Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/School-Culture of the Observing Faculties

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WHY should children be sent to school? Is it merely that they may learn to read, to write, and cipher? Reading, writing, and ciphering are no doubt very important, but are they all-important, or even most important? The man who reads may be said to hear from the past and the distant; the man who writes speaks to the future and the far away. Reading and writing are indeed important, for they enable us to converse untrammeled by the shackles of time and space. But the man who reads learns only what others already know, and he learns it, mayhap, not even as they know it, but only as they express their knowledge, and as he understands that expression. He looks at things through other men's spectacles, without knowing whether those spectacles magnify, minify, color, or distort. Surely more important than learning and blindly accepting the opinions of other men is it to be able to form opinions for one's self, and at the same time to know that these opinions have been properly arrived at and are correct.

If a boy is to be a carpenter, it is all very well for him to read about the different kinds of wood he will have to work upon, and about the various tools employed in his future trade, but he will learn to use these tools only by using them; he will learn to distinguish the different kinds of wood, and to select the kind and the piece suitable for his purpose in each case, only by actual practice of his trade. And what is true of the carpenter is true, mutatis mutandis, of every other handicraft, of every business, of every profession. However much one may learn by reading, it is but little and unimportant compared to what must be learned by actual practice. But even if we desired it we can not, during the short time our pupils are at school, exercise them in all the trades and professions. What, then, can we do? We can so teach them that this practice, when it must begin, will not be set about in a blind, haphazard way. We can and we ought to teach our pupils now to learn; we can train them and we ought to train them to observe and to use the results of their observation.

But, the handicraft, the business, or the profession once learned, is the boy, now grown a man, done with observation? By no means. Every time he is called upon to make application of the knowledge he possesses, the skill he has acquired, he must observe, draw inferences, and reason therefrom; and his success in his calling will depend on the accuracy with which he does all this. Reading will supply him with other men's observations and reasonings, but these will be useless for the case in hand, unless they were made under like circumstances, or unless they can be modified to suit the present conditions. Now, to judge what are the real circumstances and conditions of the case, the man must be able to observe these conditions, and to distinguish those that are essential from those that are merely accidental, to interpret his observations aright, and then to reason correctly from the results thus obtained.

But man does not exist wholly and solely to carry on some handicraft, business, or profession. Around him lies a world abounding with endless sources of health and happiness, if only he knows where to look for them and how to use them, but equally abounding with pitfalls of misery and distress to all who grope through life intellectually blind and deaf, who having eyes see not, and having ears hear not. Now, the securing of that health and happiness of which I have spoken, so far as it depends on the material world around a man, will depend on his ability to observe closely, to systematize his observations into related groups, and to connect these with the observations and experiences of other men, so as to obtain therefrom a living knowledge of the laws of his being and of the world around him. Here, again, power of observation is the first and most important requisite, and, as a natural gift or talent, this power is extremely rare; "for the observer," as John Stuart Mill has remarked, "is not he who merely sees the thing which is before his eyes, but he who sees what parts that thing is composed of. One person, from inattention or from attending only in the wrong place, overlooks half of what he sees; another sets down much more than he sees, confounding it with what he imagines, or with what he infers; another takes note of the kind of all the circumstances, but, being inexpert in estimating their degree, leaves the quantity of each vague and uncertain; another sees indeed the whole, but makes such an awkward division of it into parts, throwing things into one mass which require to be separated, and separating others which might more conveniently be considered as one, that the result is much the same as, sometimes even worse than, if no analysis had been attempted at all."

But if man does not exist solely for his profession, neither does he exist solely for and unto himself. He is under certain obligations to his family and to his fellow-men, he has domestic and social duties, and to fulfill these aright, amid the ever-shifting conditions of life, requires the keenest powers of observation, of interpretation, and of judgment. And although destruction as surely awaits the man who dwells in moral darkness as it does him who takes his way heedless of all the physical laws of his being, too often the evil he does dies not with him, but lives and works woe to those he loved and would fain have protected. Yet it is here, it is in what regards their social life (and under social I include domestic and political), that too many men seem to be unable to observe aright or to make any use of such observations as they may have correctly made. When their course is not taken at utter random, too often it is guided by blind empiricism, or else is only a prolonged game of "follow your leader." The boy was not trained to observe and to think for himself when the subjects he had to examine and to think about were comparatively simple, and BOW the grown man will not or can not do it, or, if he does actually try, he is as likely to go astray as to go right, for he now must begin on what is extremely complex.

