Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/November 1910/The Relations Between Teachers and their Pupils
|THE RELATIONS BETWEEN TEACHERS AND THEIR PUPILS|
By Principal H. A. MIERS, M.A., D.Sc, F.R.S.
PRESIDENT OF THE SECTION
TO preside over this section is to incur a responsibility which I confess somewhat alarms me; for the president may, by virtue of his temporary office, be regarded as speaking with authority on the subjects with which he deals. Now, it is my desire to speak about university education, and for this purpose I must say something of school education; but I would have it understood that I really know little about the actual conduct of modern school teaching. One may read books which describe how it should be conducted, but this is a very different thing from seeing and hearing the teacher in his class; and I fear that personal recollections of what teaching in preparatory and public schools was like from thirty to forty years ago do not qualify one to pose as an intelligent critic of the methods which now prevail.
Human nature, however, has not changed much in the last forty years, and if, in considering the relations between university and school education, I can confine myself to general principles, based upon the difference between boys and men, I trust that I may not go far wrong. I propose first to consider some general relations between teachers and their pupils, and then explain what, in my opinion, should be the change in the method of teaching, or at any rate in the attitude of teacher to pupil, which should take place when the scene changes from school to university.
First as to general relations between teachers and their pupils. Educational systems necessarily prescribe the same methods for different teachers, and, being made for the mass, ignore the individual. But happily, in spite of the attempts to formulate methods of instruction and to make precise systems, there are many, and those perhaps some of the most successful, in the army of earnest school teachers who are elaborating their own methods.
Now among all the changes and varieties of system and curriculum there is one factor which remains permanent and which is universally confessed to be of paramount importance—the individuality of the teacher and his personal influence upon the pupil. It is therefore a healthy sign when school teachers who have been trained on one system begin to develop their own methods, for in this they are asserting their individuality and strengthening that personal influence, which is the real mainspring of all successful education.
Personal influence is, of course, not only a matter of intellectual attainments; it appears to me, however, that at the present time so much is made of the duty of schools to aim at the formation of character that there is an unfortunate tendency to regard this duty as something distinct from the other functions of a master, and as independent of intellectual qualifications. Among the first qualities now demanded of a master in a public school for boys are manliness, athletic skill and a hearty and healthy personality, and these are often regarded as compensating for some lack of intellectual equipment. I suspect that there is a similar tendency in schools for girls. And yet I think it will be found that the only permanent personal influence is really wielded by teachers who exercise it through intellectual channels, and that those who acquire intellectual authority will generally succeed in training the characters as well as the minds of their pupils.
On the other hand, the master who is not up to the proper intellectual standard will soon be found out by his cleverer pupils, and will lose influence, whatever may be the charm of his character.
The formation of character, so far as it can be distinguished from intellectual training, is largely worked out by the boys themselves in any public school in which healthy tradition and a sound moral atmosphere are maintained, although it is true that these traditions depend upon the character and personality of the teachers.
The educational value of the personal and intimate association with one and the same teacher throughout the school or university career is officially recognized in the tutorial system at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge. It has generally led to excellent results, provided that the tutor possesses the right qualities and that pupil and tutor do not happen to be two incompatible personalities; but the results may be well-nigh disastrous where there happens to be antagonism between the two, or where the tutor does not realize his opportunities and responsibilities. I have known some tutors who only excited a distaste for learning in their pupils, and others who entirely neglected or abused the high trust which had been committed to them; but far more, I am glad to say, who have not only exercised the most profound influence for good on their better and cleverer pupils, but also inspired intellectual interest in the most unpromising of them. Although such a tutorial system does not enter fully into the scheme of other schools and universities, and therefore a student does not usually remain long under any one teacher, it must be within the experience of most persons to have come for a time at least under the influence of a teacher who has inspired real enthusiasm for learning and from whose lips the instruction, that might from others have been a trial, has become an intellectual treat.
It is given to comparatively few to exert this powerful and subtle influence in a high degree, for it is a gift confined to a few rare natures. All the more important is it, therefore, to ensure that an effective personal influence may play its part in the intercourse between ordinary teachers and ordinary pupils in the customary routine of school and university life.
How, then, is the proper personal and sympathetic relation to be established between teacher and pupil, so that the individuality of the one may call out the character and the effort of the other? Those who enquire of their earliest school reminiscences will probably recollect that the teachers who obtained a real hold upon them did so by virtue of the power which they possessed of arousing their intellectual interest. I would ask you for a moment to analyze the character of this interest.
In the young child I believe that it will be found to be mainly that of novelty: with him "this way and that dividing the swift mind," sustained thought, or even sustained attention, has not yet become possible; the inquisitive and acquisitive faculties are strong; and every new impression awakens the interest by its novelty quite apart from its purpose. You have only to watch and see how impossible it is for a young child to keep its attention fixed upon a game such as cricket or football to realize how still more difficult it is to keep his attention fixed upon an intellectual purpose.
To quite young children, except to those who are unfortunately precocious, even an impending examination is not a permanent object of anxiety.
