Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/January 1911/University Reforms
By STEWART PATON, M.D.
PRINCETON, N. J.
AT present there is a wide-spread popular interest in all questions relating to the subject of educational reform, and it may be said with truth of the public, "Thou criest after knowledge and liftest up thy voice for understanding." The discussion is general and not limited to any one locality, nor confined to any particular social class. Over their cups of afternoon tea Mrs. Jones discusses with Mrs. Brown the respective merits of different educational systems, and at the club many an old graduate is up in arms at the mere suggestion that the boys at college are now made to spend too much time over their books! College presidents in their public utterances are decidedly optimistic in regard to the prospective value of this or that proposed change in the curriculum as hastening the day when the colts driven to water will drink eagerly from the fount of knowledge. It is fortunate that the note of optimism has been so loudly sounded by prominent educators, for only those who set out with hope may keep the road across the plain in which lies many a miry "slough of despond."
The task of a university president is no sinecure. The public, which includes many fond parents, is beginning vaguely to realize that something is wrong with our educational system, and as many a boy about to graduate from the university fails to appreciate the value of culture and has no overwhelming love for learning, it is only natural that the parental disappointment should attribute the failure to the last person controlling the throttle of the educational machine, namely the college president. At once the system is blamed, changes are proposed, new hopes are aroused, a general culture is promised, the elective system is dropped, courses are prescribed, the boys are forced to work, and then believing a panacea has been found the public temporarily loses interest in the discussion.
Again the machine grinds on until some one makes the discovery that the majority of the undergraduates do not read "Culture and Anarchy," nor do their copies of the "Novum Organum" show signs of being well-thumbed. The wave of public interest rises again and breaks with such force that the foundations of more than one institution of learning are shaken. The army of the Philistines not having been routed by the frontal attack, strategy is substituted for force, and with the same generals in command a flanking movement is planned. The functions of the brain and nervous system are to be properly adjusted to respond to each and every wave of truth by surrounding the scholars with influences so subtle that unconsciously they are to become inoculated with culture and the love of learning. Experience teaches us, however, that this method of instruction generally produces one of two types of scholars—the savant for vanity "who is quite satisfied with the honor of being regarded as a curiosity himself" or the savant for amusement "who loves to look for knots in knowledge and to untie them, not too energetically, however, lest he lose the spirit of the game." Some of those who in a general way have been the most alert to apprehend the existence of defects in the educational system, without being able to localize the exact seat of the trouble in the machinery, have at times attributed the specific faults to the general tendency to introduce into the curriculum the study of purely utilitarian subjects. This view assumes that useful knowledge is vulgar and has no relation to culture, but fails to recognize the importance of emphasizing, not the subject studied, but the methods of work acquired. While many persons take an active interest in the discussion of the general problems of education, very few seem to appreciate that the acquisition of either culture or learning implies the subjection of the most complicated and delicately balanced organ of the human body, the brain, to a series of protracted tests and strains of considerable intensity. The general attitude of the public to the whole subject of education is very well expressed in the lines of Goethe:
Mein Kind ich habe es klug gemacht
Ich habe nie über das Denken gedacht.
In spite of the growing interest in the subject it is becoming more and more difficult to find an accurate definition of education, because each individual has his own ideals which may be regarded as the product of his past and present environment. We judge of the merits of a given system by the finished product, the individual scholar, and we argue in favor of the humanities, or of the sciences as the case may be, merely because certain types of scholars appeal to our personal predilections. We are apt to attribute the possession of the mental traits of those individuals who by their attainments represent the personification of our ideals to some special system of education (belonging to some school, college or university), quite forgetful of the fact that various subtle influences, such as heredity and environment, have been the most potent factors in determining the final result. An education, even if wisely planned and well directed, adds nothing to the natural brain power of the individual; it merely gives his latent faculties an opportunity to develop to their highest point of efficiency. If we could add one jot to the latent capacity of any scholar's brain there would still be hopes of making the silken purse from the sow's ear.
We find one person the possessor of a certain kind of knowledge and hastily draw the inference that the mere acquisition of a similar store will bring out identical mental traits in other individuals irrespective of their mental capacity. This point of view has unfortunately given rise to an excessive faith in the special potency of certain kinds of knowledge, and has engendered a sentimental belief in the educational value of first one and then another subject. As a matter of fact, experiences teach us there is only one kind of knowledge and one way of acquiring it. The general tendency of educators to prescribe definite mental tasks in order to increase the efficiency of an organ whose functions they have never seriously studied is analogous to the practise of the physicians of the old school with their inordinate faith in the specific power of a large number of drugs to cure diseases. There is no reason for supposing that a professor of Greek or chemistry should be more capable of estimating the capacity of an individual student's brain than there was for the barbers in the reign of Henry the Eighth assuming that they possessed sufficient knowledge of the anatomy of the human body to entitle them to perform the duties of general surgeons.
