Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/Science as an Instrument of Education


THE part performed by science in the general education of the human mind and the progress of civilization has been often misconceived by pedagogues, hedged in as they are by the traditional formulas of classical teaching. I recollect having heard a conversation some twenty-five years ago between Duruy, then Minister of Public Instruction, and a general school inspector, in which Duruy spoke of the importance of the experimental sciences and the necessity of giving them a larger place in the school course. The inspector, proof against general ideas, and despising utilitarian results, the importance of which he could not comprehend, saw nothing in this but a kitchen school, good at most to teach future dealers in petroleum and coal. It would not be hard to find similar opinions among some of the blind partisans of classical instruction founded on the study of Greek and Latin.

Yet, if the material conditions of human life have been changed—if the accumulation of capital and the increase of the productive force of man's labor have gradually added to the general ease and given workmen a relative independence and rights which they did not formerly possess, and which are extending every day for the good of the race—such advance, we should never cease to recollect, is not due to literary studies or scholastic or religious or philosophical discussions, but is attributable essentially to the growth of science and to the increase of general wealth brought about by it.

This immense development of wealth and industry, as well as the correlative development of the liberal and democratic spirit, are due, we declare loudly, to the discoveries of modern science. If the supply of food at the disposal of the human species goes on continually increasing, it is not by the effect of logical reasoning or theological declamation, but by the necessary results of discoveries in chemistry, mechanics, and physiology, which have already transformed agriculture and will transform it still further in a near future. However slowly peasants may change their traditional practices, we have taught them how to get from a field in a given time, with the same amount of labor and expenditure, a much larger quantity of wheat than the field formerly produced, and we are, in this matter, still very far from the goal that science permits us to set before ourselves. It is in consequence of the progress of science that everybody, or nearly everybody, in France now eats the white bread which formerly only richer people could get. The number of cattle we raise in our pastures has increased in no less proportion during the past two centuries, and always by the application of methods created by science; and, by virtue of what those methods have accomplished, animal food has been made accessible to our workmen and peasants, to whom it was unknown sixty years ago. By virtue of discoveries in chemistry, sugar, a rare and exceptional luxury in the last century, is now produced in colossal quantities, and has become one of the usual foods of the people. It would be easy to extend indefinitely this enumeration of the ameliorations of the conditions of life achieved through science.

Now all these advances, I repeat, are not due to dialectic or literary discussions, but to the positive discoveries of the physical, mathematical, and natural sciences. I do not mean merely practical discoveries made empirically, but the chief part of this progress is attributable to the highest theoretical conceptions of the positive sciences. Thus all the modern industries of metals, stones, wood, work in materials of every sort, rest upon the general discoveries of chemistry and mechanics. So with the immense development of ways of communication, which every one admires and acknowledges has opened indefinite domains to commerce and industry. It has permitted a general distribution of products and wealth among all civilized peoples, while it has at the same time tended toward a certain continuity of the ideas and the intellectual and moral education of the nations. The last is a capital point, for it is the fundamental characteristic of science to belong particularly to no sect and no nationality, and to be the general domain of mankind.

It is important to recollect how this distribution in common of all the resources of the globe, which has resulted from the development of the ways of communication, has been realized. We should never forget that it is through the discoveries of astronomy that the course of ships across the ocean is directed with certainty, and that the general plan and detailed map of the continents and islands can be traced with an exactness hitherto unknown; that the findings of modern physics have revealed the theoretical laws of vapors and thermodynamics, which are applied daily to supplement and multiply man's labor in all industries; that the discoveries of chemistry respecting gases, combustion, and the preparation of iron and steel, added to the inventions of rational and applied dynamics, control the fabrication and operation of our machines, ships, and locomotives. In short, these marvelous advances have been accomplished through science alone, and not through a blind empiricism. I will not here dwell upon the wonderful facilities that have been given to life by such subtle discoveries of the physics of our time as the electric telegraph, the telephone, photography, and electric lighting; and I only refer by way of a reminder to the complete modification of the conditions of war effected through the very recent discoveries of science concerning explosive matters. I can not, however, pass in silence over the prolongation of human life, the mean duration of which has been doubled among civilized peoples during the past two centuries by the discoveries of physiology, hygiene, and medicine, in which some new advance is marked nearly every day.

All this progress and all this transformation of life have not been accomplished and will not be continued by chance or accident, but are the fruits of modern science. And this is why public opinion is every day demanding an increasing intervention of the methods and teaching of science in public instruction. This participation is, furthermore, not destined to be for the profit of the community alone, but by a necessary consequence is primarily profitable for individuals to whom, prepared by scientific instruction in their secondary education, it is all the time opening new professional careers.

While the necessity of science in secondary education is thus demonstrated by the most imperative reasons from the material and social point of view, it must not be supposed that science is less well adapted to the mental and moral education of the individual, and that it can not form minds capable of elevated conceptions and develop good citizens.

