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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/September 1914/Determining Educational Values

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 85‎ | September 1914

By Professor M. V. O'SHEA


IT will probably not be questioned by any one that the most complex business society can undertake is to train the rising generation effectively. The human mind is an extremely complicated thing. It is so intricate, indeed, that it has been found impossible thus far to discern many of the laws according to which it evolves and functions. "What a marvelous piece of work is man," expresses the feeling of the poet as well as the view of the student of any phase of human nature. The problem of preparing a child for happy and effective adjustment to the world in which he must live is immeasurably more difficult than the hardest engineering problem, say, which men in any age have yet undertaken. The engineer has only to deal with physical laws, which are relatively simple and easily determined as compared with the laws governing mental activity and efficient mental development. The engineer is usually able to ascertain whether or not he has correctly apprehended and dealt with any law of nature. At every step he can control his work, because the effects of his action are immediately measurable. But it is entirely different with the educator. He can not directly measure the outcome of his methods. Most of his training produces noticeable effects only after a long lapse of time, and then only in an obscure and entangled manner. Any one, then, whose duty it is actually to mould a human mind according to the most desirable pattern, and who realizes the complexity of his task, is apt to be more or less awed and even mystified by his problem.

But the man on the street, looking at the business from the outside, is apt not to feel much mystery about it. The whole matter is likely to seem clear and simple to him. He can dash into his office, and in a few minutes give instructions how to deal with problems which are probably inscrutable to one who for years has been seriously trying to solve them with due regard to all the factors involved. The tendency of the non-expert in any field is to resist the idea that he is incompetent to form an opinion about matters in that field. Witness how the layman and even the drug doctor have ridiculed the theory that disease is largely of bacterial origin. It is the same way with legislation. The layman proposes to solve social ills by some simple, drastic legislation. He resists taking the point of view that social relations are extremely complex, and that the new difficulties which arise with the increasing complexity of society demand more and more subtle forms of treatment, in order to cause justice to prevail among men, and at the same time not to arrest the evolution of society.

The layman usually feels more confident to give advice regarding education than he does regarding medicine or legislation or even religion; and this is the chief cause of the vast amount of conflict over teaching in these days. Those who are working on the inside, who may be said to have the expert point of view, are introducing changes in courses of study, in the methods of presenting subjects, and in the modes of organizing and conducting school systems, which they think are demanded in order to meet the changing conditions in the social organism. New subjects are being added in the belief that they are essential in order to give the pupil an appreciation of contemporary life. It is seen that the conditions for which the school must prepare its pupils are very different to-day from what they were fifty years ago; though the layman sometimes indicates his view of educational policy by saying that "the little red school house produced the greatest men the world has yet seen; and why not let good enough alone." He apparently does not consider that these men may have attained their greatness in spite of, or at least independent of, the school. As a matter of fact, some of the most distinguished of these men were self-taught.

The man immersed in affairs in his own field is apt not to take account of the fact that knowledge, practical knowledge, is rapidly increasing in many fields which were hardly opened up fifty years ago. Everything affecting human welfare is becoming more complex; and even if a relatively simple school régime a half-century ago was adapted to the needs of men in those days, such a régime might be entirely unsuited to the conditions of to-day. The student of education sees what has happened to society in the countries of the old world in which the school has kept to the simple, traditional curriculum. The pupils come out of the schools in such places quite unaware of much that exists in the world to-day, and they are unable to cope with modern conditions as created by progressive nations. If the advice of a large proportion of the lay and non-expert critics of the schools should be followed, it is as certain as anything can be that we should in a brief time, as such things go, come to an arrest in our development, much like that to be observed in Italy or Spain at the present time.

Of all the fault-finding regarding contemporary education, the most persistent is that which charges the schools with devoting much of their time and energy to "fads" and "notions." It is probable that some at least of those who write this criticism have never been inside a modern school building, and they doubtless have but a very imperfect conception of the principles underlying the evolution which is taking place in the curriculum, and in methods of teaching. Such men are apt to pose as authorities on every subject engaging the attention of people. They know they can strike a more or less popular chord when they denounce prevailing tendencies in teaching, so they ridicule prevailing methods and praise those of bygone days. It has become a sort of fashion now for certain newspapers, when they find themselves short of other material, to run something on "fads and frills in the schools."