No matter how much intelligent persons may differ in their expressions of belief as to the relative merits of educational systems, there is a general agreement as to the nature of the distinctive differences between past and present systems; the former laying stress upon the character of the information gained, the latter emphasizing the importance of the mental habits acquired. The results aimed at by modern education have been well defined by Ex-President Eliot as "an initiation of mental processes and the establishment of good mental habits, with incidental acquisition of information"; and according to President Lowell "the essence of a liberal education consists in an attitude of mind." From this it may be seen that the importance of good mental habits or, if we choose to express the same idea physiologically, of a well-balanced brain is an essential factor in the pursuit of culture; for although we may get to know the best which has been thought and said in the world, we must still have the power "to turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits." If we start out from this physiological point of departure the absurdity and irrelevancy of much of the talk at the present time as to what should and should not be taught in the universities is apparent. When an individual has acquired bad habits of eating, bolts his food and develops symptoms of acute indigestion, he is not generally advised to eat more, but is told to learn how to chew and to eat less. Most of the boys who enter the universities have suffered from one or more attacks of mental dyspepsia; through no fault of their own they have acquired bad mental habits, and nature has made an attempt to readjust their mental balance by giving them a distaste for more food. But, in order to sell the stocks in the educational shop, still more food is prescribed. The bad mental habits become worse and the only redeeming feature is that, in the attempt to get a general culture, so many different kind of pills are prescribed that the fatal dose of any one is never administered.
When the mental balance of an individual becomes so distorted that the currents of thought always run in certain grooves, from which they never emerge and there seems to be no hope of readjustment, such a person is said to be the subject of "fixed ideas" and then the educator is only too anxious to disclaim all responsibility in the patient and shift it to the alienist. In view of the fact that more and more emphasis is being placed by prominent authorities on educational subjects upon the necessity of insisting upon the importance of the formation of good mental habits, we may ask whether any well-organized effort is being made by the universities to determine the conditions upon which the greatest efficiency of brain activity depends; and then to use this knowledge to arouse and train the potential mental capacity of the students, so as to produce men with sound minds and sound bodies.
When we approach the discussion of our subject from this standpoint, it is quite obvious that the first and most important questions to be asked relate to the methods to be adopted in training the brain; and second, and quite incidental, to the character of the information to be imparted. It is the first of these two subjects that we shall concern ourselves at present. No matter how much we may differ as to the value of educational ideals, all are pretty well agreed that there are certain definite readily recognized qualities of mind possessed by the educated person. First, there is general intelligence with a marked degree of associative memory, a certain poise or balance commonly designated as good judgment and a tentative rather than a fixed attitude towards knowledge, a capacity for concentrating the attention, a quota of emotional activity well under control and a dominant will. Science has taught us that these mental traits are an expression of the functions of the nervous system, and in order to understand them properly, they should be studied as the quantitative and qualitative measure of the individual capacity of the brain. No intelligent person to-day questions the fact that the more marked anomalies of cerebral function, as seen in idiocy, imbecility and the various forms of psychoses, can be analyzed and correctly interpreted only by those who have had the requisite special training and experience in connection with the study of the brain. With a singular disregard for logic and common sense, many intelligent persons assume that special skill and experience is not necessary in order to analyze the subtler and less defined anomalies of conduct as revealed in the daily life of normal individuals; nor is any intimate knowledge of the structure and functions of the brain considered essential to those whose duty it is to bring this organ to its highest state of efficiency.
For various reasons, which it is not necessary to recapitulate, investigators interested in the study of the functions of the brain have at all times found themselves more or less in conflict with many of the accepted philosophical theories that served to obscure the issues and make progress difficult. King Frederick William's antagonism to the new ideas introduced by science into the study of psychology is a historic example of the difficulties which popular prejudice has created. This sovereign's refusal to believe in the application of the law of cause and effect to the study of mental phenomena, because he would thus be deprived of logical reasons for punishing the deserters from his Grenadier Guards, finds many analogies even at the present day.
All forms of conduct in the higher as well as the lower organisms are an expression and measure of the functional capacity of the nervous system. From the protozoa to man we can follow the constantly increasing complexity of function as revealed to us in behavior without being able to pick out a single trait as specifically characteristic of any particular organism. Herrick has called attention in a very interesting way to the fact that animals widely separated from each other in the scale of functional and structural complexity, as the annelid worms and the vertebrates, present striking differences in behavior referable to the contrasted types of nervous system represented in these two groups. The behavior of the former, stereotyped and predetermined, may be inferred from the structure just as the "plastic individual reactions of the intelligent type" are dependent upon special arrangement of the nervous mechanism of the latter. Between these two extremes are countless gradations in conduct as well as in the arrangement of the nervous system. The prevailing ignorance in regard to facts of the most elementary character relating to the structure and functions of the nervous system is well illustrated by the remarks of an English acquaintance, a graduate of Oxford and a recognized ecclesiastical authority upon matters of conduct, who when told, in reply to an inquiry, that fish had brains, after a brief period of meditation replied, "Really, that's quite an idea." What a strange comment upon our present methods of education that an individual altogether ignorant of the structural and functional capacity of the brain of a fish, which differs from the human brain only in the simpler arrangement of its elements and the greater limitation of its functions, should be considered an authority upon the training of the most complicated nervous system in the whole animal series!
