Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/October 1878/Education as a Science V
|←The Geological History of New York Island and Harbor|| Popular Science Monthly Volume 13 October 1878 (1878)
Education as a Science V
By Alexander Bain
|The Progress of Anthropology→|
THE Emotion of Power.—The state named the feeling or emotion of power expresses a first-class motive of the human mind. It is, however, shown, with great probability, not to be an independent source of emotion. It very often consists of a direct reference to possessions or worldly abundance. In other cases, I cannot doubt that the pleasure of malevolent infliction is an element; the love of domineering, or subjecting other people's wills, would be much less attractive than it is if malevolent possibilities were wholly left out.
Power in the actual is given by bodily and mental superiority, by wealth, and by offices of command. Hence it can be enjoyed in any high degree only by a few. It is, however, capable of great ideal expansion; we can derive gratification from the contemplation of superior power, and the outlets for this are numerous, including not merely the operations of living beings, but the forces of inanimate Nature. For example, the sublime is an ideal of great might or power.
We have now almost, but not quite, led up to the much-urged educational motive, the gratification of the sense of self-activity in the pupils. This must afterward undergo a very searching examination. Let us, however, first briefly review another leading class of well-marked feelings, those designated by the familiar terms, self-complacency, pride, vanity, love of applause. Whether these be simple or compound in their nature, they represent feelings of great intensity, and they are specially invoked in the sphere of education.
The Emotions of Self.—"Self" is a very wide word. "Selfish," "self-seeking," "self-love," might be employed without bringing any new emotions to the front. All the sources of pleasure, and all the exemptions from pain, that have been or might be enumerated under the senses and the emotions, being totalized, could be designated as "self" or "self-interest." But, connected with the terms self-esteem, self-complacency, pride, vanity, love of praise, there are new varieties of feeling, albeit they are but offshoots from some of those already given. It is not our business to trace the precise derivation of these complex modes, except to aid in estimating their value as a distinct class of motives.
There is an undoubted pleasure in finding in ourselves some of those qualities that, seen in other men, call forth our love, admiration, reverence, or esteem. The names self-complacency, self-gratulation, self-esteem, indicate emotions of no little force. They have a good influence in promoting the attainment of excellence; their defect is ascribable to our enormous self-partiality: for which cause they are usually concealed from the jealous gaze of our fellows. It is only on very special occasions that persuasion is made to operate through these powerful feelings; they are too ready to turn round and make demands that cannot be complied with.
A still higher form of self-reflected sentiment is that designated by the love of praise and admiration. We necessarily feel an enhanced delight when our own good opinion of self is echoed and sustained by the expressions of others. This is one of the most stirring influences that man can exert over man. It exists in many gradations, according to our love, regard, or admiration, for the persons bestowing it, as well as our dependence upon them, and according to the number joining in the tribute.
The bestowal of praise is an act of justice to real merit, and should take place apart from ulterior considerations. But in rewarding, as in punishing, we cannot help looking beyond the present; we have in our eye merits that are yet to be achieved. The fame that attends intellectual eminence is an incentive to study, and the educator has this great instrument at his command.
Praise, to be effectual and safe, has to be carefully apportioned, so as to approve itself to all concerned. As the act of praising does not terminate with the moment, but establishes claims for the future, thoughtless profusion of compliment defeats itself. Praise may operate in the form of warm, kindly expression, and no more; in which sense it is an offering of affection, and has a value in that character alone. A pleased smile is a moral influence.
Discipline, properly so called, works in the direction of pain; pleasures are viewed in their painful obverse. The positive value of delights is of consequence as the starting-point wherefrom to count the efficacy of deprivations. The pains opposed to the pleasures of self-esteem and praise are among the most powerful weapons in the armory of the disciplinarian. They are the chief reliance of such as deprecate corporeal inflictions. Bentham's elaborate scheme of discipline in the "Chrestomathia" is a manipulation of the motives of praise and dispraise, which he would fain make us believe to be all-sufficient.
Of the two divisions of the present class of emotions, namely, self-esteem on the one hand, and desire of praise on the other, the opposite of the first—self-reproach, self-humbling—is very little under foreign influence. To induce people to think meanly of themselves is no easy task; with the mass of human beings it is wellnigh hopeless. Any success that attends the endeavor is an offshoot from the second member of the class under discussion, namely, dispraise, depreciation. There is no mistaking our aim here; we can make our power felt in this form, whether it has the other effect or not. People live so much on one another's good opinion that the remission tells in an instant; from the simple abatement or loss of estimation there is a descent into the depths of disesteem with a result of unspeakable suffering. The efforts that the victim makes to right himself under censure only show how keenly it is felt. There can be little doubt that on the delicate handling of this instrument must depend the highest refinements of moral control.
