Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/October 1896/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


WE were not a little surprised to read in Nature some time ago an article from which it appeared that Bishop Temple, of London, had, in an address delivered before the Diocesan Conference, expressed his entire opposition to the teaching of science in elementary schools. So far as these schools were concerned he would be glad, he said, "if all these scientific subjects were got rid of entirely." Now Dr. Temple, as Nature observes, is an experienced educator. He was Head Master of Rugby at the time when he wrote his celebrated paper on The Education of the World in Essays and Reviews; and he has also been an inspector of schools and principal of a training college. He may therefore be supposed to know a good deal about education; and we can only regret that we are not in possession of a fuller statement of his views than we find in the columns of our contemporary, as it is difficult to believe that he could have expressed such opinions as those quoted without qualification. Nature, replying to the bishop, proceeds to show how important technical knowledge is to the commercial prosperity of nations. This does not fully meet the case, however: technical knowledge may be, and is doubtless, of the highest importance to a nation's commercial prosperity; and yet from an educational point of view it might (conceivably) not be advisable to introduce science into elementary schools. The question is not as to teaching science, but as to when to begin to teach it and how to teach it in the earliest stages.

If Bishop Temple, who has always been regarded as a very enlightened man, means no more than that science should not be so taught to young children as to tyrannize over their thoughts and cramp their imaginations, we could agree with him. If, on the other hand, he means that there is no way of introducing the teaching of science with advantage into the education of the young, we can only consider him seriously mistaken, and regret that he should have given the weight of his authority to a very hurtful idea. Many of our readers are doubtless aware that some eminent scientific authorities have been profoundly dissatisfied with the methods and results of science teaching in the elementary schools both of this country and of England. In spite of their predilection for scientific studies they have been forced to acknowledge that, somehow or other, science as actually taught seemed in a great many cases to possess little or no educative value. The late Prof. Huxley was very strong on this point, maintaining that the fault lay in the excessive use made of text-books and the overloading of the mind with facts which it could not properly assimilate. Bishop Temple may have witnessed a similar phenomenon; but, if so, the inference to draw is not that there is no place for science in elementary education, but that its true place has not always been understood, or that those who have assumed to teach it have not possessed the skill and insight necessary to bring it into vital relation with the minds under their charge.

As we take it, the business of science in early education is not to go rudely counter to all the natural ideas of a child in regard to the universe, nor to impose upon him at once the somewhat oppressive conception of unvarying law, but to cause the idea of law to steal gradually into the mind, and to reveal and assert itself more and more through the successive observations which a judicious teacher will lead the child to make. Childhood, it should be needless to remark, is a period of great outward activity—a period when impressions from the world around are crowding in on the mind; it is not to any great extent a period of reflection; and any studies, therefore, which make a premature or excessive demand on the reflecting powers can not fail to do harm. The youngest child will generalize to some extent—that is to say, will do it fitfully and in regard to familiar matters; but wide generalizations in regard to unfamiliar matters lie outside of its natural sphere; and, if forced on its attention, will not only fail to interest, but will, in direct proportion to the insistence of the teacher, depress the whole play of the mental faculties and injuriously affect the development of the physical system. This is a point where many teachers go astray. Generalizations are so interesting to the adult mind, they seem to help it forward so powerfully, and to be as it were so self-luminous, that a teacher requires to possess more than the usual amount of comprehension of and sympathy with the child mind in order to recognize that they are, in the main, unsuited to the latter, and therefore only to be applied sparingly in its education. This, we conceive, explains why "clever" people, so called, often make but inferior teachers of the young. In spite of all the psychology and pedagogics they may have absorbed—perhaps occluded—they can not sufficiently and permanently, day in and day out, distinguish between the mature and the immature intellect.

Science, like everything else, to be taught successfully needs to be taught with sympathy. There should be sympathy with the subject as well as sympathy with the pupil. The reason why, in the hands of certain teachers, language and literature prove so stimulating as studies, is that the teachers feel them to be related to the higher operations and finer perceptions of the mind, and succeed in conveying this idea to those whom they instruct. The teacher of science should not be content to occupy any lower ground. The laws and facts which he expounds have their own correlation with the past history and future destinies of mankind, and with the whole compass of human thought. In dealing with the young we should endeavor to humanize science as much as possible, and to present it as having its origin in the everyday impressions of sense, and as being in its essence merely an improved and beneficent interpretation of the world in which we live.