The dawn of consciousness, the simplest form of memory, the element of choice in volitional acts, appear far down in the scale of living creatures, and this law of recapitulation in the behavior of organisms is repeated step for step in the life history of each individual. From the first movements of the embryo until the adult has reached the prime of development, the line of progressive functional development is unbroken. In the earlier studies made upon the brain local lesions such as those caused by apoplexy, injury, tumors, etc., were the first to attract and interest the public as well as physicians. It was much more difficult to understand the diseases of the brain not dependent upon localizable lesions, but gradually a way was found leading to a better understanding and clearer analysis of the mental disturbances occurring without discoverable lesions. But the brain is so complicated an organ that a slight interference with its mechanism may give rise to complicated functional disorders involving the entire personality. As a matter of fact comparatively little is yet known in regard to the cumulative effect of disturbances in the mental activity incident to relatively small lesions in the higher brain centers. In the study of the various psychoses the alienist has found a complete analogy to the results obtained in the study of the comparative physiology of the brain. When the attempt was made to analyze the anomalies of conduct in the insane it became evident that no distinctive qualitative difference separated them in behavior from normal individuals. In the daily ups and downs of the ordinary life are found the basis of the pathological conditions known as manic-depressive insanity, while in the precocious bizarre habits of young people and children are recognized the germs of that sad group of cases known as dementia præcox. In the rigid inflexible opinions so frequently expressed in the discussion of religious or political questions we find the key explaining the stand-pat positions of individuals subject to chronic systematized insane ideas.
The individuals showing a particular bias, or those inoculated with the spirit of excessive partisanship, the sentimentalists, the whole host of faddists, the doctrinaires, the obstinate and the bigots to a certain extent reflect but to a less degree some of the mental traits of the paranoiac. The permanence and intensity given to certain ideas have been the result of the emotional storms attending their appearance in consciousness, and in the latter condition, where a marked psychosis has intervened, the intense emotional reaction has subsided and the idea has crystallized out of its setting. In the normal individual when one function of the brain is nicely balanced against the other the analysis of behavior is, as a rule, more difficult than it is in the insane in whom the exaggeration of different traits of character becomes so marked that a clue as to their origin and development is given.
In the history of psychology it is particularly interesting to note that practically every advance made in this department has followed close upon the incorporation of the conceptions and terms of natural science; and it is equally obvious that the delays and regressions have been due to that general tendency to give up the study of particulars, and as Bacon puts it, "to view nature as from an eminence." It was this tendency which induced Kant, after having started in the right direction, to affirm that the development of man's moral and intellectual nature lies beyond the problems of natural science.
Sufficient has been said to emphasize the great importance of the study of the brain and nervous system as the only effective way of establishing a more rational system of education. The most important consideration in the whole field of education is not the discussion of methods for conferring the present opportunities indiscriminately, so that all may avail themselves of them, but rather to determine how the educational system may be modified to meet the needs of each individual. Gradually the public is beginning to awaken to the fact that a so-called higher education may not only fail to act as a panacea for all human ills, but may become a potent factor in increasing the mental and physical degeneration of the race. An overtaxed brain and nervous system may not only be followed by a nervous breakdown, but it may expose its possessor to temptations which seriously interfere with his morality. It will be a fortunate day for the community when it appreciates that a sound morality depends not so much upon an individual obeying the dictates of philosopher or priest as in following out the injunctions of the physician.
So far as I am aware. Dr. Adolf Meyer was the first to offer the suggestion that departments of mental hygiene should be established in all our universities where advice could be given to teacher and student upon questions relating to the training of the brain and nervous system to the limit of the individual capacity as estimated by competent persons, so that these limits should not be exceeded. In this way it would become possible to gradually train teachers who would be competent to form a correct judgment as to the quality of each student's mind and the futility of attempting to estimate the mental capacity by the amount of information acquired would be more generally recognized. The present system of tests generally represented by written examinations is an incentive to encourage memorizing, but is a serious obstacle to logical thinking. The mechanical memory is frequently an evidence not of intelligence, but of certain forms of imbecility. An examination conducted along the lines suggested leading to a qualitative estimate of a particular student's mental capacity would not be a difficult task for those who have had the proper training. Any intelligent physician skilled in the methods of modern psychiatry could in a comparatively short time form a relatively accurate conception of the qualitative character of the mental processes of an individual under observation. Frequently common sense alone, but more often when combined with a desire to profit by the financial aid given by life-insurance companies. is a potent factor in inducing individuals to seek medical advice in regard to the care of the heart, lungs and other parts of the body; but one organ, the most delicate of all, the brain, is sadly neglected, until some already well developed disease has compelled the patient to seek the advice of the specialist. In our schools and colleges considerable attention is now being given to the prevention of those having weak hearts or lungs from taking part in athletic contests, whereas at the same time practically no attempt is made to discourage those with functionally impaired nervous systems from undergoing the excessive tests imposed upon them by the strain of a modern education. On the contrary, every attempt is being made to induce all, the unfit as well as the fit, to pass through the educational mill. Those who fail become objects of pity, even if they keep out of the police courts and do not end their careers by suicide. If the latter event terminates their career, those concerned in the general carrying into effect of the campaign of an education, which has given rise to such remote but undesirable consequences, are not even indirectly blamed, whereas the individual's memory is frequently anathematized by ecclesiastical authority and his or her mortal remains are refused burial in consecrated ground. The public's indifference to the importance of this general question of the introduction of a more rational system of education is commended by Mrs. Grundy. If it were not for the influence of this lady it would be possible to subject each student during his college or university days td an examination to determine whether his sense perceptions were below normal, his memory defective, his power of the association of ideas impaired and his volitional control diminished, with the object of giving intelligent advice to correct, if possible, the deficiencies, thereby increasing the individual's sphere of usefulness, and in many cases averting by these precautionary measures a complete breakdown.