The Emotions of Intellect.—The pleasurable emotions incident to the exercise of the intellectual powers have not the formidable magnitude that we have assigned to the foregoing groups. Indeed, on the occasions when they seem to burst forth with an intense glow, we can discern the presence of emanations from these other great fountains of feeling.
It is an effort of prime importance to trace exhaustively the inducements and allurements to intellectual exertion. What are the intrinsic charms of knowledge, whether in pursuit or in possession? The difficulty of the answer is increased rather than diminished by the flow of fifty years' rhetoric.
Knowledge has such a wide compass, embraces such various ingredients, that, until we discriminate the kinds of it, we cannot speak precisely either of its charms or of its absence of charm. Some sorts of knowledge are interesting to everybody; some interest only a few. The serious part of the case is, that the most valuable kinds of knowledge are often the least interesting.
The important distinction to be drawn here is between individual or concrete knowledge and general or abstract knowledge. As a rule, particulars are interesting as well as easy; generals uninteresting and hard. When particulars are not interesting, it is often from their being overshadowed by generals. When generals are made interesting, it is by a happy reflected influence upon the particulars. It would serve nearly all the purposes of the teacher to know the best means of overcoming the repugnance and the abstruseness of general knowledge.
Waiving for a time the niceties of the abstract idea, and the obstacles in the way of its being readily comprehended, we may here adduce certain motives that coöperate with the teacher's endeavors to impress it. A little attention, however, must first be given to the various kinds of interest that attach to individual or particular facts.
Any kind of knowledge, whether particular or more or less general, that is obviously involved in any of the strong feelings or emotions that we have passed in review, is by that very fact interesting. Now, a great many kinds of knowledge are implicated with those various feelings. To avoid pains, and obtain pleasures, it is often necessary to know certain things, and we willingly apply our minds to learn those things; and the more so, the more evident their bearing upon the gratification of our desires. A vast quantity of information respecting the world, and respecting human beings, is gained in this way; and it constitutes an important basis of even the highest acquisitions.
The readiness to imbibe this immediately fructifying knowledge is qualified by its being difficult or abstruse; we often prefer ignorance, even in matters of consequence, to intellectual labor.
All the natural objects that bear upon our subsistence, our wants, our pleasures, our exemptions from pain, are individually interesting to us, and become known in respect of their special efficacy. Our food, and all the means of procuring it, our clothing and shelter, our means of protection, our sense-stimulants, are studied with avidity, and remembered with ease. This department of knowledge, notwithstanding its vital concern, is apt to be considered as groveling; it has, however, the recommendation of truth. We do not encourage ourselves in any deceptions in such matters; and, if we make mistakes, it is owing to the obscurity of the case, rather than to our indifference, or to any motive for perverting the facts. Indeed, this is the department that first supplied to mankind the best criterion of certainty.
There is a different class of objects that appeal, not to the more pressing utilities of subsistence, safety, and comfort, but to the gratifications of the higher senses and the emotions: the pleasures of touch, sight, and hearing; the social and anti-social emotions. These comprise all the more striking objects of the world: the sun and celestial sphere, the earth's gay coloring and sublime vastness; the innumerable objects, inanimate and animate, that tickle some sense or emotion. In proportion as human beings are set free from the struggle for subsistence do they lay themselves open to the, and so enlarge the sphere of natural knowledge. Individual things become interesting and known from inspiring these feelings. The culminating interest, however, is in living beings, and especially persons of our own species. The intellectual impressions thus left upon us are lively, but not necessarily correct as to the facts.
However all this may be, it is to individual things that we must refer the first beginnings of knowledge, the interest and the facility of acquisition. There are great inequalities in this interest and consequent facility; many individual objects inspire no interest at all in the first instance; while some of these become interesting afterward, in consequence of our discovering in them relationships to things of interest.
One notable distinction among the objects of knowledge is the distinction between movement or change, and stillness or inaction. It is movement that excites us most; still-life is rendered interesting by reference to movement. We are aroused and engrossed by all moving things; our attention is turned away from objects at rest to contemplate movements; and we imbibe with great rapidity the impressions of moving objects.
This brief survey of the sphere of individuality and of the various attractions presented by individuals is preparatory to the consideration of the most arduous part of knowledge—the knowledge of generals or generality. All the difficulties of the higher knowledge have reference to the generalizing process—the seeing of one in many. The arts of the teacher and the expositor are supremely requisite in sweetening the toil of this operation. At the present stage, however, the question is to assign the motives connected with general knowledge as distinct from individual knowledge.
