Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/Scientific Instruction in Girls' Schools




IT is impossible to turn one's attention in the direction of education to-day without being reminded that the present century has been characterized not only by a steady advance in our knowledge of the natural sciences, but by an ever-widening popularization of that knowledge. And one of the facts that strike us most forcibly in connection with this educational growth along scientific lines is that it has been coincident in time with the recent extension of educational rights and privileges for women. The physical sciences have therefore assumed prominence in women's education from the time that public attention was first focused upon them, and scientific instruction given to girls has been, from the time it was introduced into their education, in no way different from, or inferior to, that provided for their brothers.

The late Professor Huxley, in his speech on Scientific Education, delivered in 1869, described very forcibly the movement then arising toward a reform in school education from the side of natural knowledge—a movement which owed its existence in large part to his own persistent exertions. "The head masters," he says, "of our public schools—Eton, Harrow, Winchester—have addressed themselves to the problem of introducing instruction in physical science among the studies of those great educational bodies with much honesty of purpose and enlightenment of understanding, and I live in hope that, before long, important changes in this direction will be carried into effect in those strongholds of ancient prescription." Such was the provision, or lack of provision, for scientific training in the English public schools little more than a quarter of a century ago; and it is only necessary to glance at the prospectus issued by any one of the secondary schools for either sex, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the present year of grace, to find abundant evidence that, so far as "important changes" are concerned, Professor Huxley's very modest hope is now more than fulfilled. So radical a change in the old order could not, however, be effected without opposition; and this opposition found its most distinguished supporter in a man whose efforts toward the improvement of education were no less earnest than Professor Huxley's own. In 1871 Matthew Arnold wrote as follows: "If there is any other body of men which strikes one . . . as having before it a future still more brilliant than its present it is the friends of physical science. Now, their revolt against the tyranny of letters is notorious. To deprive letters of the too great place they have hitherto held in men's estimation, and to substitute other studies for these, is the object of a sort of crusade with a body of people important in itself, hut still more important because of the gifted leaders who march at its head." The revolt here spoken of has certainly been accomplished and the changes inaugurated by it are fully in operation to-day. Thoughtful people, however, are now beginning to ask themselves whether these changes have really been followed by the beneficial results which Professor Huxley anticipated. And, if the introduction of scientific training into school education is not fulfilling the brilliant promise of its early years, what reason can be assigned for its failure to do so The Italics in the passage just quoted from Literature and Dogma are our own, and they have been inserted in order to call attention to words which are full of significance; for they suggest, though perhaps unconsciously to their author, an explanation of this very problem which confronts us to-day. The principles leading to the introduction of the physical sciences into school education proceeded, as was natural, from the "gifted leaders" of whom Matthew Arnold speaks. Our present difficulty has arisen from the fact that the execution of those principles has been carried out by the followers in the crusade, who are, almost invariably, as far from a right understanding of the cause which they support as was the unreasoning multitude led forth by Peter the Hermit. In their nineteenth-century ardor to see justice done to natural knowledge they have approached Dame Science cap in hand, crying: "This way, madam; every hill shall be made low, and every valley shall be exalted for your feet," until our present position is akin to that which Mr. Augustine Birrell tells we hold in regard to philosophy, and which he illustrates by an anecdote very applicable to our present purpose. There was once, he says, a native Westerner who paid a first visit to the Eastern States, and described his impressions of Boston to his friends upon his return. "It is a city," quoth this product of Western civilization, "in which Respectability stalks unchecked." According to Mr. Birrell, this is just what philosophical theories are doing among us to-day, but the idea is capable of extension. We can now be convicted on another indictment: that of having, so far at least as girls are concerned, permitted Science to stalk unchecked through our so-called secondary schools.

If we turn our attention to the details of scientific instruction in these schools to-day, we shall find it is almost characteristic of one which keeps abreast of the times that the natural sciences shall occupy a large place in its curriculum. The branches generally taught are physics, chemistry, physical geography, astronomy, botany, zoology, and physiology. I am not now concerned with the injury done to natural knowledge by the existing custom of placing the instruction on these many and divergent subjects in the hands of one "general science teacher," for the subject has recently been ably treated in the Educational Review. There are two other considerations which are sufficient to occupy us at present: First, that if the time spent upon scientific training is to be divided among so many different branches, it is impossible that the real purpose of such training should be carried out. Second, that the attempt to take up all these subjects is actually detrimental to a scholar's mental growth; for it must be remembered that during the same space of time in which scientific instruction has made such rapid strides, the requirements in all other branches of knowledge have been in no way diminished; on the contrary, their tale of bricks has been in some respects increased.

