Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/The Study of the Relations of Things

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EVERY reader of the preceding article will recognize that it is one which I can not let pass as a final statement of the subject. Mrs. Jacobi's very first sentence is so misleading as to put me in a wrong relation to this discussion. She says, "The comments made by Miss Youman's upon a single remark in my article on primary education," etc.; the implication of which is that I had a very slender basis for getting up a controversy. But her "single remark" was in point of fact a complete paragraph of nearly a page in length containing a series of affirmations, condemning the principles adopted as fundamental in my First Book of Botany. Her criticisms, besides, acquired special force from the circumstances in which they were made. Mrs. Jacobi is a trained scientific scholar, an independent inquirer untrammeled by traditions, and she had taken up the critical study of primary education in connection with the practical management of her own child, and published two articles on her method and its results. All this gave such strength to the case, that her incidental comment upon my method, if allowed to pass without notice, would have been more injurious than would have been a separate and formal attack. That I did not mistake the import of her first critical passage is now sufficiently apparent, as her present elaborate article is but an amplification and a justification of positions taken at the outset.

As will have been seen by the reader, Mrs. Jacobi sums up my views in five propositions upon which she comments in their order. With the first proposition she agrees, and with the second she is in partial agreement. But, while admitting that ideas of evolution are unsuitable to childhood, she insists that the idea of life and its changes is proper for their very early contemplation. I have only to say, as I said in my former article, that I have gone as far as she has done in this direction of objective study, having provided a series of experiments in the sprouting and growth of various seeds in my "First Book." But while I should be content to furnish the child with materials for simple observation, and leave him very much to himself to find out what his experiments disclose, Mrs. Jacobi would use the occasion to make "as profound an impression as possible upon the imagination" of the child in regard to "the facts of life and growth and death." With all she says of the importance of these conceptions, and the immense part they have played in the history of mankind, I entirely agree; but I should be very cautious about undertaking to introduce them into the mind of a child, while, with its lack of experience, it is still so dominated by imagination as not to know the difference between the true and the false among ideas. Mrs. Jacobi says, "The great fact of growth and incessant change in living organisms is perfectly appreciable through impressions made on his senses, and is well fitted to arouse in him lively interest and curiosity." If this be really so, then no more is needed than to furnish the child with his sprouting seeds as we both do. But surely mankind has been familiar enough with the sensible facts of germination, and yet the grossest errors concerning life-changes have prevailed through all past times. Indeed, Mrs. Jacobi quickly abandons this ground, that the child will perfectly appreciate the case, by saying it is "important to impress the imagination with typical and fundamental facts long before they can be reasoned upon or their laws really understood." I should prefer to let the child grow by slow preparation in concrete observations, till its mind gains knowledge and strength to understand typical and fundamental facts upon recondite subjects.

I gave my reasons for objecting to drawing as a means of acquiring descriptive botany. In her third proposition Mrs. Jacobi puts my view in this form: "That children should not be detained to draw the leaves, or other natural objects they study, because of the delay thus entailed." And, in commenting upon this, she further remarks: "If the aim at the time be not to learn botany, but to cultivate the observing powers of children, what danger is there in a delay which permits the object to be more deeply graven on the child's mind? Why is it so necessary to become familiar with hundreds of specimens in a given time?" As our object is here presumably to get at the truth, I have a right to insist upon greater correctness in the representation of my views. Mrs. Jacobi pleads to inaccuracy in her former statement of them in regard to drawing; but there are three further inaccuracies here, which I have indicated by italics, and, trivial as they may seem, they give an erroneous impression of my method. Without warrant, she introduces the phrase "other natural objects," so that a quite special objection to drawing in the endless field of observation which the study of plants presents, is generalized into opposition, on my part, to the use of natural objects as drawing lessons. Nothing I have said can be construed into opposition to drawing, which of course has its uses; but it may also be misplaced and misused. Whenever the object is to form a habit through repetitions of a great number of simple exercises, the intrusion of such a mechanical operation as drawing must seriously hinder the work in hand. In arithmetic, for example, it is necessary to go through a great number of numerical exercises to form the habit of rapid and accurate calculation. But many of the problems involve concrete imagery which is capable of pictorial illustration. If, however, with a view of deepening his impressions, the pupil were required to make drawings of these, he would, to say the least, be very much obstructed in his mathematical progress.

