Interest and Effort in Education/Chapter 2

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We now come to our second main topic, the psychology of interest. I begin with a brief descriptive account. Interest is first active, projective, or propulsive. We take interest. To be interested in any matter is to be actively concerned with it. Mere feeling regarding a subject may be static or inert, but interest is dynamic. Second, it is objective. We say a man has many interests to care for or look after. We talk about the range of a man's interests, his business interests, local interests, etc. We identify interests with concerns or affairs. Interest does not end simply in itself, as bare feelings may, but is embodied in an object of regard. Third, interest is personal; it signifies a direct concern; a recognition of something at stake, something whose outcome is important for the individual. It has its emotional as well as its active and objective sides. Patent law or electric inventions or politics may be a man's chief interest; but this implies that his personal well-being and satisfaction is somehow bound up with the prosperity of these affairs.

These are the various meanings in which common sense employs the term interest. The root idea of the term seems to be that of being engaged, engrossed, or entirely taken up with some activity because of its recognized worth. The etymology of the term inter-esse, "to be between," points in the same direction. Interest marks the annihilation of the distance between the person and the materials and results of his action; it is the sign of their organic union.[1]

1. The active or propulsive phase of interest takes us back to the consideration of impulse and the spontaneous urgencies or tendencies of activity. There is no such thing as absolutely diffuse impartial impulse. Impulse is always differentiated along some more or less specific channel. Impulse has its own special lines of discharge. The old puzzle about the ass between two bundles of hay is only too familiar, but the recognition of its fundamental fallacy is not so common. If the self were purely passive or purely indifferent, waiting upon stimulation from without, then the self illustrated in this supposed example would remain forever helpless, starving to death, because of its equipoise between two sources of food. The error lies in assuming any such passive condition. One is always already doing something, intent on something urgent. And this ongoing activity always gives a bent in one direction rather than another. The ass, in other words, is always already moving toward one bundle rather than the other. No amount of physical cross-eyedness could induce such mental cross-eyedness that the animal would be in a condition of equal stimulation from both sides. Wherever there is life there is activity, an activity having some tendency or direction of its own.

In this primitive condition of spontaneous, impulsive activity we have the basis of natural interest. Interest is no more passively waiting around to be excited from the outside than is impulse. In the selective or preferential quality of impulse we have the fact that at any given time, if we are awake at all, we are always interested in one direction rather than another. The condition either of total lack of interest, or of impartially distributed interest, is as mythical as the story of the ass in scholastic ethics.

2. The objective side of interest. Every interest, as already said, attaches itself to an object. The artist is interested in his brushes, in his colors, in his technique. The business man is interested in the play of supply and demand, in the movement of markets, etc. Take whatever instance of interest we choose, and we shall find that, if we cut out an object about which interest clusters, interest itself disappears relapsing into empty feeling.

Error begins in supposing the object already there, and then calling the activity into being. Canvas, brushes, and paints interest the artist, for example, because they help him discover and promote his existing artistic capacity. There is nothing in a wheel and a piece of string to arouse a child's activity save as they appeal to some instinct or impulse already active, and supply it with means of execution. The number twelve is uninteresting when it is a bare, external fact; it has interest (just as has the top or wheelbarrow or toy locomotive) when it presents itself as an instrument of carrying into effect some dawning energy or desire—making a box, measuring one's height, etc. And in its difference of degree exactly the same principle holds of the most technical items of scientific or historic knowledge—whatever furthers action, helps mental movement, is of interest.

3. We now come to the emotional phase. Value is not only objective but also subjective. There is not only the thing which is projected as valuable or worth while, but there is also appreciation of its worth.

The gist of the psychology of interest may, accordingly, be stated as follows: An interest is primarily a form of self-expressive activity—that is, of growth that comes through acting upon nascent tendencies. If we examine this activity on the side of what is done, we get its objective features, the ideas, objects, etc., to which the interest is attached, about which it clusters. If we take into account that it is self-development, that self finds itself in this content, we get its emotional or appreciative side. Any account of genuine interest must, therefore, grasp it as out-going activity holding within its grasp an object of direct value.