General knowledge, represented by science, consists in holding together, by a single grasp, whole classes of objects, of facts, of operations. This must, by the very nature of the case, be more severe than holding an individual. To form an idea of one tree that we have repeatedly surveyed at leisure, round and round, is about the easiest exertion whether of attention or of memory. To form an idea of ten trees partly agreeing and partly differing among themselves is manifestly an entirely altered task; it is to exchange comparative simplicity for arduous complexity; yet this is what is needed everywhere in the higher knowledge.
The first emotional effect attendant on the process of generalizing facts, and serving to lighten the intellectual burden, is the flash of identity in diversity, an exhilarating charm that has been felt in every age by the searchers after truth. Many of the grandest discoveries in science have consisted, not in bringing to light any new individual fact, but in seeing a likeness between things formerly regarded as wholly unlike. Such was the great discovery of gravitation. The first flash of the recognition of a common power in the motions of the planets and the flight of a projectile on the earth was unutterably splendid; and, after a hundred repetitions, the emotional charm is unexhausted.
With the emotion of exhilarating surprise at the discovery of likeness among things seemingly unlike, there is another grateful feeling, the relief from an intellectual burden. This appears at first sight a contradiction to what has been already said respecting the greater laboriousness of general knowledge: but the contrariety is only apparent. To contract an impression of one single individual, after plenty of time given to attend to it, is the easiest supposable mental effort. But such is the multiplicity of things, that we must learn to know and remember vast numbers of individuals; and we soon feel ourselves overpowered by the never-ending demands upon us. We must know many persons, many places, many houses, many natural objects; and our capability of memory is in danger of exhaustion before we have done. Now comes in, however, the discovery of identities, whereby the work is shortened. If a new individual is exactly the same as the old, we are saved the labor of a new impression; if there is a slight difference, we have to learn that difference and no more. In actual experience, the case is that there are numerous agreements in the world, but accompanied with differences; and, while we have the benefit of the agreements, we must take notice of the differences. What makes a general notion difficult is that it represents a large number of objects that, while agreeing in some respects, differ in others. This difficulty is the price that we pay for an enormous saving in intellectual labor.
The overcoming of isolation in the multitude of particulars, by flashes of identity, is the progress of our knowledge in one direction; it is the satisfaction that we express when we say we understand or can account for a thing. Lightning was accounted for when it was identified with the electric spark: besides the exhilarating surprise at the sameness of two facts in their nature so different and remote, men had the further satisfaction of saying that they learned what lightning is. Thus by discoveries of identity we are enabled to explain the world, to assign the causes of things, to dissipate in part the mysteriousness that everywhere surrounds us.
When a discovery of identification is made among particulars hitherto looked upon as diverse, the interest created is all-sufficient to secure our appreciation. This is the alluring side of generalities. The repugnant aspect of them is seen in the technicalities that are invented to hold and express them—general or abstract designations, diagrams, and formulas. When it is proposed to indoctrinate the mind in these things, by themselves, and at a stage when the condensing and explaining power of the identities is as yet unawakened, the whole machinery seems an uncouth jargon. Hence the attempt to afford relief to the faculties by teaching the dry symbols of arithmetic and geometry, through the aid of examples in the concrete, and in all the abstract sciences to afford plenty of particulars to illustrate the generalities. This is good so far; but the real interest that overcomes the dryness arises only when we can apply the generalities in tracing identities, in solving difficulties, and in shortening labor; an effect that comes soonest to those that have already some familiarity with the field where the formulas are applicable. The liking for algebra and for geometry proceeds apace when one sees the marvels of curious problems solved, unlikely properties discovered, among numbers and geometrical figures. A certain ease in holding in the memory the abstract symbols, after a moderate application, is enough to prepare us for a positive relish in the pursuit. Such is the case with generalities in all departments. If we can hold on till they bear their fruits in the explanation of things that we have already begun to take notice of, the pursuit is sustained by a genuine and proper scientific interest, whose real groundwork, however deeply hidden, is the stimulus of agreement among differing particulars, and the lightening of the intellectual labor in comprehending the world. These are the feelings that have to be awakened in the minds of pupils when groaning under the burden of abstractions.
The opposition of the concrete and the abstract, while but another way of expressing the opposition of the particular and the general, brings into greater prominence the highly composite or combined character of individuality. The individual thing is usually a compound of many qualities, each of which has to be abstracted in turn, in rising to general notions; any individual ball has, in addition to its round form, the properties called weight, hardness, color, and so on. Now, this composite nature, by charming several senses at once, gives a greater interest to individuals, and urges us to resist that process of decomposition, and separate attention, to which are given the designations "abstraction" and "analysis." It is for individuals in all their multiplicity of influence that we contract likings or affections; and, according as the charm of sense, and especially the color-sense, is strong in us, we are averse to the classing or generalizing operation. A fire is an object of strong individual interest: to rise from this to the general notion of the oxidation of carbon under all varieties of mode, including cases with no intrinsic charm, is to quit with reluctance an agreeable contemplation. The emotions now described—the pleasure of identity, and the lightening of labor—are of avail to counterwork this reluctance.
