Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/March 1878/Technical Education

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By Prof. T. H. HUXLEY, F. R. S.

ANY candid observer of the phenomena of modern society will readily admit that bores must be classed among the enemies of the human race; and a little consideration will probably lead him to the further admission that no species of that extensive genus of noxious creatures is more objectionable than the educational bore. Convinced, as I am, of the truth of this great social generalization, it is not without a certain trepidation that I venture to address you on an educational topic. For, in the course of the last ten years, to go back no further, I am afraid to say how often I have ventured to speak of education, from that given in the primary schools to that which is to be had in the universities and medical colleges; indeed, the only part of this wide region into which as yet I have not adventured is that into which I propose to intrude to-day.

Thus I cannot but be aware that I am dangerously near becoming the thing which all men fear and fly. But I have deliberately elected to run the risk. For, when you did me the honor to ask me to address you, an unexpected circumstance had led me to occupy myself seriously with the question of technical education; and I had acquired the conviction that there are few subjects respecting which it is more important for all classes of the community to have clear and just ideas than this, while certainly there is none which is more deserving of attention by the Working-Men's Club and Institute Union.

It is not for me to express an opinion whether the considerations which I am about to submit to you will be proved by experience to be just or not; but I will do my best to make them clear. Among the many good things to be found in Lord Bacon's works, none is more full of wisdom than the saying that "truth more easily comes out of error than out of confusion." Clear and consecutive wrong-thinking is the next best thing to right-thinking; so that, if I succeed in clearing your ideas on this topic, I shall have wasted neither your time nor my own.

"Technical education," in the sense in which the term is ordinarily used, and in which I am now employing it, means that sort of education which is specially adapted to the needs of men whose business in life it is to pursue some kind of handicraft; it is, in fact, a fine Greco-Latin equivalent for what in good vernacular English would be called "the teaching of handicrafts." And probably, at this stage of our progress, it may occur to many of you to think of the story of the cobbler and his last, and to say to yourselves, though you will be too polite to put the question openly to me: "What does the speaker know practically about this matter? What is his handicraft?" I think the question is a very proper one, and, unless I were prepared to answer it, I hope satisfactorily, I should have chosen some other theme.

The fact is, I am, and have been any time these thirty years, a man who works with his hands—a handicraftsman. I do not say this in the broadly metaphorical sense in which fine gentlemen, with all the delicacy of Agag about them, trip to the hustings about election time, and protest that they, too, are working-men. I really mean my words to be taken in their direct, literal, and straightforward sense. In fact, if the most nimble-fingered watchmaker among you will come to my workshop, he may set me to put a watch together, and I will set him to dissect, say, a black-beetle's nerves. I do not wish to vaunt, but I am inclined to think that I shall manage my job to his satisfaction sooner than he will do his piece of work to mine.

In truth, anatomy, which is my handicraft, is one of the most difficult kinds of mechanical labor, involving, as it does, not only lightness and dexterity of hand, but sharp eyes and endless patience. And you must not suppose that my particular branch of science is especially distinguished for the demand it makes upon skill in manipulation. A similar requirement is made upon all students of physical science. The astronomer, the electrician, the chemist, the mineralogist, the botanist, are constantly called upon to perform manual operations of exceeding delicacy. The progress of all branches of physical science depends upon observation, or on that artificial observation which is termed experiment, of one kind or another; and the further we advance the more practical difficulties surround the investigation of the conditions of the problems offered to us; so that mobile and yet steady hands, guided by clear vision, are more and more in request in the workshops of science.

Indeed, it has struck me that one of the grounds of that sympathy between the handicraftsmen of this country and the men of science, by which it has so often been my good fortune to profit, may, perhaps, lie here. You feel and we feel that, among the so-called learned folks, we alone are brought into contact with tangible facts in the way that you are. You know well enough that it is one thing to write a history of chairs in general, or to address a poem to a throne, or to speculate about the occult powers of the chair of St. Peter; and quite another thing to make with your own hands a veritable chair, that will stand fair and square, and afford a safe and satisfactory resting place to a frame of sensitiveness and solidity.

