Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/July 1873/Editor's Table

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 3 July 1873  (1873) 
Editor's Table


WHILE there is great ado about methods in teaching this subject, and the "battle of the geographies" waxes fierce before the school boards, but few stop to inquire into the real claims of the study, and he who should venture to say that it has no business in schools at all, that it usurps time which had better be given to other things, and is of very low value as a means of mental cultivation, would be regarded as absurd. Yet such an idea is entertained by many thoughtful persons, and it increases in force as our educational system is more closely scrutinized.

In his celebrated inaugural address, at the University of St. Andrews, Mr. J. S. Mill remarked: "It has always seemed to me a great absurdity that history and geography should be taught in schools; except in elementary schools for children of the laboring-classes, whose subsequent access to books is limited. Who ever really learned history and geography except by private reading? and, what an utter failure a system of education must be, if it has not given the pupil a sufficient taste for reading, to seek for himself those most attractive and easily intelligible of all kinds of knowledge! Besides, such history and geography as can be taught in schools, exercise none of the faculties of intelligence, except memory."

If this very decisive verdict be thought merely the opinion of a theorist, it is easy to reenforce it by the judgment of practical men who speak from experience in the management of schools. A committee on "Text-books, and a Graded Course of Instruction," of the public schools of Milwaukee, in their report to the board of School Commissioners on the study of geography, say: "The committee have given the subject full and careful consideration, and have come to the conclusion that the study of geography, as now pursued in our schools, should be radically changed. Considering the time devoted to it, and the application required, we are of the opinion that no study is productive of results so meagre and unsatisfactory. It will not be contended that much is to be gained in the way of mental discipline from geography as taught in this city, and we might as well say generally throughout this country. The same amount of time and labor, bestowed upon many other branches of knowledge, would do a great deal more for development of the faculties of the mind. About the only positive result obtained is, storing the memory with an array of disconnected facts, which may indeed be made available in astonishing visitors at examinations, but are utterly useless as a means of unfolding the thinking powers. Nay, more, the very object of the study is defeated by the methods of instruction commonly in use. It is possible to find whole classes of pupils who have spent several years in 'learning geography,' and who can answer endless columns of questions in locating places; but who can in no sense be said to have acquired the knowledge which geography—rightly understood—is intended to impart."

They remark further: "The committee are of opinion that altogether too much time is devoted to geography in our schools. It seems to us that a sufficient knowledge of the subject might be acquired by considerably abridging the number of lessons, and giving the time to studies of at least equal importance, which are now sacrificed to make room for the geography recitations. A competent knowledge of our own language is surely one of the leading objects of the most common education. We are of opinion that our course of instruction in the English language is altogether too limited in its scope and imperfect in its methods. This should include something more than reading, spelling, grammar, and an occasional composition. The language, in its elements and structure, should be taught on scientific principles, so far as they have been ascertained, and the power to use it in speaking and writing, not only correctly but elegantly, systematically developed from the lowest to the highest grade. Then, again, no course of instruction — however elementary — can in our day be said to be complete, which does not aim to cultivate some acquaintance with the leading outlines of natural science; and we are persuaded that, in the more advanced grades at least, a portion of the time at present given to geography might be advantageously devoted to giving instruction in botany, zoology, physics, and astronomy, by oral lessons of a simple and elementary nature."

Mr. Mill says that geography exercises none of the powers of intelligence, except the memory, and the committee declare that it does this badly; and both, we think, are right. Loading the memory with an array of arbitrary and disconnected facts is not the proper method of cultivating it. The true office of this faculty is, to be the servant of the other faculties. It is the power which recovers for present use the mind's past acquisitions. But the power of recalling past impressions rests upon the law of association, and rational memory depends upon the relations subsisting among the mental impressions. If knowledge has been digested, and the relations among its objects seen, their recovery in thought is easy and natural; but, where the other faculties are neglected, the memory is merely burdened with arbitrary statements, and only those things are remembered that are burnt into it by interminable repetition. Dr. Arnold reprobates the ordinary school-method of treating geography, and commends the point of view here indicated. He says: "And this deeper knowledge becomes far easier to remember. For my own part, I find it extremely difficult to remember the positions of towns, when I have no other association with them than their situations relatively to each other. But let me once understand the real geography of a country — its organic structure, if I may so call it; the outline of its skeleton, that is, of its hills; the magnitude and course of its veins and arteries, that is, of its streams and rivers; let me conceive of it as a whole made up of connected parts; and then the positions of towns, viewed in reference to these parts, become at once easily remembered, and lively and intelligible besides."

