Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/January 1883/The Influence of Education on Observation

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IT was lately remarked in these columns that one of the dangers attendant on education was that it might lessen men's powers of observation. There is no doubt, we apprehend, that this possibility does exist. Bookishness and absence of mind are no new faults among students. Among the more cultivated classes they have, indeed, been for a considerable time in process of diminution, and the last half-century more particularly has seen a great change in this respect. Physical science has roused students, who in former ages would have been abstract thinkers and nothing more, to careful and steady observation of external things. Facilities of traveling have acted as another stimulus in the same direction; and the love of nature has been a power over sentimental minds, and has led them insensibly from a quiet enjoyment of their surroundings to more active investigation. So that altogether the classes which at the present day have the advantage of the higher education are far more observant than were their forerunners of three or four centuries ago; and, though even now many of the mathematicians and philosophers who walk the streets of our universities live largely in a mood of abstract thought, we must be careful of finding undue fault with this, for the inward eye has some claims not lightly to be despised. But, with respect to the mass of the nation, the question we have raised is one that deserves a good deal of attention. Popular education is still in the bookish stage; and, without complaining of what is inevitable, we may and ought to inquire whether literary study does now in the lower ranks promote that vice of inobservance which it certainly promoted in the higher ranks a century or two ago. Equally we have to inquire whether the virtue which is the converse of this error may be fostered; whether and how the study of books may be made to minister to powers of direct observation, instead of being adverse to them, and to assist in the general business of life.

Literary study may conceivably impede our observant faculties, either by suggesting problems that appear to demand pure thinking alone for their solution, or by imbuing the mind with an ambitious tone, in which the ordinary events of e very-day experience are looked upon as unworthy of notice. In the latter case it must be acting mischievously; in the former case it may be mischievous, though it is not always so. If a problem is really of a purely abstract character, it is inevitable that external observation should be lulled during the investigation of it. Newton was in many respects an inobservant, absent-minded man; but without that inobservance he could not have been the master of abstract thought that he was, or have made the discoveries that have been so powerfully beneficial to the human race. But there are many problems which have an appearance of being abstract, and soluble by pure thought alone, in which this is by no means really the case. Questions of ethics, of political economy, of art, are of this nature; they have a delusive appearance of abstraction from the actual world in which we live; and many an inquirer has gone round and round in them in a profitless circle, without being aware that the element needed to render him successful was not brain-power at all, but experience of men and things. The danger, however, that the faculties of observation may be blunted by an excess of abstract thought is not very great in the popular education of the present day. But the danger that they may be blunted by mistaken ambition is a real one. The clever and educated poor will at times despise the common incidents of daily life, in comparison with that larger sphere to which books give them an introduction in imagination, though not in reality. Housekeepers find that servants neglect the pots and pans and dishes, can not find anything when it is wanted, can not see cobwebs in the corners or dust upon the shelves and tables, while their attention is devoted to the pleasures of literature in some, very often questionable, form. Farmers, we have been told, complain of the degeneracy of plowboys from the same cause. True, farmers are a complaining race, and their misfortunes of late years may have made them more querulous than usual; but their testimony should not be quite disregarded. Some considerable application of the maxim that people should do their duty in their own station will be found to give no unneeded help to the observant faculties at a time of large general progress, when hopes and ideas are apt to be extensive and vague.

But it is not enough that education should refrain from hindering the faculties of observation; it ought, if it is sound, actually to promote and enlarge those faculties. How this may be done is a problem not without difficulty. While the fault of inobservance is simple and single in its nature, the virtue of ready observation is complex, relating to many different spheres; he who possesses it in one sphere may lack it in another. When Thales, looking at the stars, tumbled into a well that lay before his feet, he was partly very inobservant, partly very observant; by the one quality he doubtless incommoded himself grievously, by the other he discovered how to predict eclipses, saved mankind from a certain amount of irrational panic, and won for himself a great reputation. To Thales the balance was for good; but it would not be safe to affirm that this would be the case with every one who walked with his head in the air looking at the stars.

Thus the direction in which observation may be most usefully practiced varies with the circumstances of the case; with the circumstances of the pupil when education is in question; and is not the same in the different ranks of society. The problem has, we think, been most successfully solved at present in the colleges, more or less recently founded, of our great northern towns. There, physical science is in demand for practical purposes, and educational institutions accommodate themselves to the demand. But, in the elder universities and the elementary schools alike, an equal measure of solution has not yet been attained. Oxford and Cambridge students (to begin with the higher rank) have not, as a rule, any plain and visible necessity for physical science as an aid in their future employments. But there is another side of science besides the immediately practical one a side which ought to be held of especial value in institutions that have under their survey the largest interests of humanity. The great sciences of observation—astronomy, geology, and the natural history of animals and plants—are more noticeable for their ideal than for their practical side, though they do touch on practice also. They give sublime views of the universe, such as it is a refreshment and consolation to possess, and such as touch not remotely on the destiny and happiness of man. We in England, at any rate, are not hopeless of the reconciliation of these views with the religious ideal that we have received. But it is the apparent collision, on certain points, between the new and the old that has impeded the reception of these sciences in those respects in which they are so calculated to elicit human feeling, and therefore so appropriate as studies in our elder and chief universities. In astronomy, indeed, the collision with religion has been long ago practically surmounted. But the observational side of astronomy has been rather sunk at Cambridge and Oxford in comparison with its mathematical side. It may be suspected that many students of astronomy (though not astronomers proper) have less knowledge of the actual face of the heavens than had those Chaldean shepherds who roamed the plains of the East thousands of years ago, in whom the science originated.