Now contrast the aimless interest which can be aroused in any young child's mind by the pleasure of a new impression, a new activity, or a new idea, with that which appeals, or should appeal, to the more mature intellect of an older student. With him it is not enough that the impression or the idea should be new; if it is to arouse interest it must also direct his mind to a purpose. This is to him the effective interest of his games or sport; in the game the desire to succeed or to win is the animating purpose, just as the expectation of catching a fish is the interest which keeps the angler's attention fixed for hours upon his line. In both the desire is fostered by the imagination, which maintains a definite purpose before the mind.
It is sometimes forgotten that as he grows the pupil is no longer "an infant crying for the light," but has become a man with "splendid purpose in his eyes."
While, therefore, it should be the aim of a teacher of young children to set before them the subjects of their lessons in an attractive manner, so that the novelty is never lost, and not to weary their active and restless minds with too sustained an effort, it should at a later stage be the teacher's aim to keep the object and purpose of the new fact or idea as constantly as possible in view, and not to distract the ardent mind with purposeless and disconnected scraps of learning.
I ask you to bear this distinction in mind, for it is a principle which may guide us in differentiating university methods from school methods of education.
The distinction need not involve us in a discussion of the "Ziel-Angabe" in elementary education, for that is rather a question of keeping the interest alive during each lesson than of maintaining a permanent purpose in view throughout a course.
The much-discussed heuristic method as applied to very young children does, no doubt, fulfil this object so far as it provides the inquisitive mind with novelty instead of a set task, but so far as it makes the purpose more prominent than the process it may become a method more suited to the adolescent or the adult mind than to that of the young child.
I can fully realize that a most difficult and anxious time for the teacher must be that of the maturing intellect, in the interval between childhood and the close of the school career, when the method and spirit of the teaching must to some extent gradually change with the changing mental characteristics of the pupil. But, whatever may be the right methods of teaching children of ten and young men and women of twenty, many of our failures are due to one or both of two prevalent mistakes: the first, the mistake of teaching children by methods that are too advanced; the second, that of teaching university students by methods that are better adapted for school children. It is with the latter that I wish to deal in this address; but we may in passing remind ourselves that when young men and young women are sent straight from the university to teach children with nothing but their university experience to guide them, it is not surprising that they often proceed at first on wrong lines and as though they were dealing with university students.
The difficulty of divesting oneself of the mental attitude and the form of expression familiar in university circles, if one is to become intelligible even to the higher classes in a school, is betrayed by the unsatisfactory nature of many of the papers set by university examiners to school children. The teachers complain, and rightly complain, that there is often an academic style and form about them which just make them entirely unsuitable for the child.
It is, of course, hopeful that a diploma in pedagogy or some evidence that they have received instruction in method is now generally required of those who are to become teachers in schools. It seems to me, however, somewhat curious that, while efforts are now being made to give instruction in educational method to such persons, no similar effort is made to give instruction in more advanced methods to those who are called upon at the close of their undergraduate career to become university teachers, and that in consequence many of them have no method at all.
This may be a matter of comparatively small importance to those who possess not only the necessary knowledge, but also the natural gift of personal influence and the power of inspiring those whom they teach. But for those who are not blessed with these powers it may be almost as difficult to fall into the ways of successful university instruction after the sudden transformation from student into teacher as it is for those who become teachers in schools.
Granting, then, that there should be a radical difference between the ways of school and university teaching, and that there is at present an unfortunate overlapping between the two, let me next consider how the distinction between the intellectual interest of a child and the intellectual interest of a man may guide us in adjusting our methods of teaching when students pass from school to the university.
A tenable, perhaps even a prevalent, view concerning a liberal school education is that its chief purpose is not so much to impart knowledge as to train the mind; indeed, some teachers, influenced, perhaps, in the first instance by the views of Plato, go so far as to think that no subject which is clearly of direct practical use should be taught as such at school. This view they would carry to the extent of excluding many obviously appropriate subjects from the school curriculum, whereas almost any subject may be made an intellectual training; this being a question not of subject, but of the manner in which it is taught. In any event, if the scheme of intellectual training be adequately fulfilled, the period of mental discipline should come to an end with the close of school life, and the mind should then be able to enter upon new studies and to assimilate fresh knowledge without a prolonged continuation of preparatory courses. Indeed, the professed object of entrance examinations to the university is to exclude those whose minds are not prepared to benefit by a course of university study, and to admit only those who are sufficiently equipped by previous training to do so. An entrance examination then should not be merely a test of whether a boy or girl has learned sufficient of certain subjects to continue those subjects in particular at the university; and yet it has unfortunately come to be regarded more and more as performing this function instead of being regarded as a test whether the student is generally fit to enter upon any university course. The result is that an entrance examination tends to become a test of knowledge rather than a test of general intelligence; merely one in an organized series of examinations which endeavor to ascertain the advancing proficiency in a limited number of subjects, and therefore tend really to encourage specialization. Specialization is not to be prevented by insisting on a considerable number of subjects, but rather by teaching even one subject in a wide spirit. Another result is that the entrance examination belongs properly neither to the school course nor to the university course; if it is taken at the age of sixteen the remainder of the school career tends to be devoted to university work, which should not really be done at school; if it is taken after leaving school this means that work is being done at, or in connection with, the university which ought to be done at school. It is certainly true that for various reasons a vast deal of education is now being carried on at the universities which should belong to school life, and moreover is being carried on by methods which are identical with those pursued at school. It is equally true that, owing to the early age at which matriculation examinations or their equivalents may be taken, many schools are now asking that at the age of eighteen or nineteen a school examination may be held which shall be an equivalent not for matriculation, but for the first-degree examination at the university. This would really imply that schools should be recognized as doing university work for two years of their pupils' careers—surely a most illogical procedure and one which supports my contention that there is now very serious overlapping, for it assumes that the work for the first-degree examination can be carried on either at the school or at the university, and therefore that there is no difference in the methods of the two.