One of the reasons why educational psychology has not fulfilled the predictions made for it by its most enthusiastic supporters, may be referred to its failure to recognize the value of a principle of fundamental importance which directs our attention to the necessity of the study of the brain in its relation to other organs. The idea of the possibility of isolating and studying the functions of the brain analytically quite apart from the phenomena occurring antecedent to the appearance of ideas in consciousness, and conditioned by the activity of heart, lungs, liver and other organs, is an unfortunate persistence of that form of the dualistic conception of the relation of mind and body which has so long delayed enquiry in this field. Though it is always dangerous in the development of any new department to awaken public interest by promising immediate results of importance, a good deal of information of practical value could be disseminated which would tend toward the reorganization of the curriculum in our higher institutions of learning. The number and grouping of subjects in the different courses of study now generally followed in most of our schools and colleges represent the selection brought about by the natural development of an educational system in which the chief aim has been to impart information rather than to supply the means for bringing the functional capacity of each individual brain to its greatest efficiency. To those who have had experience in studying the mental phenomena of individuals, it is apparent that the great number of subjects now crowded into university courses, can only result in giving many of the students mental indigestion. This is one of the reasons why so many young men leave college or the university without, apparently at least, having gained any real intellectual pleasure from the work which they have undertaken. There is an apparent indifference to higher ideals, while the feeling of pleasure which should be associated with normal mental activity is quite lacking, as a result of the surfeiting during the school and college days. The constant effort made by the student to readjust his mental focus upon first one and then another subject dissipates energy, destroys initiative and gives rise to a certain ennui which is one of the first symptoms of fatigue.
The apparent but not real lack of originality in American students, and their inability to work out problems which require long-continued effort in one direction are referable not to any inefficiency on the part of the student, but are the result of the system of education to which they have unfortunately been subjected and that is quite lacking in discipline. The physiologist early appreciates that under the present curriculum of study in our universities so many subjects are introduced that it is only possible for an individual to acquire information in regard to the great variety of topics, but no time remains for him to be drilled in the mental discipline essential to the formation of good mental habits. Few students are ever given time, even if they have the inclination, to follow Newton's precept of thinking long upon one subject or to imitate Darwin's example of keeping a subject in mind for a number of years without ever losing sight of it. Modern education is undoubtedly defective in depriving the student of the time and the incentive to prolonged meditation, an absolute essential to great achievement.
In connection with the work of the department referred to, advice could be given in individual cases with the view of correcting functional disturbances of the mental activities, such as inattention, anomalies of the will, and other impediments to education.
The important part played by slight physical deformities in the development of the personality was clearly shown by a French throat specialist, who years ago made the interesting observation that whenever there was any obstruction to the drawing in of air through the nasal passages it was extremely difficult for the individual, thus afflicted, to focus his attention for any considerable length of time upon any one subject. Since the days of Krishaber, great numbers of other physical causes have been found which, if not removed, may greatly impair the dynamic power of the attention even if the cause is slight. The general irritability and fretfulness of children with defective vision or enlarged tonsils, the malaise and apparent laziness so frequently a symptom of anæmia or neurasthenic states, the emotional outbreaks of temper, the destructiveness, the grimacing and the tics of St. Vitus' dance, the abnormal imagination, the tendency to lying, precocity and self-centeredness in hysteria, are symptoms which, if exaggerated, should be regarded as signs of immediate danger to the individual, but even when less pronounced they often become the danger signals indicating a serious but slow degeneration in the mental and moral development of the child. The important point to be born in mind in this connection is that an almost inappreciable defect in the mental activity of an individual, if persistent for a long period of years, may ultimately result in profound changes of the entire personality. This is not only true in regard to defects in capacity for attention, but is equally true in regard to the still more important functions of feeling and will. As an example we may cite the popular conception, to which expression is so frequently given, that a young man should not work too hard during his university days. This notion takes no cognizance of the fact that the sloppy mental processes following a protracted period of mental inactivity make it impossible later for the individual to direct his own thoughts. One of the chief lessons taught by modern psychiatry is that the persons the most subject to mental disturbances are those who early in life have failed to form good mental habits. Individuals do not break down as the result of hard work, but failure comes from the inability to adapt their mental processes to the new conditions in which they have frequently been cast and by the sudden strain put upon the brain whose functions have deteriorated through inactivity. The attempt of the indolent to find an intellectual justification for their sins of omission is in direct opposition to the doctrines of physiology, which teach us that the strength of any organ is increased by the proper exercise of its functions. This is a lesson which should be taught to students in our universities, and a few hints should at the same time be given as to the methods of work to be adopted, after which the students should be encouraged to go forward themselves.