If, then, our school instruction aims at preparing pupils for the duties of after-life, however important we may deem those forms of hearing and speaking which we call reading and writing, even more important ought we to consider observation and inference and reasoning therefrom. That man is best equipped for the mental work which is more or less the business of every one from the cradle to the grave, who is able to use all his senses aright, who best knows all the precautions that must be taken to guard against misinterpreting the evidence of those senses, and against wrong reasoning from that evidence; who best knows how to trace thought backward to the grounds of belief and forward to discovery and verification. That is the best education that fosters the mother of freedom—independence of thought.

I have spoken of the insufficiency of reading and writing as a means of education, because there are still among us some who declare that these arts, with a little knowledge of ciphering, are all that should be taught in our public schools, are all the education that should be given to the children of the people; all the training for the battle of life, for the "struggle for existence," that should be provided for those who will have to bear the brunt of that battle, who will have to wage the fiercest contests in that strife. By all means, teach the children to read, teach them to write, teach them to cipher, but also train them in those mental processes which all men have to employ somehow or other every hour of their waking life, in every transaction of their daily business. Train them to do well and to know that they are doing well what they must do if they are to live at all.

But how is a child to be trained in these mental processes? In exactly the same way that he is trained in any art, in any handicraft. A man learns to play on the violin by playing on the violin, and no amount of directions without actual practice will make him proficient. So a child must be taught to observe by observing, to draw inferences by inferring, and to reason correctly by reasoning correctly; but if he is to do these things well he must practice them at first under the guidance of a master in these arts, and must have before him models of perfection in them. Now, Science presents us with the very best examples of accurate and discriminative observation, and of inference therefrom; it begins with the study of the very simplest phenomena, and advances its investigations step by step to a complete and exhaustive analysis of the most complicated actions and relations. It is preeminently the study in which one is trained in the whole art of thinking, and in which one is taught to be conscious of each step he takes in the onward march of his investigations, and to know that the course he is following, and that course alone, will lead him to the truth, the arriving at which is the ultimate object of all his labors.

But here I must utter a word of warning. It is of the utmost importance to distinguish clearly between scientific information and training in science, between a mere literary acquaintance with scientific facts such as may be attained by a reader possessed of a somewhat acute mind and a fair share of constructive imagination and that power, those habits of mind, which are only to be gained by the study of facts at first hand. To the majority of pupils, it would not be the information they would gain by a study of science, valuable though this would be, that would be of chief importance, but the scientific habit of mind they would acquire. This habit would be of incalculable benefit to them whatever might be their avocations in after-life, and it would be better attained by a thorough investigation of the facts and principles of one science than by a general acquaintance with what has been spoken or written about many of them.

That this warning against confusing information and training is not wholly unnecessary will be seen by the following extract from the late Professor Todhunter's essay, entitled "The Conflict of Studies":

"We assert," says the professor, "that, if the resistance of the air be withdrawn, a sovereign and a feather will fall through equal spaces in equal times. Very great credit is due to the person who first imagined the well-known experiment to illustrate this, but it is not obvious what is the special benefit now gained by seeing a lecturer repeat the process. It may be said that a boy takes more interest in the matter by seeing for himself, or by performing for himself, that is, by working the handle of the air-pump; this we admit, while we continue to doubt the educational value of the transaction. The boy would also take much more interest in foot-ball than in Latin grammar, but the measure of his interest is not identical with that of the importance of the subjects. It may be said that the fact makes a stronger impression on the boy through the medium of his sight, that he believes it more confidently. I say that this ought not to be the case. If he does not believe the statement of his tutor—probably a clergyman of mature knowledge, recognized ability, and blameless character—his suspicion is irrational, and manifests a want of the power of appreciating evidence, a want fatal to his success in that branch of science which he is supposed to be cultivating."