An increasing number of candidates actually present themselves from secondary schools for the external intermediate examination of the University of London; in 1904 there were about 150, in 1909 there were nearly 500, such candidates.
There will always be exceptional boys and girls who reach a university standard, both of attainments and of intelligence, long before they arrive at the ordinary school-leaving age. Let them either leave school and begin their university career early, or let them, if they remain at school, widen their knowledge by including subjects which are not supplied by the more rigid school curriculum designed for the average pupils; but let them not cease to be taught as school pupils. It is equally certain that there will also be boys and girls whose development is so slow that they barely reach the university standard when they leave school; yet some among them are the best possible material and achieve the greatest success in the end. For such persons an entrance examination will be required at the age of eighteen or nineteen; but I think it is unfortunate that this should be the same as that which quicker pupils can pass at the age of sixteen or seventeen, for an examination designed for the one age can scarcely be quite satisfactory for the other.
I confess that the whole matter is inextricably involved with the question of university entrance examinations. But to enter upon this here would carry us beyond the limits that I have laid down for myself, and it will be more profitable to decide what should be done at school and the university, respectively, before discussing how the examinations are to be adapted to our purpose. It will be sufficient for me to say that I have been led to the conclusion that matriculation examinations should be designed to suit the capacity of average pupils not less than seventeen years of age, if they are to test the intelligence of those who are ready to enter upon a university course.
Starting, then, with the principle that the period of mental discipline is closed at the end of the school career, and that those who pass to the university come with fair mental training and sufficient intelligence, let me inquire what should be the relation of university teaching to that which the student has received at school.
Under present conditions the schools which aim at sending students to the universities endeavor to give a general education which will fit their pupils to enter either upon a university course or upon whatever profession or occupation they may select on leaving school. They do not confine the teaching of any pupil to preparation for a special profession or occupation, and they do not generally encourage special preparation for the university.
Now contrast what happens to the pupils leaving such a school to enter a profession or business with what happens to those who proceed to the university. The former pass into an entirely different atmosphere; they are no longer occupied with exercises and preparatory courses which serve a disciplinary purpose; they are brought face to face with the realities of their business or profession, and, though they have to gain their experience by beginning at the lower or more elementary stages, they do actually and at once take part in it.
The university student, on the other hand, too often continues what he did at school; he may attend lectures instead of the school class, but neither the-method nor the material need differ much from what he has already done. Should not the break with school be as complete for him as for his school-fellow who goes into business? Should he not be brought face to face with the actualities of learning? After his years of preparation and mental drill at school should he not, under the direction of his university teachers, appreciate the purpose of his work and share the responsibility of it?
Let me take, as an illustration, the subject of history. A public school boy who comes to the university and takes up the study of history should learn at once how to use the original sources. It will, of course, be easier for him if he has learned the rudiments of history and become interested in the subject at school; but, if he is really keen upon his university work, it should not be absolutely necessary for him to have learned any history whatever. In any case, if he has received a good general education and has reached the standard of intelligence required for university work, he ought to be able to enter at once upon the intelligent study of history at first hand; his teachers will make it their duty to show him how to do this; their lectures and seminars will illustrate the methods of independent study, and will make the need of them clear to him. If, as is probable, some acquaintance with one or more foreign languages be necessary, he will take instruction in them as an essential part of his history course, in order that he may acquire the needful working knowledge; and to learn something of them with a definite purpose will be to him far more interesting and profitable than to study them only for linguistic training, as he would have been compelled to do at school. After all this is what would be done by his school-fellow who goes into business and finds it necessary, and probably also interesting, to acquire some knowledge of the particular foreign language required in the correspondence of his firm. It will, of course, be all the better for a university student of history to have acquired some training at school in the rudiments of history both ancient and modern, together with the knowledge of classics which is necessary for the former, and of modern languages which is necessary for the latter. But there is not space in the school curriculum for all the subjects that may be required either for the university or for the business of life; the best that can be done is to give a good all-round training and to foster a marked taste or ability where it exists by allowing the boy or girl to include the subjects which are most congenial to them in the studies of their last two years of school life, as I have already suggested, provided that mere specialization is not encouraged at school even towards the end of the school career.
The university course might then become a more complete specialization, but of a broad character—the study of a special subject in its wider aspects, and with the help of all the other knowledge which may be necessary to that purpose.
The university teacher will also differ from the school teacher in his methods, for it will be his business not so much to teach history as to teach his pupil so to learn and study history as though it were his purpose to become an historian; in so doing he will have opportunities to explain his own views and to contrast them with those of other authorities, and so to express his individuality as a university teacher should.
