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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/April 1903/Biography in the Schools

By Professor DAVID R. MAJOR and T. H. HAINES,


THE study described in the following pages was suggested by Professor E. Ray Lankester's tribute to Huxley which, concludes, 'Ever since I was a little boy he (Huxley) has been my ideal and hero.'[1] An instance of a scientist in the rôle of 'ideal and hero' to the boyish imagination is rare enough to attract attention. How rare it is, and how low a rank the scientist takes in the scale of heroes, because of our faulty methods of education, will be indicated roughly by the figures which follow.

The study was planned originally to find out in a general way the relative degree of familiarity which a given number of students (high school and university) have with the names of military leaders, on the one hand, and the names of great scientists, on the other. Or rather, the aim was to get a quantitative statement of the degree to which familiarity with the names of the world's great military leaders surpasses familiarity with the names of its great scientists. For it is an every-day observation that the names of the former are on everybody's lips and that those of the latter class of men are not widely known.

When the tests reported here were actually given, the original plan, which included only the two classes just named, was extended so as to include eight other categories giving ten in all, as follows:

1. English and American poets.
2. Statesmen.
7. Occupations and industries fundamental to modern life.
3. Inventors. 8. Novelists.
4. Scientists.
5. Orators.
9. Artists, including painters, sculptors and musicians.
6. Military leaders. 10. Greek and Roman writers.

It will be noticed that with the exception of the first and last groups there is no limitation as to time or place.

The method followed was to ask the students to begin at a given signal, e. g., the tap of a pencil, and write in three minutes the names of all the English and American poets they could recall. At the end of the first three minutes the second group, statesmen, was given, and so on to the end of the list. In all, six hundred and fifty high school and university students were tested on the ten classes named above.

Table I. gives the number of students belonging to each high school and university class tested, and the average number of each of the ten groups named by each class. For example, 216 pupils in the first year of high school were tested. The average number of poets named by the 216 pupils was 5.5; statesmen, 4.1, etc.

Tables II. and III. give the same items for boys and girls separately. It will be noticed that the university students tested belonged, in the main, to the third and fourth years.


Table I.
Average Number Named by Both Boys and Girls.

High School. University.
Year. 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Number of Students 216 148 94 54 26 88 24
1. English and American poets 5.5 7.0 7.2 7.4 13.2 14.8
2. Statesmen 4.1 4.7 5.5 5.7 11.0 12.5
3. Inventors 3.4 3.6 3.8 3.4 5.9 7.3
4. Scientists 0.15 0.32 0.66 0.66 4.1 5.9
5. Orators 1.9 2.6 3.4 3.5 6.8 7.1
6. Military leaders 5.7 6.5 7.0 6.0 10.6 11.2
7. Occupations 4.7 4.7 6.7 7.5 8.9 9.7
8. Novelists 1.7 2.0 3.0 3.5 7.2 8.1
9. Artists 1.5 2.5 3.3 2.7 6.9 8.1
10. Greek and Roman writers 1.2 2.7 3.5 3.0 10.2 9.4

Table II.
Average Number Named by Boys.

High School. University.
Year. 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Number of Boys. 102 70 46 28 26 41 14
1. English and American poets 5.2 7.1 6.6 7.2 12.6 13.7 14.2
2. Statesmen 4.5 6.0 5.7 5.8 12.1 13.0 13.6
3. Inventors 3.7 4.1 4.8 4.2 6.9 7.9 8.6
4. Scientists 0.5 0.3 0.8 1.0 5.3 5.4 6.5
5. Orators 2.3 3.2 3.7 4.0 8.5 9.1 8.1
6. Military leaders 6.7 7.5 7.7 6.1 11.6 13.1 12.3
7. Occupations 5.3 5.4 7.2 8.0 9.5 10.0 9.9
8. Novelists 1.4 2.0 2.7 2.9 6.0 7.6 7.8
9. Artists 0.9 2.5 2.5 2.1 5.1 6.5 6.5
10. Greek and Roman writers 1.1 3.4 3.3 2.9 7.3 10.5 9.7

Table III.
Average Number Named by Girls.

