Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/April 1873/Science and our Educational System
MR. PRESIDENT: I am expected to deal, this evening, with a theme which, under the actual circumstances, it is somewhat difficult to handle. The degree to which our systems of education tend to foster or discourage original investigation into the truths of Nature is a topic which might better befit an assembly more gravely disposed than the present. Dulce est desipere in loco—it is pleasant to put on the cap and bells when circumstances favor, says Horace, and he says quite truly; but he does not say, difficile est sapere inter pocida—it is hard to imitate the solemnity of Minerva's bird, when champagne is on the board, as I think he ought to have said, and as he would, perhaps, have said if prosody had allowed, and which would have been equally true. I shall not aim at such an imitation. I do not mean to be didactic if I can help it. If I am so, I trust you will be indulgent.
I say, then, that our long-established and time-honored system of liberal education—and when I speak of the system I mean the whole system, embracing not only the colleges, but the tributary schools of the lower grade as well—does not tend to form original investigators of Nature's truths; and the reason that it does not is, that it inverts the natural order of proceeding in the business of mental culture, and fails to stimulate in season the powers of observation. And when I say this, I must not be charged with treason to my craft—at least, not with treason spoken for the first time here—for I have uttered the same sentiment more than once before in the solemn assemblies of the craft itself.
I suppose, Mr. President, that at a very early period of your life you may have devoted, like so many other juvenile citizens, a portion of your otherwise unemployed time to experiments in horticulture. In planting leguminous seeds you could not have failed to observe that the young plants come up with their cotyledons on their heads. If, in pondering this phenomenon, you arrived at the same conclusion that I did, you must have believed that Nature had made a mistake, and so have pulled up your plants and replanted them upside down. Men and women are but children of a larger growth. They see the tender intellect shooting up in like manner, with the perceptive faculties all alive at top; and they, too, seem to think that Nature has made a mistake, and so they treat the mind as the child treats his bean-plant, and turn it upside down to make it grow better. They bury the promising young buds deep in a musty mould formed of the decay of centuries, under the delusion that out of such débris they may gather some wholesome nourishment; when we know all that they want is the light and warmth of the sun to stimulate them, and the free air of heaven in which to unfold themselves. What heartless cruelty pursues the little child-martyr every day and all the day long, at home or at school alike; in this place bidden to mind his book and not to look out of the window—in that, told to hold his tongue and to remember that children must not ask questions! A lash from a whalebone-switch upon the tender little fingers too eagerly out-stretched could not sting more keenly, or be felt with a sharper sense of wrong, than such a rebuke coming across the no less eagerly extended tentacles of the dawning and inquiring intellect.
Now, a system of education founded on a principle like this is not going to fit men to engage successfully in that hazardous game of life in which, in Prof. Huxley's beautiful simile, we are all of us represented as playing with an unseen antagonist, who enforces against us relentlessly every minutest rule of the game, whether known to us or not. Still less can it fit them to bring to light new rules of this difficult game, never yet detected by any human intelligence. Yet it is precisely of this kind of men that the world has present need. For, grand as are the triumphs of scientific investigation already achieved, it is impossible to doubt that there are still grander yet behind to reward the zealous laborers of the time to come. I know that it sometimes seems to us otherwise; I know that the very grandeur of the achievements of the past makes us sometimes doubtful of the future; for it is generally true that the portals of Nature's secret chambers, yet unexplored, are only dimly discernible before they are unlocked.
I remember a time—it is now long gone by—when this skeptical feeling as to the possibilities of large scientific progress in the time to come was extremely prevalent—so prevalent that a learned professor of a neighboring: college thought it worth his while to combat, in an energetic public address, the discouraging notion that Nature has no longer any important secrets to yield. Subsequent history has magnificently corroborated his argument. For that was a time when, as yet, no Faraday had drawn a living spark from the lifeless magnet; no Daniell, or Grove, or Bunsen, had given us an enduring source of electro-dynamic power; no Ohm had taught us how to measure such a power when obtained; no Bessel had detected the parallaxes of the fixed stars; no Adams or Leverrier had thrown his grapple into space, and felt the influence of an unseen planet trembling, to use the beautiful language of Herschel, along the delicate line of his analysis; no Draper, or Daguerre, or Talbot, had revealed the wonders of actinism; no Mayer or Joule had laid a sure foundation for the grand doctrine of the conservation of force; no Carpenter had unravelled the intricacies of nervous physiology, or analyzed the relations of mind and brain; no Agassiz had ridden down the Alps on the backs of the glaciers and proved their steady flow; no Darwin had lifted the veil from the mysteries of organic development; no Schiaparelli or Newton had put the harness of universal gravitation upon the wayward movements of the shooting-stars; no Mallet had presented an intelligible theory of volcanic flames and of the earth's convulsive tremors; no Kirchhoff had furnished a key to the intimate constitution of celestial bodies or a gauge of stellar drift; no Huggins, or Secchi, or Young, had applied the key thus presented to enter the secret chambers of the sun, the comets, the fixed stars, and the nebulæ; no Stokes had made the darkness visible which lies beyond the violet; no Tyndall had done the same for the darkness beyond the red, or had measured the heat-absorbing powers of aëriform bodies, or shown how the tremors of the ether shake asunder the elements of vapors. In short, that period of presumed scientific omniscience seems now, as we look back to it, but the faint dawning of a day of glorious discovery, which we dare not, even yet, pronounce to be approaching its meridian.
