Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/September 1878/Science in the English Schools

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 13 September 1878  (1878) 
Science in the English Schools


THE rejection of Sir John Lubbock's motion for the addition of elementary science, or, rather, as the matter was more happily put by Dr. Lyon Playfair in the course of the debate, of elementary knowledge of common things, to the subjects for which grants are given under the education code, although an inevitable and foregone conclusion, is not on that account the less to be deplored. As happens in many similar cases, the argument was all on the side of the minority, and Lord G. Hamilton, in opposing the suggestion on the part of the Privy Council, was only able to say that its adoption would, perhaps, entail some temporary uncertainty about the subjects in which inspectors would be required to examine and children to pass. If schools existed for the convenience of inspectors, or oven in order that children might not be troubled by uncertainties, the objection would have been a valid one; but upon any other supposition it seems to tell against, rather than in favor of, the contention which it was intended to support. The nation is spending large and rapidly-increasing sums of money upon schools, and it will every year become a matter of greater urgency that these sums should not be misapplied, either by the omission from the code of subjects which would be useful or by the inclusion of others which have no apparent tendency to promote the attainment of the ends to which education is supposed to be directed. These ends, in the case of a peasant-child, are presumably to render him a more useful and a better conducted member of society than he would become by the unaided light of Nature; and it is obvious that the means to their attainment are twofold—first, to cultivate the intelligence in such a way as to facilitate the acquirement and the application of knowledge; and, secondly, to impart the knowledge which has to be applied. Until a comparatively recent time, however, the imparting of knowledge was considered to be the sole purpose of education, and to be in itself the best means of mental training; so that educationists occupied themselves more about the seed than about the soil, and were chiefly concerned to teach those things which they thought it most important that a child should know. The instruction given to the poor for many years was almost limited to reading, writing, arithmetic, and elementary religious instruction, while that imparted to the rich was laid upon the same foundation, and was only carried further because the pupils had more time at their disposal. In the employment of this time the instructors could only teach what they knew; the most famous public schools and the two great universities restricted themselves to giving their pupils some knowledge of classics and mathematics.

As soon as physiologists had discovered that all the faculties of the intellect, however originating or upon whatever exercised, were functions of a material organism of brain, absolutely dependent upon its integrity for their manifestation, and upon its growth and development for their improvement, it became apparent that the true office of the teacher of the future would be to seek to learn the conditions by which the growth and the operations of the brain were controlled, in order that he might be able to modify these conditions in a favorable manner. The abstraction of the "mind" was so far set aside as to make it certain that this mind could only act through a nervous structure, and that the structure was subject to various influences for good or evil. It became known that a brain cannot arrive at healthy maturity excepting by the assistance of a sufficient supply of healthy blood—that is to say, of good food and pure air. It also became known that the power of a brain will ultimately depend very much upon the way in which it is habitually exercised, and that the practice of schools in this respect left a great deal to be desired. A large amount of costly and pretentious teaching fails dismally for no other reason than because it is not directed to any knowledge of the mode of action of the organ to which the teacher endeavors to appeal; and mental growth in many instances occurs in spite of teaching rather than on account of it. Education, which might once have been defined as an endeavor to expand the intellect by the introduction of mechanically compressed facts, should now be defined as an endeavor favorably to influence a vital process; and, when so regarded, its direction should manifestly fall somewhat into the hands of those by whom the nature of vital processes has been most completely studied. In other words, it becomes neither more nor less than a branch of applied physiology; and physiologists tell us with regard to it that the common processes of teaching are open to the grave objection that they constantly appeal to the lower centres of nervous function, which govern the memory of and the reaction upon sensations, rather than to those higher ones which are the organs of ratiocination and of volition. Hence a great deal which passes for education is really a degradation of the human brain to efforts below its natural capacities. This applies especially to book-work, in which the memory of sounds in given sequences is often the sole demand of the teacher, and in which the pupil, instead of knowing the meaning of the sounds, often does not know what "meaning" means. As soon as the sequence of the sounds is forgotten nothing remains, and we are then confronted by a question which was once proposed in an inspectorial report: "To what purpose in after-life is a boy taught if the intervention of a school vacation is to be a sufficient excuse for entirely forgetting his instruction?"