The importance of emphasizing the cultivation of a healthy initiative in thought, as well as action, is a subject upon which there is apparently little opportunity for disagreement among intelligent persons; and yet many forces operating at present are antagonistic to the development in students of this important mental trait. There is a very specious form of individualism which is frequently mistaken for independence and originality in thinking. The former is characterized by lawlessness and an assumed disregard for the ordinary laws of thought and conduct. In the events of ordinary life such fools rush in where angels fear to tread, whereas the initiative developed by a sane and effective process of education is analogous to the strong man's desire to run a race, reasonably conscious of his power to vanquish his competitors. But unfortunately in most of our universities real originality is repressed, or often killed by the curriculum, conventionalities and petty criticism. Students are easily forced into the class of people described by Mill as liking things in crowds. They are seldom compelled to exercise their own senses, and a mass of ready-made judgments upon literary and historical subjects is heaped upon them before they can stand straight, their own ideas being dwarfed and eradicated in order to make room for the borrowed knowledge. It would be as novel as instructive to hear a professor address his students as follows:
Young Gentlemen, I advise most of you not to attend my course in history, but to substitute for it some form of instruction where you will be compelled to exercise your own eyes. Take a course in drawing, or of nature study, learn to see things, to form your own judgments, and when you have shown your ability to collect data and to form an independent opinion as to the relation and value of particulars, I will then give you my own and the views of others upon historical questions.
Students are very frequently so impressed by their instructors with the importance of imbibing knowledge that they fail to scrutinize the information given them and thus readily lapse into a condition in which no resistance is offered to the forced feeding. And if the process is continued, a positive distaste for knowledge is developed. Leonardo da Vinci clearly recognized this plethoric state of mind, for he admonished his readers that "just as food eaten without appetite is a tedioms nourishment, so does study without zeal damage the memory by not assimilating what it absorbs."
Payot in his "Education of the Will" affirms that the more brilliant a professor is and the more he enjoys hearing himself talk and argue, the less desirable does it become to confide young people to him for instruction, for he gives as little aid in assisting them to acquire the art of working or in making true progress in scientific work as one would bring about a gain in muscle and skill in gymnastics by watching the strong man at a circus.
Closely associated with the question of the choice of methods for the development of the individuality and the capacity of adapting the mental focus so as to include more objects within the field of vision is the removal of all influences tending to limit the horizon and to breed those disorders of personality popularly described as narrow-mindedness, bigotry and the like. It does not take any special knowledge of the study of mental disorders to recognize some of the chief defectsin the present system of organization of our universities which tend seriously to upset the mental balance of teachers and students. A hysterical sentimentalism unfortunately associated with the spread of the "college spirit," has become very intolerant of criticism and when placed upon the defensive immediately resents any suggestion of proposed change in a curriculum "which was quite good enough for our fathers." Generally speaking, conservative Princetonians are amused when the incident is mentioned of that loyal son of Harvard who having found his passage taken on the S. S. Yale waited over one entire day in New York in order to return to Boston by the S. S. Harvard. One has to go to New Haven, Cambridge or Baltimore, however, to find those who appreciate the concealed humor in the speech of the Princeton alumnus who openly advocated making the attempt to keep Princeton ideals uninfluenced by outsiders and the faculty composed of Princeton men! One of the greatest dangers threatening the development of American universities is the tendency shown to sacrifice individual development in the attempt to advance the interests of a single institution. In European universities, particularly those in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and northern Italy, when two candidates are proposed for election to a professorship, the call is generally given to the outsider. This custom supplies an excellent corrective inhibiting the development of those fixed ideas existing in all communities where the teaching authority is the lex populi. An excellent estimate may generally be formed of the professional standing of a teacher by the number of "calls" he receives from other institutions.
Unfortunately in faculties where complete harmony exists the dangers of the growth of the spirit of mutual admiration becomes a menace to healthy mental activity. The objectionable spirit of partisanship is frequently more marked in the professional schools (theology, medicine, law) than it is in the academic departments of the universities. Eternal vigilance is the price to be paid for intellectual as well as political liberty. The method generally adopted in a university of electing a board of trustees entirely recruited from its own alumni without any representatives from other institutions is unfortunate, because the members will almost certainly be guided by a sentimental interest in the affairs of a single institution, rather than by an intelligent appreciation of the intellectual needs of the entire country. The effect, even indirectly, upon the teaching and student body of the selection of a board whose members are chosen because they are supposed to represent the spirit of a single college instead of the broader and more general interests of the national life is narrowing.
