Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/Science Teaching

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SCIENCE TEACHING.[1]
By Prof. FREDERICK GUTHRIE, F. R. S.

AT the outset of our inquiry into science teaching, we are, of course, met by the old question as to the purpose of education. There are those who regard education as an intellectual arming and equipment for the battle of life. Others look upon it rather as an end than as a means. The first would supply to the individual only those weapons which he is likely to require in making his way in the world. The second advise a wider, and therefore more dilute, education (the time given to education being the same), and would relegate the acquirement of specialties to the exigencies of the career. I suppose that it need scarcely be insisted on, nowadays, that both of these views are fallacious on account of their partiality. The most favorable product of the first is the "successful" specialist, who is for the most part a burden to himself. The second gives us the shallow "prig," who is for the most part a burden to his fellow-creatures.

A good citizen—and by citizen I mean, of course, a citizen of the world—must be a man of large sympathies. Though color-blind, he must have common feeling with painters, and, if tone-deaf, the works of musical composers must not be without interest to him. And through all it must not be forgotten that distinction is a noun of limited number. The time may come when they who know as much mathematics as Newton shall be counted by scores. The time has come when they who know as much geometry as "Euclid" are to be counted by thousands; and they who know as much chemistry as Dalton, by tens of thousands. But we are as badly in want of Newtons, Euclids, and Daltons as ever.

Here, as elsewhere, it appears that an apparently insuperable difficulty is half surmounted when fairly confronted. It is, without doubt, the conviction of those whose opinions of to-day will count as truisms to-morrow, that, up to a certain stage, and as far as the presenting of opportunities is concerned, the education of one should be the education of all. Liberal variations should be recognized in accordance with the tastes, and especially with the distastes, of the individual; yet there is a certain nucleus of somewhat indefinite boundary which should be offered habitually to each. When I say "somewhat indefinite," do not, I pray, imagine that I want to shirk a difficulty; on the contrary, my purpose is to accentuate and try to deal with it.

It is perhaps in matters of taste which, in their developments, become fine arts, that the greatest eagerness to learn, and the greatest antipathy against learning, are manifested by the individual. And it is for this that I should relegate such matters to the later stages of a general education.

When, accordingly, I shall have to advocate the introduction of drawing into the very earliest stages of education, it will be understood that I am not considering it then and there as a fine art, but as a mere record of the perception of things. It is in regard to subjects which involve taste that the course should be least rigid. If the arithmetical course, for instance, were less rigid, the parent might, indeed, be spared the ignominy of having to confess to his child that he (the parent) does not know how many pennyweights there are in a kilogramme. Think how we parents have to shuffle, and how we scarcely recover our dignity after we have, more or less clandestinely, referred to books. This is bad. But, to my mind, it is far worse to have to listen to some poor little mortal trying to acquire some one or two set pieces on the piano, for hours daily, and for months yearly. And the excess of pain in the second case over that in the first is due not to the fact that our own physical agony is greater than our moral ignominy, but that in the second we see a long vista of hopeless effort before the little victim.

It is the legitimate boast of this country that the highest offices of the state, excepting of course those pertaining to the throne, are open to the child of the lowest birth or the deepest poverty. It is as certainly one of the greatest scandals of the country that such offices are open to and have often been held by persons of the very lowest culture and ability. As long as this is so, as long as a man may aspire to become, and actually become, a judge, a bishop, an ambassador, a colonial governor, and yet be and remain on the whole an ignorant fellow, so long will the educational establishments, whether schools or colleges, in which such persons have received their so-called educations, remain much as they have been.

Is it not rare to find an artist, either literary, pictorial, musical, or other, whose conversation does not bore you on account of its narrowness? Unquestionably this is so, and unquestionably the best in each profession are the first to admit it. Even in a profession such as that of medicine, where we have a right to expect to find at all events scientific culture, we find rarely anything of the kind. Owing to the fact that the medical profession has had for centuries our healths in its hand, the ignorant naturally have recourse to the doctor in matters of health; nay, are in a manner compelled to do so. Accordingly, and for instance, you find our vestrymen appointing as public analysts any kind of broken-down medical man, who does not know one end of a test tube from the other, although he may know on which side his bread is buttered.

