Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/February 1877/Education as a Science I
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Education as a Science I
By Alexander Bain
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THE scientific treatment of any art consists partly in applying the principles furnished by the several sciences involved—as chemical laws to agriculture—and partly in enforcing, throughout the discussion, the utmost precision and rigor in the statement, deduction and proof of the various maxims or rules that make up the art.
Both fecundity in the thoughts and clearness in the directions should attest the worth of the scientific method.
Definitions of the Scope of Education.—First, let me quote the definition embodied in the ideal of the founders of the Prussian National System. It is given shortly as "the harmonious and equable evolution of the human powers;" at more length, in the words of Stein, "by a method based on the nature of the mind, every power of the soul to be unfolded, every crude principle of life stirred up and nourished, all one-sided culture avoided, and the impulses on which the strength and worth of men rest carefully attended to."—(Donaldson's "Lectures on Education," p. 38.) This definition, which is pointed against narrowness generally, may have had special reference to the many omissions in the schooling of the foregone times: the leaving out of such things as bodily or muscular training; training in the senses or observation; training in art or refinement. It further insinuates that hitherto the professed teacher may not have done much even for the intellect, for the higher moral training, nor for the training with a view to happiness or enjoyment.
Acting on this ideal, not only would the educator put more pressure altogether on the susceptibilities of his pupils: he would also avoid overdoing any one branch; he would consider proportion in the things to be taught. To be all language, all observation, all abstract science, all fine art, all bodily expertness, all lofty sentiment, all theology—would not be accepted as a proper outcome of any trainer's work.
The Prussian definition, good so far, does not readily accommodate itself to such circumstances as these—namely, the superior aptitude of individuals for some things rather than for others; the advantage to society of preeminent fitness for special functions, although gained by a one-sided development; the difficulty of reconciling the "whole man" with himself; the limited means of the educator, which imposes the necessity of selection according to relative importance.
Although by no means easy, it is yet possible to make allowance for these various considerations, under the theory of harmonious development; but, after the operation is accomplished, the doubt will arise whether much is gained by using that theory as the defining fact of education.
In the very remarkable article on education contributed by James Mill to the "Encyclopædia Britannica," the end of education is stated to be "to render the individual, as much as possible, an instrument of happiness, first to himself, and next to other beings." This, however, should be given as an amended answer to the first question of the Westminster Catechism—"What is the chief end of man?" The utmost that we could, expect of the educator, who is not everybody, is to contribute his part to the promotion of human happiness in the order stated. No doubt the definition goes more completely to the root of the matter than the German formula. It does not trouble itself with the harmony, the many-sidedness, the wholeness, of the individual development; it would admit these just as might be requisite for seeming the final end.
James Mill is not singular in his over-grasping view of the subject. The most usual subdivision of education is into physical, intellectual, moral, religious, technical. Now, when we inquire into the meaning of physical education, we find it to mean the rearing of a healthy human being, by all the arts and devices of nursing, feeding, clothing, and general regimen. Mill includes this subject in his article, and Mr. Herbert Spencer devotes a very interesting chapter to it in his work on Education. It seems to me, however, that this department may be kept quite separate, important though it be. It does not at all depend upon the principles and considerations that the educator, properly so called, has in view in the carrying out of his work. The discussion of the subject does not in any way help us in educational matters, as most commonly understood; nor does it derive any illumination from being placed side by side with the arts of the recognized teacher. The fact of bodily health or vigor is a leading postulate in bodily or mental training, but the trainer does not take upon himself to lay down the rules of hygiene.
The inadvertence, for so I regard it, of coupling the art of health with education is easily disposed of, and does not land us in any arduous controversies. Very different is another aspect of these definitions: that wherein the end of education is propounded as the promotion of human happiness, human virtue, human perfection. Probably the qualification will at once be conceded, that education is but one of the means, a single contributing agency, to the all-including end. Nevertheless, the openings for difference of opinion as to what constitutes happiness, virtue, or perfection, are very wide. Moreover, the discussion has its proper place in ethics and in theology, and, if brought into the field of education, should be received under protest.