There are cases where action is direct and immediate. It puts itself forth with no thought of anything beyond. It satisfies in and of itself. The end is the present activity, and so there is no gap in the mind between means and end. All play is of this immediate character. Purely æsthetic appreciation approximates this type. The existing experience holds us for its own sake, and we do not demand that it takes us into something beyond itself. With the child and his ball, the amateur and the hearing of a phony, the present object engrosses. Its value is there, and is there in what is directly present.

On the other hand, we have cases of indirect, transferred, or technically speaking, mediated interest. Things indifferent or even repulsive in themselves often become of interest because of assuming relationships and connections of which we were previously unaware. Many a student, of so-called practical make-up, has found mathematical theory, once repellent, lit up by great attractiveness after studying some form of engineering in which this theory was a necessary tool. The musical score and the technique of fingering, in which the child finds no interest when it is presented as an end in itself, when it is isolated, becomes fascinating when the child realizes its place and bearings in helping him give better and fuller utterance to his love of song. Whether it appeals or fails to appeal is a question of relationship. While the little child takes only a near view of things, as he grows in experience he becomes capable of extending his range, and seeing an act, or a thing, or a fact not by itself, but as part of a larger whole. If this whole belongs to him, if it is a mode of his own movement, then the thing or act which it includes gains interest too.

Here, and here only, have we the reality of the idea of "making things interesting." I know of no more demoralizing doctrine—when taken literally—than the assertion of some of the opponents of interest that after subject-matter has been selected, then the teacher should make it interesting. This combines in itself two thorough-going errors. On one side, it makes the selection of subject-matter a matter quite independent of the question of interest—that is to say of the child's native urgencies and needs; and, further, it reduces method in instruction to more or less external and artificial devices for dressing up the unrelated materials, so that they will get some hold upon attention. In reality, the principle of "making things interesting" means that subjects be selected in relation to the child's present experience, powers, and needs; and that (in case he does not perceive or appreciate this relevancy) the new material be presented in such a way as to enable the child to appreciate its bearings, its relationships, its value in connection with what already has significance for him. It is this bringing to consciousness of the bearings of the new material which constitutes the reality, so often perverted both by friend and foe, in "making things interesting."

In other words, the problem is one of intrinsic connection as a motive for attention. The teacher who tells the child he will be kept after school if he doesn't recite his geography lesson better[2] is appealing to the psychology of mediate interest. The old English method of rapping knuckles for false Latin quantities is one way of arousing interest in the intricacies of Latin. To offer a child a bribe, or a promise of teacher's affection, or promotion to the next grade, or ability to make money, or to take a position in society, are other modes. They are cases of transferred interest. But the criterion for judging them lies just here: How far is one interest externally attached to another, or substituted for another? How far does the new appeal, the new motive, serve to interpret, to bring out, to relate the material otherwise without interest? It is a question, again, of inter-esse. The problem may be stated as one of the relations of means and end. Anything indifferent or repellent becomes of interest when seen as a means to an end already commanding attention; or seen as an end that will allow means already under control to secure further movement and outlet. But, in normal growth the interest in means is not externally tied on to the interest in an end; it suffuses, saturates, and thus transforms it. It interprets or revalues it—gives it a new significance. The man who has a wife and family has thereby a new motive for his daily work—he sees a new meaning in it, and takes into it a steadiness and enthusiasm previously lacking. But when he does his day's work as a thing intrinsically disagreeable, as drudgery, simply for the sake of the final wage-reward, the case is quite different. Means and end remain remote; they do not permeate one another. The person is no more really interested in his work than he was before; in itself, it is a hardship to be escaped from. Hence he cannot give full attention to it; he cannot put himself unreservedly into it. But to the other man every stroke of work may literally mean his wife and baby. Externally, physically, they are remote; mentally, with respect to his plan of living, they are one; they have the same value. In drudgery on the contrary means and end remain as separate in consciousness as they are in space and time. What is true of this is true of every attempt in teaching to "create interest" by appeal to external motives.