High School. University.
Year. 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Number of Girls. 114 78 48 26 47 10
1. English and American poets 5.8 7.0 7.8 7.6 12.8 15.7
2. Statesmen 3.7 3.5 5.4 5.6 9.2 10.7
3. Inventors 3.3 3.1 2.8 2.6 4.1 5.4
4. Scientists 0.2 0.3 0.5 0.2 3.0 4.5
5. Orators 1.6 2.1 3.1 2.9 4.9 5.5
6. Military leaders 4.8 5.7 6.3 5.6 8.5 9.4
7. Occupations 4.1 4.1 6.1 7.3 8.0 9.5
8. Novelists 1.9 2.0 3.2 4.1 6.9 8.7
9. Artists 2.0 2.5 4.1 3.4 7.2 10.5
10. Greek and Roman writers 1.2 2.1 3.6 3.2 9.9 9.0

It is not the intention to attempt an exhaustive treatment of the foregoing tables. They tell their own story, and the reader will draw his own conclusions on points which may happen to interest him. A few conclusions, however, of pedagogical and popular interest will be stated briefly.

Passing at once to a consideration of the tables there appears, as one naturally would expect, an increasing familiarity with the names in all the groups as we go from the first year in the high school to the senior year in the university. The largest percentages of gain are shown in the increased familiarity with the names of scientists, ancient classical writers and artists. The smallest gain is shown in the cases of military leaders and inventors. That is, the boy or girl in passing from the first year in the high school to the last year in the university will learn relatively vastly more names of scientists, ancient classical writers, and artists than he will of military men and inventors. As a university senior he will know forty times as many scientists' names as he knew as a first-year high school pupil; he will know eight times as many artists' names, and twice as many military names.


Table IV.

Rank High School. Av.
for all
Rank High School. Av.
for all
1 Poets 6.5 1 Poets 13.5
2 Military leaders 6.5 2 Statesmen 11.3
3 Occupations 6.5 3 Military leaders 10.7
4 Statesmen 4.7 4 Greek and Roman writers 10.0
5 Inventors 3.6 5 Occupations 9.0
6 Orators 2.6 6 Novelists 7.3
7 Greek and Roman writers 2.29 7 Artists 7.0
8 Novelists 2.28 8 Orators 6.8
9 Artists 2.27 9 Inventors 6.5
10 Scientists 0.35 10 Scientists 4.4

If one examines Table IV. one finds that in the high school in order of familiarity, the names of English and American poets rank first, with military leaders as a close second. Statesmen stand third, inventors fourth, orators fifth, Greek and Roman writers sixth, novelists seventh, artists eighth, scientists tenth. It should be observed that the ranks of novelists, artists and Greek and Roman writers are nearly the same.

When we pass to the junior and senior years of the university, we find this order considerably changed. Poets rank first, statesmen second, military leaders third, Greek and Roman writers fourth, occupations fifth, novelists sixth, artists seventh, orators eighth, inventors ninth and scientists tenth.

If the two sets of figures are compared, it is found that the university students are relatively—as well as absolutely—more familiar than the high school pupils with the names of statesmen, novelists, artists and ancient classical writers. They are relatively, though not absolutely, less familiar with the names of inventors, orators and military leaders.

It appears further that the three highest groups, omitting occupations, for both high school and university students are poets, statesmen and military men, and that scientists are least known by both classes of students. This is explained partly by the fact that students hear more about men in the first named classes and partly by the further fact that the careers of statesmen, orators and military leaders appeal strongly to the imagination of the young. The great deeds of men belonging to these groups are concrete, and have form, color and tone, easily grasped by young minds. The achievements of the man of science have few of these characteristics, and so people generally, young and old alike, think of the scientist much as Heine said, in substance, of Kant, 'He was a philosopher, and so has no biography.'

The figures probably will have no surprises for those who have thought about the matter. But it is of interest to dwell briefly on their bearing upon certain questions which are of perennial interest to educators, and to students of the broader aspects of social tendencies. Any one who has been through our public schools will remember a number of studies which are rich in biographical material, hero worship, and suggestions as to personal ideals, while others are entirely devoid of them. It is hoped that this study will throw some light upon the questions of what kinds of personal ideals are fostered by the school, and what kinds of school work receive most emphasis.

To the writers the results indicate pretty clearly where modern education, in this country at least, lays greatest stress, on what things it drills, wherein are the main lines of interest and study, and, possibly, what sort of ideals are held up to school children. The far-reaching social and ethical significance of these influences needs only to be suggested in this connection. Boys and girls dream of becoming like persons whose lives and achievements they are led to admire. The boy reads of the military man's victories and longs to follow in his footsteps. He hears of the statesman's laurels won in legislative halls, or on the stump, and so pictures himself likewise the admired of all admirers. It is not an exaggeration to say that nine of every ten of the boys who graduate from our high schools count it a greater thing to be a member of the state legislature, or to be captain of the local militia, than to be a Pasteur, Virchow, Huxley, Wagner or Phidias.