Mrs. Jacobi puts it as if I had said my aim in preparing the "First Book" was not to teach botany, which is incorrect. Although the "First Book" attempts to make a beginning only, yet it claims to begin right, and to teach botany as it should be taught, by making the mind thoroughly familiar with the actual characters of plants. Training in observation, for its mental advantages, was an accompanying purpose, because the conditions of the two perfectly coincide.

Again, in her question, "Why is it so necessary to become familiar with hundreds of specimens in a given time?" Mrs. Jacobi would commit me to the worst folly of current education—the time-limit in acquisition, or what may be called "fourteen-weeks" science. From the outset, and constantly, I have resisted this tendency, and have claimed that the fullest time should be taken as the first condition of real and permanent acquisition. As to the fourth proposition, I am quite content to leave it as it was presented in my article in the October Monthly.

Fifthly, and finally, Mrs. Jacobi ascribes to me as "an axiom that can not be disputed, that mental effort should advance from the simple subject to the more complex"; and she adds, that this proposition "is the one with which I most decidedly disagree." In arguing the point, Mrs. Jacobi maintains that the historic advance of knowledge has not always conformed to this principle. Very likely; but I have never said the law is everywhere observed. There are plenty of teachers who have not the slightest idea of it, and plenty of school-books which violate it, by putting the complex first, instead of leading up to it by simple steps. But where ideas are perfectly clear, as with the relations of number, experience enforces the principle; every arithmetic proceeds from the simple to the complex. All this, however, is aside from the question; my contention has been simply that the principle should not be violated in the mental cultivation of children. By the title of her first articles, "An Experiment in Primary Education," and the comments which followed, the difference between us related only to the mental conditions of childhood; but she here commits me to a statement concerning mental effort in general. Had she introduced the term juvenile to qualify "mental effort," she would have properly described the case, and made superfluous much that she says on the order of the evolution of knowledge. Assuming that there are stages in the progress of the individual mind, the question is as to the nature and educational significance of these successive stages, and what kind of study is appropriate at one stage and inappropriate at another. I see no way of getting light upon this matter and the practical points in issue, but by referring to the nature and constitution of the mind and the laws of mental growth. Mrs. Jacobi maintains that young children can profitably occupy their mind with things, facts, data, but are mentally unfit for the study of relations in which science consists; an examination of the part played by relations in mental structure and growth will therefore have an essential bearing upon this discussion.