At the opposite scale, take a case of artistic construction. The sculptor has his end, his ideal, in view. To realize that end he must go through a series of intervening steps which are not, on their face, equivalent to the end. He must model and mold and chisel; perform a series of particular acts, no one of which exhibits or is the beautiful form he has in mind, and every one of which represents the putting forth of personal energy. But because these are necessary means in the achieving of his activity, the meaning of the finished form is transferred over into these special acts. Each molding of the clay, each stroke of the chisel, is for him at the time the whole end in process of realization. Whatever interest or value attaches to the end attaches to each of these steps. He is as much absorbed in one as in the other. Any failure in this complete identification means an inartistic product, means that he is not really interested in his ideal. Upon the other hand, his interest is in the end regarded as an end of the particular processes which are its means. Interest attaches to it because of its place in the active process of what it is but the culmination. He may also regret the approach of the day that will put an end to such an interesting piece of work. At all events, it is not the mere external product that holds him.

We have spoken freely of means and ends because these terms are in common use. We must, however, analyze them somewhat to make sure they are not misunderstood. The terms "means" and "end" apply primarily to the position occupied by acts as stages of a single developing activity, and only secondarily to things or objects. The end really means the final stage of an activity, its last or terminal period; the means are the earlier phases, those gone through before the activity reaches its termination. This is plainly seen in, say, the leisurely eating of a meal, as distinct from rushing through it to have it over as soon as possible; in the playing of the game of ball, in listening to a musical theme. In each case there is a definite outcome; after the meal is eaten, there is a certain amount of food in the system; when the nine innings of the game of baseball are ended, one side or the other has won. Henceforth—afterwards—it is possible to separate the external result from the process, from the continuous activity which led up to it. Afterwards we tend to separate the result from the process; to regard the result of the process as the end and the whole process as simply a means to the external result. But in civilized society, eating is not merely a means to getting so much food-power into the system; it is a social process, a time of family and friendly reunion; moreover, each course of the meal has its own enjoyment just as a matter of partaking of food, that is, of an active continuing process. Division into means and end hardly has any meaning. Each stage of the entire process has its own adequate significance or interest; the earlier quite as much as the latter. Even here, however, there is a tendency to keep the best till the last—the dessert comes at the end. That is, there is a tendency to make the last stage fulfilling or consummating stage.

In the hearing of the musical theme, the earlier stages are far from being mere means to the later; they give the mind a certain set and dispose it to anticipate later developments. So the end, the conclusion, is not a mere last thing in time; it completes what has gone before; it settles, so to speak, the character of the theme as a whole. In the ball game, the interest may intensify with every passing stage of the game; the last inning finally settles who wins and who loses, a matter which up to that time has been in suspense or doubt. In the game, the last stage is not only the last in time, but also settles the character of the entire game, and so gives meaning to all that has preceded. Nevertheless the earlier parts of the game are true parts of the game; they are not mere means for reaching a last inning.

In these illustrations we have seen how the last stage may be the fulfilling, the completing, or consummating of all that has gone before, and may thus decide the nature of the activity as a whole. In no case, however, is the end equivalent simply to an external result. The mere fact that one side won—the external result or object—is of no significance apart from the game whose conclusion it marks. Just so, we may say that the value of x in an algebraic equation is 5. But to say in general that x equals 5 is nonsense. This result is significant only as the outcome of a particular process of solving a particular equation. If, however, the mathematical inquiry is carried on to deal with other connected equations, it is possible to separate the result, 5, from what led up to it, and in further calculating to use 5 independently of the equation whose solution it was. This fact introduces a further complication.

