Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/February 1883/Brain-Power in Education

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 22 February 1883  (1883) 
Brain-Power in Education


WE are supposed to live in an age when brute-force has ceased to rule, and when brain-power alone is the governing agent. In the good old days, the heavy, strong-armed knight, protected by his impenetrable armor, and skilled in the use of his sword, was almost invincible. A little nearer our own day, the skilled swordsman or dead-shot whose ultimatum was the duel, ruled to a certain extent the society in which he moved. To test which was the most powerful knight was an easy matter; for a combat between the rivals was easily arranged, and the result was seldom questionable; or, if it were uncertain, the relative powers were supposed to be equal.

In the present day, however, the question of brain-power is a far more difficult problem. We can not weigh brains as we can tea or sugar; we can not determine their mental capacity as we could the physical powers of knights of old, by setting two of them opposite each other and leaving them to fight it out. We have, however, arranged various tests which we suppose give us a correct estimate of the brain-power of various individuals. These tests may be better than none at all, yet they are far from being perfect; consequently, we too often by such means select men to do work for which they are quite unsuited, and to fill offices for which they have no capacity.

The present is an age of competitive examinations, yet these afford but an imperfect test of brain-power; for, after a time, competitive examinations become less and less efficient as true tests of intelligence, and sink into a sort of official routine. As examples, we will take the following cases: Brown is the son of an Indian officer who died when his boy was ten years old, and left his widow badly off. Young Brown is intended for the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich; but his mother's means do not enable her to send him to a first-class "crammer's," so he has to sit beneath the average schoolmaster. He works hard and thinks a great deal, and gains a fair knowledge of the subjects he is required to learn. He goes up to the competitive examination at Woolwich, and finds each question so complicated that he is utterly puzzled; and, when the results of the examination are made known, Brown is nearly last on the list.

On the other hand, Smith is the son of a wealthy tradesman who wishes his son to enter as a cadet at Woolwich. Young Smith is sent early in life to a successful "crammer's," to be fattened with knowledge as turkeys are crammed for Christmas. The crammer does not confine his attention to teaching his pupils; but he watches the examination papers set at Woolwich, and he finds that the examiners have each a peculiar "fad," and set their questions in a sort of rotation. He looks carefully over these, and he forms a kind of estimate of the questions which are likely to be set at any particular examination. He therefore trains his pupils for these questions, and is often so successful in his predictions that at least half the questions have been worked out by these pupils a week before the examination; and this result is obtained without any collusion between the crammer and the examiner. On one occasion that we know of, seven questions out of a paper of thirteen were predicted as "due"; and the pupils consequently of this crammer were most successful at this "competitive." Young Smith is thus trained, and passes say fifth out of a long list, and is considered, as far as this test is concerned, to possess brainpower far beyond that of the unfortunate Brown, who was nearly last in this same examination.

Twenty years elapse, and Smith and Brown meet. Smith has jogged on in the usual routine; he may have never either said or done a foolish thing. Brown, on the other hand, is a man of wide reputation, has written clever books, and done many clever things; yet people who know his early history say how strange it was that he was so stupid when he was young, for he was ignominiously "spun" at Woolwich!

Those who thus speak imagine that the examination at which Smith succeeded and Brown failed was a test of their brain-power. It was in reality nothing of the kind; it was merely a test of the relative experience of those who trained Smith and Brown.