In order to avoid such faulty teaching, few agencies are more valuable than what are technically called "object" lessons, in which the faculties of the pupils are exercised about things instead of about words; and the suggestion of Sir John Lubbock would lead to object lessons of a very useful character. To be taught something about gravitation, about atmospheric pressure, about the effects of temperature, and other simple matters of like kind, which would admit of experimental illustration, and which would call upon the learner to make statements in his own words instead of in those of somebody else, would be so many steps toward real mental development. At the end of a vacation, even if the facts of any particular occurrence had become somewhat mixed, the pupils would nevertheless preserve an increased capacity for acquiring new facts, and would probably retain these for a longer period; and such are precisely the changes which it should be the province of education to bring about. We would even go further than Sir John Lubbock, and in elementary schools would give an important place to the art of drawing, which teaches accurate observation of the forms of things. The efforts of a wise teacher should always be guided with reference to the position and surroundings of a child at home, and should seek to supplement the deficiencies of home training and example. Among the wealthier classes the floating information of the family circle often, though by no means always, both excites and gratifies a curiosity about natural phenomena; but among the poor this stimulus to mental growth is almost, if not entirely, wanting. An explanation of the physical causes of common events, such, for instance, as the rising of water in a pump, would usually be a revelation to the pupils of a board school, and would start them upon a track which could hardly fail to render them more skillful workers in any department of industry, and which might even lead some of them to fortune. A wise and benevolent squire set on foot many years ago a school for the children of his laborers, in which drawing and the elements of natural science were carefully taught; and the result was, that the children educated there, instead of remaining at the plough's tail, passed, in an astonishingly large number of cases, into positions of responsibility and profit. On every ground, therefore, we hope that Sir John Lubbock's proposal will at no distant time be adopted by Parliament; but in the mean while there is a still more important department of teaching which is wholly neglected, and concerning which the deficiencies of home instruction are at least equally manifest. We refer to a proper knowledge of the influence of conduct upon life. It should be the duty of every schoolmaster to try and make his pupils understand how production—that is to say, industry—leads to wealth; and how destruction—that is to say, idleness—leads to poverty. The reason why confidence in others is necessary to all enterprise, and the reason why honesty, in the largest sense of the word, is the only root of confidence, should in like manner be enforced by precept and illustrated by example; and such teaching, if it could only be made general, would do more to heal the breach between capital and labor than all the panaceas of all the politicians who have ever sought to figure as the "friends of the working-man."—London Times.



We print with pleasure on another page a remarkable article from the Times of Monday. In itself the article may present nothing remarkable to the readers of Nature, but, as the deliberate utterance of the leading organ of opinion in this country, it marks a distinct stage of progress toward a more enlightened conception of what constitutes education. We hope that it is significant of the near approach of a radical change of the conception in this country of what subjects should be included in elementary education. We need not be surprised at the fate of Sir John Lubbock's bill for the introduction of elementary science into schools, when such erroneous conceptions of what science is apparently exist in the mind of the Minister of Education in the House of Commons, Lord George Hamilton. The Vice-President of the Council has much to learn, when his idea of the Royal Society, one of the most venerable institutions in the country, is that of a kind of select Polytechnic, where "lectures" are delivered on "biology, chemistry, natural history, mechanics, astronomy, mathematics, and botany." But he is new to his work, and we must hope that the debate of Thursday last may lead him to obtain a more accurate conception of what is meant by elementary science.

Dr. Lyon Playfair, we believe, pointed out what is one of the great hinderances to the introduction of science into elementary schools; the mere name, "science," frightens ministers, inspectors, school boards, and teachers; perhaps if the simpler phrase, "elementary knowledge," were used, the simple-minded individuals in whose hands is the training of our future citizens might find that they themselves had been compelled to become acquainted with it to their cost after they left school, and that it would have been much better for them had they had some little training in it before entering into the thick of the fight.

The most notable feature in the Times article, as well as in Thursday's debate, is the fact that it has at last dawned upon the leaders of opinion and the makers of our laws that "education" and "instruction" are different things, and that a man may learn a great many "facts" at school, and have his education to begin when he leaves it. It is lamentable that we have to be continually reminded that we are the only one of the great European countries where this distinction is not recognized and practically carried out in education. Our whole system of education, hitherto, has been a mere cramming of the children's memories with words, words, words, to the weariness of children and teachers, and with results unsatisfactory to all concerned. As the Times puts it, "To be taught something about gravitation, about atmospheric pressure, about the effects of temperature, and other simple matters of like kind, which would admit of experimental illustration, and which would call upon the learner to make statements in his own words instead of in those of somebody else, would be so many steps toward real mental development." Sir John Lubbock gave a most conclusive refutation of the idea that the teaching of science must be attended with hitherto unexperienced difficulties, and at the same time proved what a relief science-teaching would be to the ordinary dull routine of instruction, when he told the House that in the Scotch schools the authorities began to take alarm because science-teaching was found so comparatively easy and pleasant by the children. As to the argument that children who have been taught to know something about the object and forces with which they come every day into contact contract a distaste for manual labor, we should have thought it had been long ago played out; it has almost as much force as the story told by another speaker of the boy who had been impudent to his master because the latter could not read his newspaper.

It is unnecessary for us to go again into the merits of the question which has been so often and so thoroughly discussed in these pages, especially as the Times has put it quite as forcibly as there is occasion for doing at present. It certainly seems sad, nationally suicidal, indeed, that a few more millions of those who will have the destinies of this country in their hands are likely to be launched into active life, with all their education to acquire, ere legislation steps in to give us the advantages which nearly every other civilized nation gives to its children. Every day we hear of the ignorance of the working-classes, every other month "congresses" are held to devise means to remedy the consequences of this ignorance—ignorance of the laws of health, ignorance of household economy, ignorance of the implements and objects of labor, ignorance of the laws of labor and production, ignorance of the nature of the commonest objects with which they come into contact every day, ignorance of almost everything which it would be useful and nationally beneficial for them to know—an ignorance, alas! more or less shared by the "curled darlings" of the nation. Yet while every day's paper shows how keen is the industrial competition with other nations, and how in one department after another we are being out-stripped by the results of better—i. e., more scientific—knowledge, the poor pittance of "elementary knowledge" asked for in Sir John Lubbock's bill is refused by a minister whose own "education" leaves much to be desired. This state of things cannot long continue, and with such advocates for the children as the Times and Mr. Forster, we may hope that next time Sir John Lubbock brings forward his bill it will meet with a happier fate.—Nature.

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