Many, most, of our activities, are interconnected. We not only have the process of eating the meal, but we have the further use of the food eaten—its assimilation and transformation into energy for new operations. The musical theme heard may represent a step in a more continuous process of musical education. The outcome of the game may be a factor in determining the relative standing of two clubs in a series of contests. An inventor of a new telephonic device is preoccupied with the different steps of the process; but when the invention is completed, it becomes a factor in a different set of activities. When the artist has finished his picture, his question may be how to sell that picture so as to get a living for his family. This fact of the employment of the result of one course of action as a readymade factor in some other course leads us to think of means and ends as fixed things external to an activity, and to think of the whole activity as a mere means to an external product. The ball game is thus thought of as a mere means to winning, and that winning in turn as a mere means to winning a series. Winning the series may in turn be regarded as a mere means of getting a sum of money or a certain amount of glory, and so on indefinitely. Unless discussion is to get confused, we must therefore carefully distinguish between two senses of the term end. While the activity is in progress, "end" simply means an object as standing for the culminating stage of the whole process; it represents the need of looking ahead and considering what we are now doing so that it will lead as simply and effectively as possible into what is to be done later. After the activity has come to its conclusion, "end" means the product accomplished as a fixed thing. The same considerations apply to the term "means." During the activity it signifies simply the materials or ways of acting involved in the successive stages of the growth of an activity up to its fulfillment. After the activity is accomplished, its product as detached from the action that led up to it may be used as a means for achieving something else.

This distinction is not a merely theoretical one, but one that affects the whole scope and significance of interest in teaching. The purely adventitious interests we have discussed—making a thing interesting by the sugar-coating method—assumes a certain ready subject-matter—a subject-matter existing wholly independently of the pupil's own activity. It then asks how this alien subject-matter may be introduced into the pupil's mind; how his attention may be drawn away from the things with which it is naturally concerned and drawn to this indifferent, readymade external material. Some interest, some bond of connection, must be found. Prevalent practices and the training and disposition of the teacher will decide whether the methods of "hard" or of "soft" pedagogy shall be resorted to; whether we shall have a "soup-kitchen" type of teaching or a "penitentiary" type. Shall the indifferent thing (indifferent because lying outside of the individual's scheme of activities) be made interesting—by clothing it with adventitious traits that are agreeable; or by methods of threats—by making attention to it less disagreeable than the consequences of non-attention so that study is a choice of the lesser of two evils?

Both of these methods, however, represent failure to ask the right question and to seek for the right method of solution. What course of activity exists already (by native endowment or by past achievement) operative in the pupil's experience with respect to which the thing to be learned, the mode of skill to be acquired, is either a means or an end? What line of action is there, that is to say, which can be carried forward to its appropriate termination better by noting and using the subject-matter? Or what line of action is there, which can be directed so that when carried to its completion it will naturally terminate in the things to be learned? The mistake, once more, consists in overlooking the activities in which the child is already engaged, or in assuming that they are so trivial or so irrelevant that they have no significance for education. When they are duly taken into account the new subject-matter is interesting on its own account in the degree in which it enters into their operation. The mistake lies in treating these existing activities as if they had reached their limit of growth; as if they were satisfactory in their present shape and simply something to be excited; or else just unsatisfactory and something to be repressed.

The distinction between means and ends external to a process of action and those intrinsic to it enables us to understand the difference between pleasures and happiness. In the degree in which anybody externally happens to fall upon anything and to be excited agreeably by it, pleasure results. The question of pleasure is a question of the immediate or momentary reaction. Happiness differs in quality from both a pleasure and a series of pleasures. Children are almost always happy, joyous—and so are grown people—when engaged consecutively in any unconstrained mode of activity—when they are occupied, busy. The emotional accompaniment of the progressive growth of a course of action, a continual movement of expansion and of achievement, is happiness;—mental content or peace, which when emphatic, is called joy, delight. Persons, children or adults, are interested in what they can do successfully, in what they approach with confidence and engage in with a sense of accomplishment. Such happiness or interest is not self-conscious or selfish; it is a sign of developing power and of absorption in what is being done. Only when an activity is monotonous does happiness cease to attend its performance, and monotony means that growth, development, have ceased; nothing new is entering in to carry an activity forward. On the other hand, lack of normal occupations brings uneasiness, irritability, and demand for any kind of stimulation which will arouse activity—a state that easily passes into a longing for excitement, for its own sake. Healthy children in a healthy family or social environment do not ask, "What pleasure can I have now?" but "What can I do now?" The demand is for a growing activity, an occupation, an interest. Given that, happiness will take care of itself.