There seems to be a general agreement that the importance at present attached to scientific knowledge is but the fitting recognition of its value as an educational agent. If we analyze the matter, however, we shall find that this agreement does not exist as to the exact nature of the value which is so universally admitted. There are, in fact, two distinctly different conceptions as to the use and purpose of scientific training, and it is very necessary to a right understanding of the questions we have just placed before ourselves for consideration that we should distinguish between these. One of the aforesaid theories is that of the physical scientists themselves, the "gifted leaders" who so earnestly advocated reform in their own line. Their views are best stated in the words of the man who led their advance guard, and whose just claim for the introduction of science into education we have already quoted. "The great peculiarity of scientific instruction, that in virtue of which it can not be replaced by any other discipline whatever, is this bringing of the mind directly into contact with fact, and practicing the intellect in the completest form of induction—that is to say, in drawing conclusions from particular facts made known by immediate observation. The other studies which enter into education do not discipline the mind in this way." This opinion, even though it is that of the highest authorities, is unfortunately held by a very small minority—in fact, only by the authorities themselves. The second theory as to the purpose of scientific instruction, to which the majority adhere, is that of the followers in the "crusade" These are the blind leaders of the blind; they are men and women whose actual knowledge of the natural sciences is almost nil, but they advocate the introduction of all of them into school training, because they consider that in a liberal education no educational stone should be left unturned.

Now, if the value of scientific knowledge lies, as Professor Huxley tells us it does, in its usefulness as a means of educational discipline, then the methods by which it is learned must be such as to train the eye in observation, the hand in dexterity, and the mind in deduction and verification. Otherwise no educational discipline can be expected from it. It is obvious that these ends can only be attained by practical work; and for practical work two things are absolutely essential—time and apparatus. Four hours a week spent in practical work, together with one or two hours of more didactic instruction, is the least amount of time from which any real benefit can be derived. Furthermore, the practical work must be arranged for in periods of two consecutive hours, otherwise a large part of the benefit will be lost; and, if the seven branches of science now forming part of a girl's education are to be taught with any degree of thoroughness, this amount of time must be consumed in the case of each and all of them. It seems needless to say that such a state of things does not, and without injustice to the non-scientific side of education can not exist. We are come, then, to a deadlock. To carry out the principles laid down by scientists for scientific instruction in a number of branches requires an amount of time which no student can afford to give, and an amount of apparatus which few, if any, schools can afford to provide. Yet it is a matter of daily observation that, in some way or other, educational institutions have succeeded in including all the different scientific studies before mentioned in their graded courses of instruction. The explanation of this condition of things lies in the fact, already alluded to, that the executive side of scientific instruction has been left entirely in the hands of the people of liberal minds, whose fixed idea it is that no scholar should be allowed to reach the conclusion of her school career in ignorance of the broad outlines of all the natural sciences, for she knoweth not the day nor the hour when a superficial acquaintance with some one of them may be required of her. In the present system of instruction, which has been developed in accordance with this theory, girls acquire a knowledge of science in the same way that they acquire a knowledge of all the other studies in their school education—by studying a lesson in a text-book and reciting it to a teacher, who under favorable circumstances accompanies it with some limited amount of demonstration. Yet book work, as any competent judge in scientific matters will agree, is destructive to the vital principle which gives to natural knowledge its use and dignity. Nor is it any more likely to serve the purpose of non-scientific educators, for scientific information thus acquired makes no lasting impression on the mind, and can not exercise any broadening intellectual influence.

From what has been said we hope that the truth of our first proposition has been demonstrated—namely, that the present methods of scientific instruction are urgently in need of reform. It remains to show that the practice of crowding so many different sciences into the brief period of school life is causing serious injury, not only to the sciences themselves but to education as a whole. This injury is especially due to the practice, which is part and parcel of the present system, of introducing scientific studies into the work of each one of the seven or eight years of school education, Nearly as much time is now devoted to science in the early years of school life as in the later, and before any real improvement can take place in scientific instruction the impression at present obtaining, that the earlier physical science is made a part of school education the better, must undergo some modification. This idea is based on the fact, which is a matter of common observation, that young children display great curiosity in regard to natural phenomena, and derive much pleasure from information in response to their questions concerning causes and results. But while this constitutes an excellent reason for encouraging the spontaneous activity of childish minds in the direction of Nature's laws, it hardly affords adequate ground for incorporating systematic scientific instruction into the routine work of their early years. It seems to be pretty generally agreed that the object of school education is to train the intellect to act readily as the servant of the will in that life-work whose honorable fulfillment is the aim of all education, and to store the mind with knowledge on the many subjects where ignorance would be prejudicial to success in that life-work. Now, the first of these objects is not likely to be furthered by allowing the studies most agreeable to a pupil to take precedence of others which require more effort, and therefore constitute a better mental training. There is a great deal of sound common sense in the old nursery rhyme which tells us:

"The twelve Miss Pelicoes, you plainly see, were taught
To do the things they did not like, which means the things they ought."

