Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
PRESIDENT ELIOT ON PUBLIC-SCHOOL EDUCATION.

THE article contributed by President Eliot to the December Forum, under the title Wherein Popular Education has Failed, is one of the weightiest utterances on that subject that have fallen under our notice in recent years. It is weighty in its moderation, in the clearness and force of the indictment it formulates, and in the precision with which it indicates the remedial measures to be taken. Need we add that it is weighty also through the recognized eminence of its author in the field of education? It would be bard to mention any voice in this country that speaks with more authority upon any educational question than that of President Eliot.

The opening statement of the article is terse and pointed: "It can not be denied that there is serious and general disappointment at the results of popular education up to this date." During two whole generations State-supported schools have been in full operation. These have been devised and maintained on such a scale as to bring the whole, or nearly the whole, population under their influence; and yet, with elementary education almost universal, we do not seem to have a wiser, a more virtuous, or a happier people. President Eliot admits that some important improvements have taken place during the last two generations: penal codes have been reformed; prisons are better ordered; hospitals, asylums, and reformatories have been provided on a much larger scale than formerly; the general condition of the working classes has improved; the average duration of human life has been increased; and education, he is disposed to believe, has had some share in bringing about these ameliorations. In saying this the writer of the article goes perhaps as far as can be done with safety. Prison reform and the abolition of the slave trade were burning questions before any great movement for popular education had set in, and the same might be said of other humanitarian and socially useful movements. At the same time there is no doubt, as President Eliot suggests, that, where the population in general can read, there is formed a public opinion which renders the retention of abuses more difficult.

Still, notwithstanding all that education and other agencies of an enlightening character have done, the condition of things as regards popular intelligence is far from satisfactory. To quote from the article before us: "In spite of every effort to enlighten the whole body of the people, all sorts of quacks and impostors thrive, and one popular delusion succeeds another, the best-educated classes contributing their full proportion of the deluded. Thus, the astrologer in the middle ages was a rare personage and usually a dependent of princes; but now he advertises in the public papers and flourishes as never before. Men and women of all classes, no matter what their education, seek advice on grave matters from clairvoyants, seers, Christian scientists, mind-cure practitioners, bone-setters, Indian doctors, and fortune-tellers. The ship of state barely escapes from one cyclone of popular folly, like the flat-money delusion or the granger legislation of the seventies, when another blast of ill-informed opinion comes down on it, like the actual legislation which compels the buying and storing of silver by Government, or the projected legislation which would compel Government to buy cotton, wheat, or corn, and issue paper money against the stock."

The great trouble is, says President Eliot, that our popular education is not really conducted in such a way as to develop intelligence. It teaches children to read (after a fashion), to spell, to write, and to cipher; it also imparts a little knowledge of geography; but none of these things, as commonly taught, calls into activity in any adequate manner those powers on the due exercise of which the growth of intelligence depends—the power of observing facts, the power of accurately and faithfully recording facts, the power of reasoning correctly in regard to facts. Nor is any sufficient practice given in the important art of composition or correct expression in writing. To give a proper training in the observation of facts some branch of natural science or some kind of handicraft should be taught. At present whatever quickness of observation children acquire is acquired in connection with their sports; and their school studies lack vitality and effect simply because the element of original observation has no part in them. To make an observation of one's own in regard to any matter is to gain at once an interest in that matter, and in all probability to prepare the way for other observations. While we agree with President Eliot that some branch of natural science or some "well-conducted work with tools or machines" furnishes the best means of developing the observing faculty, we also agree with him in holding that almost any line of study may, in the hands of a competent teacher, be turned to good account for the same purpose. As he rightly observes, one teacher will get better results out of one subject and another out of another. Geography, which, "as commonly taught, means committing to memory a mass of curiously uninteresting and unimportant facts," may, under proper treatment, become a most stimulating study; but, in order that this may be the case, a teacher is required who has a vivid apprehension of the relation of geographical facts to one another, and a clear conception of the general relation of physical to political geography. So with language: it may be made a mere thing of arbitrary rules or it may be exhibited in its vital connection with thought, and its structure and etymology made to yield abundant exercise both for the observing and the analytical faculties.

