Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/March 1884/Editor's Table
THERE is one aspect of the broad classical controversy of momentous importance, but which has been much neglected in the general discussion of the subject. We refer to the relation of our collegiate system to the system of education in the schools of lower grade. It is only by scrutinizing this relation that we can really appreciate the extent of the practical antagonism between the classical and the scientific systems of study, and recognize how completely the colleges are all on one side in this issue.
We are abundantly assured that, whatever may have been the case in the past, there is now no ground of complaint that the dead languages usurp too much attention, while the sciences are correspondingly neglected. The curriculums are appealed to to show that classical studies are no longer in the way of science, which is every year receiving increasing attention in these institutions. New laboratories, observatories, and museums, are pointed at to show the augmenting facilities of scientific study, and we are told that, by the growing optional system, the student is more and more allowed a choice of subjects when he enters college, which enables him, if he likes, to give a larger portion if not his entire time to science.
But all this does not mean so much as it appears to mean. We are not for a moment to regard the influence of the colleges as limited to the students who come under their direct control. They exert a varied and powerful influence upon the secondary schools, upon the methods of early teaching, and upon both the youthful and adult mind of the community at large, which is overwhelmingly in behalf of the classics, and solid against science. They not only determine the prior studies of the great numbers who enter college, but they set the standards of education for multitudes who never pass to the higher institutions. They sustain and they enforce an ideal of culture which shapes the policy and fixes the character of the whole system of instruction that deals with the common education of the people. The alleged liberality implied by the optional system is misleading, if it is taken to imply any real liberty of the student to choose his studies untrammeled by college requirements, for not the slightest option is allowed as between the dead languages and the sciences in that prior period when the youthful mind receives its bent in the lower or preparatory schools. The relaxation of classical demands after admission to college, so far from indicating a diminished exaction of dead-language studies, is accompanied by an increasing stringency of requirement in these subjects before college is entered. With increasing option in college the standard of preparation is raised, which means that more Greek and Latin is forced upon the preparatory schools. The point of strain is shifted, but this is done in such a way as greatly to aggravate the evils of classical study. The worst influence of the colleges upon general education, as we have often maintained, is their reactive effect upon the preparatory schools, and the whole secondary system of instruction to which the youthful mind of the country is subjected. By their demands upon these institutions, the colleges lend their influence to maintain throughout the community an ideal of culture that is predominantly and in effect exclusively classical. Modern studies have no status, no recognition in the preparatory stage of those who propose to obtain a so-called liberal education. The alleged concessions to the spirit of progress are therefore illusive. The concessions made to science after entrance into college are not allowed in the period of early study when they would be far more valuable. Nothing substantial is conceded to science when our colleges keep their classical standards of admission so high that all the time of pupils is consumed in Latin and Greek preparation. No concession is made to science when proficiency in scientific studies gained at school is not allowed to count in entering college. No such concession is made by a collegiate system that does not provide by imperative requirement for some thorough grounding in scientific branches in the preliminary schools, and which does not allow solid proficiency of scientific attainment to open the way to the highest college honors.
But the radical antagonism of our colleges to educational progress through their reactive influence upon the lower school system is only to be fully appreciated when we understand in what that progress consists. In its philosophy, traditional education is very much where it was a hundred years ago, but it is undeniable that many important principles have been reached which are of the greatest moment as guides to better educational practice. A century of science is not to go for nothing in the treatment of this subject. There are relations among the great divisions of modern knowledge which are fundamental in laying down courses of study. There is an order in the development of the human faculties which is fundamental to the art of rational and successful teaching. There is an ideal of the highest purpose in cultivating the intellect—the investigation of the truth of nature by various processes— which has been developed by the advance of science. Systematic and comprehensive efforts have been made to reduce this new ideal to practice in the lower sphere of education. Efforts have been made to teach first the things which belong first in the course of mental unfolding, to bring the young mind into closer relations with the facts of experience, to cultivate more thoroughly the all-important habit of observation, and to provide for the training of the active and inventive powers by simplified experiment and various manipulations, and finally to make the operations of study exercises in investigation and in original and independent thought upon subjects within the common sphere of intelligence, and adapted to educate the judgment. It is no longer a question that these supreme objects can be secured to very considerable degree by proper methods of dealing with the minds of youth, and great progress has been made in recent times in working out the practical methods by which they are attained. But the whole movement belongs to the lower schools, and the whole influence of our college system upon those schools is not to help but to hinder it. In illustration and confirmation of this view, we quote some remarks made by Dr. Barnard, President of Columbia College, at the dinner given in New York to Professor Tyndall in 1873:
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 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, 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 mold formed of the decay of centuries, under the delusion that out of such debris 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!...