To be taught to do the things we do not like is a very important element in our education, especially in the education of our early years, for if that part of our training is neglected then, it can never be really made up to us, and we are at a disadvantage in adult life as regards the habit of self-restraint which constitutes the best basis for ultimate success. I do not apologize for obtruding what may appear a truism, for the neglect of the vital principle it contains is fast becoming a crying evil in the education of young children. As regards the second object of education, that of informing the mind, it can only be achieved by prolonged and vigorous exertion in the acquirement of many kinds of knowledge besides that of natural science; which knowledge, while it may be less interesting to a young child than science, is really better suited by its nature to the mental activity of early years. The integral defect of the old-fashioned system of education (in which the Miss Pelicoes were so carefully trained) was its being based upon an excessive amount of pure memorizing; and from this error we have undergone in recent years a strong revulsion of feeling. Unfortunately, this has led, like all effective reactions, to the commission of faults in the other extreme, and we are now in danger of losing sight of the fact that the acquirement of knowledge by memory must, and ought to, constitute a large part of early education. So much has been said of late as to the duty of imparting to children a right understanding of natural laws, that we overlook the necessity of storing their minds with a knowledge of many subjects other than science. In the brief span of school life it is imperative to teach a fair amount of ancient and modern history; to cultivate the gift of tongues; to discipline the mental faculties in the precision of mathematical thought; and to instill a moderate acquaintance with the literature of English-speaking people, together with a reasonable facility of expression in the English language. Now if, in addition, it were possible to provide for a number of scientific studies the time necessary to derive from each one of them its special educational advantage, then indeed no effort would be too great to accomplish such an end. But it is not possible. Neither the mental nor the physical capacities of youth are equal to such a strain.

But, some one asks: Is not good scientific training of greater importance than other branches of education? Why should not a large amount of time be devoted to practical work in science from the beginning of school life, even if other subjects are set aside for the purpose? I answer, because the minds of young children are peculiarly apt at the kind of study in which the exercise of memory (I do not, of course, mean memorizing) plays an important part. In our recent and highly commendable efforts to reform the practice of learning largely by rote, we have undervalued the educational significance of the fact that children are able, by the intelligent exercise of their memories, to acquire information with ease, and to retain it securely, while those who have passed the point where the brook and river meet learn in this manner only with wearisome effort, and even then remember but imperfectly. Precisely the reverse obtains in scientific training. The qualities of mind which enable a student to reap the full benefit of observation and deduction grow with mental growth and strengthen with intellectual strength. If the non-scientific side of education is curtailed in the early years of school life, the pupils will be greatly the losers in all matters within the province of art and letters. If, on the contrary, their scientific training is postponed to a late period, they will find it a gain rather than a loss. There is abundant evidence in support of this statement in our colleges for women. In them experience has shown that not a few of the students who have displayed marked aptitude for scientific work in their collegiate education, and some of those who have successfully carried on individual research, have had very little instruction in science before entering college. On the other hand, students whose choice in collegiate work is non-scientific, whether their choice be mathematics, classics, or modern languages, find that, unless their early training has been prolonged and thorough, the difficulties in the way of their ultimate success are almost insuperable.

If it is agreed, then, that scientific instruction under the present methods already consumes time which should be devoted to letters, it is evident that reform in these methods can not be instituted at the expense of the non-scientific side of education. There is, therefore, but one road to a better state of things. The existing system must be reorganized in such a manner that the whole, or at least a large part, of the time that justice allots to natural knowledge shall be spent on not more than two branches of science. This is really the only way in which a student can derive any training of the eye, the hand, or the deductive faculties, and, as the benefit which a student derives from such training is largely dependent on her being of an age to profit by it, the instruction must be given during the last two years of her school life. Five to six hours a week is, as was said before, the minimum amount of time from which good results can be obtained; and if this time were divided into not more than three periods, it would be possible to arrange something of the nature of laboratory work. Under such a system it is almost impossible that a pupil should not make real progress toward the end in view—that is to say, her mind would be brought into direct relation with Nature at the period of her school life when she is most responsive to the stimulus of such contact.