The external world is made up of objects in relations with each other. Nothing exists by itself, or out of relation with other things. The very attributes which constitute a thing are its relations. The perceiving mind, on the other hand, is constituted to recognize relations. By these it identifies each thing. All objects are classed by their relations of likeness and unlikeness, and all knowledge is organized on this basis. To investigate a thing is but to determine its relations. Knowledge, in short, is relative, and our thinking is all carried on in terms of relation. The infinitely extended and the infinitely minute contexture of relations which constitutes the order of nature has for its counterpart a marvelous nervous mechanism constructed to reproduce these relations. The outer world, by its forces, acts upon the senses, producing myriads of sensations, diverse in quality and intensity, which are conveyed to the great central organ of mind, the brain. This consists of the simplest elements, cells and fibers, but there are hundreds of millions of these, closely knit and bound together by commissures, so as to produce a compactly unified organism, capable of duplicating in thought the multitudinous relations of the surrounding universe. Added to this, we have to view the brain as a creation of Nature through processes which have been going forward incessantly and continuously during vast periods of time. It has been slowly evolved by long intercourse with the environing world. It used to be thought that the mind begins with the new-born creature, and it was likened to a sheet of white paper, upon which anything can be scribbled. But it is now held that the central nervous organism at birth embodies a mass of nascent activities, latent capacities, and instinctive impulses which have been inherited from ancestral generations through the experience of the race, and in which the correspondence between the relations of external phenomena and the internal relations of the mind has been progressively increasing in extent and complexity. If, now, we glance at the early processes of the unfolding mind, we shall see that this matter of relations and their classing is very deep in the mental constitution. Mind is made up of three distinct elements, the power to feel, the power to act, and the power to know, or emotion, will, and intellect. Of these, feeling is primordial, and leads to action and to knowing. At first there is only feeling; but changes of feeling arise as soon as external forces begin to act upon the susceptible infant organism. These changes of feeling are the raw material which is to be wrought into distinct consciousness. A change of feeling supplies two terms and a relation, and the discrimination of these is the earliest act of knowing. The baby cries when in pain, and sleeps sweetly when all goes well with it. Thus at the very dawn of psychical life there are established relations of likeness and unlikeness among feelings by which they are organically classed as feelings of comfort and discomfort, pleasures and pains. Discrimination of relations is thus the very germ of intelligence. Through its apparatus of sensibility, known as the special senses, external impulses are conveyed to the brain, light through the optical channel, sounds through the auditory nerve. But at first visible things are not seen nor sounds heard. It is only by numberless repetitions of like sensations that an impression is at length produced. Like sensations are gradually integrated until perceptions arise. As we trace onward the process by which sensations become perceptions and perceptions grow to conceptions, we find that all orders of ideas are built up out of the states of consciousness produced in us by things and their relations. As I wrote, fifteen years ago: We know things because, when we see, hear, touch, or taste them, the present impression spontaneously blends with like impressions before experienced. We know or recognize an external object, not by the single impression it produces, but because that impression revives a whole train or group of previous discriminations that are like or related to it. If something is seen, heard, felt, or tasted, which links itself to no kindred idea, we say, "We do not know it"; if it partially agrees with an idea, or revives a few discriminations, we know something about it, and the completer the agreement the more perfect the knowledge. As to know a thing is to perceive its differences from other things and its likeness to other things, it is strictly an act of classing. This is involved in every act of thought, for to recognize a thing is to class its impression or idea with previous states of feeling. Classification in all its aspects and applications is but the putting together of things that are alike—the grouping of objects by their resemblances; and as to know a thing is to know that it is like this or that, to know what it is like and what it is unlike we begin to classify as soon as we begin to think.

In early infancy, when the mind is first making the acquaintance of outward things, mental growth consists essentially in the production of new ideas by means of repetitions of sense-impressions, and in this process the pre-established relations among the cells and fibers of the brain are of the greatest possible moment. The organized and semi-organized groups of relations among the cerebral elements can give no knowledge until the special groups of relations to which they correspond have been presented to the consciousness by means of the child's daily and hourly experience of objects and activities. The attributes of size, color, weight, transparency, roughness, hardness, fluidity, warmth, taste, and various other properties of solid and liquid substances, and the aspects of people and domestic animals, are noted. Ideas of all the common objects of the house, the grounds, the walks, the drives, are soon formed and associated with words that denote them. Through its spontaneous activity it has hit upon those special co-ordinations of movement required in creeping, walking, holding things, and the like, which have greatly aided in enlarging its knowledge, so that, at the end of a few months, it has a store of complex conceptions, and has acquired numerous aptitudes and dexterities. Hence its early ideas never arise singly, but are linked together in their origin; groups of ideas are integrated into trains of thought, and words into corresponding trains of sentences to express them. When a stock of ideas has been formed in this manner, the mental growth is mainly carried forward by the establishment of new combinations among them. The simpler ideas pertaining to the objects and actions of the child's environment being once acquired, the development of intelligence consists largely in associating them in new relations and groups of relations. The perception of likeness and difference is the essential work that is going on all the time, but the comparisons and discriminations are constantly becoming more extensive, more complex, more minute, and more accurate. Thus elementary ideas become fused into one complex idea; by a still further recognition of likeness and difference, this is associated with a new group, and this again with still larger clusters of associated ideas.