Even the surgeon, whose profession is eminently scientific, is too often shamefully ignorant of the very elements of chemistry, physics, and mechanics, the three general sciences which, together with the trivial science of anatomy, make up the whole of the science of his profession.

On the bench the want of scientific culture is painfully conspicuous. Speaking under correction, I suppose I may go so far as to say that, theoretically, law is founded upon justice; that it is, at all events, a more or less crude effort toward that rather illusive ideal. As a matter of fact, lawyers will tell you, with beaming countenances, that English law is an inchoate hotchpotch of enactments and precedents, obsolete, imaginary, supplementary, and contradictory. In fact, the idea of right is replaced by an indefinite number of rules of an arbitrary character. It is here to be well noted that the study of such arbitrary information—I will not call it knowledge—has and must have a narrowing influence; it deadens the mind, as it must deaden it, to the perception of principles. Now, the laws of Nature are not parliamentary enactments, and a judge, in his questions to witnesses, and in his remarks and summings-up, when scientific matters are before him, often appears at great and painful disadvantage through his efforts to codify Nature. Frequently, indeed, his remarks, as reported, are the funniest things in a daily paper. Of course, the efforts of the judge are greatly aided by counsel, who are supposed to be able to master any question in any science in twenty minutes. I am ashamed to say how justice is aided by the "scientific experts," generally of third or fourth rate standing in their professions—well, this is also an unpleasant subject. As to the final outcome of the suit, as a court generally reverses the decision of the one below, a great deal depends upon whether there is an odd or even number of courts between the first and the last. But I for one do not want either to ridicule or pity that which should be sober and majestic. And if it is not possible that every judge should have scientific training, it would be surely advisable that one or two should have it, and that causes involving scientific questions should be brought before such alone.

As it is from the universities that the so-called liberal professions are to a great extent recruited, I am bound to speak a word or two as to the position of science in them.

Of the teaching of science at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge I need say but little. The weighty list of names illustrious in mathematics and astronomy which the latter of these can show, might be considered sufficient to redeem it from the reproach of neglect of scientific culture. But in such an estimation we are justly to consider the boundlessness of the opportunities, the vastness of the means, and stringency of the duties. Regarded under this light, and in spite of many notable examples to the contrary both in the past and in the present, it does not admit of a shadow of doubt but that on the whole these opportunities have been greatly wasted, these means wrongfully applied, and these duties wantonly neglected.

These universities were primarily intended for the teaching of those branches of knowledge which have since developed into science. I imagine that education as understood for instance by the Greek was mainly athletic, scientific, æsthetic, literary, and political; literature in its widest, politics in its narrowest sense. Their philosophers looked around, as all philosophers are bound to do, as most have done excepting Kant and Comte, whose philosophy, based upon insufficient scientific knowledge, crumbles to pieces when touched. The Greek philosopher got much of his honey from abroad; but the comb he built for it was geometric, universal.

It was for the purpose of understanding such scientific writers as Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, that the "schools" were founded and supported. Then we have Plato, who seems to me to be forever hanging on to the hem of the garment of the Great Master. Much of this of course came through the Latin language. But shortly the means became the end. The language was found to contain a literature. Then a curious but not unnatural event happened. The means of acquiring knowledge in a foreign language degenerated—I will use no other word—into the study of that language, redeemed by the simultaneous acquirement of its marvelous literary treasures. Hence arose the dreadful school of dogmatic grammarians and pseudophilologists. Their day is passing, because grammar and philology are becoming sciences as exact at least as geology or biology.

It is, I think, hopefully to be expected that we shall soon lose sight of those dreadful creatures who used to wobble their heads over what they in their ignorance conceived to be a false quantity, often mistaking accent for quantity, partly through want of scientific training, partly through ignorance of the knowledge acquired by other nations. Such creatures were, perhaps, the natural outgrowth of the state of transition between Aristotle and Darwin, between Archimedes and Joule.

The really frightful outcome of all this was that, for a time, information took the place of knowledge; and the culture of the university was little beyond that of the cabman, the postman, or at best that of the librarian.

Perhaps the very greatest revelations made to man in the historical past took place in the last quarter of the last century and in the first half of the present. It was then that chemistry led us to understand the composition of matter. It was then that physics developed the co-ordination of the known forces and showed the existence of a new one. It has been during this time that biology has been changed from the chaos of natural history into a hopeful cosmic science.