Before entering upon the consideration of this difficulty, the greatest of all, I will advert to some of the other views of education that seem to err on the side of taking in too much. Here, I may quote from the younger Mill, who, like his father, and unlike the generality of theorists, starts more scientifico with a definition. Education, according to him, "includes whatever we do for ourselves, and whatever is done for us by others, for the express purpose of bringing us nearer to the perfection of our nature; in its largest acceptation, it comprehends even the indirect effects produced on character and on the human faculties by things of which the direct purposes are different; by laws, by forms of government, by the industrial arts, by modes of social life; nay, even by physical facts not dependent on the human will; by climate, soil, and local position." He admits, however, that this is a very wide view of the subject, and for his own immediate purpose advances a narrower view, namely: "the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be its successors, in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and, if possible, for raising, the improvement which has been attained."—("Inaugural Address at St. Andrews," p. 4.)
Besides involving the dispute as to what constitutes "perfection," the first and larger statement is, I think, too wide for the most comprehensive philosophy of education. The influences exerted on the human character by climate and geographical position, by arts, laws, government, and modes of social life, constitute a very interesting department of sociology, and have their place there and nowhere else. What we do for ourselves, and what others do for us, to bring; us nearer to the perfection of our nature, may be education in the precise sense of the word, and it may not. I do not see the propriety of including under the subject the direct operation of rewards and punishments. No doubt we do something to educate ourselves, and society does something to educate us, in a sufficiently proper acceptation of the word; but the ordinary influence of society, in the dispensing of punishment and reward, is not the essential fact of education, as I propose to regard it, although an adjunct to some of its legitimate functions.
Mill's narrower expression of the scope of the subject is not exactly erroneous; the moulding of each generation by the one preceding is not improperly described as an education. It is, however, grandiose rather than scientific. Nothing is to be got out of it. It does not give the lead to the subsequent exposition.
I find in the article "Education," in "Chambers's Encyclopædia," a definition to the following effect: "In the widest sense of the word a man is educated, either for good or for evil, by everything that he experiences from the cradle to the grave [say, rather, 'formed,' 'made,' 'influenced']. But, in the more limited and usual sense, the term education is confined to the efforts made, of set purpose, to train men in a particular way—the efforts of the grown-up part of the community to inform the intellect and mould the character of the young [rather too much stress on the fact of influence from without]; and more especially to the labors of professional educators or schoolmasters." The concluding clause is the nearest to the point—the arts and methods employed by the schoolmaster; for, although he is not alone in the work that he is expressly devoted to, yet he it is that typifies the process in its greatest singleness and purity. If by any investigations, inventions, or discussions, we can improve his art to the ideal pitch, we shall have done nearly all that can be required of a science and art of education.
I return to the greater difficulty—namely, the question, what is the end of all teaching; or, if the end be human happiness and perfection, what definite guidance does this furnish to the educator? I have already remarked that the inquiry is acknowledged to belong to other departments; and, if in these departments clear and unanimous answers have not been arrived at, the educationist is not bound to make good the deficiency.
For this emergency, there is one thing obvious, another less obvious; the two together exhausting the resources of the educator.
The obvious thing is to fix upon whatever matters people are agreed upon. Of such the number is considerable, and the instances important. They make the universal topics of the schools.
The less obvious thing is, with reference to matters not agreed upon, that the educator should set forth at what cost these doubtful acquisitions would have to be made; for the cost must be at least one element in the decision respecting them. Whoever knows most about education is best able to say how far its appliances can cope with such aims as softening the manners, securing self-renunciation, bringing about the balanced action of all the powers, training the whole man, etc.
We shall see that one part of the science of education consists in giving the ultimate analysis of all complex growths. It is on such an analysis that the cost can be calculated; and, by means of this, we can best observe whether contradictory demands are made upon the educator.
What we have been drifting to, in our search for an aim, is the work of the school. This may want a little more paring and rounding to give it scientific form, but it is the thing most calculated to fix and steady our vision at the outset.
Now, in the success of the schoolmaster's work, the first and central fact is the plastic property of the mind itself. On this depends the acquisition not simply of knowledge but of everything that can be called an acquisition. The most patent display of the power consists in memory for knowledge imparted. In this view the leading inquiry in the art of education is how to strengthen memory. We are, therefore, led to take account of the several mental aptitudes that either directly or indirectly enter into the retentive function. In other words, we must draw upon the science of the human mind for whatever that science contains respecting the conditions of memory.