One might choose any other subject as an illustration. In science there should be all the difference between the school exercises, on the one hand, which teach the pupil the methods of experiment, illustrate the principles laid down in his text-books and exercise his mind in scientific reasoning, and, on the other hand, the university training, which sets him on a course involving the methods of the classical researches of great investigators and a study of the original papers in which they are contained, illuminated by the views of his own teacher. He also should awaken to the necessity of modern languages. A boy who, on leaving school, passes not to the scientific laboratories of a university, but to a scientific assistantship in a business or government department, will very soon find it necessary to go to the original sources and acquire a working knowledge of foreign languages. It is regrettable that under existing conditions a scientific student sometimes passes through his university without acquiring even this necessary equipment. I believe this to be largely due to the fact that he is compelled to spend so much of his time in preparatory work of a school character during the early stages of his university career.
In the literary subjects, and especially in classics, there is, of course, not the same scope for the spirit of investigation which it is so easy to encourage in experimental science. Here the only new advances and discoveries which can appeal to the imagination in quite the same way are those which are being made every year in the field of archeology, and it is therefore not surprising that this subject attracts many of the most ardent students: the methods of the archeologist are more akin to those of the scientific investigator, and his work*is accompanied by the same enthralling excitement of possible discovery. For the more able pupils and those who had a natural taste for language and literature no subjects have been more thoroughly and systematically taught for very many years at school, as well as at the university, than the classics; but for the less intellectual children or those who had no natural taste for such studies no methods could well be more unsuitable than those which used to prevail at schools. The grammatical rules and exceptions, the unintelligent and uncouth translation, the dry comparison of parallel passages, the mechanical construction of Greek and Latin verse, produced in many minds nothing but distaste for the finest literature that exists.
With the improved methods now in use Greek and Latin may be, and are, presented to the ordinary boy and girl as living literature and history, and school training in them may be made as interesting as anything else in the curriculum. Upon such a foundation the university should surely be able to build a course devoted to literary, philosophical, historical or philological learning even for the average student, provided that the university teacher undertakes the task of helping his pupils to learn for themselves, and to pursue their studies with a purpose, not merely as a preparation.
The spirit of inquiry which drives the literary student to find for himself the meaning of an author by study and by comparison of the views of others is really the same spirit of inquiry which drives the scientific student to interpret an experiment, or the mathematical student to solve a problem. Only by kindling the spirit of inquiry can teaching of a real university character be carried on. Give it what name you will, and exercise it in whatever manner you desire, there is no subject of study to which it can not be applied, and there are no intelligent minds in which it can not be excited.
The first question which a university teacher should ask himself is, "Am I rousing a spirit of inquiry in my pupils?" And if this can not be answered in the affirmative it is a confession that the university ideal is not being realized.
Some assert that this principle should also guide school education, and that it should be the first aim of the school teacher to stimulate the spirit of inquiry. My own view is that with young children this should be less necessary; they all possess it, and are by nature inquisitive. It should rather be the object of the teacher not to spoil the spirit of inquiry by allowing it to run riot, nor to stifle it by making the work uninteresting; if the lesson interests them, their inquisitive minds will be quick enough to assimilate the teaching. We are, in fact, brought back to what I have already emphasized—that the real difference between the inquisitive mind of the child and the inquiring mind of the adult is that the former is yearning for information quite regardless of what it may lead to, whereas the latter must learn or investigate with an object if the interest is to be excited and maintained.
I have often thought it an interesting parallel that among original investigators and researchers there are two quite distinct types of mind, which have achieved equally valuable results. There is the researcher who pursues an investigation with a constant purpose and to whom the purpose is the inspiration. But there is also the investigator who has preserved his youthful enthusiasm for novelty and has in some respects the mind of a child; passionately inquisitive, he will always seek to do something new, and very often, like a child, he will tire of a line of research in which he has made a discovery, and take up with equal enthusiasm a totally different problem in the hope of achieving new conquests. I think that a man well known in Sheffield, the late Henry Clifton Sorby, must have been a man of this character. The latter is, perhaps, the most fertile type of original investigator, but it is not the type that produces the best teacher, except for very exceptional and original-minded students; and such teachers do not often found a school of learning and research endowed with much stability. For ordinary students the investigator who pursues his researches as far as possible to their conclusion is the safer guide.
It seems to me suggestive that there are to be found, even amongst the famous researchers, these two types of mind, that somewhat correspond to the mental attitude of the school pupil and the university student. It is as though these great men have preserved a juvenile spirit, some from the days of their childhood, others from early manhood.
It will now be clear that the principle which I am advocating is a very simple one, namely, that the business of direct mental training should be finished at school, and that at the university the trained mind should be given material upon which to do responsible work in the spirit of inquiry. Preparatory exercises belong to school life and should be abandoned at the university.
All this seems so obvious that it might appear to be hardly worth saying were it not that the methods which actually prevail are so far removed from this ideal.
When, for example, a boy who has not learned Greek or chemistry id school comes to the university and proposes to take up one of these subjects he is generally put through a course of exercises which differ in no essential respect from those which are set before a boy of twelve. In other words, our university method for the trained mind does not really differ from our school method, which is supposed to be adapted to the mind in course of training. Again, boys who have been learning certain subjects for years at school, but are weak in them, have their education continued at the university in the same subjects by the same school methods until they can be brought up to the requirements of a first university examination, which in its character does not differ much from the examinations held at school. Where in this process is to be found the introduction of that spirit of inquiry and investigation which ought to characterize the university course?