In the matter of chemistry, the record of what we owe to these universities is shamefully short. While the intellectual world was ringing with the discoveries of Priestley, Black, and Lavoisier, the universities were concerned with the insignificant squabbles of philologists. While Faraday and Dumas, Liebig and Darwin were at work, what was, say, Oxford doing? Future generations will scarcely credit it. The leading lights in that university had nothing better to do apparently than to issue and discuss tracts on the difference between "tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee."

And even now, in spite of many vigorous efforts and encouraging successes, in spite of the notable men who have filled and are filling the posts of teachers, the universities under consideration can not be considered as centers of science. The very best men connected with the universities are the first to admit this. For such centers those who wish to become masters of the craft have had to look abroad, or to the metropolis, or to our provinces.

In regard to the teaching of science in the most widely known of our English public schools, we must regard it as being for the most part abortive. This has, without doubt, been brought about chiefly by the narrowness of culture of the head masters and their subordinates.

In such a school the unhappy science teacher is the worst off. If he be also a teacher of classics, who undertakes to teach science by reason of some smattering of it which he may have picked up in a desultory manner, his task is distasteful to him, and we may be sure he is not slow to contaminate his scholars with such distaste. He detests his duties partly because his ignorance is a disagreeable revelation to himself, but mainly because he feels that quick-witted lads soon discover his incompetence.

If, on the other hand, a highly qualified scientific man is employed, he finds himself out of sympathy, almost out of touch, with the rest of the school. The absolute necessities for teaching his science are denied to him or grudgingly dribbled out. His colleagues regard him without any feeling of comradeship, and so again the boys get to look on him as a sort of pariah, and on his occupation with contempt.

Observe the vicious circle. With ignorances and prejudices such as those I have mentioned the scholars from such schools go up to the universities, and give to them in the main their own uncultured tone. As it is from the universities that public schoolmasters are for the most part drawn, the bar to improvement seems strong indeed. One obvious way to break this vicious circle lies, it is true, at hand. I can not consider it conveniently here, and I am loath to touch upon it. But this much must be said: it can not be for the welfare of any religious body that its highest offices should be filled as often as they are from a class—the class of head masters—which persistently and almost professionally sets its face against natural knowledge. For it is thus a premium is placed on one-sided and therefore imperfect culture at the very fountain-head of education. Still more rarely can it be for the advantage of a public school to be under the guidance of a member of a class which has, speaking generally, consistently shown both fear and dislike of Nature and her interpreters. Whatever hope there may be in the future for relief in this matter, it is probable that such relief will rather be effected from the outside than from the inside.

As to this influence from the outside, where shall we look for it? Clearly in the aspirations, ambitions, and discontents of the better classes. The better classes are the more intelligent classes, and these are, without any doubt whatever, formed from the ranks of the artisan or handicraftsman—whether of our cities or our fields—and especially from the ranks of those who have been artisans or handicraftsmen, but whose ability has advanced them, say, from the laborer to the farmer, from the carpenter to the builder, from the nail-maker to the engineer, from the apprentice on a barge to the captain of a "liner." It is here or hereabouts that the very marrow of our nation lies. The aspirations of these classes are opposed directly and indirectly by the more ignorant classes both above and below them. The dangerous classes are the idle classes of all ranks. He would do a far greater service to the commonwealth who should give useful employment to the idle rich than he who should sweep away a thousand slums.

It is disastrous folly to fight against the inevitable. Science will take, and is taking, its proper place in our system of education. Men may bury themselves in the darkest crypts of ignorance; they may raise the densest smoke of prejudice or spread most diligently their little umbrellas of effeminacy, and fancy they have shut out the sun from the whole earth. The contest, if contest it can be called, which is waged against science, consists of hysterical vituperation on the one hand, and mainly pity on the other. Such a contest is only of passing interest, for the issue admits of no doubt. On the side of our opponents there are, it is true, the prejudices and ignorances of the half-cultured; but on the other there is the whole universe. They who oppose the introduction of science into even elementary schools do so at their proper peril and that of the commonwealth.