Recently an editor printed a series of articles on the schools in a western city. He said they were being "honeycombed with fads and notions." When asked to name a conspicuous "fad" in the schools, he replied with general statements, but without hitting the mark once in his criticisms. He was asked whether the teaching of history was a "fad." "Of course not," he said. "Is the reading of English classics a 'frill'?" "No." "Or the teaching of children to sing a few minuutes every day?" "This is all right, too." "Is it a 'notion' to teach them to express themselves through drawing?" He thought this was proper for most children, at any rate. "Is it wrong to have some memorizing of literary gems every day?" "No, this should be practised more than it is." "Where then are the 'fads?'" Apparently he realized he was in a tight place; and yet it was impossible to keep him from declaiming on the more thorough teaching of spelling, arithmetic, etc. The fact is this man, and there are others like him, had only a vague knowledge of the thing he was writing about. Unfortunately this writing tends to corrupt the minds of the people, and so to render it all the more difficult to secure educational evolution in response to the demands of the times.

It ought to be said at this point that the majority of laymen and a good proportion of teachers do not view the subject of educational values in any critical way whatever. The very fact that grammar, say, has been long taught in the elementary school is a sufficient guarantee for such people of its superior worth, and especially since they were taught the subject themselves. Most people settle the question of values in education much as they settle any problem of dress or of household management—they consider that to be right and best which is in general practcise, and which they have been accustomed to themselves. As a rule, though not always, the non-expert in education (and the principle holds for other interests) is conservative. He dislikes reform in studies or methods, because he can keep himself better adapted to a permanent and stable than to a changing order of things. However, this is not likely to be true in respect to the particular interest in which he is most vitally concerned, as in manufacturing, say, where the keenest sort of competition makes him realize that if he does not alter his methods to meet new conditions he will be crushed by his competitors. Keen necessity makes him dynamic, aggressive, radical. But in all those interests which he touches only incidentally, as it were, in which he does not feel serious competition, he often seems incapable of appreciating that progress is necessary, or even desirable. So in education, as in hygiene, religion, politics, etc., we must expect that the majority of people who have not become particularly interested in the business will vote to have things continued as they have been, or as they now are. They will resist innovations. They will cry, "Fads!" "Frills!" etc., whenever any new topic gains a foothold in the curriculum, though they may be progressive enough in their own special field, where they can appreciate the value of new methods suited to contemporary needs.

The diversity of opinion regarding values in education, to which attention has been called above, suggests that laymen as well as teachers must look at the matter involved from different points of view. The writer has asked individuals and groups in many sections of our own country, and some of the countries across the sea, what they consider the proper standards in determining the value of any study, or any method of teaching, or any principle of discipline; and the responses have impressed the fact that there is no universal mode of appraising values, which is adopted by laymen in deciding any educational problem. Some persons say that a study is valuable in the measure that it confers "culture" upon the one who pursues it. Other persons say that the true value of any educative material depends upon the extent to which it trains the mind. Still others feel that no study is of worth which does not contribute to the individual's efficiency in practical life.

All sorts of figures of speech are used by people in striving to express their conception of the nature of mind and the function of education. The present writer has heard the remark made time and again that what we must do in the schools is to "strengthen the faculties"; or we must "polish" the mind, for until it has been so treated it is like a "rough diamond," or we must "cultivate" it as we would a field, in order that it may become "fertile"; or the subjects of study should "nourish" the mind, as food nourishes the body; or we should "sharpen" the faculties as we would sharpen an edged tool. The list of figures of speech based on physical objects and phenomena and used to describe educational work might be extended almost ad libitum. The mind is so subtle and complex that we endeavor to make our thinking about it definite and concrete by ascribing to it, at least for purposes of definition, physical properties and characteristics. And individuals as well as communities tend to employ the physical conceptions most familiar to them in their reactions upon their own environment. People who live on the sea will employ figures of speech different from those who live in the mountains or on the prairies or in the city. The mechanic will draw his figures of speech from his particular work, and the same will be true of the miner or the merchant or the woodsman.