The objection to teaching geography to the young is, that its entire subject matter is beyond the sphere of experience; it is, therefore, much less fit to be used as a means of mental cultivation than many other subjects. Geography deals with an order of ideas which it is extremely difficult for the adult mind to grasp in their true relations, and impossible for the minds of children. "Geography is a description of the earth," and, to begin with, the earth is "a vast globe, or ball." Now, a child may have a correct conception of a ball, which it gets from experience, but it has no conception from experience which will help it to a true idea of what is meant by "25,000 miles in circumference." The notion is utterly beyond its grasp, and, so far from knowing the fact, or forming any just mental view of it, it is merely cheated with words. And so it is with the attempt to conceive the extent and relations of the great continental and oceanic tracts of the globe, or of its minor subdivisions into zones and countries, or of its great mountain and river systems. Into all these phenomena there enter an element of vastness, a magnitude of relations, and a scale of diversities, which are little more to the childish mind than if they were described to it in a language not understood. Maps, of course, are helpful, but they are only symbols which the pupil is incompetent to translate into reality. It matters nothing that all the statements of geography may be true; they are true to the pupil only as verbal statements made on authority. All that it can do is to memorize words of description, which is the lowest and most worthless work of education. An English gentleman, who was once riding on horseback in the country, was accosted by a boy, who offered, for a penny, to tell him all the capitals of Europe. When he had done, the gentleman replied, "Here is your penny, and I will give you another if you will tell me whether they are animals or vegetables." "Animals," replied the boy, promptly. This is, no doubt, an extreme case; but it illustrates what is very generally true in the school-study of geography — that the pupils have no adequate ideas of what the words mean.

The difficulty with geography is, that it does not rouse children to think, and cannot furnish them with materials for the exercise of reason and judgment, because, for this purpose, the things reasoned about require to be immediately accessible to thought. Without going so far as Mr. Mill, who declares geography in schools to be an absurdity, we are profoundly convinced that the current teaching of it to young pupils is absurd. It should be postponed to the later stages of study, when the mind has attained a considerable degree of maturity, and then, by means of globes, a general conception of the great features of the earth may be acquired. This will form a suitable preparation for that subsequent reading upon the subject which Mr. Mill suggests.



We spoke, in the June number of The Popular Science Monthly, of the advantages that would arise from connecting the scientific exploration of the several States with their higher educational institutions. We have been since reminded that this is an accomplished fact in at least one of the States, and we hasten to give credit to Minnesota for having taken this new departure in scientific education. It is one of the youngest States in the Union, and a generation ago was but a land of savages, an indefinite tract in the great "Northwest Territory" beyond "Ouisconsin," beyond the distant Mississippi, that we now see taking the lead of the older States in organizing the new education by devoting her university to the comprehensive and practical study of Nature. This step has been but recently taken, and its benefits are prospective; but, if thoroughly carried out, there can be but little question of the advantages that must arise to the people of the State. By a law of 1872, to provide for the geological and natural-history survey of the State, the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota were charged with the duty of organizing the work, and the Professors of Geology, Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology, of that institution, are the chief officers in carrying on the investigations in these departments, while money appropriations and land-grants are liberally voted to sustain the work, which is broadly laid out and clearly defined.

There is to be "a complete account of the mineral kingdom as represented in the State, including the number, order, dip, and magnitude, of the several geological strata, their richness in ores, coals, clays, peats, salines, and mineral waters, marls, cements, building-stones, and other useful materials, the value of said substances for economical purposes and their accessibility; also an accurate chemical analysis of the various rocks, soils, ores, clays, peats, marls, and other mineral substances, of which complete and exact records shall be made."

The natural-history survey will "include, first, an examination of the vegetable productions of the State, embracing all trees, shrubs, herbs, and grasses, native or naturalized in the State; second, a complete and scientific account of the animal kingdom as properly represented in the State, including all mammalia, fishes, reptiles, birds, and insects.

There is also to be a meteorological investigation of the climate of the State, barometrical and thermometrical observations and measurements of elevations and depressions of the land, with a view to the formation of an authentic map.

It will be a part of the work to collect specimens of "all rocks, soils, ores, coals, fossils, cements, building-stones, plants, woods, skins, and skeletons, of animals, birds, insects, and fishes, and other mineral, vegetable, and animal substances and organisms discovered or examined in the course of said surveys, to be preserved for public inspection, free of cost, in the University of Minnesota, in rooms convenient of access and properly warmed, lighted, ventilated, and furnished, and in charge of a proper scientific curator; and they shall also, whenever the same may be practicable, cause duplicates, in reasonable numbers and quantities, of the above-named specimens to be collected and preserved for the purpose of exchanges with other State universities and scientific institutions."

The movement in this case, it is evident, has been initiated mainly in the interest of the geological survey, but it is to be hoped that the larger objects of education to which it is a means will not be lost sight of. The university will undoubtedly be benefited by taking the responsibility of the work, but the movement will fall greatly short of the good it might accomplish if it is not vitally connected with the educational system of the State. In the cities of Minnesota are growing up numerous normal schools and high-schools, which have a right to share in the general benefits of the undertaking. The specimens obtained by the several departments of the survey are to be collected in the University Museum at St. Anthony, and we are told that duplicates will be exchanged with other State universities and with scientific societies. But should not the claims of the people of the State be considered first, and should not the local schools be furnished with materials for cabinets representing the resources of their own State, and be encouraged to contribute something toward the general object by observations and collections in their own districts? We should be glad to see this element incorporated in the Minnesota experiment.