So it is with us, when we look out from our scientific handicrafts upon the doings of our learned brethren, whose work is untrammeled by anything "base and mechanical," as handicrafts used to be called when the world was younger, and, in some respects, less wise than now. We take the greatest interest in their pursuits; we are edified by their histories and are charmed with their poems, which sometimes illustrate so remarkably the powers of man's imagination; some of us admire and even humbly try to follow them in their high philosophical excursions, though we know the risk of being snubbed by the inquiry whether groveling dissectors of monkeys and black-beetles can hope to enter into the empyreal kingdom of speculation. But still we feel that our business is different: humbler if you will, though the diminution of dignity is, perhaps, compensated by the increase of reality; and that we, like you, have to get our work done in a region where little avails, if the power of dealing with practical, tangible facts is wanting. You know that clever talk touching joinery will not make a chair; and I know that it is of about as much value in the physical sciences. Mother Nature is serenely obdurate to honeyed words; only those who understand the ways of things, and can silently and effectually handle them, get any good out of her.


And now, having, as I hope, justified my assumption of a place among handicraftsmen, and put myself right with you as to my qualification, from practical knowledge, to speak about technical education, I will proceed to put before you the results of my experience as a teacher of a handicraft, and tell you what sort of education I should think best adapted for a boy whom one wanted to make a professional anatomist.

I should say, in the first place, let him have a good English elementary education. I do not mean that he shall be able to pass in such and such a standard — that may or may not be an equivalent expression — but that his teaching shall have been such as to have given him command of the common implements of learning and created a desire for the things of the understanding.

Further, I should like him to know the elements of physical science, and especially of physics and chemistry, and I should take care that this elementary knowledge was real. I should like my aspirant to be able to read a scientific treatise in Latin, French, or German, because an enormous amount of anatomical knowledge is locked up in those languages. And especially I should require some ability to draw  — I do not mean artistically, for that is a gift which may be cultivated but cannot be learned, but with fair accuracy. I will not say that everybody can learn even this; for the negative development of the faculty of drawing in some people is almost miraculous. Still everybody, or almost everybody, can learn to write; and, as writing is a kind of drawing, I suppose that the majority of the people who say they cannot draw, and give copious evidence of the accuracy of their assertion, could draw, after a fashion, if they tried. And that "after a fashion" would be better than nothing for my purposes.

Above all things, let my imaginary pupil have preserved the freshness and vigor of youth in his mind as well as his body. The educational abomination of desolation of the present day is the stimulation of young people to work at high pressure by incessant competitive examinations. Some wise man (who probably was not an early riser) has said of early risers in general, that they are conceited all the forenoon and stupid all the afternoon. Now, whether this is true of early risers in the common acceptation of the word or not, I will not pretend to say; but it is too often true of the unhappy children who are forced to rise too early in their classes. They are conceited all the forenoon of life, and stupid all its afternoon. The vigor and freshness, which should have been stored up for the purposes of the hard struggle for existence in practical life, have been washed out of them by precocious mental debauchery—by book-gluttony and lesson-bibbing. Their faculties are worn out by the strain put upon their callow brains, and they are demoralized by worthless childish triumphs before the real work of life begins. I have no compassion for sloth, but youth has more need for intellectual rest than age; and the cheerfulness, the tenacity of purpose, the power of work which make many a successful man what he is, must often be placed to the credit, not of his hours of industry, but to that of his hours of idleness, in boyhood. Even the hardest worker of us all, if he has to deal with anything above mere details, will do well, now and again, to let his brain lie fallow for a space. The next crop of thought will certainly be all the fuller in the ear and the weeds fewer.

This is the sort of education which I should like any one who was going to devote himself to my handicraft to undergo. As to knowing anything about anatomy itself, on the whole I would rather he left that alone until he took it up seriously in my laboratory. It is hard work enough to teach, and I should not like to have superadded to that the possible need of unteaching.

Well, but, you will say, this is Hamlet with the Prince of Denmark left out; your "technical education" is simply a good education, with more attention to physical science, to drawing, and to modern languages, than is common, and there is nothing specially technical about it.

Exactly so; that remark takes us straight to the heart of what I have to say, which is, that, in my judgment, the preparatory education of the handicraftsman ought to have nothing of what is ordinarily understood by "technical" about it.

The workshop is the only real school for a handicraft. The education which precedes that of the workshop should be entirely devoted to the strengthening of the body, the elevation of the moral faculties, and the cultivation of the intelligence; and especially to the imbuing the mind with a broad and clear view of the laws of that natural world with the components of which the handicraftsman will have to deal. And the earlier the period of life at which the handicraftsman has to enter into actual practice of his craft, the more important is it that he should devote the precious hours of preliminary education to things of the mind, which have no direct and immediate bearing on his branch of industry, though they lie at the foundation of all realities.