Although memory, acquisition, retentiveness, depends mainly upon one unique property of the intellect, which accordingly demands to be scrutinized with the utmost care, there are various other properties, intellectual and emotional, that aid in the general result, and to each of these regard must be had, in a science of education.
We have thus obtained the clew to one prime division of the subject—the purely psychological part. Of no less consequence is another department, at present without a name—an inquiry into the proper or natural order of the different subjects, grounded on their relative simplicity or complexity, and their mutual dependence. It is necessary to success in education that a subject should not be presented to the pupil until all the preparatory subjects have been mastered. This is obvious enough in certain cases: arithmetic is taken before algebra, geometry before trigonometry, inorganic chemistry before organic; but in many cases the proper order is obscured by circumstances, and is an affair of very delicate consideration. I may call this the analytic, or logical, department of the theory of education.
It is a part of scientific method to take strict account of leading terms, by a thorough and exhaustive inquiry into the meanings of all such. The settlement of many questions relating to education is embarrassed by the vagueness of the single term "discipline."
Further, it ought to be pointed out, as specially applicable to our present subject, that the best attainable knowledge on anything is due to a combination of general principles obtained from the sciences, with well-conducted observations and experiments made in actual practice. On every great question there should be a convergence of both lights. The technical expression for this is the union of the deductive and inductive methods. The deductions are to be obtained apart, in their own way, and with all attainable precision. The inductions are the maxims of practice, purified, in the first instance, by wide comparison and by the requisite precautions.
I thus propose to remove from the science of education matters belonging to much wider departments of human conduct, and to concentrate the view upon what exclusively pertains to education—the means of building up the acquired powers of human beings. The communication of knowledge is the ready type of the process, but the training operation enters into parts of the mind not intellectual—the activities, and the emotions; the same forces, however, being at work.
Education does not embrace the employment of all our intellectual functions. There is a different art for directing the faculties in productive labor, as in the professions, in the original investigations of the man of science, or the creations of the artist. The principles of the human mind are applicable to both departments, but, although the two come into occasional contact, they are so far distinct that there is an advantage in viewing them separately. In the practical treatise of Locke, entitled "The Conduct of the Understanding," acquisition, production, and invention, are handled promiscuously.
Bearings of Physiology.—The science of physiology, coupled with the accumulated empirical observations of past ages, is the reference in finding out how to rear living beings to the full maturity of their physical powers. This, as we have said, is quite distinct from the process of education.
The art of education assumes a certain average physical health, and does not inquire into the means of keeping up or increasing that average. Its point of contact with physiology and hygiene is narrowed to the plastic or acquisitive function of the brain—the property of fixing or connecting the nervous connections that underlie memory, habit and acquired power.
But as physiology now stands, we soon come to the end of its applications to the husbanding of the plastic faculty. The inquiry must proceed upon our direct experience in the work of education, with an occasional check or caution from the established physiological laws. Still, it would be a forgetting of mercies to undervalue the results accruing to education from the physiological doctrine of the physical basis of memory.
On this subject, physiology teaches the general fact that memory reposes upon a nervous property or power, sustained, like every other physical power, by nutrition, and having its alternations of exercise and rest. It also informs us that, like every other function, the plasticity may be stunted by inaction, and impaired by over-exertion.
As far as pure physiology is concerned, I invite everybody to reflect on one circumstance in particular. The human body is a great aggregate of organs or interests—muscles, digestion, respiration, senses, brain. When fatigue overtakes it the organs generally suffer; when renovation has set in, the organs generally are invigorated. This is the first and most obvious consequence. It has next to be qualified by the remark that human beings are unequally constituted as regards the various functions; some being strong in muscle, others in stomach, others in brain. In all such persons the general invigoration is unequally shown; the favored organs receive a share proportioned to their respective capitals: to him that hath shall be given. Still more pertinent is the further qualification, that the organ that happens to be most active at the time receives more than its share; to exercise the several organs unequally is to nourish them unequally.
To come to the point as regards our immediate object. To increase the plastic property of the mind you must nourish the brain. You naturally expect that this result will ensue when the body generally is nourished: and so it will, if there be no exorbitant demands on the part of other organs, giving them such a preference as to leave very little for the organ of the mind. If the digestion or the muscles are unduly drawn upon, the brain will not respond to the drafts made upon it. Obversely, if the brain is so constituted by nature, or so excited by stimulation, as to absorb the lion's share of the nutriment, the opposite results will appear; the mental functions will be exalted, and the other interests more or less impoverished. This is the situation for an abundant display of mental force.
