Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/April 1906/The Greatest Need in Research


By Professor M. V. O'SHEA.


ANY student of social progress might learn a useful lesson if he would attend a convention of the National Educational Association, which, in the general character of its work, is typical of the numberless educational organizations existing among us. He would find the most complicated questions of educational procedure being discussed by a body of men of the most divergent interests, training and experience—by prominent public officials who may boast of the fact that they were not trained in the schools themselves; by college presidents and professors in technical departments who have never given an hour's thought to the principles of education; by normal school principals and school superintendents, who devote all their energies to executive details; and in addition to these one may listen to dogmatic opinions regarding studies and methods from editors of the secular and professional press, parents and citizens, merchant princes, bankers, lawyers, physicians, ministers—any one who has attracted attention in any field of practical activity is likely to be invited to give teachers directions as to how they should 'train up the rising generation.' The sort of person who will be least in evidence at the convention is he who is carefully investigating some particular problem of education according to scientific methods. Program makers usually do not wish 'theoretical' or 'laboratory' papers; they want something 'spicy,' 'concrete,' 'practical,' 'common sense.' Study the programs of educational gatherings, and note how largely they are devoted to the exploitation of mere opinion based upon incidental and shallow observation. One does not often hear a governor, say, or a college president, or a professor of Greek, or an editor of a daily paper, instructing physicians regarding the nature of disease and how it should be treated; but such persons will often dogmatically lay down the laws to teachers respecting educational values and methods. They justify themselves on the ground of superior 'common sense'; specialists, they say, men who devise ways to overcome the universal tendency to interpret everything in the light of individual experience and preconceptions, so that they may examine the phenomena in a special field with an eye single to the truth—such men are not generally favored by the gods with well-balanced minds, and only the man who knows a little of everything, but nothing particular about the subject he discusses, is competent to give sane advice as to the rearing of the young.

In almost every field of human activity outside of education the expert alone, who has become possessed of special knowledge, can gain a hearing and a following. Improvement along most lines of human endeavor has been achieved only by clearing the way of the 'common-sense' men; they always block rational progress, for they never penetrate beneath the surface of any problem. When any particular department of social activity is largely dominated by such men it must certainly lag behind those departments where fact is esteemed more highly than mere fancy, and where searching for truth is more prominent than the promulgation of individual opinion. Little was understood of the laws of nature until people with scientific interests abandoned the 'common-sense' notions of the universe which were current among men until within recent times, and devoted themselves to tracking out these laws without preconception or bias. The mind of the 'common-sense' man, as we find him in daily life, functions only for the purpose of getting his own prejudices adopted by his fellows. He is not fitted, intellectually or temperamentally, to discover the deeper-lying truths in any field. He is a partisan, an advocate, not a truth-seeker; and he must be ejected from every scientific camp before advance can be made.

Consider what would be the situation to-day in physics, or chemistry, or electricity, or medicine, or mechanics, or law, if every aspiring person in the community could set himself up as an authority in any of these fields, and he should be given a chance to disseminate his views. In these departments a man who poses as an authority without having mastered at least the rudiments of the subject he treats is cast into outer darkness without ceremony or apology; but he may be welcomed by teachers if his rhetoric is pleasing, and he claims fellowship with the 'common-sense' tribe, or if he has a reputation for greatness in some sphere of action, though quite remote from education. Educational people have had a liking beyond other persons, perhaps, for generalities and commonplaces and oratory and hero-worship; science has not been emotional enough; it has required too precise thinking, and to appreciate it has involved too elaborate training.

But we are beginning to see evidences of brighter days ahead. The scientific temper is beginning to show itself in those who treat of education. There is developing in some quarters discontent with the methods that have been pursued in discussing questions of education, and we are just ready to enter upon an era of educational investigation in accord with strict scientific method. Men are coming to realize that traditional educational dogmas are, in considerable part surely, founded upon the shifting sands. In many other fields there would be no rest or peace until all this folk-lore had been subjected to scientific test; and it looks now as if the educational world was on the eve of a period of stress and struggle in the effort to examine the character of the foundations upon which all our theory and practise are built. The National Educational Association has established a fund for research; a society for the scientific study of education has been formed in our country; two or three of the universities have established chairs of educational research; a number of men have put themselves into training for the new work; and these are but preliminary signs of the impending revolution in the treatment of education.

