Interest and Effort in Education/Chapter 1

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In the educational lawsuit of interest versus effort, let us consider the respective briefs of plaintiff and defendant. In behalf of interest it is claimed that it is the sole guarantee of attention; if we can secure interest in a given set of facts or ideas, we may be perfectly sure that the pupil will direct his energies toward mastering them; if we can secure interest in a certain moral train or line of conduct, we are equally safe in assuming that the child's activities are responding in that direction; if we have not secured interest, we have no safeguard as to what will be done in any given case. As a matter of fact, the doctrine of discipline has not succeeded. It is absurd to suppose that a child gets more intellectual or mental discipline when he goes at a matter unwillingly than when he goes at it out of the fullness of his heart. The theory of effort simply says that unwilling attention (doing something disagreeable because it is disagreeable) should take precedence over spontaneous attention.

Practically the appeal to sheer effort amounts to nothing. When a child feels that his work is a task, it is only under compulsion that he gives himself to it. At every let-up of external pressure his attention, released from constraint, flies to what interests him. The child brought up on the basis of "effort" acquires marvelous skill in appearing to be occupied with an uninteresting subject, while the real heart of his energies is otherwise engaged. Indeed, the theory contradicts itself. It is psychologically impossible to call forth any activity without some interest. The theory of effort simply substitutes one interest for another. It substitutes the impure interest of fear of the teacher or hope of future reward for pure interest in the material presented. The type of character induced is that illustrated by Emerson at the beginning of his essay on Compensation, where he holds up the current doctrine of compensation as implying that, if you only sacrifice yourself enough now, you will be permitted to indulge yourself a great deal more in the future; or, if you are only good now (goodness consisting in attention to what is interesting) you will have, at some future time, a great many more pleasing interests—that is, may then be bad.

While the theory of effort is always holding up to us a strong, vigorous character as the outcome of its method of education, practically we do not get such a character. We get either the narrow, bigoted man who is obstinate and irresponsible save in the line of his own preconceived aims and beliefs; or else a character dull, mechanical, unalert, because the vital juice of spontaneous interest has been squeezed out.

We may now hear the defendant's case. Life, says the other theory, is full of things not interesting that have to be faced. Demands are continually made, situations have to be dealt with, which present no features of interest. Unless one has had previous training in devoting himself to uninteresting work, unless habits have been formed of attending to matters simply because they must be attended to irrespective of the personal satisfaction they afford, character will break down or avoid the issue when confronted with the serious matters of life. Life is not a merely pleasant affair, or a continual satisfaction of personal interests. There must be such continual exercise of effort in the performance of tasks as to form the habit of dealing with the real labors of life. Anything else eats out the fiber of character and leaves a wishy-washy, colorless being; a state of moral dependence, with continual demand for amusement and distraction.

Apart from the question of the future, continually to appeal even in childhood days to the principle of interest is eternally to excite, that is, distract the child. Continuity of activity is destroyed. Everything is made play, amusement. This means over-stimulation; it means dissipation of energy. Will is never called into action. The reliance is upon external attractions and amusements. Everything is sugar-coated for the child, and he soon learns to turn from everything that is not artificially surrounded with diverting circumstances. The spoiled child who does only what he likes is an inevitable outcome.

The theory is intellectually as well as morally harmful. Attention is never directed to the essential and important facts, but simply to the attractive wrappings with which the facts are surrounded. If a fact is repulsive or uninteresting, it has to be faced in its own naked character sooner or later. Putting a fringe of fictitious interest around it does not bring the child any nearer to it than he was at the outset. The fact that two and two make four is naked fact which has to be mastered in and of itself. The child gets no greater hold upon the fact by having attached to it amusing stories of birds or dandelions than if the simple naked fact were presented to him. It is self-deception to suppose that the child is being interested in the numerical relation. His attention is going out to and taking in only the amusing images associated with this relation. The theory thus defeats its own end. It would be more straightforward to recognize at the outset that certain facts having little or no interest, must be learned and that the only way to deal with them is through effort, the power of putting forth activity independently of any external inducement. In this way only is the discipline, the habit of responding to serious matters, formed which is necessary for the life that lies ahead of the child.

I have attempted to set forth the respective claims of each side of the discussion. A little reflection will convince us that the strong point in each argument lies not so much in what it says in its own behalf as in its attacks on the weak places of the opposite theory. Each theory is strong in its negations rather than in its position. It is not unusual, though somewhat surprising, that there is generally a common principle unconsciously assumed at the basis of two theories which to all outward appearances are the extreme opposites of each other. Such a common principle is found on the theories of effort and interest in the one-sided forms in which they have already been stated.

The common assumption is that of the externality of the object, idea, or end to be mastered to the self. Because the object or end is assumed to be outside self it has to be made interesting; to be surrounded with artificial stimuli and with fictitious inducements to attention. Or, because the object lies outside the sphere of self, the sheer power of "will," the putting forth of effort without interest, has to be appealed to. The genuine principle of interest is the principle of the recognized identity of the fact to be learned or the action proposed with the growing self; that it lies in the direction of the agent's own growth, and is, therefore, imperiously demanded, if the agent is to be himself. Let this condition of identification once be secured, and we have neither to appeal to sheer strength of will, nor to occupy ourselves with making things interesting.

The theory of effort means a virtual division of attention and the corresponding disintegration of character, intellectually and morally. The great fallacy of the so-called effort theory is that it identifies the exercise and training of mind with certain external activities and certain external results. It is supposed that, because a child is occupied at some outward task and because he succeeds in exhibiting the required product, that he is really putting forth will, and that definite intellectual and moral habits are in process of formation. But, as a matter of fact, the exercise of will is not found in the external assumption of any posture; the formation of moral habit cannot be identified with ability to show up results at the demand of another. The exercise of will is manifest in the direction of attention, and depends upon the spirit, the motive, the disposition in which work is carried on.