How much of all this has been due to our system of education? Among the great promoters of scientific progress before or since, how large is the number who may, in strict propriety, be said to have educated themselves? Take, for illustration, such familiar names as those of William Herschel, and Franklin, and Rumford, and Rittenhouse, and Davy, and Faraday, and Henry. Is it not evident that Nature herself, to those who will follow her teachings, is a better guide to the study of her own phenomena than all the training of our schools? And is not this because Nature invariably begins with the training of the observing faculties? Is it not because the ample page which she spreads out before the learner is written all over, not with words, but with substantial realities? Is it not because her lessons reach beyond the simple understanding and impress the immediate intuition?—that what she furnishes is something better than barren information passively received—it is positive knowledge actively gathered?
If, then, in the future we would fit man properly to cultivate Nature, and not leave scientific research, as, to a great extent, we have done heretofore, to the hazard of chance, we must cultivate her own processes. Our earliest teachings must be things and not words. The objects first presented to the tender mind must be such as address the senses, and such as it can grasp. Store it first abundantly with the material of thought, and the process of thinking will be spontaneous and easy.
This is not to depreciate the value of other subjects or of other modes of culture. It is only to refer them to their proper place. Grammar, philology, logic, human history, belles-lettres, philosophy—all these things will be seized with avidity and pursued with pleasure by a mind judiciously prepared to receive them. On this point we shall do well to learn, and I believe we are beginning to learn something, from contemporary peoples upon the Continent of Europe. Object-teaching is beginning to be introduced, if only sparingly, into our primary schools. It should be so introduced universally. And in all our schools, but especially in those in which the foundation is laid of what is called a liberal education, the knowledge of visible things should be made to precede the study of the artificial structure of language, and the intricacies of grammatical rules and forms.
The knowledge of visible things—I repeat these words that I may emphasize them, and, when I repeat them, observe that I mean knowledge of visible things, and not information about them—knowledge acquired by the learner's own conscious efforts, not crammed into his mind in set forms of words out of books. Our methods of education manifest a strong tendency in these modern times to degenerate in such a sort of cramming. Forty years ago, the printed helps to learning, now supplied to the young men of our colleges in so lavish profusion, were almost unknown; and teachers lent about as little aid, at least during the earlier years, as books. What the student learned then he learned for himself by positive hard labor. Now we have made the task so easy, we have built so many royal roads to learning in all its departments, that it may be well doubted if the young men of our day, with all their helps, acquire as much as those of that earlier period acquired without them.
The moral of this experience is that mental culture is not secured by pouring information into passive recipients; it comes from stimulating the mind to gather knowledge for itself. When our systems of education shall have been remodelled from top to bottom, with due attention to this principle, then, if we have minds among us which are capable of pursuing Nature into her yet uncaptured strongholds, we shall find them out and set them at their work. Then neither "mute inglorious Miltons" on the one hand, nor on the other silent, unsuspected Keplers, nor Newtons "guiltless" of universal gravitation, shall live unconscious of their powers, or die and make no sign. Then the progress of science will no longer be dependent, as in the past it has been to so great a degree, on the chance struggles of genius rebelling against circumstances, such as have given us a Herschel, a Franklin, a Hugh Miller, or a Henry; nor will the world be any more astonished to see the most brilliant of the triumphs of the intellect achieved by men who have cloven their own way to the forefront, in defiance of all its educational traditions; as it has seen in the case of a Rumford, a Davy, a Faraday, and a Tyndall.
- Address at the Tyndall Banquet.