision of Nature which implants in children a desire for play. By their very instincts they seek motion, and the exercise and growth of their bodies through motion.

But does the good effect of exercise end in the body? Is that simply larger and stronger? The mind, too, has its share of good. In the first place, the brain and nervous system are supplied with blood and more of it. The repair of the waste is more completely made. This of itself is one great gain. But in all use of the voluntary muscles there is, as the term implies, a necessary putting forth of will. The mind is exercised while the body works. And this is especially true in all exercises which require skill, in which the mind has an object to gain through the skillful use of the body. This mental element comes in very early in a child's life—as, for instance, in learning to walk, to swim, or to write. All through the years of childhood it accompanies motions in games, most mind being required in those games which require most skill. So those gymnastic exercises which call for combinations of muscles in action, and need quickness and exactness, are more useful for the majority of children and men than those requiring the use of strength alone. For, to attain success in games or exercises of skill, not only quickness of body is needed, but an alertness of mind, and often, too, quickness of the senses of sight and hearing. This mental element in certain athletic games explains, in a measure, their fascination. They furnish an exercise not for the body alone, but for the whole man every part of his being, including his mind, his social nature, and even his moral nature, coming into play. This is particularly the case in games in which a number of players are involved, so that individual skill must be subordinated to the good of the whole body of players. The individual must repress and control self and observe law. Children have the same discipline in their play when they engage in games requiring the observance of rules.

This mental element in games assigns to them the first place in any rational system of physical culture. The grind of the gymnasium is so distasteful to the generality of people that gymnastic exercise, whether free or with apparatus, is only sought as a last resort. But gymnasium work can be made interesting by variety and by competitions. By being made also a preparatory training for athletic sports, gymnastic exercises can be given an interest and a power which they would fail to possess if taken only from a sense of duty.

The more complete the exercise is for the whole system, the more complete is this development of the mind through the body. Therefore all supervision of the exercise of children should be in the line of removing obstacles to the free exercise of every muscle of the body. Care should be used to guard against the compression of any part of the body by tight clothing. Badly fitting, uncomfortable shoes often make the movements of the feet and lower limbs a torture, affecting, unfortunately, the carriage of the whole person, and producing ungraceful habits of walking.

The connection between the body and mind is so close that the working of every (even the smallest) muscle of the body must leave some trace in the mind. The education of the mind through the body is defective to the extent of every unused muscle. We see this plainly, according to Dr. Luys, quoted by Dr. Faries in his paper read last April: "When a limb has lost its function there is atrophy of certain parts of the gray matter of the brain, due to defective action of the motor cells." So that muscular exercise, besides conducing to the strength of the body, is necessary to the storing of force in the brain and nervous system. But this is not all. The brain has a great deal of its development in consequence of directing and controlling the use of the body through the muscular system. The more extensive this use of the muscles, the more complete the education. Interfere with this education by directing the will too early in life to conscious cerebration by means of books, and you not only check the development of the brain, but you deprive it also of a growth more important than knowledge can give it, and one which no subsequent effort can supply.

In support of this theory of the growth of mind and true brain power during the period of immaturity through the muscular system, I quote from Dr. Ladd's work on Psychology: "All our study hitherto has led us to emphasize greatly the influence upon mental development of the constitution and functions of the muscular system. The condition and action of the muscles stand in reciprocal relation to the senses and to the feelings which form the necessary effective accompaniment of the senses. Furthermore, the striated (or so-called voluntary) muscles are organs of the will. In the complicated sensory motor apparatus all the most primary foundations of the intellectual life are laid."

This quotation is right in line with the fact that the first development of will comes through exercise of the muscles; for the first development of will, like all succeeding development of will, consists in overcoming resistance; and the first resistance to be overcome is physical. The child with flabby muscles has generally a defective will power. Men of strong physique have strong will power. Of course this will power to be effective must be educated and directed like any other power. But its foundation is laid in bodily power.

Another confirmation of the necessary connection between strength of body and power of mind is to be found in the history of the dominant races. The Greeks afforded the finest types of body of their times or of any succeeding times. They showed also that their intellectual activity was as remarkable as their physical development. They have produced a literature that will never die. The Roman supremacy, which lasted longer than the Greek, was founded on physical prowess. It also has left a law and a literature which are imperishable. The northern races of Europe, overcoming the Roman arms by sheer physical force, and appropriating what was best in the Roman polity, became the masters of the world. From those races—one more virile than the rest—the Saxon (now become the Anglo-Saxon) is through its descendants almost master of the present world. Moreover, all those races which declined, went down before races of stronger physical power. The corruption of the body by sloth and effeminate luxury was followed by a mental decline, just as softness and weakness of mind and will have always gone hand in hand with enervated, enfeebled bodies.

But I should be misunderstood if I leave the impression that muscular force is the only one to be considered. Even of the bodily forces, or of the agents which go to make these forces, it is only one, though one of the most important. Nutrition must be attended to. Without perfect nutrition the best muscular force is impossible. If nutrition is faulty, muscular exercise if long continued does harm rather than good. Next in importance to nutrition is a fresh supply of oxygen to make good, pure blood. Exercise should be taken in the open air, or at least in the purest air possible. The skin should not be neglected. In fact, all the laws of hygiene should be observed. Tests and measurements should be made of every person, to determine the best kind of exercise for that particular person. And these examinations ought to be made by a thoroughly educated physician. It will not do to trust such an important agent in education as physical culture to a man or woman who has only a smattering of knowledge.

Systems of exercise are not half as important as the person who exercises. Systems are only important in what they can do for that person. The systems studied apart from the individual may be perfect. Applied without judgment to particular individuals they may prove disastrous failures. The persons exercising must be studied first, last, and all the time; next, their environment; and then the kinds of exercise suited to their condition and needs.