There is no rigid, insurmountable line between direct and indirect interest. As an activity grows more complex, it involves more factors. A child who is simply building with blocks has an activity of very short time span; his end is just ahead of what he is doing at the moment—namely, to keep on building so that his pile grows higher—does not tumble down. It makes no difference to him just what he makes, as long as it stands up. When the pile tumbles, he is content to start over again. But when he aims at something more complicated, the erection of a certain kind of structure with his blocks, the increased complexity of the end gives the cycle of his actions a longer time span; arrival at its end is postponed. He must do more things before he reaches his result, and accordingly he must carry that result in mind for a longer time as a control of his actions from moment to moment. Gradually this situation passes over into one where an immediate activity would make no appeal at all were it not for some more remote end which is valuable and for the sake of which intervening means, not of themselves of concern, are important. With trained adults an end in the distant future, a result to be reached only after a term of years, may stimulate and regulate a long series of difficult intervening steps which, in isolation from the thought of the end, would be matters of total indifference, or even repellent. From this side, then, the development of indirect interests is simply a sign of the growth or expansion of simple activities into more complex ones, requiring longer and longer periods of time for their execution, and consequently involving postponement of achieving the end which gives decisive meaning and full worth to the intervening steps.

Not only, however, does the direct interest in an object pass thus gradually and naturally into indirect interest as the scope of action is prolonged, but the reverse process takes place. Indirect values become direct. Everybody has heard of the man who at first is interested in an acquisition of money because of what he can do with it and who finally becomes so absorbed in the mere possessing of gold that he gloats over it. This clearly expresses an undesirable instance of the change of means into end. But normal and desirable changes of the same kind are frequent. Pupils who are first interested in, say, number relations, because of what they can do with these relations in making something else (at first interested, that is, in a branch of arithmetic simply as a means or tool), may become fascinated by what they can do with number on its own account.[3]

Boys who are at first interested in skill in playing marbles or ball simply because it is a factor in a game which interests them, become interested in practicing the acts of shooting at a mark, of throwing, catching, etc., and so arduously devote themselves to the perfecting of skill. The technical exercises that give skill in the game become themselves a sort of a game. Girls who are interested in making clothes for a doll, simply for the sake of the interest in playing with dolls, may develop an interest in making clothes till the doll itself becomes simply a sort of an excuse, or at least just a stimulus, for making clothes.

If the reader will reflect upon his own course of life over a certain period of time, he will find that the sort of thing which is somewhat trivially illustrated in these examples is of constant occurrence. He will find that wherever his activities have grown in extent and range of meaning (instead of becoming petrified and fossilized), one or other (or both) of two things has been going on. On the one hand, narrower and simpler types of interest (requiring a shorter time for their realization) have been expanding to cover a longer time. With this change they have grown richer and fuller. They have grown to include many things previously indifferent or even repulsive as the value of the end now takes up into itself the value of whatever is involved in the process of achieving it. On the other hand, many things, that were first of significance only because they were needed as parts of an activity of interest only as a whole, have become valued on their own account. Sometimes it will even be found that they have displaced entirely the type of activity in connection with which they originally grew up. This is just what happens when children outgrow interests that have previously held them; as when boys feel it is now beneath them to play marbles and girls find themselves no longer interested in their dolls. Looked at superficially, the original interest seems simply to have been crowded out or left behind. Examined more carefully, it will be found that activities and objects at first esteemed simply because of their place within the original activity have grown to be of more account than that for the sake of which they were at first entertained. In many cases, unless the simpler and seemingly more trivial interest had had sway at the proper time, the later more important and specialized activity would not have arisen. And this same process can be verified in adult development as well, as long as development goes on. When it ceases, arrest of growth sets in.

