Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/Editor's Table
EDUCATION AND CHARACTER-BUILDING.
IT is many years ago now since Mr. Spencer, in his Study of Sociology, remarked upon the exaggerated hopes commonly built upon education. With the courage that is characteristic of him, he went counter to a current of opinion which was then running with perhaps its maximum force. He said that the belief in the efficacy of education to remold society had taken so strong a hold of the modern world that nothing but disappointment would avail to modify it. This was in the year 1872; since then the disappointment has in a measure come, and many are prepared to accept his views to-day, who, twenty-seven years ago, thought they proceeded from a mind fundamentally out of sympathy with modern progress. Facts indeed are accumulating from year to year to prove the soundness of the philosopher's contention that "cognition does not produce action," and that a great variety of knowledge may be introduced into the mind without in the least inclining the individual to higher modes of conduct.
We are reminded of Mr. Spencer's line of argument by an article lately published in the London Spectator, entitled Influence on the Young. The writer sees clearly that enthusiastic educationists undertake far more than they can perform. "The character forms itself," he says, "assimilating nutriment or detriment, as it were, from the air, which the parents or teachers, for all their pains, can in no way change." There seems indeed to be in the young, he remarks, a distinct tendency to resist influence. Father and son will be opposed in politics; very pious people too often find, to their sorrow, their children growing up far otherwise than they could wish. The man who is very settled in his habits is as like as not to have a boy who can not be persuaded to take a serious view of life. The most unexceptionable home lessons seem to be of no avail against the attractive power of light companions. Evidently, Nature is at work in ways that men can not control. If there is a law of "recoil," as the writer in the Spectator hints, we may be pretty sure it serves some good purpose. It introduces, we can see at once, a diversity which makes for the progress, and perhaps also for the stability, of society. Two practical questions, however, suggest themselves: (1) What can we reasonably hope from education? and (2) What can we do to make a wholesome milieu for the rising generation?
With regard to education, it is evident that we can not know the best it can do until it has been reduced to a science—until, that is to say, as a result of the joint labors of practical educators and psychologists, we can claim to possess a reasonable degree of certainty as to the best arrangement and sequence of studies and the best methods of stimulating the mind and imparting knowledge. Upon these important questions there is still considerable diversity of opinion. Some educators think we should be very sparing of abstractions in the instruction of younger pupils. Others are of a contrary opinion. Professor Baldwin, for example, in his little work on The Mind, says that "grammar is one of the very best of primary-school subjects." He also recommends mathematics. These are questions which, it seems to us, admit of being finally settled. Allowance must of course be made for the varying capacities of individual children, but this need not stand in the way of the establishment of some general doctrine as to the law of development of the human mind. We shall then further require a true theory of method in education, so that we may know by what means the best results in the imparting of knowledge and the development of the capacities of the individual mind may be obtained. Assuming that these vantage points have been gained, education should be for every mind an eminently healthful and invigorating process, which is more than can be said for the forms of education that have prevailed in the past. These, while developing certain faculties, have, to a great extent, stunted others—have indeed, in too many cases, fatally impaired the natural powers of the mind. A notable paper, which appeared in the first number of this magazine, was one by the late Dr. Carpenter on The Artificial Cultivation of Stupidity in Schools. Professor Baldwin, in the work already cited, seems to be of the opinion that the process of cultivating stupidity, or at least mental shiftlessness, is in full blast to-day in many of our secondary schools owing to the prominence given to language studies. The science of education must at least put an end to this, and insure that the youths who are committed to the public schools shall not be subjected to any mind-destroying exercises. We can hope, however, that it will do much more. The mind, like the body, grows by what it feeds upon; and it is hard to conceive that suitable kinds of knowledge could be imparted in a natural manner, so as to awaken interest and develop the perceptive and reasoning powers, without at least preparing the mind for the reception of right sentiments.
So much the science of education, when it is fairly established, may reasonably be expected to do. It will deal with the mind upon true hygienic principles. There remains the more serious question how such a moral atmosphere can be created as will incline the young to take a right view of knowledge and its uses. Knowledge, it is hardly necessary to say, is power, just as money is power; and it is quite as needful that the idea of social service should be associated with the one as with the other. The best social service which, perhaps, any man can render is to give to the world the example of high disinterestedness and general nobility of character; and knowledge should be valued not as conferring individual distinction, but according as it expands and liberalizes the mind. The poet Coleridge has said with some truth that
"Fancy is the power
That first unsensualizes the dark mind.
Giving it new delights; and bids it swell
With wild activity; and peopling air,
By obscure fears of beings invisible,
Emancipates it from the grosser thrall
Of the present impulse, teaching self-control,
Till Superstition with unconscious hand
Seat Reason on her throne."