The second of the two motives that we have coupled together—the easing of intellectual labor—may be viewed in another light. When objects are viewed as operating agents in the economy of the world, as causes or instruments of change, they work by their qualities or powers in separation, and not by their entire individuality or concreteness. An iron bar, or a poker, is an individual concrete thing; but, when we come to use it, we put in action its various qualities separately. We may employ it as a weight, in which case its other properties are of no account; we use it as a lever, and bring into play simply its length and its tenacity. We can put it in motion as a moving power, wherein its inertia is alone taken into account, with perhaps its form. In all these instances, the magnetical and the chemical and the medicinal properties of iron are unthought of. Now, this consideration opens up an important aid to the abstracting process, the analytic separation of properties, as opposed to the mind's fondness for clinging to concrete individuality. When we are working out practical ends, we must follow Nature's method of working; and, as that is by isolating the separate qualities, we must perform the act of mental isolation, which is to abstract, or consider, one power to the neglect of the rest. When we want to put forth heavy pressure, we think of various bodies solely as they can exert weight, in however many other ways they may invite or charm our sense. This is to generalize or to form a general notion of weight; and the motive to conceive it is practical need or necessity.
This motive of practical need at once brings us to the very core of causation, viewed as a merely speculative notion. The cause of anything is the agent that would bring that thing into being, suppose we were in want of it. The cause of warmth in a room is combustion properly arranged: we use this fact for practical purposes; and we may also use it for satisfying mere curiosity. We enter a warm room; we may desire to know how it has been made warm, and we are satisfied by being told that there has been, or is now somewhere, a fire in communication with it.
Thus it is that in proportion as we come to operate upon the world practically ourselves, and from that proceed to contemplate causation at large, we are driven upon the abstracting and analyzing process, so repugnant to one large portion of our feelings. Science finds an opening in our minds at this point, when otherwise we might need the proverbial surgical operation.
These observations will serve to illustrate the working of the emotion named Curiosity, which is justly held to be a great power in teaching. Curiosity expresses the emotions of knowledge viewed as desire; and more especially the desire to surmount an intellectual difficulty once felt. Genuine curiosity belongs to the stage of advanced and correct views of the world.
Much of the curiosity of children, and of others besides children, is a sham article. Frequently it is a mere display of egotism, the delight in giving trouble, in being pandered to and served. Questions are put, not from the desire of rational information, but for the love of excitement. Occasionally the inquisitiveness of a child provides an opportunity for imparting a piece of real information; but far oftener not. By ingeniously circumventing a scientific fact, one not too high for a child's comprehension, we may awaken curiosity and succeed in impressing the fact. Try a child to lift a heavy weight first by the direct pull, and then by a lever or a set of pulleys, and probably you will excite some surprise and wonder, with a desire to know something further about the instrumentality. But one fatal defect of the childish mind is the ascendency of the personal or anthropomorphic conception of cause. This, no doubt, is favorable to the theological explanation of the world, but wholly unsuited to physical science. A child, if it had any curiosity at all, would like to know what makes the grass grow, the rain fall, the wind howl, and generally all things that are occasional and exceptional; an indifference being contracted toward what is familiar, constant, and regular. When anything goes wrong, the child has the wish to set it right, and is anxious to know what will answer the purpose; this is the inlet of practice, and, by this, correct knowledge may find its way to the mind, provided the power of comprehension is sufficiently matured. Still the radical obstacle remains—the impossibility of approaching science at random, or taking it in any order; we must begin at the proper beginning, and we may not always contrive to tickle the curiosity at the exact stage of the pupil's understanding. Every teacher knows, or should know, the little arts of giving a touch of wonder and mystery to a fact before the explanation is given; all which is found to tell in the regular march of exposition, but would be lost labor in any other course.
The very young, those that we are working upon by gentle allurement, are not properly competent to learn the "how" or "wherefore" of any important natural fact; they cannot even be made to desire the thing in the proper way. They are open chiefly to the charm of sense novelty and variety, which, together with accidental charm or liking, impresses the pictorial or concrete aspects of the world, whether quiescent or changing, the last being the most powerful. They further are capable of understanding the more palpable conditions of many changes without penetrating to ultimate causes. They learn that to light a fire there must be fuel and a light applied; that the growth of vegetables needs planting or sowing, together with rain and sunshine through a summer season. The empirical knowledge of the world that preceded science is still the knowledge that the child passes through in the way to science; and all this may be guided so as to prepare for the future scientific revelations. In other respects the so-called curiosity of children is chiefly valuable as yielding ludicrous situations for our comic literature.