Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/March 1873/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Popular Science Monthly Volume 2 March 1873  (1873) 
Editor's Table


THE question of collegiate reform has again broken out in public discussion. Dr. McCosh has, written a letter to the Evening Post, protesting against certain contemplated changes in the management of the students in Harvard University. It is proposed to abolish the compulsory recitations, to allow the students greater freedom, but to hold them rigorously to the final examinations—a proceeding which Dr. McCosh thinks is not only in itself mistaken, but, by its adoption in so influential an institution as Harvard, would exert an injurious influence on other colleges of the country. The immediate question is that of college discipline. While there is a great stir in behalf of general compulsory education, Harvard proposes to relax its coercive practices. President Elliot, in his report to the Board of Overseers, suggests that the time has come for allowing more liberty to students, and, as their average age of admission to his institution is now above eighteen years, he thinks that the school-boy tactics might be dispensed with, and the students be treated more as responsible men, preparing for the work of life. Dr. McCosh holds, on the contrary, that the college is a place for discipline, which is to be acquired by the enforcement of external rules and the close supervision of the students by tutors, and the method of enforced recitations.

President Elliot assumes that the policy of European universities is more free than that of American colleges, and in this respect is worthy of our imitation. Dr. McCosh denies this. He says: "In all the good colleges of Great Britain and Ireland, the tendency of late years has been toward a weekly or daily supervision of studies. In Oxford and Cambridge, which have produced such ripe scholarship and high culture, the teaching is conducted, not by loose lectures of professors, but by numerous erudite tutors, who may not have more than half a dozen pupils present at a time, possibly not more than one, but who rigidly insist that the pupils be present and do their work." In regard to the German system, Dr. McCosh states that the Gymnasien and Realschule—the preparatory schools take charge of the pupils from the age of ten or twelve to eighteen, and carry their scholarship as far as the freshmen or sophomore classes in our American colleges. And he says that at these institutions "attendance is rigidly required, and the instruction is of a thoroughly drill-character. Every one ought to know that the foundation of German scholarship is laid, not in the universities, but in the Gymnasien. In the universities of Germany there is much to commend. Berlin, with its two hundred teachers, can furnish high instruction in every department of human learning. It is the very place for an American youth to go to, when, having taken his degree at home, he wishes to perfect himself in some special department of scholarship. At all the universities a few studious youth work with great assiduity and success. But a very large portion are not studious, and take a deeper interest in beer-drinking, Burschen, songs, and sword-duels, than in careful reading."

The question here raised is not to be settled by European precedents, because—first, as we see, the doctors disagree as to the facts; and, second, because it is a radical question affecting our whole educational system, and can only be settled by an appeal to first principles. The difficulty encountered is by no means confined to the higher institutions; it is coextensive with all modes of public education, and is just as palpable and refractory in the middle and lower schools as in the colleges. The trouble arises from the massing together of students of unequal moral and intellectual capacities. Between those of superior and inferior grade, there is an undoubted antagonism of interests and requirements. The management that is best suited for the one class, under existing views of education, is not best for the other, and we see in every school the evils that arise from uniformity of system. For the development of the highest character, self-restraint and self-direction, with free and responsible action, are indispensable; and, in every school, there are those who are capable of this self-education, and who suffer from a meddlesome and offensive coercion. On the other hand, there is the great majority who seem to require external direction and police supervision, and of whom, perhaps, little can be made under any system. Which shall be sacrificed?

That there is a tendency to escape from the low agency of external rules and regulations, and to give greater scope to the principle of individual self-government, is unquestionable. President Elliot's remark, that "the time has come for allowing more liberty to students," is but the recognition of a great change in regard to the best method of controlling human beings in all branches of social regulation. With the gradual disappearance of slavery within the sphere of civilization; with the decline of political tyranny and interference with the individual; with the relaxation of the severities of family government, and the management of apprentices; with the passing away of religious coercion in matters of belief, and with the substitution of the principles and practice of non-restraint for the old methods of violence, even in lunatic asylums, there has been a corresponding change in the school-room; its barbarisms of discipline have ceased, and the question is now one mainly of the degree of supervision. Many evil consequences undoubtedly flow from this profound transition, but it must be accepted as an on-working of humanity, and a phase of the action of Nature. To assume that the forces in play have now reached their final equilibrium, we think is irrational, and to arrest the movement at its present stage we hold to be impossible.