And we shall need to start practically at the beginning in our research. Much, perhaps most, of contemporary educational opinion is in dispute, and we can not be certain where the truth lies. Take such a simple matter as the teaching of the three R's; while we are agreed that every child should gain some familiarity with these branches, yet we have the most diverse theories as to at what age we should introduce him to them, just what he should get from each, whether they should be acquired in isolation or correlated with other branches, how they may be most economically mastered, and so on ad libitum. For the asking, and even without it, we can get all sorts of opinions on these problems from all sorts of persons from college presidents up and down; but who among all these has resolved any one of these well-nigh infinitely complex questions into its elements, as scientific procedure demands, and observed it under varying conditions, so that its precise value could be determined? 'Common sense' does not realize that these problems are complex; it catches some shallow, immaterial aspect of any situation, and jumps to the easiest conclusion, missing most of the vital factors of the problem. Much of our traditional educational theory has been established in this way; it is in some such condition to-day, as natural science was when Bacon began applying exact methods to the study of natural phenomena. We have a great deal of hearsay knowledge about human development; but when one attempts to administer educational forces with precision, certainty and efficiency, he realizes how much guesswork there is in current pedagogical opinion. Science is only just beginning to touch questions of development at all; men in all fields of living nature have been concerned primarily with mature things, analyzing and dissecting and classifying. Even medicine has given us little of value regarding the healthful physical development of a human being. We have almost no precise knowledge respecting problems of food, clothing, sleep, exercise, the effects of school-life and the like upon an individual at different periods in his development. We have an unlimited body of conflicting lay opinion upon these matters, and a considerable body of conflicting expert (?) opinion as well; but if a layman who has children to bring up, say, should consult all these opinions in the hope of getting some aid in his task, he would be more likely to be confused than enlightened. Take the current standard literature on the feeding of children, for instance, and you will find exactly opposite opinions expressed upon the most vital matters by equally 'eminent authorities'; and you will discover that we have but little on this subject which has been worked out with due regard to scientific accuracy. The trouble is that a man who may be an authority in some phase of the malfunctioning of the adult organism, but who has made no exact studies upon the developing organism, does not hesitate to dogmatize about the latter in the light of his experience with the former. While doubtless he may be partially right in his views, still what we now need is precision as a result of special research in the field of human development, physical as well as intellectual and moral. Here is the great necessity and the great opportunity for research.

Doubtless one, and it may be the principal, reason why research in education has lagged far behind that in many other fields is because the practical work of instruction has absorbed the attention and energies of educators. There has been so much to do in carrying out the conventional educational regime that men have not had leisure to even investigate the foundations of this regime. Teachers are always confronted by situations where something must be done immediately, and they are compelled to act in view of what seems traditionally best. It is not permitted them to doubt the validity of the principles transmitted to them, for to doubt is to become static, and the great public demands action of a clearly obvious nature. Then naturally, of course, when the teacher acts on a principle through necessity, he becomes its exponent and defendant, and easily convinces himself that it is sound, and in this way he helps to pass it on as truth to his associates. Heretofore there has been no body of men in education, as there has been in other fields, who have been sheltered from the urgency of people of utilitarian impulses and needs, and who have been given leisure to work out problems without feeling that principles and rules of practical value must be elaborated at once right out of hand. In physics and chemistry and agriculture and medicine and other departments there are men at work who devote all their time and energies to original investigation, and they are not coerced into forming hasty opinions in order to gratify a public demand; but it is quite different in education. The supreme need to-day in this latter department is the development of a body of investigators who will be recognized as such, and who will be protected from the importunities of the practical people about them. Taken as a whole, the universities, some of which make reasonably liberal provision for research in the physical sciences, agriculture, medicine and the like, make no provision whatever for research in education. The majority of them yield to the general clamor for something immediately serviceable in reference to teaching, and so they engage two or three instructors who are expected to give themselves entirely to the work of instruction, and to enlisting the support of the teachers in their several communities for their respective universities. The situation would not be so much in need of remedying if the normal schools were making any progress in research, but they too are engrossed with immediately practical affairs. They must look to other institutions—properly the universities—for new light, and they will then spread it among the people.

It is worthy of remark that a country which keenly appreciates the necessity of scientific experimentation in agriculture, and carries it on very effectively, should not think it needful to provide for similar experimentation in the care and culture of human beings during the formative period. Some one may ask whether the National Bureau of Education is not an investigating institution; and the answer is that is not intended to make, nor is it making, the slightest contribution to educational science, except in so far as the gathering of statistics regarding school attendance, the wages of teachers, the progress of new studies, as manual training and nature study and the like, may be found to bear in some way upon educational theory. It can not take the initiative in any research; it can simply report what is being done. The men who manage our educational finances have evidently imagined that since so many people are engaged in educational work they would be constantly pushing forward into the unknown, ever widening the boundaries of knowledge about human nature and the means of influencing it most effectively and economically. But it is just as reasonable to assume that practical farmers will continually develop the science of agriculture without experiment stations, or that practical doctors will develop the science of medicine without research laboratories, as to assume that practical superintendents and principals and class-room teachers will develop the science of education without special schools for investigation.