Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/August 1882/National Necessities and National Education

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I ASK myself if the system of education at present going on in our nation is a system which has a proper relation to the necessities of the nation. I look round me, to see the nation in chaos of thought and action; in what Mr. Gladstone has correctly defined as social revolution in one part, and mental revolution in all parts; mental revolution that might, by merest accident, by one or two days' shortness of food, from failure of foreign supply and panic thereupon, pass, after a few years of further chaos, into physical revolution. And the thought which occurs to my mind, as it must to all who think, is, Are we educating to prevent catastrophe? Are we educating the young to become useful, independent, and capable working members of society, ready to work with muscle as well as brain, in orderly and profitable form, or are we educating them to become mere troublers without design, repiners without hope, schemers without self-endurance, masters of the forces of Nature herself, knowing how to use them for temporary, selfish, insane objects, but not knowing how to apply them for splendid results and the general good?

The national necessities as the bases of national education are, first and foremost, these: that although in the early days of youth the three simple elementary educational practices of learning to read, to write, and to calculate, are necessities for the time, they are comparatively valueless unless combined with further necessities of a physical kind namely, sound and systematic muscular training; freedom of breathing, and circulation of the blood; practical training, so that the body can be structurally built up and sustained in health; preparation for all duties requiring precision, decision, presence of mind, and endurance; and readiness to acquire any craft or handicraft that may bring a useful living; in a word, an education that shall bring the mental and physical qualities of every person into faithful harmony and good-will.

I, like some of my colleagues at the School Board, would break up the monotony of the schoolmaster and the schoolmistress, and would give those excellent workers as much variety of teaching as any of them could desire. But that variety should be physical, not mental; play, rather than work; training of the muscles, and, I may say, of the skeleton too; of the lungs, of the heart, of the digestive organs; of brain and nerve for action—not of brain alone, and again brain, and brain, hour by hour, all the day long. I, like others of my colleagues, would encourage economy, not by keeping things as they are, but by saving some part of the two fifths of the money now expended on teaching to spell, and by laying it out in teaching how to walk with grace and ease; to sing with correctness; to swim; to learn the use of the arms, and fingers, and hands; and to become men and women in the strict sense of the word, without danger of retrograding a hair's breadth in the Darwinian line.

I said, in my address at the Health Congress, at Brighton, what was quite true, that I had never in my life seen a healthy child, by which I meant that I had never seen a child that had not in it either some actual or latent constitutional disease. Touching the subject now in hand, it is equally true to say that it is all but impossible to find, in the board schools of our large towns, any semblance, critically viewed, of health. Constitutional taints, which under favorable circumstances may often be concealed, and which may or may not be apparent, are there. Various conditions of disease are there, independently of the tendency from heredity; there of themselves, in some irregularity of body or limb, in some imperfection of sense, in some deficiency of quality of blood, in some feebleness of respiration, in some nervous irregularity of function, in some shade of mental aberration.

The field of disease which is presented in some of the schools situated in crowded localities is indeed a sight at once for anxiety and pity. To the eye of a physician who, like myself, has spent many years in dispensary practice, it tells a story which is absolutely painful, if he permit the results to be calculated out in his mind at leisure hours; if, that is to say, he compares what he has witnessed in his survey with what he has learned, from long observation, of the meaning of the phenomena in the history of life. It is not necessary to strip the children, percuss and sound the chest, examine the spine, or practice any of those refined arts of diagnosis with which he is familiar. He reads from the indications of temperament, of expression of countenance, of color of skin, of position of limb, of build of body, of gait, of voice, sufficient outward manifestation to discern what is the true physical state, what are the stamp and extent of disease, what is the vital value of the lives generally that are before him.

Foremost among the evils which are thus presented to him are those conditions of disease known as anæmia and cachexia. Strictly, these are not diseases like diabetes, bronchitis, or defined affections having a regular course, but they are states of diseased form, which by their presence indicate a faulty nutrition at the period of life when good nutrition is most required, and which can not long go on without insuring the construction of an impaired bodily organization. The blood is not being duly oxygenated, and food, therefore, though it even be fair in quality or quantity, is not properly applied. The nervous system is imperfectly built up; the skeleton is imperfectly built up; the muscular system is imperfectly built up and sustained. How can the improvement which is called scholarship be turned to fitting account in such recipients of it? I watched recently the afternoon working of a large class of scholars, and counted one third of them under the most decisive influence of these conditions of disease. Of the affected, there would not be, in the ordinary averaging of life, twenty years of existence under the course that was being followed. The one saving clause in their case was development by physical training, and that was withheld. The one destroying clause in their case was over mental work, without the physical training, and that was assiduously and regularly supplied.