Unless the Bishop of London is a far more reactionary person than we take him to be, what he would banish from elementary schools is just what we would ourselves banish, had we the power, namely, that formal, didactic, authoritative instruction in the facts and theories of science which is more adapted to wither than to nourish the youthful mind, not such teaching as takes the form of a gradual and sympathetic introduction to the true order of Nature. Science is just as good for the young as for the old, on the one condition that those who teach it are themselves scientific enough to understand the minds they are dealing with. And the advantage of beginning betimes is that the mind early accustomed to view the universe as an infinite field of knowledge, and science simply as a method tested and proved by experience for acquiring knowledge, is placed once for all in the right relation and attitude to all questions demanding the exercise of thought. Many men of eminence in letters have expressed regret that they did not enjoy this advantage in early life; and on every hand we see proofs that the lack which they have deplored is precisely the lack under which others are laboring, without, however, a saving consciousness of their deficiency. We want more science, not less, in education, but the science must itself be scientific.


The meeting of the American Association in Buffalo—its fourth meeting in that city—was eminently satisfactory from a scientific point of view, and was marked by many features of interest. About four hundred members were present. Among them were two of the six founders of the association still living—Dr. James Hall, and Prof. Charles West, of Brooklyn—whose presence was fittingly mentioned by President Morley in opening the meeting. Later in the sessions a kind of jubilee meeting was held in the Geological Section in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of Prof. Hall's work in connection with the New York Geological Survey, when addresses were made by Prof. Joseph Le Conte, W J McGee, and others, in which special features of the survey were presented. The address of welcome by the mayor of the city was supplemented by a greeting from Dr. Roswell Park, of the Buffalo Academy of Natural Sciences, on behalf of the scientific life of the place. Buffalo—a commercial city—has no great scientific institutions, but several of modest pretensions, including its university of five professional schools, which has just celebrated its semi-centennial; a second medical school; several libraries; the academy, which boasts of its special collection relating to the American bison; and a number of smaller affiliated clubs, each devoted to some particular form of the study of Nature.

President E. D. Cope, replying to these addresses, spoke of the insignificance of our knowledge as compared with what we do not know, of the value of original research, the nature of scientific investigation, and the objects of the association. The address of retiring President Morley was on the subject of A Completed Chapter in the History of the Atomic Theory, The addresses of the sectional vice-presidents were mostly technical discussions of special topics in their several fields, but some, which we shall mention in another place, offered points of considerable general interest. A similar remark may be applied to the papers in the sections, which offered great variety in character. The proceedings of the Economic Section were marked by the discussion of monetary questions in papers by Mr. William H. Hale and Edward Atkinson; Mr. Stillman Kneeland's paper on Citizenship, its Privileges and Duties; and papers bearing on the "woman question." Studies of Indian life were presented in the Anthropological Section, and an air of realism was imparted to the matter by the opening of an Indian burial chest, found in Michigan, and the exhibition of other specimens. The Geological Section paid much attention to caves. The results of cave exploration in the United States and their bearing on the antiquity of man were presented in an illustrated lecture by Prof. Cope and Mr. H. C. Mercer; and the making of the Mammoth Cave was explained, and a colossal cave discovered a year ago in Kentucky was described by Prof. Hovey. The last gentleman urged the formation of an American cave club. The section resolved to place a tablet on the spot where the Association of American Geologists was founded. In the Section of Mechanical Science Mr. W. S. Aldrich advocated a national endowment for engineering research, and the subject of irrigation for the eastern United States was brought to attention. The practical side of chemistry was presented in such subjects as The Chemical Problems of the Pottery Industry, Sugar-making at the Present Day, and The Use of Coal-Tar Products in Food.

In choosing Prof. Wolcott Gibbs as the president of its next meeting, the association has honored itself in honoring a veteran chemist who was famous when the majority of its present most active members were still schoolboys.