It is now virtually conceded that the highest results of scholarship in the universities are not attained by the coercive drill-system. Speaking of the German institutions, Dr. McCosh says that "at all the universities a few studious youth work with great assiduity and success; but a very large portion are not studious, and take a deeper interest in beer-drinking, songs, and sword-duels, than in careful reading." Such is the outcome of that thorough-going preliminary drill which characterizes the lower or preparatory schools of Germany. The passage of students from these to the universities is regarded as an escape from drudgery, which produces a vicious reaction when the sphere of freedom is reached. At all events, this thorough drill-system is a failure with the great mass of students. It is the same in England. Dr. McCosh speaks of "the ripe scholarship and high culture" which marked the educational policy of Oxford and Cambridge, but this description is applicable to but a very small proportion of the students. Notwithstanding the vigorous coercion of discipline in the great public schools which prepare for the universities, and notwithstanding the supervision that Dr. McCosh alleges in the universities themselves, the number of whom ripe scholarship and high culture can be affirmed is scandalously few. Whatever truth there may be in Sydney Smith's remark that the universities are in the habit of taking credit for all the mind they do not succeed in extinguishing, it is pretty certain that the small number of graduates who give character to the school are those who would succeed under any system. So far, indeed, as the great body of the students are concerned, there is small ground for boasting of the success of the English system. When we consider the wealth and resources of the English universities and great public schools, when we remember their ancient prestige, the talent at their command, and their high place in public confidence, in the light of the results produced, we can cordially agree with Prof. Blackie, of Edinburgh, in his letter to Dr. Hodgson, when he pronounces the whole system "a superstition, a blunder, and a failure."

School-discipline can never be divorced from the nature of school-occupation. If the studies are repulsive, if they do not take hold of the feelings, or if they produce indifference or antagonism, force is the teacher's only alternative, to keep the school in order, and carry on its work. The essential implication of coercion in influencing conduct is a penal policy. A compulsory system is one that punishes for a breach of rules. In civil society, where the object is simple protection, government has nothing to do but to attach penalties to the violation of law. But it is widely different in education, the object of which is to incite the student to put forth his energies; for, in the end, all true education is self-education. But a punitive system appeals to the lowest motive, the fear of the infliction of some form of pain, and it can never stimulate to the best or highest action. In the past history of education, flogging has been its almost constant accompaniment, and this has been coincident with schemes of study that have failed to enlist the sympathies of pupils, and to quicken their nobler emotions. Take the one element of language, the study of which constitutes the staple of school-drudgery, and which is habitually pursued as arbitrary and irrational task-work, and what can we expect but that students will require to be driven through the irksome routine of daily toil. Prof. Halfourd Vaughn indulged in no exaggeration, when, called before a committee of the British Parliament to testify as to the working of the English system, he said: "There is no study that could prove more successful, in producing, often thorough idleness and vacancy of mind, parrot-like repetition and sing-song knowledge, to the abeyance and destruction of the intellectual powers, as well as to the loss and paralysis of the outward senses, than our traditional study and idolatry of language." Two hundred years ago, Milton criticised the education of his time from exactly this point of view. He denounced it unsparingly, and went so far as to declare that a better system was not only possible, but might do more even for dunces than the prevailing method could do for brighter minds, and he put the statement in the following quaint and pungent form: "I doubt not that ye shall have more ado to drive our dullest and laziest youth, our stocks and stubs, from the infinite desire of such a happy nurture, than we have now to haul and drag our hopefullest and choicest wits to that asinine feast of sow-thistles and brambles, which is commonly set before them as the food of their tenderest and most docible age."


Prof. Tyndall having closed his labors in this country, has sailed for home. His work has made a deep impression upon the public mind, as was testified by the farewell dinner given in big honor in this city, before leaving. The affair was, in several respects, remarkable. No such brilliant gathering of scientific, literary, and professional gentlemen has ever before assembled on a festive occasion in this metropolis. As his lecture-rooms, in the various cities he has visited, have been crowded by the most intelligent and cultivated people, so the dining-hall at Delmonico's was filled with two hundred guests, many from abroad, and representing the colleges and scientific institutions of the country, together with a large body of the most eminent gentlemen of our city. The spirit of the occasion was one of harmonious enthusiasm for the distinguished professor in whose honor it was made, and of lively interest in the subjects and ideas he represents. The speaking was excellent, and, although graver and more didactic than is customary at such times, was yet by no means unexciting, and met with the most cordial responses. Of course Delmonico, prince of caterers, lost no reputation in the elegant and sumptuous repast which he furnished, but the social and intellectual treat was the great feature of the evening. Prof. Tyndall made a happy address, in which he explained the motive of his coming to this country, the laborious character of the work which his lectures involved, and the reasons which compelled him to decline the numerous urgent invitations that have poured in upon him from all directions, to lecture in the cities of the interior and the West. We have no space now to refer to the several admirable speeches that were made, upon subjects variously connected with the interests of science. They were too valuable to be left in the incomplete shape in which the reporters gave them to the newspapers, and they will be shortly published as an appendix to the little volume of his lectures which Prof. Tyndall has carefully prepared, and which will be given to the public in a few days.