It may be asked, In what manner is this change to be introduced, and how is it possible under present conditions, where so many students are all pursuing ordinary degree courses and have no time or opportunity for special work, to provide teachers who can educate them in this spirit, if it is also their duty to get pass students through their examinations? The answer, I think, is that in a university the professors and higher teachers should be, without exception, men who, whatever may be their teaching duties, are also actively engaged in investigation. Their assistants should be teachers who, even if the whole or part of their time is occupied in routine teaching, have yet had some experience in, and possess real sympathy with, modern advanced work under such professors. This is only to be secured by insisting that teachers in a university should all have had some experience of original work, and, just as one of the necessary qualifications for an elementary teacher is some education in method, so a necessary qualification for a university teacher should be some education in research. Any one desirous of qualifying for university teaching should be compelled to devote a certain portion of his student career to research, and the funds of a university can not be better applied than to the retention of the better students at the university for the distinct purpose of enabling them to pursue investigation under the professor for a period of one year after they have completed their degree course, if they have not been able to do so during their undergraduate period. It is not, however, too much to hope that the majority of those who are endeavoring to qualify for the higher educational posts will be assisted to obtain this special experience during their degree course. Under the present system at most universities, unless the student has been fortunate enough to come in contact with a teacher imbued with the spirit of research who is carrying on his own investigations, it rarely happens that he has the time or the means which would enable him to obtain any insight into the meaning of investigation before he leaves to take up teaching work. The need of post-graduate scholarships for this purpose is very widely felt, and is now frequently expressed. To insist upon such qualifications for all university students is, of course, under present conditions, impossible; but there should be no insuperable difficulty in insisting upon them for those who are to be allowed to enter a university as teachers.
Researchers are born, not made, and it is not by any means desirable that all university students should be cast adrift to make new researches and seek discoveries even under the direction of experienced teachers and investigators. This must depend to some extent upon the character of the pupil as well as of the teacher.
The mere publication of papers may mean nothing, and much that is dignified with the name of research is of no account. To turn a lad on to research, unless it be in the right spirit, may be only to set him a new exercise instead of an old one; to leave him to prosecute an investigation for himself may be to condemn him to disappointment and failure. On the other hand, to carry on any piece of work, whether it be new or old, in the zealous spirit of inquiry, with faith in a purpose, is to insure the intellectual interest of the student; and I can not see why this spirit should not animate all university education, whether it be accompanied by original research or not. The essential condition is that the chief university teachers should themselves create an atmosphere of investigation.
So deep-seated is the belief that nothing must be undertaken without a preparatory course of training that even the best and most brilliant students are frequently discouraged from undertaking a new study until they have been subjected to the mental discipline of an elementary course in it.
I can not refrain from quoting an example which came within my own experience, although I have already alluded to it in another address delivered last year.
When I was at Oxford a young Frenchman of exceptional ability, whose training had been almost exclusively literary and philosophical, and who was at the time engaged on a theological inquiry, expressed to me his regret that he had never learned to understand by practical experience the meaning of scientific work. And when I assured him that nothing was easier than to acquire practical experience by taking up a piece of actual investigation under the direction of a scientific worker, he explained to me that when he had applied for admission to scientific laboratories he had been told that it was useless to do so until by preparatory courses he had acquired an adequate knowledge of mathematics, physics and chemistry. I offered to make the trial with him, and began with a problem that happened to interest me and that required a new method of simple experimental research. I soon found that a well-trained mind, able to grasp the meaning of the problem and eager to investigate it, could begin without delay upon the experiments, and in the desire to interpret them could find a pleasure and a purpose in seeking the necessary chemical and physical knowledge; whereas to have begun by acquiring this in a preparatory course, with no definite object in view, would have been to set back a mature mind to school methods of training and very possibly to have stifled instead of kindling any real scientific interest.
This is, again, an illustration of my contention that the most special study, if carried on in the true university spirit, is very far removed from ordinary specialization, and involves very wide extension of interest and learning; whereas, if carried on in a preparatory spirit, it is necessarily limited.
In a very short time this student had published three original papers which seem to me of considerable importance, though perhaps on a somewhat obscure subject, and I see that they are now quoted as marking a substantial advance in knowledge.
Of course this is the exceptional case of the exceptionally able student; but I think it illustrates two things—first, the prevalence of the conventional attitude that preparation on school lines is necessary even for the post-graduate student; second, the fact that what is really necessary to the university student is the purpose, and that with this before his eyes he may safely be introduced to new fields of work.
One result of the conventional attitude is that those who have distinguished themselves at school in some subject are often assumed to have a special aptitude in it, and to be destined by nature to pursue the same subject at the university, whereas their school success may only prove that they are abler than their fellows, and that this ability will show itself in whatever subject they may take up. Such students would sometimes on coming to the university be all the better for a complete change of subject, without which the continuance of the school studies too often means a perpetuation of the school methods.
Another result is that when teachers are always playing a somewhat mechanical part in a systematized course, receiving duly prepared pupils and preparing them again for the next stage, such an atmosphere of preparation is produced that many persons continue to spend the greater part of their lives in preparation without any reasonable prospect of performance.