Even thus far it will be evident that our present supposed tests are not infallible; but we will go even further, and will examine the actual work itself which is supposed to be the great test of mental capacity, and we can divide this work into two classes—namely, acquired knowledge, and the power to reason. In nearly every case, the training which enables a youth to pass a competitive examination belongs to the first class—acquired knowledge. It consists of a knowledge of mathematical rules and formulæ, classics, modern languages, history, and geography. Mathematics, if properly taught,. and especially geometry, tends to strengthen the mind and fit it to reason; but it too often happens that a youth is crammed with mathematics for a particular examination, and he has not mentally digested what he has thus been crammed with; and consequently, instead of his mind having been strengthened by this process, it has in reality become weakened; and ten or fifteen years after the examination, the man—then in his maturity—derives no advantage from his formerly acquired knowledge, because he has forgotten it. He merely suffers from the mental repletion of his younger days, and dislikes mathematics; just as a pastry-cook's boy is said to abhor tarts and buns, because he was crammed with them when he first was placed among such temptations. A knowledge of modern languages is useful to those who travel, or who wish to become acquainted with the literature of other countries; but, as a test of brain-power, the acquisition of any language fails. There is no language in use which is based on anything but arbitrary rules; reason has no influence on languages. The selection in French, for example, of masculines and feminines, is most unreasonable. Why should a chair in French be given petticoats, and a stool placed in breeches? Why should the sun be considered masculine, and the moon feminine? In German, the same arbitrary rules exist—the masculines, feminines, and neuters have no reason to guide them. Take a child of five year's old, and a clever man of twenty-five—let each use only the same exertion to acquire a knowledge of any spoken language, and the child will easily excel the man. This is because ear, and the memory derived from ear, are the means by which languages are acquired. Reason enables us to predict what is probable, when we know that which has previously occurred. If, then, we informed a reasoning individual that a chair, an article made of wood, with four legs, was feminine in French, and then called his attention to a stool, an article made of wood, with four legs, and inquired to what gender he considered the stool belonged, he would naturally conclude that it also was feminine; but a stool (tabouret) is masculine in French.

Then, again, the pronunciation of words is purely arbitrary. Take our own language, for example, and such words as plough, enough, cough, dough, bough, rough, etc. Where does reason enter into the pronunciation of such words? What power of intellect would enable us to pronounce "cough" correctly, even though we knew how "bough" was spoken? Yet, in spite of these unreasonable laws, classics and modern languages are not unusually referred to, not as stored knowledge, but as tests of mental power. As a rule, it is not the reasoner, or person gifted with great brain-power, who the most quickly learns a language, but the superficial thinker, gifted with ear; and these superficial people are the first to quiz any error made when a speaker attempts to converse in a foreign language.

We may fairly divide the subjects employed in modern mental training into those which store and those which strengthen the mind. Languages; a knowledge of history and geography; the facts connected with various sciences, such as chemistry, electricity, astronomy, etc., are stores; but not one of these does more than store the mind. Men's minds were stored with a certain number of astronomical facts when Galileo attempted to revive the olden belief that the earth rotated; but their minds had not been strengthened, as it was the leading astronomers who most offered opposition to him. Several men with stored minds were the great opponents of Stephenson when he talked about traveling twenty miles an hour on a railroad. So that it appears that, no matter how well a mind may be stored, if it is incapable of judging correctly on a novelty, it can not be called a strong mind.

Our competitive examinations tend almost entirely to bring to the front those whose minds are the best stored, and many persons therefore have come to the conclusion that by such a course we have obtained for our various services what are termed "the cleverest youths." It does not, however, follow that this result has been obtained. The greatest brain-power may actually be low down in the list of a competitive examination in which stored knowledge alone has been requisite. There is a certain advantage to be gained by storing the mind with facts, and some people imagine that a knowledge of these facts indicates an educated and strong mind. It, however, merely proves that the mind has been stored; it does not prove it to have been strengthened. We may know what Cæsar did under certain conditions; how Alfred the Great organized his police so that he could hang bracelets of value on sign-posts without fearing that highwaymen would steal them; and a multitude of other similar facts may have been stored in our minds; but any quantity of such stores would not enable an individual to solve the present Irish difficulty, unless he could find in the past an exactly similar case which had been treated successfully by some particular system.

It is even now considered that by making a boy pass through a long course of mathematics or classics, and then testing his acquired knowledge by an examination, we adopt the best method of obtaining the greatest brain-power. We may derive an advantage, supposing mathematics or classics are requisite in the future career of the boy; but, as a test of brain-power and perseverance, we would much sooner select the boy who could the most rapidly and most certainly solve a three-move chess problem. And, if mathematics are not required in the future career of a boy, it would be equally as unreasonable to devote three years to the solution of chess problems as it is to devote a like period to the solution of the higher branches of mathematics. In both instances, the mental exercise is supposed to be for the purpose of strengthening the mind, and the chess problems are certainly as efficient as the mathematical. It is not unusual to find a profound mathematician who is particularly dull in all other subjects, and who fails to comprehend any simple truth which can not be presented to him in a mathematical form; and, as there are a multitude of truths which can not be treated mathematically, a mere mathematician has but a limited orbit.