When we come to the poorer extreme of society, though the elementary education of the country does not quite ignore the cultivation of the observant faculties, neither does it, in our opinion, lay sufficient stress upon them. The arts of reading and writing, and the study of arithmetic, taken simply by themselves, have a tendency to withdraw the mind from the outer world, and it needs a corrective to restore the balance. That corrective may, in certain cases, be supplied by the subject-matter of the books read, if it is required that they shall be intelligently understood. At the same time, such a requirement must be very positive and direct in order not to be evaded. Though the Education Department does at the present moment require from children in elementary schools, not merely an intelligent style of reading, but also (in the upper standards) an acquaintance with the subject matter of the books read, it would naturally be felt to be extremely hard that a child should be declared to have failed in reading because he or she showed a want of proper observation. But we should like to see this whole topic of intelligent acquaintance with the subject matter of the books read removed from the mere art of reading, and constituted into a separate subject by itself—say into a class subject, such as geography and grammar are now. If this were done, it would not be hard upon a child to demand from it some amount of observation as well as intelligence. If, for instance, the reading-book referred to any agricultural operation, such as harvesting, or to some well known plant or flower or vegetable, or to cattle, or to birds, whether migratory or permanent in the country, then in a country school the children might fairly be questioned so as to bring out what they themselves had observed on these matters. In a town school questions might be asked on other matters to which reading-books would also now and then make reference—railways, stations, the different public buildings and their uses, the trades or manufactures specially practiced in the town. We can not but think that there is a real gap in the training of children in the poorer classes, and that the step we here recommend might do much to fill it.

It is true, and we note the fact with pleasure, that the Education Department has of late encouraged methods of teaching geography which brine: out that side in which it is connected with direct observation. The suggestion that in every school the meridian line should be marked on the floor, in order that the points of the compass may be practically known, is a valuable one in this direction. Still more so is the suggestion, almost amounting to a requirement, that "good maps of the parish or immediate neighborhood in which the school is situated should be affixed to the walls." But of course the value of these appliances depends on the way in which they are used. The meridian line may be marked with exactness, the map of the parish may be unexceptionable, but if the knowledge of these points is not interwoven with the daily teaching it will be fruitless. And we can not but regret that the Education Department should treat geography as a subject inferior in importance to grammar. This is to place the abstract before the concrete, which is contrary to all natural and true method. We are sure that it needs far greater skill to render a grammar-lesson really fruitful and beneficial than to render a geography lesson so. When grammar is made almost a necessity, while geography is distinctly not a necessity, how is it possible but that geography must go to the wall? There is, indeed, another class subject recognized by the Education Department in their New Code which would cultivate observation even more, perhaps, than geography does—namely, elementary science. But we presume it is the opinion of the Department itself (as it certainly is our own) that this subject will not be largely used; for, in the recently issued "Instructions to Inspectors" it is passed over very cursorily, without the least indication as to the parts of natural science to be preferred, or any more than the vaguest as to methods. Elementary science will have a very uphill battle to fight if it is to win any real recognition, where the recognition of it involves the discarding of the more familiar geography, which by the terms of the Code it does. But our fear is that geography and elementary science will alike play but a poor part, in view of the superior importance and extended meaning given to grammar in the New Code. And, while some of the "specific subjects" of the Code are such as would encourage the observant faculties, these subjects are taken up by so small a number of children as hardly to affect the broad question we are discussing.

A suggestion, however, has been made which, if it could be carried out, would undoubtedly bring popular education into more direct relations with the external world, and therefore encourage the observant faculties more than is the case at present. This is that, just as girls are taught needle-work, so boys should in the course of their education be taught some elements of their future practical work in life. This has especially been urged in the interests of agriculture, and it has been thought that boys might be taught, while still at school, so much of the rudiments of farming as would greatly improve their future capacity. Of this proposal we can only say that we should be glad if it could be found practicable, but we are afraid the difficulties of connecting practical farming with school-work would be found very great. It might be easier to bring gardening into the school routine. But all that can here be said is that this suggestion, like all others that tend to relieve popular education from mere formalizing, deserves attention; and that, if the difficulties which it appears to present could be got over, it would certainly be a great benefit to the country.—Saturday Review.