I am well aware that, on the other hand, there always have been and are now many earnest and accomplished university teachers who are pursuing the methods that I advocate, whose teaching is always inspired with a purpose, whose pupils are stimulated to learn in the spirit of inquiry, and who consequently exercise a personal influence that is profound and enduring. I am deeply conscious how much I owe to some such teachers with whom I have studied and to others whom I have known. But still it does remain true that is not yet the atmosphere of ordinary university education, that it does not yet invigorate the ordinary university student, and that to him the passage from school to the university does not necessarily mean a transition from mental discipline and preparation to mental activity and performance.
The distinction that I have in my mind between university and school teaching may be expressed in this way. At school no subject should be taught to a class as though it were intended to be their life work; to take an example, it too often happens at present, owing really to excessive zeal on the part of school teachers, that mathematics is taught as though each member of the class were destined to become a mathematician; consequently only the few scholars with a real aptitude for mathematics become interested, and the remainder are left behind. On the other hand, at the university each subject should be studied as though it really were the life-work both of teacher and of student. Thus, to take the same subject as an illustration, the mathematical student will attend the full courses of his professors and will follow them with the interest of a mathematician; whereas for the scientific student it will only be in those branches of mathematics which concern him that the interest of his special science will put him on terms of equality with the mathematical student. If I may choose an illustration which is familiar to myself, any student of mineralogy can easily be interested in and benefit by a course in spherical trigonometry, because it is one of the tools of his trade, but to send him to lectures on differential equations would be only to discourage him. On the other hand, the student of chemistry would rather be interested in the latter. To each of them certain branches of mathematics as taught by an ardent teacher afford a real intellectual training, but neither would gain much if compelled to follow a general university course of mathematics designed for mathematicians.
It will be observed that I have endeavored to confine myself to the subject of university education and not to say much, except by way of contrast, concerning school teaching.
I must, however, return to it for a moment, if only to emphasize the danger of that specialization which, since it takes place at school and not at the university, is bound to be narrow, and which is often encouraged in pupils of special aptitude preparing for university scholarships.
That a boy or girl should for a year or even two years before leaving school be practically confined to one subject, and should before entering the university be examined in that alone, appears to me to be contrary to all the best traditions of school teaching, and to the often-expressed desire of the universities to insure a good general education in those whom they admit. There should, I think, be no scholarship examination which does not include several of the subjects of a normal school curriculum, however much additional weight may be given to any of them. Although it may be necessary that university entrance scholarships in one subject should be given either to encourage its study or to discover those who have a special aptitude, yet, so far as scholarships are intended to be rewards for intellectual preeminence, they should, I think, be directed to general capacity, and not be used as an encouragement to limited study. From what I have already said it will be clear that I do not attach much importance to special preparation at school for those who intend to proceed to the university. If a boy has a very special taste or aptitude, it should have abundant opportunity for displaying and exercising itself at the university, provided only that it has not been stifled, but has been given some encouragement in the school curriculum. I understand, for example, that those who teach such a subject as physiology at the university would prefer that their pupils should come to them from school with a general knowledge of chemistry and physics rather than that they should have received training in physiology. With the present modern differentiation into a classical and modern side, or their equivalents, the ordinary school subjects should be sufficient preparation for any university course if they are not mutually strangled in the pressure of an overcrowded curriculum.
To be fair, however, I must state another view. A very experienced college tutor who has had previous valuable experience as a master in a public school tells me that in his opinion the real problem of the public schools is the "arrest of intellectual development that overtakes so many boys at about the age of sixteen." "There are few public schools," he says, "whose fifth forms are not full of boys of seventeen or eighteen, many of them perfectly orderly, well-mannered and reasonable, in some sense the salt of the place, exercising great influence in the school and exercising it well, with a high standard of public spirit, kindly and straight-living, in whom, nevertheless, it is difficult to recognize the bright, intelligent, if not very industrious, child of two or three years before."
He thinks that there is a real danger of degeneration at this age, owing, for one thing, to the manner in which the boys are educated en bloc; up to a certain age boys can be herded together and taught on the same lines without great harm being done, but after a certain time differentiation begins to set in. The school curriculum, however, does not admit of being adjusted to suit the dawning interests of a couple of hundred boys; and he sees no cure for this difficulty except a considerable increase in the staff and a corresponding reduction in the size of the forms. But he thinks that much may be done by an alteration in the system of matriculation examination, which sets the standard at the public schools. He would make this consist of two parts: an examination coming at about the age of sixteen and well within the reach of a boy of ordinary intelligence and industry, and comprising the ordinary subjects of school curriculum at this age; he would then let the boy leave the subjects from which he is not likely to get much further profit and begin to specialize for the remaining two or three years, say, in two subjects, which would then be the material of the second examination. In this way they would make a wholly fresh start at a critical age, and he thinks that the bulk of the boys would probably find this a great advantage.
I quote this opinion because it shows that an experienced schoolmaster regards it as highly desirable that at a certain period in a schoolboy's career a real change should be made in his curriculum, and I have expressly stated that I find it difficult to express an opinion upon this particular educational period.
What should be the exact nature of the teaching before and after the age of sixteen or seventeen for the mass of ordinary boys I would prefer to leave to the decision of those who are best able to judge. I think it highly probable that there should be a considerable alteration of curriculum at the critical age. But, if a break and change of subject are required at this age, I believe that a yet more complete change is required at the later stage when the boy goes to the university, and that school methods should then be entirely replaced by university methods—not because there is then a natural change in the mental powers of the student, but because it is the obvious stage at which to make the change if we are to abandon preparatory training at all. Should it be proposed that the change ought to be made at sixteen, and that after that age something of the nature of university methods should be gradually introduced, my fear is that this would only lead to the perpetuation of school methods at the university.