Now let me apply the lessons I have learned from my handicraft to yours. If any of you were obliged to take an apprentice, I suppose you would like to get a good, healthy lad, ready and willing to learn, handy, and with his fingers not all thumbs, as the saying goes. You would like that he should read, write, and cipher well; and, if you were an intelligent master, and your trade involved the application of scientific principles, as so many trades do, you would like him to know enough of the elementary principles of science to understand what was going on. I suppose that in nine trades out of ten it would be useful if he could draw; and many of you must have lamented your inability to find out for yourselves what foreigners are doing or have done. So that some knowledge of French and German might, in many cases, be very desirable.

So it appears to me that what you want is pretty much what I want; and the practical question is, How you are to get what you need, under the actual limitations and conditions of life of handicraftsmen in this country?

I think I shall have the assent both of the employers of labor and of the employed as to one of these limitations; which is, that no scheme of technical education is likely to be seriously entertained which will delay the entrance of boys into working-life, or prevent them from contributing toward their own support, as early as they do at present. Not only do I believe that any such scheme could not be carried out, but I doubt its desirableness, even if it were practicable.

The period between childhood and manhood is full of difficulties and dangers, under the most favorable circumstances; and even among the well-to-do, who can afford to surround their children with the most favorable conditions, examples of a career ruined, before it has well begun, are but too frequent. Moreover, those who have to live by labor must be shaped to labor early. The colt that is left at grass too long makes but a sorry draught-horse, though his way of life does not bring him within the reach of artificial temptations. Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and, however early a man's training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.

There is another reason to which I have already adverted, and which I would reiterate, why any extension of the time devoted to ordinary school-work is undesirable. In the newly-awakened zeal for education, we run some risk of forgetting the truth that, while under-instruction is a bad thing, over-instruction may possibly be a worse.

Success in any kind of practical life is not dependent solely, or indeed chiefly, upon knowledge. Even in the learned professions knowledge, alone, is of less consequence than people are apt to suppose. And, if much expenditure of bodily energy is involved in the day's work, mere knowledge is of still less importance when weighed against the probable cost of its acquirement. To do a fair day's work with his hands, a man needs, above all things, health, strength, and the patience and cheerfulness which, if they do not always accompany these blessings, can hardly in the nature of things exist without them; to which we must add honesty of purpose and a pride in doing what is done well.

A good handicraftsman can get on very well without genius, but he will fare badly without a reasonable share of what is a more useful possession for work-a-day life, namely, mother-wit; and he will be all the better for a real knowledge, however limited, of the ordinary laws of Nature, and especially of those which apply to his own business.

Instruction carried so far as to help the scholar to turn his store of mother-wit to account, to acquire a fair amount of sound elementary knowledge, and to use his hands and eyes, while leaving him fresh, vigorous, and with a sense of the dignity of his own calling, whatever it may be, if fairly and honestly pursued, cannot fail to be of invaluable service to all those who come under its influence.

But, on the other hand, if school instruction is carried so far as to encourage bookishness; if the ambition of the scholar is directed, not to the gaining of knowledge, but to the being able to pass examinations successfully; especially if encouragement is given to the mischievous delusion that brain-work is, in itself, and apart from its quality, a nobler or more respectable thing than handiwork—such education may be a deadly mischief to the workman, and lead to the rapid ruin of the industries it is intended to serve.

I know that I am expressing the opinion of some of the largest as well as the most enlightened employers of labor, when I say that there is a real danger that, from the extreme of no education, we may run to the other extreme of over-education of handicraftsmen. And I apprehend that what is true for the ordinary hand-worker is true for the foreman. Activity, probity, knowledge of men, ready mother-wit, supplemented by a good knowledge of the general principles involved in his business, are the making of a good foreman. If he possess these qualities, no amount of learning will fit him better for his position; while the course of life and the habit of mind required for the attainment of such learning may, in various direct and indirect ways, act as direct disqualifications for it.

Keeping in mind, then, that the two things to be avoided are, the delay of the entrance of boys into practical life, and the substitution of exhausted bookworms for shrewd, handy men in our works and factories, let us consider what may be wisely and safely attempted in the way of improving the education of the handicraftsman.

First, I look to the elementary schools now happily established all over the country. I am not going to criticise or find fault with them; on the contrary, their establishment seems to me to be the most important and the most beneficent result of the corporate action of the people in our day. A great deal is said of British interests just now, but, depend upon it, that no Eastern difficulty needs our intervention as a nation so seriously as the putting down both the Bashi-Bazouks of ignorance and the Cossacks of sectarianism at home. What has already been achieved in these directions is a great thing; you must have lived some time to know how great. An education, better in its processes, better in its substance, than that which was accessible to the great majority of well-to-do Britons a quarter of a century ago, is now obtainable by every child in the land. Let any man of my age go into an ordinary elementary school, and, unless he was unusually fortunate in his youth, he will tell you that the educational method, the intelligence, patience, and good temper, on the teachers' part, which are now at the disposal of the veriest waifs and wastrels of society, are things of which he had no experience in the costly middle-class schools; which were so ingeniously contrived as to combine all the evils and shortcomings of the great public schools with none of their advantages. Many a man, whose so-called education cost a good deal of valuable money and occupied many a year of invaluable time, leaves the inspection of a well-ordered elementary school devoutly wishing that, in his young days, he had had the chance of being as well taught as these boys and girls are.