Among the great promoters of scientific progress, 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 Eittenhouse, 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 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.
But how do our colleges stand as a body in regard to these explicit requirements of educational progress? Their whole power is exerted to defeat them. They force Latin and Greek upon all the preparatory schools; they make grammar and verbal studies, which should belong later in the course, imperative in early years; they supplement the classics by mathematics, and give the go-by to all the natural sciences. There is not the slightest provision in the studies introductory to college for any cultivation of the mind by immediate intercourse with the facts of nature. We have before us "A Comparative View of the Requisitions for Admission to Representative American Colleges, correct to 1880-'81," printed in the prospectus of the Berkeley School of New York city. Latin, Greek, and mathematics are of course the staple studies, and the amount of requirement in these subjects is given in detail. Under the bead of miscellaneous are included such further subjects as the several institutions hold important for admission to college. The common element here is English grammar, but neither Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst, Trinity, Michigan University, Vassar, Smith, nor Johns Hopkins, requires a shred of scientific preparation of any kind, unless school-geography is allowed to pass for science. Harvard requires some acquaintance with physics and either chemistry or botany, and Cornell includes physiology among the preparatory studies. By all these leading and influential collegiate institutions, which arrogate to themselves the prerogative of conferring a "liberal education," the study of Nature is absolutely left out in the early period of study, and nothing worthy of the name of science is recognized or required, when the foundations of intellectual character are being laid. There is one everlasting grind in grammar—Greek grammar, Latin grammar, English grammar—until the mental habits are formed by verbal studies; and then when the student enters college he is offered some restricted liberty of taking up scientific subjects.
Undoubtedly, the great issue of science against the classics is made up and to be met here. The continuance of the system of discrimination against modern knowledge, and in favor of dead languages, is not to be tolerated. The college premiums on old studies condemned by the common sense of mankind, and doubly damaging in early youth, must be withdrawn. Those institutions can not too soon take measures to get out of the way of the improvement of the lower schools. It is becoming more and more obvious, as shown by the current discussion of the subject, that there is urgent necessity for a readjustment of the relations of the higher and lower systems of instruction, and in evidence of this we quote the following instructive passages from an excellent article by Mr. R. E. Bowker, in the "Princeton Review" for January, on "The College of Today":
It thus appears that the antagonism of the classical institutions to the popular schools in their real purpose is of a very radical kind. Our colleges, by their history and traditions, are academic, scholastic, and literary institutions, designed at least theoretically to form a learned class; while on the other hand the great body of the subordinate schools is devoted to the general education of the people, which should be practical and useful, based upon common needs and a preparation for the working duties of life. The colleges by their policy are chiefly solicitous to make the lower schools tributary to their own prosperity; but they must take larger views of their own interests by ceasing their indirect resistance to the progress of education in the lower schools, and by efficiently helping it forward. In an enlarged view, as Mr. Bowker well remarks, "the colleges can not do their proper work, nor can an approximately correct curriculum be put into practice until many features of the middle schools are not only reformed but revolutionized." But this revolution of the middle schools is a revolution that must begin in the colleges them-selves, by which their exclusive exaction of a classical preparation is abandoned, and the sciences are given an equal chance with the dead languages. The classical gentlemen may league together to resist this change, but it will be of little avail; sooner or later it is sure to come. We observe by the last report of the President and Treasurer of Harvard College, 1882-'83, that this question is under serious consideration by the authorities of that institution, and, if they shall see fit to take the step now so urgently demanded, other institutions will be certain to follow.
President Eliot says (page 16): "The College Faculty is the body in which almost all the considerable changes, made during the past sixteen years in the educational methods of Harvard College, and of the schools which regularly feed it, have been first studied in detail, and then wrought into practical shape; and it is at present engaged, not for the first time, in the discussion of the gravest question of university policy which has arisen, or is likely to arise, in this generation—namely, the extent to which option among the different subjects should be allowed in the examination for admission to college."