But we must further distinguish the mental functions themselves; for these are very different and mutually exclusive. Great refinement in the subdivisions is not necessary for the illustration. The broadest contrast is the emotional and the intellectual—feeling as pleasure, pain, or excitement, and feeling as knowledge. These two in extreme manifestation are hostile to each other: under extreme emotional excitement the intellect suffers; under great intellectual exertion the emotions subside (with limitations unnecessary for our purpose).
But intellect in the largest sense is not identical with the retentive or plastic operation. The laws of this peculiar phase of our intelligence are best obtained by studying it as a purely mental fact. Yet there is a physiological way of looking at it that is strongly confirmative of our psychological observations. On the physical or physiological side, memory or acquisition is a series of new nervous growths, the establishment of a number of beaten tracks in certain lines of the cerebral substance. Now, the presumption is that, as regards the claim for nourishment, this is the most costly of all the processes 'of the intelligence. To exercise a power once acquired should be a far easier thing, much less expensive, than to build up a new acquirement. We may be in sufficiently good condition for the one, while wholly out of condition for the other. Indeed, success in acquirement, looking at it from the physiological probabilities, should be the work of rare, choice, and happy moments; times when cerebral vigor is both abundant and well-directed.
Bearings of Psychology.—The largest chapter in the science of education must be the following out of all the psychological laws that bear directly or indirectly upon the process of mental acquirement. Every branch of psychology will be found available; but more especially the psychology of the intellect. Of the three great functions of the intellect, in the ultimate analysis—discrimination, agreement, retentiveness—the last is the most completely identified with the education process; but the others enter in as constituents in a way peculiar to each. I will select for my present paper, Discrimination and Retentiveness; and will endeavor to extract, from the discussion of these great intellectual functions, everything that they appear to yield for the ends of the educator. Although I can impart no novelty to the general statement of these functions, it is possible to make some unhackneyed remarks on their educational consequences.
Discrimination.—Mind starts from discrimination. The consciousness of difference is the beginning of every intellectual exercise. To encounter a new impression is to be aware of change: if the heat of a room increases ten degrees, we are awakened to the circumstance by a change of feeling; if we have no change of feeling, no altered consciousness, the outward fact is lost upon us; we take no notice of it, we are said not to know it.
Our intelligence is, therefore, absolutely limited by our power of discrimination. The other functions of intellect, the retentive power, for example, are not called into play, until we have first discriminated a number of things. If we did not originally feel the difference between light and dark, black and white, red and yellow, there would be no visible scenes for us to remember: with the amplest endowment of retentiveness, the outer world could not enter into our recollection; the blank of sensation is a blank of memory.
Yet further. The minuteness or delicacy of the feeling of difference is the measure of the variety and multitude of our primary impressions, and therefore of our stirred-up recollections. He that hears only twelve discriminated notes on the musical scale has his remembrances of sounds bounded by these; he that feels a. hundred sensible differences has his ideas or recollections of sounds multiplied in the same proportion. The retentive power works up to the height of the discriminative power; it can do no more. Things are not remembered if they have not first been discriminated.
We have by nature a certain power of discrimination in each department of our sensibility. We can from the outset discriminate, more or less delicately, sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes; and, in each sense, some persons much more than others. This is the deepest foundation of disparity of intellectual character, as well as of variety in likings and pursuits. If, from the beginning, one man can interpolate five shades of discrimination of color where another can feel but one transition, the careers of the two men are foreshadowed and will be widely apart.
To observe this native inequality is important in predestining the child to this or that line of special training. For the actual work of teaching, it is of more consequence to note the ways and means of quickening and increasing the discriminating aptitude. Bearing in mind the fact that until a difference is felt between two things intelligence has not yet made the first step, the teacher is bound to consider the circumstances or conditions favorable and unfavorable to the exercise.