Having discussed briefly the positions which science has held, is holding, and should hold in general education, I shall now consider what I conceive to be the proper way of introducing the child to a knowledge of the material world. In a little book which I published some years ago, called The First Book of Knowledge, I drew up a systematic course of object lessons of the kind which I should like to see generally adopted, because I think that, however defective it may be in many respects, it is perhaps the first attempt to direct this kind of education; and I insist that, on this account, it or its method will have to be considered by educationalists. For, after all, it must be conceded that matter, and the properties of matter, play a not unimportant part in the universe in which we happen—at the present moment at least—to be living. And so my task will consist mainly in considering the purpose and use of such a book.

In the first place, it should not be a book of reference; it should not be written and used on the principle of a directory or of a dictionary, or even of a manual of household recipes, which we consult to-day to find out how to make egg sauce; and to-morrow, how to remove ink stains from the fingers.

It must be progressive in order to be educational; it must deal with familiar stuffs and things in such a fashion, and after such an order, that the understanding of one may help in the understanding of those afterward to be considered.

On the table before you is a series of familiar "stuffs and things." The total cost, including the packing box and bottles, may be three or four pounds. This collection was made to illustrate the book of which I have spoken, and it contains, I believe, all the stuffs and things required in the building of a house and used by its indweller.

Now let us build the house. The first stuff is concrete. This is made of lime and pebbles or gravel. To make lime, again, limestone or chalk is required. And to quicken or burn either, fuel is necessary. I find it therefore convenient to describe the formation of coal, and to defer the description of the formation of wood and the growth of plants, and also of the process of combustion, to a later chapter.

After coal, the description of the formation of coke, ashes, cinders, and breeze follows at once; but the complete description of the manufacture of coke is deferred until that of gas is considered.

The pupil is now prepared to understand the action of fire on limestone—the quenching or slacking of quicklime, and the formation of concrete and mortar. A description of the natural formation of clay is followed by an account of the manufacture of bricks, tiles, drain pipes, chimney pots, etc. Slate finds its proper place hereabouts.

Such stuffs as marble, granite, sandstone, and plaster (stucco) may be now described.

The chief metals used in house construction or in house furniture are iron, lead, zinc, copper, tin, and mercury, and their derivatives, such as brass, zinc plate, tin plate, and so on. And, perhaps, the only stuffs still demanding consideration are glass, glue, whitewash, litharge, and putty.

Now, all these stuffs should not only be seen, they should be handled by the pupils, and such processes as the slacking of lime, the setting of mortar and of plaster, the baking of clay, and the reduction of some of the metals from their ores, should be shown, as can easily be done by means of the materials and a few pieces of apparatus before you.

It is thus seen that I adopt the plan, which I think is the soundest one, of not attempting to generalize or philosophize until the child has got something to generalize from. But such generalization must not be delayed too long; for it is of incalculable help to the pupil in his further studies.

Accordingly, I would here or hereabouts introduce him to that truly awful revelation that there are on the earth, as far as we can search; in the earth, as far as we can dig; ay, and throughout the universe as far as we can see, but a limited number of prime stuffs—the elements. To my mind two men are in no sense on the same intellectual level whereof the one can and the other can not tell you of what elements familiar things consist. The latter may be intelligent, possibly he is well-meaning; intellectually he is a savage. Such savages abound in all strata of our commonwealth. Such savages are dangerous. We must not kill them; we are not even permitted to teach them. Let us at least catch and civilize their children, both for their own sakes and ours.

The conception of the elements leads at once to air and that type of chemical uniting called burning. Much time spent in a careful study of fire, flame, and water would be well spent indeed. Practically, and returning to our scheme, I find it far best for educational purposes to secure such generalization at about this point. The pupil can now understand something about wood, the last of the stuffs considered in the building of a house.

Such knowledge brings us at once to the heating and lighting of the house, and so to the manufacture of charcoal, the formation of peat, and the making of coal gas. The methods of obtaining a light lead to the interesting and instructive subject of matches, and the stuffs of which they are made.

Our next chapter might properly include the finishing and furnishing of the house. By finishing I mean such processes as papering, painting, glazing, and varnishing. Furnishing would embrace the origin and manufacture of cotton thread, flax, linen, hemp, canvas, cane, wool, carpets, oilcloth, cocoanut fiber, mirrors, German silver, silver; the processes of lacquering, plating, and the manufacture of pottery, porcelain, and earthenware.

