Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/221

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209
SCIENCE-TEACHING IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

of teaching and a manner of study are calculated to awaken the spirit of inquiry, to cultivate the habit of investigation, and rouse independent thought, our question goes to the root of all true education.

All sciences are the products of a method of thinking, and it is that method which concerns us when we propose to regard it as a means of mental cultivation. Science is an outgrowth of common knowledge, and the scientific method is but a development of the ordinary processes of thought that are employed by everybody. The common knowledge of people is imperfect because their observations are vague and loose, their reasoning hasty and careless, their minds warped by prejudice and deadened by credulity, and because they find it easier to invent fanciful explanations of things than to discover the real ones. For thousands of years the knowledge of nature was rude and stationary because the habits of thought were so defective. But, with a growing desire to understand how the world around is constituted, men improved their processes of thinking. They began, and were compelled to begin, by questioning accepted facts, and doubting current theories. The first step was one of self-assertion, implying that degree of mental independence which led men to think for themselves. They learned to make their own observations and to trust them against authority. It was found, as a first and indispensable condition of gaining clear ideas, that the mind must be occupied directly with the subject to be investigated. In this way scientific inquiry at length grew into a method of forming judgments which was characterized by the most vigilant and disciplined precautions against error. Of the mental processes involved in research it is unnecessary here to speak; we are only concerned to know that the scientific method is simply a systematic exercise in truth-seeking, and is the only mode of using the human mind when it is desired to attain the most accurate and perfect form of knowledge. The whole body of modern scientific truth, disclosing the order of Nature and guiding the development of civilization, must be taken as an attestation of the validity of the scientific method of thought by which these results have been established. We here get rid of all cramping limitations. The scientific method is applicable to all subjects whatever that involve constancy of relations, causes and effects, and conform to the operation of law. It is applicable wherever evidence is to be weighed, error got rid of, facts determined, and principles established. Our public schools, unhappily, make but little use of this method in the work of mental cultivation, and we shall find some explanation of this by referring to the way they grew up.

The American public-school system originated in the theory that the State owes to every child the rudiments of a common education, or an elementary knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic, as implements of after mental improvement. But it was early found difficult to separate this primary use of tools from the acquisition of knowledge.