With or without the anæmia and cachexia, there is the constitutional disease, struma or scrofula, present in these classes. The instances of this kind, in varying degrees of intensity, are most numerous. This condition, again, is a mal or bad nutrition. It, as much as cachexia and anæmia, with which it is so often allied, is fostered by the prevailing system of mental pressure.

With these two conditions before the eye, there is to be seen here and there in the classes, of both sexes, but of the girls especially, the specimen of the phthisical or consumptive subject. In a class of fifty I pick out three thus doomed, if their circumstances be not changed, six per cent, certainly a moderate proportion. The disease has not positively developed, but the probability of its developing is all but certain, unless it be checked by the one or only remedial or preventive method—freedom from nervous exhaustion, combined with physical exercise in open breathing-space. Such preventives are not supplied, but undue nervous exhaustion and confinement are both supplied, and so the fatal disease is systematically fanned from latency into activity.

Spinal deformity and irregular construction of the skeleton is another condition of disease, or actual disease, readily detectable in these classes.

Miss Löfing, speaking of her experiences as to the girls which have come under her notice, reports that they are, as a rule, very flat-chested, that there is evidently much spinal distortion, and that lateral curvature of the spine is common among them. This, which is equally true in respect to boys, is accounted for by Miss Löfing in terms which show that the present school system does more than simply permit the mischief that is progressing, it actually fosters it and promotes it. Asked "to what the effects are chiefly ascribable," she replies: "A part is ascribable to home neglects; but the greater part of it is due to excessive and prolonged constraints under the common-school conditions: too long sitting on badly constructed seats; but, with good seats, they are kept in bad positions in long writing exercises. The common bad position is, indeed, prescribed by the Government School Inspectors. I have found that, to obtain the school grants, the children are so constrained as to exclude the exercises that are needed for their bodily development."

The present system is not only a violation of physiological but of psychological law. The powers of receptivity of the minds of children of different ages have been tested experimentally, with as much care as physicists take when they are treating in their experiments on the relationships of ordinary matter to force. Certain brains can take in so much, and no more, according to age. The capacity grows with cultivation and skillful teaching, no doubt, but it must be permitted to grow. In the very young a lesson of a minute may be all-sufficient. Later, of three minutes, five, ten, fifteen, and so on, to one hour, two, or three. But to this there is a limit, and it is probable that, with the best scholar of primary-school age, the powers of receptivity rarely extend beyond a period of two hours and a half of direct teaching. Teachers of various districts, and of different countries, have testified in respect to this point, and while they have explained, from direct observation, that the receptivity varies in different children according to difference of temperament, physical health and build, as might very well be expected, the receptivity at one time, in all children, ceases at the end of three hours.

Proposed Reforms.—From these considerations let me now turn to the reforms which we, who are urgent as to reform in the present educational system, have in view. We reason that the existing system is not a basis for the national necessities. We are of opinion that in the future the education of a mental kind now being supplied will be imperfect and doubtful, nay, it may be of dangerous use, unless it be so laid out with physical culture that a perfect or comparatively perfect health of body shall go with it and sustain it. We urge that, as we must either educate health or disease, it is best to educate hearth.

The design we have in view, then, includes several heads, which I may arrange in the following order:

Physical Culture of the Body.—We urge that education should be so distinctly physical, that the body should be in no respect less improved than the mind at the close of the educational career. We follow, in this regard, the teaching of the Platonic philosophy, in which the master insists that the symmetry of mind and body be cultivated and maintained, without which there can not be beauty, there can not be health. We urge that this is the only sure way of keeping up a strong and vigorous and independent population, that shall understand how to utilize the home resources of land and industry, and keep the land and industry in the possession of our and their descendants.

The system of education that is now being carried out seems to us to promote in no way whatever this necessary intention. In the "standards" we find no efficient instruction of a technical kind that even in the barest hypothetical style teaches the principles of useful arts and appliances. Practical details of industries and of modes of learning industrial occupations are thought to be of less importance to the scholar than a knowledge of geography, construction of language, physiology, and history. It is no wish of ours to ignore studies of the kind above named, but we consider that elementary instruction in details of inventive and industrial pursuits holds a first place, and that in a country like ours in which so much, in which, in truth, almost everything, depends on individual perfection in some useful art, such elementary instruction ought to have the place it deserves at once and for good. We think, moreover, that the instruction should not be purely theoretical. We contend that it should include elementary training in useful work of a practical kind. We do not see why work-rooms should not be set up in schools, in which boys should be taught the use of the lathe; the beautiful art of wood-carving; the skill of the draughtsman; the method of distinguishing metals, and other simple experiments in chemistry; the arts of swimming and riding; the art of distinguishing colors and signs at a distance; the practice of mensuration, and a number of other good and useful branches of physical learning, which, whether the boy remain at home or whether he emigrate to another country, will always be to him a direct assistance, a means of earning his bread, and an insight and test of his particular ability or aptitude for the vocation by which his subsistence will be most easily obtained.