An interesting question which deserves to be very seriously considered is the question, What sort of school education affords the best preparatory training for the university? I have often heard it asserted that, if a boy is capable of taking up at the university a course which is entirely different from his school course, he will generally be found to have come from the classical side and not from the modern side. An ordinary modern-side boy is rarely able to pursue profitably a literary career at the university, whereas it often happens that ordinary classical-side boys make excellent scientific students after they have left school. I am bound to say that this is, on the whole, my own experience. It suggests that a literary education at school is at present a better intellectual training for general university work than a scientific education. If this be so, what is the reason?
There are no doubt many causes which may contribute. In some schools the brighter boys are still retained on the classical side while those who are more slow are left to find their way to other subjects; and some whose real tastes have been suppressed by the uniformity of the school curriculum turn with relief to new studies at the university and pursue them with zeal. But the facts do also, I think, point to some defect in the present teaching of school science whereby a certain narrowness and rigidity of mind are rendered possible. This may be partly due to the lack of human interest in the teaching of elementary science; the story of discovery has a personal side which is too much neglected, though it is more attractive to the beginner and might with advantage be used to give some insight into the working of the human mind and character. Moreover, it would form an introduction to the philosophy of science which is at present so strangely ignored by most teachers.
But another noteworthy defect is the absence of that mental exercise which is provided by the thoughtful use and analysis of language.
I believe that the practise of expressing thoughts in carefully chosen words, which forms so large a part of a good literary education, constitutes a mental training which can scarcely be surpassed, and it is unfortunately true that in the non-literary subjects too little attention is paid to this practise. In school work and examinations a pupil who appears to understand a problem is often allowed full credit, although his spoken or written answer may be far from clear. This is a great mistake. A statement which is not intelligibly expressed indicates some confusion of thought; and, if scientific teaching is to maintain its proper position as a mental training, far more attention must be paid to the cultivation of a lucid style in writing and speaking.
The various universities seem fairly agreed upon the subjects which they regard as essential to an entrance examination—subjects which may be taken to imply the groundwork of a liberal education. Among these is English: and yet of all the subjects which children are taught at school there is none in which such poor results are achieved. It may be taught by earnest and zealous teachers; the examination papers are searching, and seem to require a considerable knowledge of English literature and considerable skill in the manipulation of the language, and yet the fact remains that the power of simple intelligible expression is not one that is possessed by the average schoolboy and schoolgirl. It is the most necessary part of what should be an adequate equipment for the affairs of life whether the pupil passes to the university or not, and yet it is on the whole that which is least acquired.
Although it is true that the intelligent reading and study of the great masters should assist in the acquisition of a good style, it is equally true that, if they come to be regarded as a school task, they are not viewed with affection, especially in these days of crowded curricula, when there is little leisure for the enjoyment of a book that requires deliberate reading. If the modern strenuous curriculum of work and games has abolished the loafer it has also abolished leisure, and has therefore removed one of the opportunities that used to exist for the cultivation of literary and artistic tastes and pursuits by those to whom they are congenial. The art of expressing one's ideas in simple, straightforward language is to be acquired not so much by study as by practise. There is no essential reason why children should write worse than they speak; they do so because they have constant practise in the one and little practise in the other. Our grandparents felt less difficulty in expressing themselves clearly than we do ourselves: of this their letters are evidence. It may have been partly due to the fact that they had more time and encouragement for leisurely reading, though they had not so much to read; but I believe that the letters which they wrote as children were their real education in the art of writing English. Much would be gained if boys and girls were constantly required to express their own meaning in writing. The set essay and the précis play a useful part, but do not do all that is needed. Translation does not give quite the necessary exercise. What is required is constant, with certain periods of conscious, practise, and that is only to be obtained by making every piece of school work in which the English language is used an exercise in lucid expression. Very few paragraphs in anything written by the ordinary schoolboy—or, for the matter of that, by the ordinary educated Englishman—are wholly intelligible, and teachers can not devote too much pains to criticizing all written work from this point of view. If we first learned by practise to express our meaning clearly we should be more likely to acquire the graces of an elegant style later. I must add that I believe the training in the manipulation of words would be improved if all children were required to practise the writing of English verse—not in efforts to write poetry, but narrative verse used to express simple ideas in plain language—and I believe that this would enable them the better to appreciate poetry, the love of which is possibly now to some extent stifled by the pedantic study of beautiful poems treated as school tasks.
In such a subject as English composition, in which reform is so badly needed, something, perhaps, would be gained by an entire break with existing traditions—a break of the sort which would be required if it became suddenly necessary to provide for an entirely new type of student.