Let one ask the people whom he meets on the street, in the reception hall, or in academic halls, what effect the mastering of arithmetic, say, has upon the mind of the one who assimilates it. The majority of the responses he receives will be based upon an argument something like this: Arithmetic is an exact science; everything in it can be definitely proved; accuracy is absolutely essential in resolving arithmetical problems; therefore, the pupil who learns arithmetic will be trained in accuracy of thinking more thoroughly than he could be in assimilating history or geography or music. And since accurate thinking is the first requirement for success in life, it follows that this subject constitutes the most valuable study in the curriculum. People who reason about education in this manner will assign to algebra, geometry, trigonometry and other branches of mathematics the first place in the high-school curriculum, because they are all concerned with principles which are apparently exact; and the learner takes on the quality of the material which he learns. Those who proceed in this manner in determining values do not think it needful to observe whether, even if a pupil in assimilating algebra is trained to be accurate in his thinking, this kind of accuracy is of service to him in the practical situations of every-day life.

If one will examine the opinions of lay writers on teaching since Plato's day, he will find that many of them have regarded the materials and the methods of education in a purely a priori manner. They have analyzed the matter of any subject of study, as mathematics, and they have naïvely inferred that the properties of any special material, viewed objectively, will be grafted on to the mind and character of the individual who masters it. Take, for instance, the view held by some older writers, that it is debasing to study what is to-day called natural science, because of the baseness of physical objects; one who studies these things will take on their qualities. On the other hand, if the individual in his education is made to learn things that relate to the spirit, he will become more highly spiritualized. Persons who gain their notions in this manner do not think it necessary actually to observe what effect the study of any subject has upon an individual, whether as a fact it exalts him spiritually or debases him; whether it makes him more of a friend to his fellows or cultivates unsocial and selfish attitudes. He infers that a certain result must follow from the study of any branch, because of the nature of the material learned.

This logical, analytic method is the popular one in use among laymen and among some teachers to-day, as it has been in all times. It is in principle like the method which has been followed heretofore in the study of values in nutrition. The older nutritionists worked out tables of food values based entirely on chemical analyses of different articles. They said, to cite a typical instance, "Cheese contains 70 per cent. of albumen; albumen is an essential element in nutrition; therefore cheese constitutes a valuable food." These analysts went through with all the articles of food in order to determine their chemical constituents; and then they assigned them to a place in the scale of values according to the results of this analysis. They did not think it imperative to observe whether or not the organism would easily and economically assimilate any particular food, or whether the factor of appetency should be taken account of. They did not inquire whether there were elements in cheese, say, which the organism might resent, so that instead of this being a good article of food it might be nearer a poison.

We seem to-day to be abandoning the practise of relying wholly upon the analytic method of determining food values. We are now attaching chief importance to observing how the organism reacts upon any article of food when it is taken into the system. This method is likely to modify greatly our conception of food values. It is of special significance for our purpose that it seems already to have been shown that an article of food which may be of great service to the organism at one period of its development may be relatively valueless or positively detrimental at another period. It has been shown, for example, that while a calf may thrive on milk during the first months of its life, still if it be kept on a milk diet too long it will begin to decline, and it will literally starve unless other foods are added to the dietary. But the chemical methods of determining the values of foods make out milk to be a valuable food without regard to age or individual differences.