A child may externally be entirely occupied with mastering the multiplication table, and be able to reproduce that table when asked to do so by his teacher. The teacher may congratulate himself that the child has been exercising his will power so as to form right habits. Not so, unless right habit be identified with this ability to show certain results when required. The question of educative training has not been touched until we know what the child has been internally occupied with, what the predominating direction of his attention, his feelings, his disposition has been while he has been engaged upon this task. If the task appeals to him merely as a task, it is as certain psychologically, as is the law of action and reaction physically, that the child is simply engaged in acquiring the habit of divided attention; that he is getting the ability to direct eye and ear, lips and mouth, to what is present before him so as to impress those things upon his memory, while at the same time he is setting his thoughts free to work upon matters of real interest to him.

No account of the educative training actually secured is adequate unless it recognizes the division of attention into which the child is being educated, and faces the question of what the worth of such a division may be. External mechanical attention to a task as a task is inevitably accompanied by random mind-wandering along the lines of the pleasurable.

The spontaneous power of the child, his demand for realization of his own impulses, cannot be suppressed. If the external conditions are such that the child cannot put his activity into the work to be done, he learns, in a most miraculous way, the exact amount of attention that has to be given to this external material to satisfy the requirements of the teacher, while saving up the rest of his powers for following out lines of suggestion that appeal to him. I do not say that there is absolutely no moral training involved in forming these habits of external attention, but I say that there is also a question of moral import as to the formation of habits of intellectual dissipation.

While we are congratulating ourselves upon the well-disciplined habits which the pupil is acquiring (judged by his ability to reproduce a lesson when called upon) we forget to commiserate ourselves because his deeper nature has secured no discipline at all, but has been left to follow its own caprices and the disordered suggestions of the moment. I do not see how anyone can deny that the training of habits of imagination and lines of emotional indulgence is at least equally important with the development of certain outward habits of action. For myself, when it comes to the moral question, not merely to that of practical convenience, I think it is infinitely more important. Nor do I see how anyone at all familiar with the great mass of existing school work can deny that the greater part of the pupils are gradually forming habits of divided attention. If the teacher is skillful and wide-awake, if she is what is termed a good disciplinarian, the child will indeed learn to keep his senses intent in certain ways, but he will also learn to direct his thoughts, which should be concentrated upon subject matter if the latter is to be significant, in quite other directions. It would not be wholly palatable if we had to face the actual condition of the majority of pupils that leave our schools. We should find this division of attention and the resulting disintegration so great that we might cease teaching in sheer disgust. None the less, it is well for us to recognize that this state of things exists, and that it is the inevitable outcome of those conditions which exact the simulation of attention without securing its essence.

The principle of "making" objects and ideas interesting implies the same divorce between object and self. When things have to be made interesting, it is because interest itself is wanting. Moreover, the phrase is a misnomer. The thing, the object, is no more interesting than it was before. The appeal is simply made to the child's love of something else. He is excited in a given direction, with the hope that somehow or other during this excitation he will assimilate something otherwise repulsive. There are two types of pleasure. One is the accompaniment of activity. It is found wherever there is successful achievement, mastery, getting on. It is the personal phase of an outgoing energy. This sort of pleasure is always absorbed in the activity itself It has no separate existence. This is the type of pleasure found in legitimate interest. Its source lies in meeting the needs of the organism. The other sort of pleasure arises from contact. It marks receptivity. Its stimuli are external. It exists by itself as a pleasure, not as the pleasure of activity. Being merely excited by some external stimulus, it is not a quality of any act in which an external object is constructively dealt with.

When objects are made interesting, this latter type of pleasure comes into play. Advantage is taken of the fact that a certain amount of excitation of any organ is pleasurable. The pleasure arising is employed to cover the gap between self and some fact not in itself having interest.

The result is division of energies. In the case of disagreeable effort the division is simultaneous. In this case, it is successive. Instead of having a mechanical, external activity and a random internal activity at the same time, there is oscillation of excitement and apathy. The child alternates between periods of overstimulation and of inertness, as is seen in some so-called kindergartens. Moreover, this excitation of any particular organ, as eye or ear, by itself, creates a further demand for more stimulation of the same sort. It is as possible to create an appetite on the part of the eye or the ear for pleasurable stimulation as it is on the part of taste. Some children are as dependent upon the recurrent presence of bright colors or agreeable sounds as the drunkard is upon his dram. It is this which accounts for the distraction and dissipation of energy characteristic of such children, for their dependence upon external suggestion, and their lack of resources when left to themselves.

The discussion up to this point may be summarized as follows: Genuine interest is the accompaniment of the identification, through action, of the self with some object or idea, because of the necessity of that object or idea for the maintenance of a self-initiated activity. Effort, in the sense in which it may be opposed to interest, implies a separation between the self and the fact to be mastered or task to be performed, and sets up an habitual division of activities. Externally, we have mechanical habits with no mental end or value. Internally, we have random energy or mind-wandering, a sequence of ideas with no end at all, because they are not brought to a focus in action. Interest, in the sense in which it is opposed to effort, means simply an excitation of the sense organ to give pleasure, resulting in strain on one side and listlessness on the other.

But when we recognize there are certain powers within the child urgent for development, needing to be acted out in order to secure their own efficiency and discipline, we have a firm basis upon which to build. Effort arises normally in the attempt to give full operation, and thus growth and completion, to these powers. Adequately to act upon these impulses involves seriousness, absorption, definiteness of purpose; it results in formation of steadiness and persistent habit in the service of worthy ends. But this effort never degenerates into drudgery, or mere strain of dead lift, because interest abides—the self is concerned throughout. Our first conclusion is that interest means a unified activity.