1. It is not peculiar to discrimination, but is common to every mental function, to lay down, as a first condition, mental vigor, freshness, and wakefulness. In a low state of the mental forces, in languor, or drowsiness, differences cannot be felt. That the mind should be alive, awake, in full force and exercise, is necessary for every kind of mental work. The teacher needs to quicken the mental alertness by artificial means, when there is a dormancy of mere indolence. He has to waken the pupil from the state significantly named indifference, the state where differing impressions fail to be recognized as distinct.
2. The mind may be fresh and alive, but its energies may be taking the wrong direction. There is a well-known antithesis or opposition between the emotional and the intellectual activities, leading to a certain incompatibility of the two. Under emotional excitement the intellectual energies are enfeebled in amount, and enslaved to the reigning emotion. It is in the quieter states of mind that discrimination, in common with other intellectual powers, works to advantage. I will afterward discuss more minutely the very delicate matter of the management of the various emotions in the work of teaching.
3. It must not be forgotten that intellectual exercises are in themselves essentially insipid, unattractive, indifferent. As exertion, they impart a certain small degree of the delight that always attends the healthy action of an exuberant faculty; but this supposes their later developments, and is not a marked peculiarity in the child's commencing career. The first circumstance that gives an interest to discrimination is pleasurable or painful stimulus. Something must hang on a difference before the mind is made energetically awake to it. A thoroughly disinterested difference is not an object of attention to any one.
The transitions from cold to hot, dark to light, strain to relief, hunger to repletion, silence to sound, are all more or less interesting, and all more or less impressive. But then they are vehement and sensational. It is necessary, in order to the furnishing of the intelligence, that smaller and less sensational transitions should be felt; the intellectual nature is characterized by requiring the least amount of emotional flash in order to impress a difference. A loud and furious demonstration will certainly compel attention and end in the feeling of difference, but the cost is too great to be often repeated.
4. The great practical aid to the discovery and the retention of difference is immediate succession or, what comes to the same thing, close juxtaposition. A rapid transition makes evident a difference that would not be felt after an interval, still less if anything else were allowed to occupy the mind in the mean time. This fact is sufficiently obvious, and is turned to account in easy cases, but is far from thoroughly worked out by the teacher and the expositor. Any trifling diversion will suffice to blind us to its importance.
We compare two notes by sounding them in close succession; two shades of color by placing them side by side; two weights by holding them in the two hands, and attending to the two feelings by turns. These are the plain instances. The comparison of forms leads to complications, and we cease to attempt the same kind of comparison. For mere length we lay the two things alongside; so for an angle. For number, we can place two groups in contiguous rows—three by the side of four or five—and observe the surplus.
Mere size is an affair of simple juxtaposition. Form, irrespective of size, is less approachable. A triangle and a quadrangle are compared by counting the sides, and resolving the difference of form into the simpler element of difference of number. A right-angled, an acute-angled, an isosceles triangle, must be compared by the juxtaposition of angles. A circle and an oval are represented by the alternatives of curvature and diameters: in the one, the curvature uniform and the diameters equal; in the other, the curvature varying and the diameters unequal. The difference between a close and an open curve is palpable enough.
The geometrical forms are thus resolvable into very simple bases of comparison; and the teacher must analyze them in the manner now stated. For the irregular and capricious forms, the elementary conceptions are still the same—lineal size, number, angular size, curvature—but the mode of guiding the attention may be various. Sometimes there is a strong and overpowering similarity, with a small anddifference; as in our ciphers (compare 3 and 5), and in the letters of our alphabet (C, G), and still more in the Hebrew alphabet. For such comparisons, the difference, such as it is, needs to be very clearly drawn or even exaggerated. Another method is to have models of the same size to lay over one another, so as to bring out the difference through the juxtaposition. By an express effort, the teacher calls on the learner to view, with single-minded attention, the differing circumstance, and afterward to reproduce it by his own hand. An express lesson consists in asking the pupil what are the ciphers, or the letters, that are nearly alike, and what are the points of difference.
The higher arts of comparison to impress difference are best illustrated when both differences and agreements Lave to be noted. They would have to be resumed after the discussion of the intellectual force of agreement or similarity. The chief stress of the present explanation lies in regarding discrimination as the necessary prelude of every intellectual impression, as the basis of our stored-up knowledge, or memory. Agreement is presupposed likewise; but there is not the same necessity, nor is it expedient, to follow out the workings of agreement, before considering the plastic power of the intellect.