The principle under consideration can be illustrated further by referring to the methods employed in an earlier day in the study of the parts of speech in children's language. Men like Hale and others wrote down the words an eighteen-months old child, say, used in his daily expressions. Then they went to work and classified these words according to their grammatical properties, so that they found that 60 per cent. of the words a child used were nouns, 20 per cent. were adjectives, and so on. Then they inferred that the child's thought relates mainly to objects as contrasted with actions, and qualities, and spacial relations, since nouns predominate in his vocabulary, and they denote things. But to-day we appreciate that the outward form of a word does not furnish clear evidence of the way it functions in the child's expression. He may use the word "cat," say, with verbal, adjectival, and exclamatory as well as pure nominal function. That is to say, the fact that "cat" is grammatically a noun does not show that the child employs it as such. Indeed, it is certain that at the outset he does not use it with strict nominal function. The only effective way to determine the parts of speech in a child's vocabulary, viewing the matter from the standpoint of the function of words in expressing thought, is to observe the child as he reacts upon his environments when he uses particular words, so that we may notice what his attitudes are when he employs them.

This principle is mentioned here simply to impress it as of special importance in application to the study of educational values. In order to determine these values in any effective way, we must take account not only of particular subjects and methods of instruction, but we must keep in view especially how the individual reacts upon these materials when they are presented to him according to different methods and what effect they have on his activities.

Manifestly, in the present light of our knowledge on the subject, one can not speak with certainty regarding much of the material of education. The factors determining efficiency in adjustment are too complex and involved to permit of detailed analysis, and the function of each definitely estimated. While the pupil is in school he is also in the home and on the street. He is having much experience for which the school is not in any way responsible; though it has been the common practise in discussing values to ignore all experience except that gained within the school. One frequently sees persons who naïvely infer that whatever ability they possess in using arithmetic, say, in daily life, was gained in the school; but it is easily possible that most if not all of it was developed through the necessity of dealing with real situations outside of the school. In the same way, they maintain that their skill and efficiency in the use of the English language was developed through the study of grammar in the school, whereas it is probable that their linguistic ability is due mainly to the give-and-take of life in the home, and in the other real situations of life.

But while one can not assume a dogmatic attitude in the discussion of these problems to-day, nevertheless one may proceed in confidence upon the proposition that the individual will be benefited in school education only to the extent that the sort of experience he has in the school is the same kind as that which he will have outside in adjusting himself to the conditions of daily life. This means that in respect to the material of education, and also to some extent to the method of teaching, there must be diversity depending upon sex, upon existing social conditions, and particularly upon the sphere of life in which individuals will be placed. For a child being trained in Italy, say, any given subject would be likely to have a somewhat different value from what it would have for a child being trained in America. It is impossible then to say what the value of any special subject or method is until one knows what the needs of the pupils are. Of course, in any given country at any particular time individuals can be grouped into classes, all the members of which will have substantially the same needs; and the needs of any one member will be ministered to effectively if he has the experiences which will work out well for the group to which he belongs. His individual needs may not be provided for in every detail; but there will not be much waste in his case provided that the general needs of the group are adequately met. In a dynamic, developing social organism, there will be constant differentiation among individuals, so that for some members new needs will be arising which will not be fully taken care of if they are confined to what is essential for the group as a whole. This implies that in any plastic society the number of groups which must be provided for in the school will be constantly enlarging as society grows more complex and new forms of social service are required.

So one who attempts to estimate educational values in America to-day must appreciate that his work can not endure for all time, except in respect to certain fundamental needs, which must be reasonably permanent for all people under all conditions. But it is manifestly impossible to say in detail what will be essential in the schools fifty years from now. As society becomes differentiated, new needs will arise which will require the establishment of institutions for the training of new groups. If the school is thoroughly plastic, it will from decade to decade revise its curriculum and its methods in respect to the details of its procedure. What is going on in America to-day in the modification of curricula and methods is inevitable in a civilization like our own; and it is bound to continue. Topics of study of importance a hundred years ago may be of relatively little importance to-day. On the other hand, on account of changing social conditions, many topics and subjects may be of worth to-day which would have been of little account a hundred years ago. If the school fulfills its mission, there must be constant evolution, in respect alike to the materials taught and the methods of teaching and of discipline. Nations in which this is not true must sooner or later become decadent.