The next division would concern the person, and would include chapters on clothing, food, washing, writing, and reading.

In clothing would have to be described the textile fabrics, skins, tanning, with such adjuncts as pins, needles, combs, and brushes.

Concerning food I should be inclined to confine the instruction to such things as the five B's of food—bread, butter, beef, beer, and bacon—and such as milk, cheese, eggs.

The description of the manufacture of bread should be in a manner an intellectual epic poem. The growing of the wheat, its thrashing, winnowing, grinding, bolting; the nature and effect of yeast; the effect of baking; the relationship between the constituents of the wheat and the body. All this, I say, constitutes an epic of infinitely greater beauty, strength, and significance than can be furnished by the sulks of Achilles, the wanderings of the pious Æneas (I wish he had been drowned), the tortures of the Inferno, the ravings of Orlando, the childish imagery of Milton, or the dreary paraphrase of Klopstock.

The epic of bread is, and must be, as far above the epic of the poet as is the mere external beauty of a living flower above that of the most elaborate and gorgeous design on the back of a playing card. And I suppose the study of the construction and life of the flower is more elevating than the most subtle game of whist which was ever played.

In the matter of food, again, we have to guard carefully against the dogmatism of the smatterers who talk so glibly of flesh-formers, fat-formers, bone-formers, and so on, as though you had only to eat fat in order to become fat; bone, to become bony; flesh, to become muscular. There are people whom one may, without offense, call the "prigs" of this particular branch of science, who fancy that Liebig's extract of meat, for instance, is concentrated meat, and that a few grains of it are of the same nutritive value as an ounce of meat. This, I need scarcely say, was not the view of the illustrious author of the extract. He justly looked upon it as a condiment or stimulant. There are those who, by quoting chemical formulæ, would fondly persuade us that there is as much nourishment in an egg as in a chop. I need scarcely say I do not believe them, for I don't suppose you do. Such people compare the analysis of grain with that of the human body, and tell us to eat pumpernickel, or rye bread, or brown bread, or whole-meal bread, or white bread, according to their schools. In order to be consistent they should recommend cannibalism, and preach that—

"The proper nourishment of man is man."

The people of whom I am speaking usually write to the papers. One shows how the condition of the workingman may be made one of affluence and comfort by living chiefly on dandelions, nettles, and sorrel (with perhaps a pinch of pepper). Another shows how the weight of a pound of steak may be doubled by cutting it up fine and stewing it with sixteen ounces of water. A third demonstrates how essential to the human frame is a certain amount of lime, and deplores the wastefulness of throwing away the shells of oysters, lobsters, and eggs. Yet another, of a more synthetic turn of mind, is familiar with heat-producers and flesh-formers, with carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus compounds. His knowledge of chemistry enables him to recommend a cheap dish consisting of charcoal, saltpeter, tallow, and glue, flavored with singed feathers and stirred up with a few matches.

I need not apologize for speaking at some length on this subject. Food is as important to the human being as fuel is to the steam engine. It was once made a subject of reproach or banter against our nation that we had a hundred religions and only one sauce, while the nation of our critic had only one religion and a hundred sauces. I suppose if this epigram were fairly analyzed it might be found to be based upon the fact that our meats had a hundred different flavors, and our hundred religions only one; while the one religion of our critic's countrymen had a hundred different flavors and their hundred meats a single one. For I need not remind you that when and where the cooking has become most elaborate the feeding is at its worst; for, instead of depending upon the exquisite flavors of the simply cooked constituents of a meal, a sort of " Ur-wurst," or universal sausage, containing a thousand flavors, and therefore none, is the result. As good wine needs no bush, so good food needs little cookery and less sauce.

In the next place should be considered materials used in cleaning, such as soap, soda, hearthstone, sponge, vitriol, emery. And finally the materials used in writing and in books—the manufacture of paper and of pens, of inks, of pencils, of type, and the rest.

I can not but think that some such system as I have laid before you will be—will have to be—introduced into elementary education, into the education of our school boards. Not only that the lads on leaving school may be more useful citizens, but that they may have that knowledge which alone gives happiness, and which never turns to bitterness, or proves to be vain, the knowledge of the ways and the beauties of almighty Nature.

  1. Abridged from the Journal of the Society of Arts.