"That which occurs at this earliest stage of mental growth is exactly what takes place in the whole course of unfolding intelligence. Simple as these operations may seem, and begun by the infant as soon as it is born, in their growing complexities they constitute the whole fabric of the intellect. What we call the "mental faculties" are only different modes of the mental activity; and as one law of growth evolves all the various organs and tissues of the bodily structure, so one law of growth evolves all the diversified "faculties" of the mental structure. Under psychological analysis, the operations of reason, judgment, imagination, calculation, and the acquisitions of the most advanced minds yield at last the same simple elements—the perceptions of likenesses and differences among things thought about; while memory is simply the power of reviving these distinctions in consciousness. Whatever the object of thought, to know in what respects it differs from all other things, and in what respects it resembles them, is to know all about it—is to exhaust the action of the intellect upon it. The way the child gets its early knowledge is the way all real knowledge is obtained. When it discovers the likeness between sugar, cake, and certain fruits, that is, when it groups them in thought as sweet, it is making just such an induction as Newton made in discovering the law of gravitation, which was but to discover the likeness among celestial and terrestrial motions. And as with physical objects, so also with human actions. The child may run around the house and play with its toys, but it must not break things or play with fire. Here, again, are relations of likeness and unlikeness, forming a basis of moral classification. The judge on the bench is constantly doing the same thing; that is, tracing out the likenesses of given actions, and classing them as right and wrong."[1]

We hence see that by necessity and by the very nature of intelligence the movements of mental growth are from the relatively simple to the relatively complex. The whole process is one of building simpler elements into more complicated relations, and it goes on just the same in the minds of children as of adults. The increase of knowledge, the increase of faculty, the increase of mental power, all resolve themselves into a finer discrimination, a greater clearness of perception, and a wider grasp of the relations among objects of thought. The mind can not be worked backward because its processes are organically determined; and every step of increasing intelligence is a step of increasing complication. These considerations are decisive as to the main issue of the present controversy.

Mrs. Jacobi repeatedly affirms a "pre-scientific stage" of mental development; and her whole case depends upon the validity of this position, and what she means by it. She indicates her idea of what it is by saying: "Scientific observation is observation of the relations between things; but before any attempt be made to study these relations the things themselves should be firmly and clearly apprehended." But it has been shown that this is not possible. Neither children nor anybody else can apprehend things apart from their relations; they know them either vaguely or clearly, partially or fully, only by perceiving their relations. Mrs. Jacobi's distinguishing mark of the "pre-scientific stage" thus disappears, and all the reasoning by which she would put off the study of plants in their relations, or with a view to classification to a late period of study, falls to the ground. She says, "The comparison of a multitude of objects in order to abstract their common character, and thus obtain the generic or class conception, is suited to the scientific but not to the pre-scientific stage of progress." The only meaning that can be given to this statement is that there are stages of classification too complex for children at the outset of study; but it is a grave error to suppose that the properly guided pupil is to come suddenly upon the formidable work of classification as a new task. The child has been classing things from its birth, and in its earliest observations upon the simplest parts of plants it enters upon an easy stage of classification, and it is through these exercises that the higher work is gradually reached. The process is continuous. The child from the first has been comparing objects and abstracting their common characters. It matters nothing that at first this action is automatic; it leads to conscious classing and is of the same nature with it. Progress in the formation of such general ideas as chair, cat, dog, may be clearly seen by the intelligent observer to consist in the comparison of the members of all such groups of objects and an abstraction of their common characters. Of course, this work is imperfect at first. The failures of children in forming correct general notions of some complexity was well illustrated by a little boy under three years of age, when his sympathies were appealed to in behalf of the cat he was teasing by the statement that he too was an animal. This he indignantly repelled, and, springing to his feet, he caught the skirt of his dress and extending it toward me exclaimed, "See there, I'm not an animal!" Absence of clothing was thus a common character which he had generalized into the conception of an animal.