There are two courses in science corresponding to different aptitudes, but not contradictory—the mathematical course, deductive and rational, and the physical and naturalistic direction, founded on observation and experiment, combined with reason. Mathematics gives the young man a clear idea of demonstration and habituates him to form long trains of thought and reasoning methodically connected and sustained by the final certainty of the result; and it has the further advantage, from a purely moral point of view, of inspiring an absolute and fanatical respect for the truth. In addition to all this, mathematics, and chiefly algebra and infinitesimal analysis, excite to a high degree the conception of the signs and symbols—necessary instruments to extend the power and reach of the human mind by summarizing an aggregate of relations in a condensed form and in a kind of mechanical way. These auxiliaries are of especial value in mathematics, because they are there adequate to their definitions, a characteristic which they do not possess to the same degree in the physical and mathematical sciences. There are, in fact, a mass of mental and moral faculties that can be put in full play only by instruction in mathematics; and they would be made still more available if the teaching was directed so as to leave free play to the personal work of the student. Mathematics is the indispensable instrument of all physical research. But the physical sciences introduce new and most important elements into education. They rest chiefly upon other methods than mathematics, the teaching of which contributes to the evolution of the child and the manifestation in him of new faculties no less essential, mentally and morally. I mean the faculties of observation and experiment, the object of which is the knowledge of Nature, a thing which, different from geometry, is not acquired by reasoning. In the physical sciences we are slaves to a truth which is exterior to us and which we can not know except by observing it. The teaching of facts is worth most here, and should be given from the tenderest infancy. On this side, scientific teaching, and especially natural history, are necessary from the first years of secondary instruction, and it is a great mistake, I believe, to postpone it till the later years of study. Nothing is more suggestive or better fitted to develop the taste for the knowledge of things and for comparing them than the study of zoölogy and botany. Children acquire very early the fancy for collections, and morphological notions, so useful for the development of the arts and sciences, enter their young minds, we might say, insensibly and without forcing. They acquire at the same time the general idea of classification, which plays a very important part in all human knowledge, and the still more general one of the harmonious combination of organic systems into living beings. A delicate æsthetic sentiment thus gently insinuates itself into their minds.

In order that the elements of the natural sciences may have their full educational virtue, it is indispensable that they shall not be presented to children under the form of arid nomenclatures, dictated and learned by heart as a kind of task; a method very well fitted to give them a disgust for these sciences, which are, on the other hand, really most interesting and most entertaining. The teaching of natural history should be based on the sight of the objects themselves.

The teaching of the experimental sciences, such as physics and chemistry, should follow. It can not well be given before the period of youth, and should be associated with at least an elementary degree of knowledge of mathematics. Such teaching, properly presented, is adapted in the highest degree to shaping the intelligence and morals of the young man; because it furnishes him at once the precise idea of positive truth, that of the fact proved a posteriori, and the most general notion of natural law, or the relation between particular facts, which is determined not by reason or dialectics but by observation. Truth thus imposes itself with the irresistible force of an objective necessity, independently of our desires and our will. Nothing is better adapted than such demonstration to give the mind that modesty, seriousness, steadfastness, and clearness of convictions which raise it above the suggestions of vanity or personal interest, and are closely connected with the idea of duty. The habit of reasoning and reflecting on things, inflexible respect for the truth, and the obligation of always yielding to the necessary laws of the external world, communicate an indelible stamp to the mind. They accustom it to respect the laws of society as well as those of Nature, and to conceive of the rights of another and respect for him as a form, of one's own duty and of his own personal independence.

Thus science plays a most important part in the mental and moral education of man. Besides forming useful citizens it makes men free from the prejudices and superstitions of former times. It teaches them how to combat the fatal forces of Nature by labor and will power, resting on the knowledge and direction of the natural laws, rather than by mystic fancies. Hence science forms free spirits, energetic and conscientious, more efficaciously than any literary and rhetorical direction. When scientific education shall have produced all its effects, politics too will be transformed, as industry has already deeply been. Both will become, to use a familiar term, experimental.

Furthermore, and contemporaneously with this recognition of the laws of phenomena, observation and experiment give power over Nature. Through this fact, more than any other, youth can be engaged and drawn by an unconquerable enthusiasm into a really scientific education. To control physical and moral evil in industrial as well as economical life, to strive to diminish suffering, poverty, and misery of every kind, and to make the effort by virtue of the immanent laws of things, was the generous aim of philosophers of the eighteenth century, and they depended upon scientific conceptions, as they unceasingly proclaimed, for the attainment of it. The same end should be sought in our new education, and thereby science will become fully educational.

Scientific education has therefore its own peculiar virtue, and it is by a deep misconception of its character and effect that the assumption has been made of reserving the monopoly of the full development of the mind for literary instruction. Literary education has hitherto found its highest and most efficient formula in the teaching of the ancient languages. The teaching of the modern languages is less efficient because modern literary culture was derived from ancient culture, and is still, in principle at least, subordinate to it. However brilliant and original our modern systems may be, they have not produced, in either literature or the arts, superior models to those of ancient, particularly Greek, culture. So far, then, as the essential object proposed in secondary instruction is the formation of cultivated minds, there is no reason for expecting equivalent results from the simple substitution of the teaching of living for that of the ancient languages. But a purely literary teaching, even if it preserves its form and intention, does not adequately meet the needs of modern societies. Everybody, even the most enthusiastic partisans of literary studies, demands the addition of a certain amount of scientific teaching as a subordinate affair, comprising at least the elements of the sciences, to which no cultivated man of our age has a right to remain a stranger, whatever place he may propose to take in society. We may go still further, for it is certain that the formula of classical literary teaching, even as thus comprehended, is not adequate to all the careers and fundamental needs of our period. A very large number of citizens demand another discipline, based on a more thorough knowledge of the sciences, which have become indispensable for practical life, as well as for the general direction of society. Human society does not live on art and literature alone, as it once did; it now lives more on science and industry. Hence the necessity for a scientific not less than for a literary teaching, not only from the practical point of view but also from that of mental and moral culture, and these should be given parallel with one another. This scientific teaching should not be exclusive any more than the literary teaching; and it should be complemented by a subordinate literary teaching to which no cultivated man should be a stranger. The ancient languages are not indispensable for the realization of this special kind of literary teaching, because it no longer constitutes the fundamental object of the new organism.

Two parallel courses of instruction, endowed with the same prerogatives—one founded essentially on ancient letters, with the addition of some scientific culture; and the other based on science, to which some modern literary culture is added that appears to me the most desirable formula of our time, and that to which we are destined to be led by the force of events.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the author's book, Science et Morale.