Professor Todhunter was an eminent teacher of mathematics; he wrote many text-books on this science, some of which have been translated into nearly every civilized tongue, he even wrote an elementary text-book on physical science, the very science the boy is here assumed to be studying, yet in the above paragraph he presents us with an argument which would be amusing had it come from the pen of a mere literary man, but which it is almost impossible to believe a cultivator of science could advance in sober earnest. What would have been the thoughts and feelings of the professor had one of his pupils, when asked to demonstrate the pons asinorum, returned answer:

"Sir, my tutor was the Rev. Mr. Jones, of Westbury; he is a clergyman of mature knowledge, recognized ability, and blameless character. Now, he assured me that he had examined Euclid's proof of this proposition, and had found it to be correct, and as to doubt his word would be to manifest irrational suspicion, and a want of power to properly appreciate evidence, I accepted his testimony, and I now offer it to you as my proof."

I suspect that that pupil's ideas of proof would have received a clearing up. He would have learned that there are other kinds of evidence besides oral testimony, and that it is as necessary to be able to judge of the validity in each case, of these other kinds of evidence, as it is to be able to judge of the value of testimony. He would learn that, unless he were to be a professed mathematician, a knowledge of the bare truth of the pons asinorum was a matter of no moment, the important thing was to see how that truth was arrived at, and how it was demonstrated; the educative factor present in the study was the exercise of the reasoning faculties, and of the powers of orderly arranging and of clearly presenting all the parts of a somewhat long argument.

So in the experiment with the sovereign and the feather, the mere testing of the truth or the falsehood of the statement that, if the resistance of the air be got rid of, a feather will fall earthward as fast as a sovereign, is not the chief thing aimed at. In fact, this statement should not be advanced prior to the performance of the experiment, but the fact stated in it should be discovered by the pupils for themselves from the experiment; and I beg to add that, had Professor Todhunter ever actually tried the experiment with the common apparatus, he would possibly have found the discovery of the fact not quite so simple a matter for a boy as he evidently imagined it to be.

But Professor Todhunter, while admitting that a boy takes more interest in seeing an experiment performed or in performing it for himself than in merely hearing a statement of its truth, doubts the educational value of the appeal to the senses. Any teacher of natural science worthy of the name of teacher would from his experience be able instantly to explain why this increase of interest, and instantly to set all doubts regarding the matter to rest. There seems in many minds to he an almost total separation between words and the things they represent, except as regards constantly recurring incidents of their daily life. Hence words seem to have no power in such cases to call up and keep before the mental vision a distinct image of the thing reasoned about. In fact, what is called the scientific imagination seems almost wanting in many minds until a severe course of training in science arouses the dormant faculty, and develops into the actual and the active what otherwise would have remained an unnoticed and neglected potentiality. The consequence is, that the teacher who depends on verbal statements alone can never be sure that the ideas so clear to himself are correct, if at all apprehended by his pupils, and that these are not increasing their ignorance rather than their knowledge. Many minds which seem to become sluggish, or to wither away when fed with what to them are the dry husks of words, are roused to activity and intelligence when they are directed to the study of things and the relations of things, when they are brought face to face, so to speak, with the actual phenomena of the world around and within them.

But before I pass from this let me point out that the guinea-and feather experiment, if successfully performed, is about as bad an example of an educative experiment as could well be selected. The bare fact to be observed would stand out too distinctly, too completely disentangled from other phenomena to give it any value in training the observing faculties of any but mere infants, while the inferences and deductions from the results of the experiment are too abstruse for any but those who have advanced some way in quantitative analysis of phenomena. Moreover, the mere experimental result can be obtained without any elaborate apparatus, while the deduced propositions can be, and in actual practice generally are, arrived at by simpler means. In truth, the experiment is not one which should be presented to the pupil in order to deduce from it that the earth's attraction depends, not on the nature of a body, but merely on its mass, but he should be skillfully led to suggest this experiment as a test of the truth of this proposition. In fact, it is an experiment of verification, not an experiment of discovery.