If we wish to determine the physical conditions essential to the cultivation of the mental plasticity and poise in order the more successfully to combat all tendencies encouraging a blind reliance upon authority and fixed states of mind, we must know something about the manner in which comparatively slight deviations from the normal balance are converted into the stable systematized delusions of the insane. The alienist quickly recognizes the fact that the sentimental tendencies expressed in the uncritical devotion to the maintenance of the ideals of a single college offer a very favorable soil for the development of petty prejudices and provincial ways of thinking, the directions of our thoughts being determined by the presence of ruts, however much we may, sometimes, attempt to explain them away with all the vehemence of stand-patters. American ideals should be substituted for the Harvard, Yale or Princeton ideals, if we wish to cultivate the quick and ready discernment of the right wherever it is to be found One of the principal lessons to be forced home upon students, striving to acquire a normal physiological habit of thinking, is to impress them with the fallibility and not the infallibility of individual judgments, but when young men are encouraged to believe that the institution from which they graduate represents the most advanced position on the road to the intellectual Mecca, they unconsciously get a mental twist, the effects of which it is difficult to counteract.
The principles of logic and of criticism may be taught in theory, but the conditions essential to the proper selection of premises and the formation of sound judgments are still far from favorable, and this will continue as long as American students are encouraged to form general opinions altogether lacking in discrimination as to the respective merits of different institutions. The same narrowness of vision and absence of charity which have created the barriers of opinion between many of the different theological schools have unfortunately afflicted the universities. When Harvard professors begin to urge some of their students to take a year at Cornell or Columbia, in order to get into another atmosphere, or the benefit of a change to the Cambridge environment is recommended to correct the inflexible mental traits acquired on New Jersey soil, there will be reason to believe that the universities are becoming centers, whence sound advice is being disseminated as to the methods of developing sane and logical thinking. There is danger that the odium institutionum may in a measure replace the odium theologicum of earlier days. Students are often advised to take a trip abroad following graduation in order to readjust their mental foci. The blind devotion to the maintenance of a proper college spirit forbids the entertainment of a recommendation that an excellent prophylactic measure directed against the possible development of this form of institutional myopia would be a year, preferably the senior year, spent at some other American institution.
At present there is only a very vague realization even among those who call themselves teachers that the first duty in imparting instruction is to give pupils some idea of the proper methods of study. McMurry in the preface to his excellent book "How to Study and Teaching how to Study" confesses that for many years he has made this subject his hobby and adds that, after careful search, he has only been able to find two books in English and none in German on the "Art of Study." Few instructors ever give any serious attention to the development of a normal thought-mechanism in their students. Information is imparted together with a great many bad mental habits and the store of knowledge acquired is considered to be the test of the individual's mental capacity. So firmly rooted in our mind is the idea that the amount of information and not the acquisition of good mental habits is the chief end of an education, that we fail to recognize the dependence of our thoughts and actions upon the reactions of the nervous system. The tentative attitude of one person and the ready acceptance by another of articles of belief are conditions created by the responses of the nervous system to the needs of the individual. The mental traits, functional expressions of the capacity of the nervous system that make it easy for one person to believe, may in another tend to the development of an habit of mind which makes it difficult for the believer to realize that, even in matters of belief, no one is altogether right.
According to Professor William James old fogeyism begins at an earlier age than the majority of persons believe to be the case. The symptoms may appear at twenty-five. In spite of the general existence of this presenile form of deterioration, we still clamor about the necessity of a broader and more general culture, as if it were possible to correct one bad habit by substituting others. Much good would undoubtedly be accomplished by the application of the methods of modern clinical psychiatry to the study of the sources of the prejudices and various forms of intellectual intolerance which have resulted in the painfully slow progress of the human race. In the examination of patients in the clinic, a careful study of their powers of sense-perception is conducted before proceeding to an estimation of the capacity for originating and associating ideas, or for forming intellectual judgments. Our universities sanction the perversion of the normal mental activities of students by encouraging them to debate, to have a ready opinion upon many subjects, and to talk glibly in public, before they have shown any capacity to gather the data presented to consciousness by the medium of the sensory tracts (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing) and to arrange and compare them so as to form independent judgments. Rosen in an interesting book has shown us that the greatness of the old masters was due to the acuteness and accuracy of their perceptive faculties. They were able to paint as no modern artist can, because they studied nature closely and were seldom blinded or deafened by the critics. The ennui often appearing in a student following a course of didactic lectures is the result of the forced rumination upon the very few facts which he has been given opportunity to acquire through his own efforts. Modern education is still defective in training the sense-perceptions and the continuous meditation upon the few data furnished us by our own eyes and ears produces a state of mental fatigue, so that finally the tendency to reiteration becomes as annoying as the constant effort to count the figures on the wall-paper to the fever patient, or as the blind impulse compelling the child with St. Vitus' dance to touch each telegraph pole, as he walks near it. Even if we admit the truth of the dictum that there is nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses, we are not guided by this idea in arranging courses of study. Boys are still forcibly carried through their school and college days in the same spirit in which personally conducted parties are rushed through the Vatican galleries. As the result of the so-called liberal education, the student frequently finds that he has actually become deficient in his sense perceptions and has acquired a faulty thought-mechanism; although possibly he finds some consolation in feeling that conventionalities have been satisfied by the completion of the grand educational tour. But sometimes, when it is too late, here and there one begins to appreciate that he has eyes and can not see, ears and can not hear.