Extending this principle of practical teaching to the female sex, we would have the girls well trained, both theoretically and practically, in those occupations which in the course of life fall more distinctly under their exercise, management, or supervision. We know that in the schools at present girls are taught sewing and a few other useful industrial accomplishments. We would extend these instructions. We would have the girls instructed in modeling; in the art of coloring and painting on glass and porcelain; in the various processes of selecting, sorting, preserving, and preparing foods for the table; in the cleaning and ornamentation of drawing-room ornaments, and in all the works pertaining to domestic life. The girls in our schools would, as we believe, make more rapid progress in mere book-learning if one half of the time now devoted to books were devoted to that other branch of practical education which forms the greater part, in practice, of the future of the womanly life. We consider that evidence in proof of this belief has already been offered, and we suggest that a girl trained in the manner now described would, in this country, or in any other country into which she might emigrate, be far better fitted for the duties pertaining to any station she might hold, than if she were simply dismissed from school primed with the standards, and standardless.

Life-learning Tendencies.—We contend, secondly, that the education of the young of all classes, and of the poorest classes chiefly, should be so framed as to lead to the inducement of making the acquisition of knowledge a taste instead of a task, a pursuit instead of a labor. We contend that if the present system is pursued—in which children who are not by heredity born to mental occupation, and who are not physically privileged to acquire information, are, by sheer force, driven through the hard and fast lines, fenced out by the books called standards, at a pace that shall make them complete their education irrespectively of temperament, health, ability, before their thirteenth or fourteenth year—the pressure, amounting in every case to a hardship, will merely have the effect of causing them to cease to learn when the pressure is taken off. We insist upon this, that the system shall be so modified that there shall be no mental pressure at all, but a mixture of mental and physical teaching which shall bring the mind into desire for knowledge after it is freed from the necessities to acquire it.

Aptitude for Productive Ability.—A third advancement upon which we lay great stress is, that the educational system shall be of a kind that shall render the body of fitting aptitude for productive ability. We argue that, unless discrimination is used by the teacher for detecting the natural or hereditary capabilities of the scholar, there must be failure in result of the most serious kind; failure that will tell upon all the productive industries of the country, so that agriculture, the various industrial arts, the various labors which call for muscular skill, activity, and endurance, will be sacrificed, or largely reduced in effective value. In insisting on this practice of developing productive ability, we are sustained by the belief that nothing could be lost by the effort in the way of actual education. We are of opinion that the time saved by the adoption of varying conditions of school-work would prevent the injuries now incident to the fixed rules under which the educational system is enforced, and in this view we are supported by the opinions of the most practical teachers.

We maintain that courses of physical training such as we wish to introduce would have a distinct formative effect in mental habits. This is especially seen in the industrial and reformatory institutions where the same principles of mixed physical and mental training have been adopted as prevail in the district half-time schools. A draft report prepared for the consideration of the Education Committee says of them:

"In the long-time schools, during the time the boy is kept waiting under restraint, his mind is absent from his lessons, which are commonly so uninteresting as to be repugnant to his voluntary attention, and his thoughts are away on cricket, or some sort of pleasurable play, so that he generally only returns, upon call to the lesson, as to a task to be got rid of. Under the restraint of separate confinement in a prison, the mind of the young criminal can not, as is shown by his action on release, have been occupied with compunctious visitings of remorse, as commonly assumed. His thoughts are of his ill-luck under the wide chances of escape of which he has had experience during all the time he has been at large before detection, and of how he may have better luck when he gets out. He is exhorted to be good: but the child of the mendicant or of the delinquent does not see his way to doing other than he has done before; and why should he, so long as he feels his inaptitude of hand and arm for industrial work? Be this as it may, under the common conditions of restraint in the district schools, or in the reformatory schools—all of which, comprising some thirty thousand children, are now of necessity conducted on the half-time principle of varied physical and mental teaching—the pupil is placed under entirely new and opposite conditions, by which bad thoughts are excluded and good thoughts induced and impressed from day to day by practical work from the like of which he may hereafter get something good for himself. In the morning he is roused out of his sleep to attend to his head-to-foot washing and his dressing. Then he has to go with others to his breakfast; after that to the school, where, with his class, he is kept to the simultaneous class lesson without waiting, to which he willingly gives himself, as it is not over-wearisome, like the lessons of the long-time schools. He may next have to fall under the drill-master or the gymnast, and, if he stumble or fail, he is jeered by the other pupils, or reproved by the corporal; but he soon participates in the zeal and competition of common lively action. He may on the following day have a swimming-lesson. He may next have some naval exercise at the mast, where, unless he holds on, he will fall into the net spread beneath to receive him. Then he has to go to the workshop, where the work-master—in carpentry, in shoemaking, or in tailoring—keeps the mind, the hand, and the eye, of the pupil intently occupied. His day's occupation may be varied by freehand drawing, so useful to handicrafts, or by lessons in singing, or, if he be a very good and apt boy, by lessons in instrumental music. The enumeration of the incessant occupations may sound as of severe labor; but the course is varied by "relief-lessons," and it becomes so little irksome that an interruption is disagreeable, and an exclusion from any part of it is acutely felt as a punishment. When some parents exercise their right of taking away children from the district school, the children are not glad, but commonly cry at having to leave the institution, to part with their playmates or their workmates, and to go home. As the physical and industrial exercises have been improved, desertions have diminished and the outcomes bettered. From morn until night bad thoughts are much excluded, and comparatively good thoughts—thoughts of doing better for themselves by work and wages, and by all honest and esteemed position—are generated and impressed. The teacher can not look into the mind and see what effects, or whether any, have been produced by his precepts. But the drill-master or the work-master does see the valuable primary moral principles of attention, patience, self-restraint, prompt and exact obedience, in outward and visible action. The general result is that the pupil gets interested in what he does, and does it with a will."

We are strongly of the opinion that by the introduction of physical training the end will be accomplished of reducing natural crime.

Lastly, we submit that, to insure the future happiness and serenity of the people of the future, the children of the present should have their mental and art training varied by making the subject of recreation a scientific branch of study among all who are engaged in educational work. In such advance, we should have the means for recreation made the means for imperceptible instruction in bodily and mental powers, so that, having never unduly severed them from the tastes of the scholar, they shall be true resting-places, useful as well as pleasing diversions from mental and physical labor.

I have now put forward our programme. It is framed on what we conceive to be the basis of national necessities. A few concluding paragraphs may be taken as proposed resolutions to explain the mode in which we would carry out the reforms we have in view:

1. We propose to lessen the tasks of a mental kind in all schools, by the introduction of what is practically a half-time system. Believing that the brain of the child under fourteen years of age is sufficiently charged, to be safely charged, when it has been subjected to three hours work in book-teaching, we assume that this period per day of such teaching is sufficient for all useful and safe advancement, that the children would have more than they could learn, and would retain more than they need retain on this plan. We propose at the same time to make inspection into such book-learning less critical and less severe, with an institution of inspection into physical capability as a part of the inspection, in place of the part given up to book standards.

In connection with this department we propose that there should be at stated times a physical inquiry, by competent authority, into the health of every school and every scholar, and that as much special encouragement and reward should be given to scholars who present the best physique as to those who present proofs of superior attainments in the standards.

We propose further that this great change shall be effected by play, exercise, or work that shall be useful in developing the body, and in making it apt to attain proficiency in physical arts and sciences. We would suggest that, in the school itself, the means for this physical instruction should be provided; but we would not by any hard and fast line hold by the school as the only place. If it were found in any case that a scholar had the means, in his half-time, of following any proper and profitable occupation without injury to himself, we should let him follow it, by which plan, as we believe, the sting of the compulsory clause in the education act would be most effectually blunted.

2. We propose that, while the mind of the child shall not be surcharged with book-learning at a time when the body is in the most critical stage of development either into a sound and helpful or into an unsound and helpless body, there shall be made a provision in the school itself, by which education shall be allowed to go on after the usual prescribed time, in which it is presumed that the education is completed.

3. We propose, in the introduction of physical education into schools, that it should be at once of the simplest and best kind; not a system of one particular character, but one which should combine everything that is useful in various systems, and which should interest the scholar, while it develops his physical life. We agree with an observation made by Mr. Charles Roberts, in a letter in which he says:

I have examined with some care, from a physiological point of view, the various systems of physical education, but I am not satisfied with any of them. The military drill, in use in many schools, puts too great a strain on the lower limbs, and too little on the arms and trunk, and, though the exercises are useful for discipline, they are monotonous and wearisome to children, and may be injurious, by inducing flat-foot and other deformities of the body. On the other hand, the exercises in ordinary German gymnasiums are generally too severe for children, and not sufficiently under the control of the non-medical teacher; their expense, moreover, places them beyond the reach of elementary schools. The Swedish system, again, as taught in the board schools, lacks spirit and energy, from the entire absence of apparatus, and therefore of motive, to attempt or complete a definite object—a defect which Miss Chreiman's system has removed to considerable extent, by the limited use of simple apparatus.