Already I feel my elbow jogged by the men of liberal minds, who urge that such a method as that just described would permit students to enter into life halt and blind as regards those of the physical sciences which were not selected for instruction. There is an element of truth in their argument that no girl ought to be in such complete ignorance of any natural science that she is unable to comprehend an incidental allusion to it. But this theory of the purpose of scientific knowledge can be carried out with a very small expenditure of time. The facts which the student needs to grasp are not many, and they ought to be encumbered with as little detail as possible. If, during the two school years immediately preceding those in which systematic instruction in science is to be given, one or two simple lectures were delivered each week on the outlines of such of the natural sciences as were not to be studied later on, the object of non-scientific educators would be fully attained. Such lectures ought to be quite unaccompanied by book work. The native curiosity of childhood in regard to natural phenomena can be fully depended on to secure attention at the time, and remembrance afterward. It must be added, however, that an interesting lecturer is essential.

If only two branches of natural science are to be introduced in detail into school education the question of selection becomes of importance. The biological sciences are undoubtedly those which bring the mind into the widest and deepest relations with Nature; and this would seem to constitute a sufficient reason for preferring them. I am aware, however, that in giving precedence to these sciences I put myself in opposition to the idea, now much in favor with the colleges, that physics and chemistry are more suitable for school instruction; but I do so because we are now concerned with the education of girls, not of boys. Everything that has been said so far applies indifferently to the training of either sex, but we have now reached the point where the little brook arises which by and by forms the mighty stream that separates and must always separate the life-work of women from that of men. The practical uses of an acquaintance with physics and chemistry are so great in many of the trades and professions by which men earn a livelihood that even an elementary knowledge of these subjects will often give its possessor an advantage in the race. There is also reason in the statement of the colleges that physics and chemistry form the best basis for future scientific work within their precincts. But these trades and professions are not, as a general thing, adopted by women; and so far as collegiate work is concerned it must be remembered that the number of girls who go to college is but small, and of these the proportion who devote themselves to scientific work is still smaller. It is not our present business to discuss the question whether a college education for women is ever likely to become general. The case as it stands now is that, for the large majority of girls, the science they learn in their school years represents for them all the science they ever acquire. Hence it should be of the kind that is most likely to minister to their necessities. If the biological sciences then are most suitable for their instruction, one of the branches chosen should be either botany or zoology; the other always and invariably physiology, because, I repeat, we are now discussing the education, not of boys, but of girls. The recognition of any difference between the education of the two sexes is, I know, not a popular idea. But there is surely some inconsistency in the fact that the friends of women's education who have done so much to establish a high ideal of life for women should receive with such disfavor any hint that, whatever changes may occur in outward conditions, girls will always be, as they always have been, potential wives and mothers. The fact, however, remains that the charge of young and helpless humanity belongs by nature to women, and that much, if not all, of the well-being and happiness of children, both present and future, depends on their physical necessities being rightly understood. To a woman who lives her life under the domestic conditions which it is now unfortunately the thing to consider narrow, it is of little consequence whether she understands the principle of a Torricellian vacuum or the significance of the periodic law, but it means much both to her and to others that she should have a correct knowledge of the natural laws that govern physical well-being. This remark is of an old fashion, but the truth it contains is eternally new, and therefore it is not only strange, but sad, that the grace of the fashion of it should be in danger of perishing.

Scientific instruction, then, in girls' schools to-day is not carrying out the honorable intention with which it was introduced into education. The "crusade" spoken of by Matthew Arnold is indeed responsible for much of the harm he ascribes to it. But, just as Wilkes claimed that he had never been a Wilkesite, so the "gifted leaders" would probably be little in sympathy with much that is done in their name. It is only by conforming to their original conception of the purpose of scientific instruction that we can succeed in avoiding the rock of complete neglect of natural science, and at the same time escape falling into the whirlpool of injury to art and letters. From the former of these perils we have indeed been recently delivered, but the force of our recoil has been such that there seems at present some danger of our being swept into the latter.

One point remains upon which to comment in conclusion: it is essential to the success of any reform in scientific instruction that the movement toward it shall proceed from the general public as well as from the school authorities. I hope, and from certain signs of the times I believe, that an impulse in this direction is now stirring in the minds of both educators and parents. That the time is now ripe is indeed my excuse for the existence of this article, which it is hoped may offer some suggestions as to the cause of an educational difficulty that seems to be felt at present even more by parents than it is by educators. But it is of course only one of the many such difficulties that beset the close of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the whole question of girls' education has now become so complex that a conscientious father to-day must often be ready to echo the words of the old song in the Beggar's Opera:

"I wonder any man alive
Should ever rear a daughter!"