Closely associated with the ideational faculties are the phenomena collectively designated as Will. The careful study of individuals, somewhat as practised by the skilled alienist, has taught us that a great deal may be accomplished in the training of the volitional powers. The old method employed to strengthen the will was similar in many respects to the practise indulged in of teaching children how to swim by throwing them into deep water. In a few cases only was the method successful. The remarkable advances in the study of the comparative physiology of the nervous system combined with the careful analysis of the conduct of individuals made by psychologists and alienists have shown conclusively that all our volitional acts are the expression of the activities of the brain.
The old axiom predicating the existence of free will is a pure fiction. When we speak of the will custom and usage have unfortunately led us to suppose that the volitional act is a phenomenon quite unrelated to other events in our mental life. As a matter of fact, the will-act is a very complex affair, depending upon a variety of conditions. Here is an example: It is a pleasant summer-day and as I sit at my desk and write, two conflicting impulses shoot up into my field of consciousness. One tendency is strong to get up, leave my work unfinished and take a walk in the country. The other keeps me at my desk and busy with my writing. Each impulse is the resultant of a complex of sensations, ideas, habits so involved and intricate that in the present state of our knowledge only a superficial analysis is possible; and what I shall will to do in this particular case is largely the resultant of a series of acts that have gone before. Abnormal mental states emphasize certain components in the mental chain, so that we can get an inkling of the mechanism involved in the expression of volitional choice between two motives. If it is blue Monday and I am mentally depressed, the tendency to sit still at my desk and mope is stronger than either of the other two motives, and if the depression deepens, every effort becomes difficult, the sense of the freedom of the will is reduced to the minimum, and it may be that the normal desire for food vanishes. Finally in an extreme case physicians and nurses are brought in to force the feeding and give the general treatment necessary to restore my lost energies and key me up to the pitch when simple decisions are no longer associated with an abnormal sense of effort.
Another condition may occur, and instead of being depressed, I am exhilarated. The sense of effort is diminished, action becomes easy and the sense of fatigue is absent. Impulses to action, to walk, talk, write, gesticulate, are constant. During the period of depression, I was on the earth, now I am walking on the clouds. Ideation is rapid. I dash off sentence after sentence, or I walk miles with but slight sense of fatigue. The obstacles to effort created during my period of depression vanish into thin air. A whole host of sensations of a pleasant nature stream into my consciousness and the passage from the depths of Lethe to the heights of Olympus is completed. If the depression or exhilaration surpasses certain bounds established for convenience sake by legal authorities, the analysis of motives becomes easier than in the instances where the rises and falls in the emotional life are less marked.
There is a very promising field for prophylaxis in preventing the occurrence of abnormalities in the volitional acts. One or two examples will suffice to indicate our meaning and suggest the corrections. Many of the beneficial results of athletic sports are almost entirely lost by the encouragement given to the hysterical manifestations of emotionalism, which so frequently affect the spectators even more than the participants.
The lack of practical interest in a preventive morality is shown by the university authorities who permit the members of a football team to be fed on an almost exclusive meat diet, subjected to the nervous strain of exciting games, and then when the balance of the nervous system has been suddenly upset, expect them to successfully resist the cravings created by the general system of dieting and training to which they have been subjected. When the Roman Catholic church wishes the spiritual to preeminently dominate the carnal impulses, it becomes sufficiently materialistic in practise to advise the believer to fast or at least to substitute fish for meat in his dietary. The individual who has not learned to regulate his diet to his physical and spiritual needs and has not acquired the habit of chewing his food thoroughly, has failed to pass his elementary examination in the field of applied ethics. The physical, mental and moral deterioration beginning in the second or third generation of families which have suddenly acquired wealth may be attributed primarily to the luxurious diet no less than to the other extravagant ways of living.
Still another line of argument in favor of the universities paying more attention to the study of the brain is supplied by the mal-adjustment of great numbers of persons to the unsuitable environment into which they have been driven by the impulses and ambitions awakened by an education ill-adapted to their individual brain capacity. Public charities, missions, settlement work, are all agencies tending to alleviate some of the sufferings of mankind, but we seek in vain for the signs of any organized effort to prevent the perversion of the mental activities of great numbers of individuals which has come about from lack of proper advice and instruction in regard to the selection of an education which will not disturb the balance of the nervous system and generate undesirable impulses, exceeding the inhibitory capacity of the individual.