Of course the ability to run off a long list of names of scientists, or of artists is not necessarily accompanied by a knowledge of science, on the one hand, or by a knowledge of art, on the other. But it is evidence, even though slight, of interest in the achievements of the scientists and artists and probably some degree of respect, even admiration, for the great names in those two fields. On the other hand, it is safe to say that pupils will not become zealous in the study of either science or art without, at the same time, becoming deeply interested in the heroes in those subjects. It is likely, for example, that a person who knows something of music and is interested in it will be familiar with a number of names of the world 's great musicians. And it is also highly probable that if one does not know these great names in music one has little knowledge of, or interest in, that art. In a word, the presumption is strong that if a pupil is interested in a given field of activity he will also know the great names in that field. It is also true that one of the surest and quickest ways to get pupils intertested in a given line of study is to arouse their interest in the lives of persons distinguished in that line. President Stanley Hall puts the matter admirably in his article on 'Criticisms of High School Physics.'[2] What Dr. Hall says with reference to physics, holds true of the other sciences. "Boys in their teens," he writes, "have a veritable passion for the stories of great men, and the heroology of physics, which, if rightly applied, might generate a momentum of interest that would even take them through the course as laid out, should find a place. . . . Physics has its saints and martyrs and devotees, its dramatic incidents and epochs, its struggles with superstition, its glorious triumphs, and a judicious seasoning perhaps of the whole course with a few references and reports by choice with material from this field would, I think, do much." The practical point in mind is—teachers of science should do more in the way of acquainting pupils with the lives of scientists, first from a sense of justice to the memory of those who have wrought so vastly for the good of mankind, and for the further purpose of inspiring young persons to take up science as a life work.

The bearing of our figures upon the fact of the general neglect of art in the public schools of America is worth noticing briefly. President Butler of Columbia University defines education as a gradual adjustment to the spiritual possessions or inheritances of the race, these inheritances being literary, scientific, esthetic, institutional and religious. With reference to the importance of the esthetic inheritance and its place in a well-rounded education he says, "We should no longer think of applying the word cultivated to a man or woman who had no esthetic sense, no feeling for the beautiful, no appreciation of the sublime, because we should be justified in saying, on psychological grounds, that that nature was deficient and defective. This great aspect of civilization. . . is a necessary factor in adjusting ourselves to the full richness of human conquest and human acquisition. . . we should see to it that the esthetic inheritance is placed side by side with the scientific and the literary in the education of the human child."[3] Among the humanizing elements of education as it should be organized esthetic insight and appreciation rank high. Yet our figures bear testimony to what every one knows without tables of statistics, that art is neglected in the education of the American youth so far as the schools are concerned. The fact that high school seniors who can name on an average 5.7 statesmen know only 2.7 painters, sculptors and musicians in all the world's history is too significant to require comment. Is it a fair showing? Does it not indicate an over emphasis of certain lines of school work to the neglect of others, and to the permanent injury of pupils? Does it not indicate an overdoing of the literary side? Are we not too much enslaved to letters and books even in our humanizing? One may even ask, has the poet any just claim to so much more of the pupil's time and interest, as indicated by the figures, than the artist who bodies forth his ideals on canvas or in stone?

Finally a word regarding a by-product of the investigation. An examination of the individual papers brings home to one anew that much even of the university student's knowledge is a vague, jumbled patch-work of shadows and blurs. A few instances from a vast number will illustrate the point. We are told that Victor Hugo was a military leader; that Aristotle and Virgil were great orators; that Isosceles was a great orator; that Emerson and Bryant and Lowell were English poets, and Bismarck an English statesman; that Romeo was a Roman writer; that Shakespeare was a Latin author and wrote Julius Cæsar; that Macaulay was a Roman writer and wrote Lays of Ancient Rome. Confusion and haziness are the banes of the university student as they are of all grades of learners. We are in constant danger of over estimating the number of clear-cut live facts or principles in the possession of any pupil or student. The question naturally arises, is it not possible that modern education with its wealth of material which it pours forth on students with such lavish hands does not smother and confuse rather than enliven and illumine?

  1. L. Huxley, 'Life and Letters of Thomas Huxley,' II., p. 447.
  2. Pedagogical Seminary, IX., p. 194.
  3. Butler, 'The Meaning of Education,' Ch. I.