But while, in view of such an advance in general education, I willingly obey the natural impulse to be thankful, I am not willing altogether to rest. I want to see instruction in elementary science and in art more thoroughly incorporated in the educational system. At present, it is being administered by driblets, as if it were a potent medicine, "a few drops to be taken occasionally in a teaspoon." Every year I notice that that earnest and untiring friend of yours and of mine, Sir John Lubbock, stirs up the government of the day in the House of Commons on this subject; and also that, every year, he, and the few members of the House of Commons, such as Mr. Playfair, who sympathize with him, are met with expressions of warm admiration for science in general, and reasons at large for doing nothing in particular. But now that Mr. Forster, to whom the education of the country owes so much, has announced his conversion to the right faith, I begin to hope that, sooner or later, things will mend.

I have given what I believe a good reason for the assumption that the keeping at school of boys who are to be handicraftsmen beyond the age of thirteen or fourteen is neither practicable nor desirable; and as it is quite certain that, with justice to other and no less important branches of education, nothing more than the rudiments of science and art teaching can be introduced into elementary schools, we must seek elsewhere for a supplementary training in these subjects, and, if need be, in foreign languages, which may go on after the workman's life has begun.

The means of acquiring the scientific and artistic part of this training already exists in full working order, in the first place, in the classes of the Science and Art Department, which are for the most part held in the evening, so as to be accessible to all who choose to avail themselves of them after working-hours. The great advantage of these classes is that they bring the means of instruction to the doors of the factories and workshops; that they are no artificial creations, but by their very existence prove the desire of the people for them; and, finally, that they admit of indefinite development in proportion as they are wanted. I have often expressed the opinion, and I repeat it here, that, during the eighteen years they have been in existence, these classes have done incalculable good; and I can say, of my own knowledge, that the department spares no pains and trouble in trying to increase their usefulness and insure the soundness of their work.

No one knows better than my friend Colonel Donnelly, to whose clear views and great administrative abilities so much of the successful working of the science classes is due, that there is much to be done before the system can be said to be thoroughly satisfactory. The instruction given needs to be made more systematic, and especially more practical; the teachers are of very unequal excellence, and not a few stand much in need of instruction themselves, not only in the subjects which they teach, but in the objects for which they teach. I dare say you have heard of that proceeding, reprobated by all true sportsmen, which is called "shooting for the pot." Well, there is such a thing as "teaching for the pot"—teaching, that is, not that your scholar may know, but that he may count for payment among those who pass the examination; and there are some teachers, happily not many, who have yet to learn that the examiners of the department regard them as poachers of the worst description.

Without presuming in any way to speak in the name of the department, I think I may say, as a matter which has come under my own observation, that it is doing its best to meet all these difficulties. It systematically promotes practical instruction in the classes; it affords facilities to teachers who desire to learn their business thoroughly; and it is always ready to aid in the suppression of pot-teaching.

All this is, as you may imagine, highly satisfactory to me. I see that spread of scientific education, about which I have so often permitted myself to worry the public, become, for all practical purposes, an accomplished fact. Grateful as I am for all that is now being done, in the same direction, in our higher schools and universities, I have ceased to have any anxiety about the wealthier classes. Scientific knowledge is spreading by what the alchemists called a "distillatio per ascensum;" and nothing now can prevent it from continuing to distill upward and permeate English society, until, in the remote future, there shall be no member of the Legislature who does not know as much of science as an elementary schoolboy; and even the heads of houses in our venerable seats of learning shall acknowledge that natural science is not merely a sort of university back-door, through which inferior men may get at their degrees. Perhaps this apocalyptic vision is a little wild; and I feel I ought to ask pardon for an outbreak of enthusiasm, which, I assure you, is not my commonest failing.