In the recording of facts opportunity is given both for the cultivation of accuracy of statement and for the acquisition of correct modes of expression. We do not, indeed, see how first lessons in composition could be given with greater advantage than in connection with the statement of facts observed by the pupil. Every fact is observed under some conditions of place, time, etc., and, in the due setting forth of these, various adverbial and other elements of a well-developed sentence come into requisition. There is no point at which the inefficiency of our higher schools has been more apparent, or has given rise to severer criticism, than in the matter of composition; and the reproach will remain until the problem of its removal is approached in a scientific spirit and by scientific methods. Language is the garb of thought, not a substitute for thought, nor a thing to be acquired and possessed independently of thought. He alone can use language with freedom, certainty, and accuracy who is conscious of needing for the expression of his thought all the words and phrases that he employs. First catch your thought and then array it suitably. A lesson in language should therefore always be a lesson in thinking; and words, instead of appearing, as they so often do in language lessons, as meaningless superfluities, should be exhibited as essential for that communication of our thoughts on which the whole of our rational and social life depends. Language lessons in the earlier stages should always turn upon such words, phrases, and narratives as actually relate to the daily life of the child. Thought should be stimulated until the need for language to express it is felt, and language should never be presented for use or imitation beyond the limits of such consciousness of need. The more the different lessons which the child receives can be brought into relation with each other, the better it will be: arithmetic and grammar, for example, may be made to support each other in the following manner. A child reports: "A big dog barked at me as I was coming to school this morning." Now this sentence may be continued in either of two ways: "And frightened me a good deal," or, "But did not frighten me a bit." In the first case we have what, by analogy, may be called addition, and in the second what, by analogy, may be called subtraction: on the one hand, the fright superadded to the barking heightens the significance or seriousness of the occurrence; on the other, the indifference of the child to the barking makes little of the occurrence. The first phrase, which has the effect of addition, is introduced by "and"; the second, which has the effect of subtraction, is introduced by "but," and a key is thus afforded to the proper use and practical effect of these two prepositions.

President Eliot makes a very true remark when he says that correct reasoning can best be taught by the study of the best classical examples of sound, forcible, and well-sustained argument. "The actual arguments," he says, "used by the participants in great debates should be studied, and not the arguments attributed to or invented for the actors long after the event. . . . As examples of instructive arguments I may cite Burke's argument on conciliation with the American colonies, and Webster's on the nature and value of the Federal Union; the debate between Lincoln and Douglas on the extension of slavery into the Territories; the demonstration by Sir Charles Lyell that the ancient and the present systems of terrestrial change are identical; the proofs contrived and set forth by Sir John Lubbock that the ant exhibits memory, affection, morality, and co-operative power; the prophetic argument of Mill that industries conducted on a great scale will ultimately make liberty of competition illusory; and that well-reasoned prophecy of disturbance and disaster in the trade of the United States written by Cairnes in September, 1873, and so dramatically fulfilled in the commercial crisis of that month." Of course, for younger pupils simpler examples of reasoning would have to be found, or possibly their own daily experience might suggest a sufficient number of questions upon which to employ and exercise their reasoning faculties.

Here, however, we are compelled to pause, and suggest a difficulty. President Eliot tells us what ought to be done, but he does not satisfy us as to what persons are going to do it. Why have not all these things been done before? Why are they not being done in all our schools now? Is it because no one has perceived or made clear to others how intellectual life may best be awakened and strengthened? By no means. The world is well supplied to-day with sound and valuable works on every branch of the science of education. The trouble is, that to awaken thought we require thinkers; and the public-school teachers as a body are not thinkers. As a body they are, in this respect, nowise superior to any other class of ordinarily educated persons. How, then, can we expect any early or general improvement in the present routine methods, the general results of which, so far as the production of intelligence is concerned, are acknowledged to be so unsatisfactory? The State has taken up the business of education and made it almost a monopoly, and the State-appointed teachers are such as the State can get. But how many persons with a decided vocation for education take service in the public schools? Not many, we imagine, for the simple reason that the consciousness of such a vocation and the thought of working by prescribed routine methods are very apt to clash. Yet what is the man or the woman with such a vocation to do? Set up in opposition to the State? Well, sometimes they do, and in certain parts of the country private schools are gaining steadily on the State-supported ones, but manifestly the competition of the State is a serious thing to reckon with, and quite sufficient to deter many a one from following his or her strong desire and bent. We are disposed to believe that in this way the larger part of the special talent which would otherwise go into the work of education is diverted into other channels. All we can do, therefore, for the present is to unfold and enforce right methods, as President Eliot has done in his article, hoping that here and there the good seed may fall on good soil and yield fruit abundantly.