It was my intention, when I consented to address you on this subject, to present you with an outline of how actually to proceed in order to give children a systematic training in observation, selecting plants as the objects for examination. Botany has been called a science of mere names, and it must be confessed it has too often been presented as such; but, rightly treated, it offers a wide field and ample scope for observation of the forms, the positions, and the functions of the various parts of plants, of the relations of these parts to each other, and of their modifications and adaptations to varying conditions, as well as for many other observations just such as children in our primary classes are capable of making. But all, and more than all, I purposed doing, has been done and so well done by Miss Eliza A. Youmans, in her "First Book of Botany," that I believe it will be better to refer you direct to that work, rather than to enter on details here. If one of you will take, say, a second class through the first twenty exercises in Miss Youmans's little book, working them out conscientiously and thoroughly, I do not hesitate to predict that that class will by this means acquire more real knowledge and more intellectual power than it would acquire from all the reading, writing, and ciphering done in the first four classes, if done without such a course. Furthermore, the power gained and the habits acquired in the study of plants, or even in the examination of leaves, will not be confined solely to these, but will be directed to and exercised upon all other objects coming within the range of the children's observation; thus their general knowledge will be extended, and, as a result, your pupils will read with more intelligence and with fuller comprehension of what they are reading about. As for arithmetic—and here I can speak with some authority—you will find that you have somehow bridged over the to many seemingly impassable gulf between the mere art of ciphering and the application of that art to the resolution of numerical problems. Words will no longer be mere vacant forms or empty sounds, their content will be restored to them, the data of the problem will be mentally realized, and their interrelations discovered and comprehended. In nine cases out of ten, it is the inability to realize the data, to project before the mind's eye a picture of the reality, that is the actual stumbling-block in the way of children who fail in the solution of arithmetical problems.

But the work had better not be done at all if it be not done thoroughly and conscientiously. All that can be done in a text-book is merely to set up numerous finger-posts to guide the student or the teacher; the scenery on the route can not be presented in all its fullness of detail, with all its play of light and shade; to behold it one must actually travel the road. In the course of teaching these twenty exercises, thousands of questions will arise of whys and wherefores, some of which you will have to put aside for the time being at least; but to others you must lead your children to find the answers for themselves. All these questions can not possibly be anticipated in any book; and it is well they can not be so, for, ever new, ever changing, they afford mental exercise to the teacher as well as to the pupils, and thus prevent any danger of stagnation on either side. Let me take in illustration a very simple question; one interesting to myself personally, because it was the first botanical problem I ever solved, but which, if the solution be properly generalized, is interesting in itself as giving the key to many peculiarities in the forms and markings of leaves.

When I was but a lad at school, a fellow-pupil, the son of a farmer, told me that on the back of every green blade of oats there was legibly stamped a capital B. I laughed at him for his simplicity in thinking he could make me believe such an "old wife's fable"; but he indignantly replied that not only had his father told him of the strange marking, but he had looked and seen it for himself. The only way, it seemed to me, to treat such an argument as this was, to change the subject of conversation, and this I did, a slight smile of incredulity letting my playmate know that he had not wholly imposed upon me. That very afternoon I happened to pass a field of oats, and, remembering the assertion of the mysterious markings, I determined to put the question of their reality to the proof of observation at once, and for altogether. I must confess, however, it was only after a mental struggle that I brought myself to cross the fence into the field; for the assertion seemed to me utterly absurd, and I had not then learned that, rightly taken, there is no such thing as "being made a fool of." But what were my amazement and confusion to find, on the very first leaf I examined, a capital B as clearly marked as if it had been impressed with a die! Quickly gathering and examining other leaves, I found on all of them a marking, in some a mere blur, on others clear and distinct as I had found it on the first leaf. Straightway occurred the questions: What really is this mark? What causes it? I stood among the growing oats, so the answer was neither far to seek nor difficult to find; but I have never forgotten it, for no teacher told it to me—I found it out for myself. I rediscovered the solution of the mystery of this leaf-signature, and, although it must have been discovered and rediscovered thousands of times before, yet I enjoyed all the deep delight of discovery—a delight which never cloys, a pleasure which never palls. What is more, I soon found that my eyes had, as it v/ere, been opened; I found that I could see many other strange things about leaves which, till then, had escaped my notice, and I found that I possessed the key to their solution.

But, if I urge on you the teaching of natural science, I also recognize the difficulties you will encounter if you accept my advice. You will have to teach from the actual objects, a method utterly and radically different from the text-book instruction to which you are accustomed. You will for a time have to submit to the adverse criticisms of those parents who judge of a child's progress, not by its mental growth, but merely by its increase of skill in the art of recognizing the marks that represent certain sounds, and of repeating those sounds, an art too often confused with reading. You will, some of you, have to struggle with classes not too large to inform by telling but far too large to educate by training. But overcome the first difficulty, overcome yourselves, and you will find the others will lessen day by day, and will soon disappear altogether, the little remaining of them being lost sight of in the increase of brightness which the new study will bring to the life of the school-room.

  1. Read before the Ottawa Teachers' Association.