The mind having been "unsensualized," the next step is to moralize and humanize it, otherwise Reason on her throne may act not much more wisely than other monarchs have done. The classic example of the worship of reason is not reassuring as to the infallibility of the goddess. The question, then, as to how intellectual education and the education of the moral sentiments may go hand in hand is one that comes home to every member of the community. We all help to make the moral atmosphere and create the moral ideals of our time; and there is no use in looking for high standards in our colleges and other institutions of learning if we have low standards in our homes. The youth who hears nothing talked of at home but money is not likely to take much interest in instruction that does not bear directly on the question of making money. The youth who hears money spoken of in the home circle simply as a means of personal enjoyment and glorification will need something more than a few lectures on political or social economy to make him take a different view of it. We may employ excellent men and women as teachers, but their success from a moral point of view will always be limited by the general tone of the community.
It is evident, then, that no very special directions can be given for solving the problem with which we are concerned. Still, the posing of the problem and the indication of the conditions on which its solution depends may awaken in a few minds a new sense of their responsibility in the matter, and it is a gain for even one to go over to the right side. It would be quite as easy for the whole of society to live on a somewhat higher plane as it is for it to live on its present plane. It would simply mean that the average man would treat the average man a little better than he does now: whatever one gave he would thus get in return, and the burdens which are always associated with mutual distrust would be proportionately lightened.
The philosopher whom we began by quoting has indicated ways in which the craze for legislative short-cuts is working against the moral improvement of society. He holds that parental responsibility has been seriously impaired by legislative encroachments in the matter of education and otherwise. Book learning has become to the modern world a kind of fetich; and minds that ought to be in contact with the facts of life are stupefied, and so far prevented from getting their normal moral growth by being drilled in studies that bring no real profit. We can not bear the idea that one of our human brethren should not be able to read and write; but, provided he possesses these accomplishments, we ask no questions as to what use he makes of them. We have before us a police description of a criminal who graduated at one of the most celebrated universities on the Continent, who studied afterward for the Church, who was for several years an elder, and who possesses—so we are distinctly informed—fine literary tastes. The gentleman with all these advantages is a fugitive from justice. With all his knowledge and accomplishments he got no hold of the principles of right conduct, and—there are not a few like him. We need not only a science of education, but a science of government, the most valuable part of which will probably be that which shows us with demonstrative force what things government ought to leave alone. It is quite possible we should find the moral atmosphere materially improving if only the natural reactions between the individual and his environment were not interfered with. The course of Nature, we may feel assured, provides not less for moral than for mental growth, and if either process is defectively carried on we may safely attribute it to some ill-advised attempt we are making to improve on natural institutions. Science has done much for the world in the past, but it has yet to do much more. It will yet give us a light to our feet in matters educational and political, and will liberate us from many of the yokes and trammels we have foolishly imposed upon ourselves. Mankind will then look into the face of Nature and see in it a new beneficence and brighter promises for the future of the race.
THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION AT COLUMBUS.
A fairly good attendance, with an unusually large proportion of men prominent in science, and most cordial welcome and painstaking care of the members by the Ohio Sate University and the citizens of Columbus, combined to make the forty-eighth annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science a most enjoyable and instructive one. The two features of the meeting which seem to deserve the most attention are: First, the tendency which was shown in every section to direct the papers and discussions to practical subjects, so that all could participate in the proceedings and each member feel justified in having a word to say in them; and, secondly, the perfect cordiality with which the association was received and the assiduous attention with which it was taken care of by the local committee. The smaller and apparently less important details, but at the same time those which so largely determine one's comfort in a strange community, were thoughtfully arranged, and to this alone much of the success of the meeting was due. The numerous excursions were not only exceedingly enjoyable, but were arranged in every case primarily for their instructive and scientific features, and an Easterner, at any rate, could not take any of them without learning something. Another feature of the meeting that was especially satisfactory was the possibility it afforded for the younger workers in science to meet their elders, who had hitherto led the way—who were present, as we have already said, in larger proportion than usual. The importance of this feature, as President Orton pointed out in these pages a few months ago, can not be overestimated. The instruction and encouragement which a new worker in the scientific field gains from a personal acquaintance with the older men who have already achieved success and reputation in his branch of science are obvious enough. With the increasing specialization which modern research is making absolutely unavoidable, the social feature of the annual gathering of such a company of scientists is coming to be its most important function. A slight extension of it might very readily lead to the adoption of a specific policy by the several sections of devoting at least a part of their time to such a general statement of what has been accomplished in their department or to some especially important work of general interest that some of the members have been engaged in as would be most instructive to the members of the other sections. In the earlier meetings of the association the sectional chairmen often made such presentations in their stated addresses, but as times and men have changed, the idea has been departed from and this feature has become an exceptional one. If it could be restored, in a modified if not an identical form, and made a regular part of the programme of at least one of the sections at each meeting, the interest would be greatly enhanced, and in this way the chemist, the geologist, the botanist, and the others could be given regularly an authoritative account of what is being done in the other branches of science, and an important step would be taken toward doing away with the unfortunate narrowing influence which special scientific work is too apt to exercise.
The fixing of the last week in June as the time for holding the next meeting of the association, which is to be in New York, is a departure from recent practice as to date, but, aside from the special reason for it in this particular case—the probability that many of the members will be at the Paris Exposition during the following August—the experiment seems a desirable one because of the almost invariably excessive heat to which August meetings are exposed.