The number of those suffering from mental disorders is appalling. In Great Britain there are nearly 70,000 idiots, over 47,000 lunatics, 23,000 criminals, nearly 10,000 deaf and dumb from childhood, 60,000 prostitutes, 62,000 epileptics, more than 88,000 backward children and 18,000 habitual vagrants, and many of these degenerates are engaged in breeding offspring! In institutions in the United States we have more than 145,000 individuals in well-advanced stages of alienation and over 120,000 feeble-minded persons, and it is safe to assume that if all the patients suffering from psychoses were actually brought under observation, these figures would be greatly increased. The present cost to the country of partially providing for the maintenance of this army of incapables is well over $40,000,000 a year.
One of the most important functions connected with the work of a department of mental hygiene would be the encouragement given to the investigation of all questions connected with the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, along the lines where these studies could not be prosecuted to a greater advantage in the laboratories and clinics of our medical schools. Not only in this, but in all other departments the selection of directors from among those who have shown themselves capable of carrying on original investigations should be insisted upon. Only when this spirit has permeated the whole department, from the top to the bottom, is it possible to retain the freshness and mental vigor as essential to the teacher as it is to the investigator. The public, as a rule, does not appreciate the fact that successful teaching and investigating can not be disassociated in the university. The teacher who fails to take an active interest in research is generally deficient in his appreciation of the importance and difficulty of keeping the mind free from all those prejudices which tend to warp both sympathies and judgments and prevent the student from acquiring the faculty of appreciative discernment of new truths. A sharp and purely arbitrary distinction is often drawn between teaching and research, as if the two departments had nothing in common. Many persons look upon the latter as a luxury, something for which provision should be made only after every effort has been expended in teaching students how to meet the conventional restrictions imposed by examinations. The fact that this action is pretty generally accepted furnishes another instance of the relatively higher educational value placed by the general public upon the mere storing up of information than upon any effort made to develop other than the acquisitive functions of the brain. One of the chief aims of a modern education should be to cultivate in the student the spirit of a genuine love for learning. Teachers may preach this doctrine until "crack o' doom" without accomplishing as much by sermonizing as can be gained with the expenditure of less effort in giving practical demonstrations of what it is to learn. The frequent and sometimes noisy arraignments of the mental defects of college graduates made by business men not infrequently contain an element of justification, for many of the former unfortunately give evidence of having been taught to teach without first having been encouraged in their attempts to learn. The teaching not the learning spirit dominates in our American universities. In the selection of a professor the success of a teacher is too generally estimated by the ability to speak well, coin phrases, to give students their mental food in the compressed-tablet form, and in the capacity of maintaining until the end of the course a superficial, even if it be only a temporary, interest in the subject.
In the constant struggle for existence carried on by all nations it has become evident that success will crown the efforts of the people in which the brain power of its citizens has been developed to the highest state of efficiency. Any attempt to confer upon an individual the opportunities of obtaining an education is equivalent to offering him the chance of exercising the functions of the brain along the lines indicated by those who are generally without even an elementary knowledge of a very complicated organ. Rousseau fully appreciated the absurdity of expecting a professional opinion as to the functional capacity of this organ from those having only an amateur's knowledge of its anatomy and physiology, when he suggested that physicians and not philosophers should be considered to be authorities upon educational subjects.
Thinking and behavior are phenomena dependent upon the existence of a brain and nervous system. The greatest advance in our educational system will begin when the universities require that those who assume to speak with the voice of authority upon these two important topics, shall have as thorough a knowledge as can now be obtained of the functions of the organ the development of which has alone placed us on a higher plane than that attained by our remote ancestors, the anthropoid apes. If we are sincere and earnest in our solicitations as to the hastening of the millennium where wisdom and culture shall be a common possession, let us see to it that every opportunity and encouragement is extended by the universities for the study of the methods of developing the delicate mechanism and fine balance of mind expressed in the mental qualities indicative of culture and learning. It is safe to predict that in the near future those universities will be considered the most advanced and those nations the most intelligent where the greatest encouragement is given to the study of the organ on the functional efficiency of which the advance of the human race towards a higher civilization depends. Anatole France has said the periods in which little intelligent interest has been taken in the study of the structure of the human body have corresponded with the ebbs in the advancing tide of civilization. It is no exaggeration to affirm that to-day the measure of our civilization is to be estimated by the effort made to gain a clearer and more comprehensive knowledge of the brain and its functions, with the purpose of maintaining the thinking-power of the race at its point of maximum efficiency.
The first duty of a university, we are told, is to engage in active warfare with ignorance. Over the portals of many an American institution is carved the figure of the eagle as symbolic of the spirit of the attacking forces. In too many instances, however, conditions would be better symbolized by another bird which closes its eyes to its enemies and buries its head in the sands of the deserts.
If the brain is the only organ to be used effectively in the fight against the foul fiend of ignorance, it is not creditable to American universities that they have thus far given so little attention to the proper study of the weapons to be used.
- In the year 1908 there were some 8,332 deaths from suicide in the United States.
- "Die Natur in der Kunst," Leipzig, B. G. Teubner, 1903.