I have said that the Government is already doing a great deal in aid of that kind of technical education for handicraftsmen which, to my mind, is alone worth seeking. Perhaps it is doing as much as it ought to do, even in this direction. Certainly there is another kind of help of the most important character, for which we may look elsewhere than to the Government. The great mass of mankind have neither the liking, nor the aptitude, for either literary, or scientific, or artistic, pursuits; nor, indeed, for excellence of any sort. Their ambition is to go through life with moderate exertion and a fair share of ease, doing common things in a common way. And a great blessing and comfort it is that the majority of men are of this mind; for the majority of things to be done are common things, and are quite well enough done when commonly done. The great end of life is not knowledge, but action. What men need is as much knowledge as they can assimilate and organize into a basis for action; give them more and it may become injurious. One knows people who are as heavy and stupid from undigested learning as others are from over-fullness of meat and drink. But a small percentage of the population is born with that most excellent quality, a desire for excellence, or with special aptitudes of some sort or another; Mr. Galton tells us that not more than one in four thousand maybe expected to attain distinction, and not more than one in a million some share of that intensity of instinctive aptitude, that burning thirst for excellence, which is called genius.

Now, the most important object of all educational schemes is to catch these exceptional people and turn them to account for the good of society. No man can say where they will crop up; like their opposites, the fools and knaves, they appear sometimes in the palace and sometimes in the hovel; but the great thing to be aimed at, I was almost going to say the most important end of all social arrangements, is to keep these glorious sports of Nature from being either corrupted by luxury or starved by poverty, and to put them into the position in which they can do the work for which they are specially fitted.

Thus, if a lad in an elementary school showed signs of special capacity, I would try to provide him with the means of continuing his education after his daily working-life had begun; if, in the evening classes, he developed special capabilities in the direction of science or of drawing, I would try to secure him an apprenticeship to some trade in which those powers would have applicability. Or, if he chose to become a teacher, he should have the chance of so doing. Finally, to the lad of genius, the one in a million, I would make accessible the highest and most complete training the country could afford. Whatever that might cost, depend upon it the investment would be a good one. I weigh my words when I say that, if the nation could purchase a potential Watt, or Davy, or Faraday, at the cost of a hundred thousand pounds down, he would be dirt-cheap at the money. It is a mere commonplace and every-day piece of knowledge, that what these three men did has produced untold millions of wealth, in the narrowest economical sense of the word.

Therefore, as the sum and crown of what is to be done for technical education, I look to the provision of a machinery for winnowing out the capacities and giving them scope. When I was a member of the London School Board, I said, in the course of a speech, that our business was to provide a ladder, reaching from the gutter to the university, along which every child in the three kingdoms should have the chance of climbing as far as he was fit to go. This phrase was so much bandied about at the time, that, to say truth, I am rather tired of it; but I know of no other which so fully expresses my belief, not only about education in general, but about technical education in particular.

The essential foundation of all the organization needed for the promotion of education among handicraftsmen will, I believe, exist in this country when every working-lad can feel that society has done what lies in its power to remove all needless and artificial obstacles from his path; that there is no barrier, except such as exist in the nature of things, between himself and whatever place in the social organization he is fitted to fill; and, more than this, that, if he has capacity and industry, a hand is held out to help him along any path which is wisely and honestly chosen.

I have endeavored to point out to you that a great deal of such an organization already exists; and I am glad to be able to add that there is a good prospect that what is wanting will, before long, be supplemented.

Those powerful and wealthy societies, the livery companies of the city of London, remembering that they are the heirs and representatives of the trade-guilds of the middle ages, are interesting themselves in the question. So far back as 1872 the Society of Arts organized a system of instruction in technology of arts and manufactures, for persons actually employed in factories and workshops, who desired to extend and improve their knowledge of the theory and practice of their particular avocations;[2] and a considerable subsidy was liberally granted in aid of the efforts of the Society by the Clothworkers' Company. We have here the hopeful commencement of a rational organization for the promotion of excellence among handicraftsmen. Quite recently other of the livery companies have determined upon giving their powerful and, indeed, almost boundless aid to the improvement of the teaching of handicrafts. They have already gone so far as to appoint a committee to act for them; and I betray no confidence in adding that, some time since, the committee sought the advice and assistance of several persons, myself among the number.

Of course, I cannot tell you what may be the result of the deliberations of the committee; but we may all fairly hope that, before long, steps which will have a weighty and a lasting influence on the growth and spread of sound and thorough teaching among the handicraftsmen[3] of this country will be taken by the livery companies of London.—Fortnightly Review.

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  1. An address delivered to the Working-Men's Club and Institute Union, December, 1, 1877.
  2. See the "Programme" for 1878, issued by the Society of Arts, p. 14.
  3. It is perhaps advisable to remark that the important question of the professional education of managers of industrial works is not touched in the foregoing remarks.