Now, there is one new and interesting development in which, for the first time, an opportunity offers itself of dealing with a body of students who, although possessed of more than average intelligence and enthusiasm, have not received the conventional training which leads to a university course. The tutorial classes for working people which have now been undertaken by several universities, and which already number about 1,200 students, are attended by persons carefully selected for the purpose and anxious to pursue a continuous course of study of an advanced standard. In these classes the universities will be compelled to begin new subjects for students of matured minds who have not received the usual preparation, and will therefore necessarily deal with them in a new way. Here, if anywhere, the difference between school methods of teaching and university methods ought to be apparent; and I feel sure that, if university teachers attempt conventional methods with these students, they will be condemned to failure. It is certain that these classes will increase enormously and rapidly, and I have great hope that they will for this reason influence the methods of university teaching in a very healthy manner. In the tutorial classes the teachers will be confronted with the entirely new problem of students who have thought much, and of whom many are experienced speakers, well able to express their thoughts by the spoken word, but who, nevertheless, have received little training, and have had still less experience, in expressing their ideas in writing. Many of the students whom I have met have told me that this difficulty of writing is their real obstacle, and the matter in which they feel the want of experience most acutely. It will be a very valuable exercise for those who conduct these classes to instruct their students in the art of writing simple and intelligible English, and I hope that the necessity of giving this instruction will have a good effect upon the conventional methods of teaching English in schools as well as in universities.
I am conscious that this address is lamentably incomplete in that it is concerned only with the manner of university teaching, and scarcely at all with its matter, and that, to carry any conviction, I should address myself to the task of working out in detail the suggestions that I have made. But this would lead me far beyond the limits of an address, and I am content to do little more than touch the fringe of the problem. Reduced to its simplest terms, this, like so many educational problems, involves an attempt to reconcile two more or less incompatible aims.
The acquisition of knowledge and the training of the mind are two inseparable aims of education, and yet it often appears difficult to provide adequately for the one without neglecting the other. If childhood is the time when systematic training is most desirable, it is also the time when knowledge is most easily acquired; if early manhood is the time when special knowledge must be sought, it is also the time when training for the special business of life is necessary. To withdraw from the child the opportunities of absorbing knowledge may be as harmful as it is unnatural; to turn a young man or young woman loose into a profession without proper preparation is cruel, and may be disastrous.
And so we get the battle of syllabus, time-table, scholarships, examinations, professional training, technical instruction, under all of which lies the disturbing distinction between training and knowledge.
But, if we inquire further into these matters, I think we shall find that the fundamental question is to a large extent one of responsibility. Left to himself, a boy or a man will acquire a knowledge of the things which interest him, even though they be only the arts of a pickpocket, and will obtain a training from experience such as no school or college can give. If education is to achieve the great purpose of interesting and instructing him while young in the right objects, and also of training him for the proper business of his life before it is too late, is it not mainly a question of deciding when and how far to take for him, or to leave to him, the responsibility of what he is to learn and how he is to learn it? If the teacher bears the responsibility during the period of school training, should not the student have a large share of responsibility in the quest of knowledge at the university?
Now, it is of the essence of responsibility that there should be something sudden and unexpected about it. If, before putting a young man into a position of trust, you lead him through a kindergarten preparation for it, in which he plays with the semblance before being admitted to the reality, if you teach him first all the rules and regulations which should prevent him from making a mistake, you will effectually smother his independence and stifle his initiative. But plunge him into a new experience and make him feel the responsibility of his position, and you will give him the impulse to learn his new duties and the opportunity to show his real powers. It is because I feel that this sudden entrance into an environment of new responsibility is so necessary that I would regard with suspicion any attempt to provide a gradual transition between school and university methods.
In matters of discipline and self-control it is possible and advisable to place responsibility upon school children; in intellectual matters it is not advisable, except for the few who are matured beyond their years. It is, therefore, all the more necessary that this should be done at the moment when they enter the university.
This should be the moment of which Emerson says:
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives 1 at the conviction that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that, though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing com can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
The spirit of independent inquiry, which should dominate all university teaching and learning, is not to be measured, as I have already said, by the number of memoirs published, but it is to be tested by the extent to which university students are engaged upon work for which they feel a responsibility. Visit the universities at the present moment, and, in spite of all admirable investigation which is being carried on, you will find the majority of students engaged in exercises in which they feel no responsibility whatever. In my opinion this indicates that for them the spirit of true university education has never been awakened. It is, after all, very largely a question of attitude of mind. Any subject of study, whether it be a scientific experiment or an historical event, or the significance of a text, is a matter of interpretation, and to approach it in the university spirit is to approach it with the question, "Is this the right interpretation?" Upon that question can be hung a whole philosophy of the subject, and from it can proceed a whole series of investigations: it embodies the true spirit of research and it opens the door to true learning.
In discussing university education I have not, of course, forgotten that many persons have taught themselves up to a university standard entirely without the aid of professors; indeed, the University of London long ago provided an avenue to a university degree which has been successfully followed by many such persons with the best possible results. But I have endeavored to remind you that at the university as at school for most students the personal influence of the teacher is the important thing; that at the university as at school success in teaching depends mainly on the extent to which the interest of the student is aroused; and that at the university this is only to be done by providing him with a purpose and a responsibility in his work in order that he may understand to what conclusions it is leading him. Until this is done we shall still have university students complaining that they do not see the object of what they are learning or understand what it all means. This complaint, which I have often heard from past and present students of different universities, suggested to me that I should on the present occasion deal with this defect in our customary methods.
In the hope that the attention of university teachers may be turned more fully to this aspect of their work I have ventured to make it the subject of my address.
- Address to the Educational Science Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sheffield, 1910.