A chess-player, again, or a solver of chess problems, has always to deal with pieces of a constant value; thus, the knight, bishop, pawn, etc., are of constant values, so that his combinations are not so very varied. A whist-player, however, has in each hand not only cards which vary in value according to what is trump, but, during the play of the hand, the cards themselves vary in value; thus, a ten may, after one round of a suit, become the best card in that suit. Brainpower independent of stored knowledge is therefore more called into action by a game of whist than it is by mathematics, chess, or classics; consequently, while mathematicians and classical scholars may be found in multitudes, a really first-class whist-player is a rarity; and, if we required an accurate test of relative brain-power, we should be far more likely to obtain correct results by an examination in whist than we should by an examination in mathematics. In the latter, cramming might supply the place of intelligence; in the former, no amount of cramming could guard against one tenth of the conditions. A first-rate mathematician may on other subjects be stupid; a first class whist-player is rarely if ever stupid on original matters requiring judgment.

A very large amount of the elements of success consists in the advantages with which an individual may start in life, and over which he himself may have no control. The case of Smith and Brown already referred to may serve to illustrate this fact. When conclusions are arrived at relative to hereditary genius, these advantages may he considered. The son of a judge becomes a judge, and we may claim hereditary genius as the cause. We should, however, be scarcely justified in assuming hereditary genius because the son of a general officer became this general's aide-de-camp. A general officer with five thousand efficient troops gains a complete victory over fifteen thousand indifferently armed savages, and he is looked upon as a hero. Another general with a like number of men is defeated by an army of ten thousand well-armed but unsolder-like-looking men, and he is regarded as a failure; and yet, of the two, the defeated army may have possessed the better general. In order, therefore, to judge of the relative powers of two individuals, we must take into consideration all the advantages or difficulties with which each starts in life, or in any undertaking. The relative success is by no means the only criterion from which to judge of capacity, any more than it would be correct to judge of the capacity of two whist-players, when one held four by honors and six trumps and his adversary held a necessarily poor hand.

In the great battle of life these conditions are perpetually interfering with the results to be derived from the relative value of brainpower, and are so numerous as to have an extensive influence. For example, a man possessing great brain-power has succeeded in attaining an official position of eminence. He selects a nephew or particular friend to be his assistant. We have competed with this assistant in various things, and there is no doubt as to his inferiority. Time goes on, and this assistant succeeds to the post of his relative merely from what may be called departmental claims, and he is ex-officio supposed to be possessed of the talents and knowledge which appertain to his post. Our opinion, if opposed to that of the official, will by the superficial outsiders be considered valueless; yet ours may be correct, and that of our opponent erroneous. It is by such means that very feeble men often occupy official scientific positions to which they are by no means entitled in consequence of their intelligence.

When such an event occurs, an immense amount of damage is done to the cause of truth and real science, because the individual thus raised by personal interest to the position of a scientific judge or referee, too often fails to judge of a question on its merits, and condemns it if it be not in accordance with routine. A question thus disposed of is very difficult to again bring into notice without prejudice. There is no doubt that even among the so-termed educated people, the majority possess only stored minds, and are incapable, consequently, of reasoning on any problem, other than by bringing to bear on it their stock of knowledge which, probably, granting the problem is original, will not apply. No educated person doubts that the earth is a sphere; but few of these can prove that it is so by means of facts with which they are acquainted, though a simple law of geometry is able to prove the fact.

The average occupations of young men require nothing more than stored minds and powers of observation; consequently, our competitive examinations serve to some extent to bring to the front such qualifications. But it is not among such that we obtain our discoverers, inventors, great statesmen, or good generals. The mere routine man will almost invariably bring about a disaster when he has novel conditions to deal with; and as a rule the routine youth comes out best at an examination.

At the present time we have apparently no accurate test by which to measure the relative brain-power of individuals. Competitive examinations can not do so, for the reasons that we have stated. Success in life is, again, dependent on so many influences quite outside of the individual that this success is no test. The accumulation of money—that is "getting rich"—is too often but the results of selfishness and cruel bargains, and can not be invariably accepted as a proof of brain-power.

Considering these facts, therefore, it appears that just as intellect is invisible, so the relative power of intellect is immeasurable; and instead of forming hasty conclusions as to the relative powers of two men, from the results of examinations, we may perceive that by such means we may be selecting those only who, under certain conditions, have succeeded in storing their minds with the facts required for that examination.—Chambers's Journal.

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