We are now in a position to restate, in a more significant way, the true and the false ways of understanding the function of interest in education, and to formulate a criterion for judging whether the principle of interest is being rightly or wrongly employed. Interest is normal and reliance upon it educationally legitimate in the degree in which the activity in question involves growth or development. Interest is illegitimately used in the degree in which it is either a symptom or a cause of arrested development in an activity.

These formulæ are of course abstract and far from self-explanatory. But in the light of our prior discussion their significance should be obvious. When interest is objected to as merely amusement or fooling or a temporary excitation (or when in educational practice it does mean simply such things), it will be found that the interest in question is something which attaches merely to a momentary activity apart from its place in an enduring activity—an activity that develops through a period of time. When this happens, the object that arouses (what is called) interest is esteemed just on the basis of the momentary reaction it calls out, the immediate pleasure it excites. "Interest" so created is abnormal, for it is a sign of the dissipation of energy; it is a symptom that life is being cut up into a series of disconnected reactions, each one of which is esteemed by itself apart from what it does in carrying forward (or developing) a consecutive activity. As we have already seen, it is one thing to make, say, number interesting by merely attaching to it other things that happen to call out a pleasurable reaction; it is a radically different sort of thing to make it interesting by introducing it so that it functions as a genuine means of carrying on a more inclusive activity. In the latter case, interest does not mean the excitation due to the association of some other thing irrelevant to number; it means that number is of interest because it has a function in the furtherance of a continuous or enduring line of activity.

Our conclusion, then, is not simply that some interests are good while others are bad; but that true interests are signs that some material, object, mode of skill (or whatever) is appreciated on the basis of what it actually does in carrying to fulfillment some mode of action with which a person has identified himself. Genuine interest, in short, simply means that a person has identified himself with, or has found himself in, a certain course of action. Consequently he is identified with whatever objects and forms of skill are involved in the successful prosecution of that course. This course of action may cover greater or shorter time according to circumstances, particularly according to the experience and maturity of the person concerned. It is absurd to expect a young child to be engaged in an activity as complex as that of an older child, or the older child as in that of an adult. But some expansion, enduring through some length of time, is entailed. Even a baby interested in hitting a saucer with a spoon is not concerned with a purely momentary reaction and excitation. The hitting is connected with the sound to follow, and has interest on that account; and the resulting sound has interest not in its isolation, but as a consequence of the striking. An activity of such a short span forms a direct interest, and spontaneous play activities in general are of this sort. For (to repeat what has already been said) in such cases it is not necessary to bear the later and fulfilling activities in mind in order to keep the earlier activities agoing and to direct their manner of performance and their order or sequence. But the more elaborate the action, the longer the time required by the activity; the longer the time, the more the consummating or fulfilling stage is postponed; and the longer the postponement, the greater the opportunity for the interest in the end to come into conflict with interest in intervening steps.

The next step in the discussion consists in seeing that effort comes into play in the degree in which achievement of an activity is postponed or remote; and that the significance of situations demanding effort is their connection with thought.

  1. It is true that the term interest is also used in a definitely disparaging sense. We speak of interest as opposed to principle, of self-interest as a motive to action which regards only one's personal advantage; but these are neither the only nor the controlling senses in which the term is used. It may fairly be questioned whether this is anything but a narrowing or degrading of the legitimate sense of the term. However that may be, it appears certain that controversy regarding the use of interest arises because one party is using the term in the larger, objective sense of recognized value or engrossing activity, while the other is using it as equivalent to a selfish motive.
  2. I have heard it argued in all seriousness that a child kept after school to study has often acquired an interest in arithmetic or grammar which he didn't have before, as if this proved the efficacy of "discipline" versus interest. Of course, the reality is that the greater leisure, the opportunity for individual explanation afforded, served to bring the material into its proper relations in the child's mind—he "got a hold" of it.
  3. In our usual terminology interest in "concrete" number passes into an interest in "abstract" number.