4. We propose that there should be introduced into the system what may be shortly explained as systematic training of the senses, so that the senses of sight, hearing, touch, and even smell, should be brought up to the best standards of perfection. Such training, we are of opinion, could be carried out by means of lessons and of simple apparatus, and would, in the course of carrying it out, afford facility for practically testing the capacity of every scholar, and his fitness or unfitness for the after-duties he may be called upon to undertake. In America, they have had appointed tests for the proof of color-sight, so that it may be determined, when a man applies for duties in which color-sights are required, whether he can distinguish color. If our design were in operation, no scholar would leave a school without being made fully acquainted with his particular failure or capacity for this and such like occupations.

5. We propose, finally, to use the time that we wish to extract from book-learning, in some, and indeed in a free degree, in the cultivation of certain of the more refined and pleasure-building arts. First among these we would place music, as the primitive of recreative pleasures. We observe that our children are well and happy when they can sing; we see men and women gathered together, and find the height of mirth and happiness when somebody gives a song or a tune. In the most refined society, music is the joy of life; in the lowest dens, men, hardly above animals, when they meet to be amused, sing. It may be that in all these positions the music is very bad, but it is there, and it extends through creation. Here, therefore, is the first recreation to be scientifically studied. Make a nation, we say, a musical nation, and think how you have harmonized it, socially, morally, healthfully. We can not begin to teach this recreation too early or too soundly.

We ought to begin by making the learning of notes in succession—the scale of musical chords—coincident with the learning of the alphabet. Next, the intervals should be taught, in a simple but careful way, so that melody may be acquired, and the art of sight-singing attained. From this elementary basis should follow the simplest forms of time, after which a plain melody could be read with as much ease as the reading of the first story-book. Simple part-songs, leading to endless delight, would succeed in exercise; and a true and natural language in sweet sounds would be the property, in one generation, of all the nation. In addition to music, we would, as a matter of course, introduce other pleasant recreations, such as dancing, gymnastics, and all those muscular games and exercises which, by discharging naturally the nervous force, relieve the mind of mischievous intents and provocatives to destructive habits.

This is the programme we would put before the nation, in respect to the grand revolution we consider necessary, of placing national education on the basis of national necessities. Should it be urged that what we-propose is too essentially physical or muscular, we answer that all education is, in the strict sense, physical and even muscular. Speech is muscular, expression is muscular, writing is muscular, composition is muscular, as much as mental. It is as purely a muscular act to decline a Greek verb as to walk across a tight-rope; only that the muscular movement, hardly so refined, is more obscure. We meet two men, one of whom is seen to move with ease and grace, the other with dullness and weight. We say, how accomplished the one, how uncouth the other! We hear two men discourse—the one with elegance, precision, style, the other with hesitation, blundering, rudeness. We say, how accomplished the one, how uncouth the other! In all these cases, muscular force has played its equal part with mental aptitude, or inaptitude. We see a man who has not been educated to grace of manner, or speech, or thought, assuming the part of a man of grace, manner, and thought, and, by much study, sustaining the character for a short time, as on the stage. But we know that man only acts; he is not trained to the muscular skill that can carry him through all parts of life with equal grace, though he may, by intense labor, attain a minor part, and be perfect in it.

We know that no one who late in life enters a vocation requiring certain qualities, like that of a physician, a surgeon, a preacher or pleader, a commander, a pilot, an engineer, a player, can gain that full self-possession which comes, as it is said, naturally, to the man who has been from early life trained in the work. Here again the failure we affirm is muscular as much as mental. The concealed muscular mechanism is not in working order. The mind may issue its commands, but, if the muscles fail to obey, the mind, like a general whose red-coats are undrilled and impervious, may break itself to imbecility and produce no results beyond hopeless and helpless confusion and dismay.

So we contend for the physical education of all our young, on the lines I have laid down, as the stirring want in this stirring time. Our intention is to make this nation a nation of heroes as well as scholars; a nation that the sculptor can describe as well as the historian; a nation that can hold its own in the scale of vitality, and protect its own by the virtues of courage, physical prowess, and endurance, as ably as by statesmanship and knowledge, more ably than by expediency and craft.


  1. From a Lecture delivered before the Society of Arts, April 28, 1882.