But if the essential mental processes are exactly the same in nature from first to last, in what then does science consist, and where is it to begin? There is a current notion that science is something different from common knowledge—something especially difficult to be injected late in courses of study; and Mrs. Jacobi seems to countenance this view. But we have seen that the process of thought is the same in common knowledge as in science. The difference between them is simply this, that the perceptions of relations in ordinary knowledge are loose, vague, and inaccurate, while it is the office of science to make them more careful, clear, and exact. It is simply a question of degree, and we must assume that science begins at the point where the teacher intervenes to guide the mental processes of the child, and make them more accurate and truthful. This work should be commenced sooner than has been generally supposed; and the view that the rudiments of all science are contained in the common knowledge possessed by the child necessitates a much earlier cultivation of the observing powers of children than is currently practiced. To prevent the break which commonly occurs when children enter upon the study of books and begin to substitute words for things, and to continue the processes which Nature has initiated, I sought for the simplest objects by which connected observations can be pursued, and the work of comparing, tracing out relations, and classifying can be continued, and for this purpose the simpler parts of plants are well adapted. Little children have already a large stock of ideas of the relations of concrete things. They know leaves, and stems, and flowers, though in a loose and indefinite way. The first effect of careful observation is to make these ideas more definite and precise. For instance, in place of the vague notion of leaves formed from casual acquaintance with them, the examination of a variety of leaf-forms reveals distinctly different kinds of leaves accordingly as they are made up of blade, stem, and stipule; of blade and stem; or of blade only. And each of these three definite classes receives a name with an equally definite meaning. On further observation, the blade turns out to be made up of different parts, which are to be further studied; the process of discovery and of precise naming goes on till leaves of all sorts fall into a few distinct groups, based upon definite characters and the simple recognition of these groups suffices for the beginning of classification. In the same way, from observation of stems, these fall into groups as round, square, erect, trailing, creeping, etc. Closer observation reveals still minuter characters, and the numerous individuals to be examined and described insure the repetition needful to depth and retention of impressions. In the objective study of plants the intellectual operations range from the simplest recognition of obvious likeness and difference among leaves, stems, flowers, etc., to the perception of contrasts and resemblances among multitudes of plants, by which they are separated into genera, tribes, orders, classes, series, and various intermediate groups. But here, as everywhere, the simple leads to the complex. The limits of these groups are determined by the presence or absence of features that have been made familiar in the course of earlier study.

By the title of her article Mrs. Jacobi gives prominence to the question of precedence between the leaf and the flower with reference to the plan of my little text-book. Obviously a school-book can only imperfectly conform to the various grades of capacity it addresses. If its aim is to reach the lowest grade that can begin the work of systematic and accurate observation; and if, as the result of experience in the present case, it has been found that there is a stage of child-life when the attention may be successfully given to the study of leaf characters, and can not be so held to the study of the flower, it would seem reasonable that the leaf should come first in the order of study. But one might not need to follow the same order with a child ten years old as with a child of six, because the former has greater capacity, and can do what the latter can not. An average child of ten years might perhaps begin observation anywhere, so far as his ability is concerned, while with an average child of five or six this could not be done. As stated in my previous article, it was necessary to begin somewhere, and the book is therefore apparently rigid in method; but I have repeatedly recommended in it that teachers exercise judgment, and skip about and choose what is most timely and appropriate to the circumstances and varying capacity of their pupils. Of course, for those teachers who think it a duty in all cases to begin at the beginning and go straight to the end, there is no help.

If, as in the present case, the dominant idea be that of self-education, if the pupil is to do his own thinking and discovering with the least possible guidance, it will be abundantly found that a young child will do this pleasurably and profitably with leaves before he can do it with flowers; for, in the case of the leaf, the mind passes more gradually from the looseness of common observation and language to the carefulness and accuracy required in the initiation of scientific study. The parts to be at first noted are more differentiated and fewer, and the number of new precise terms to mark them is smaller, and these may hence be firmly associated with the objects before fresh ones are brought forward. And, even if the method of study be purely instructional, if we point out the characters of the object to the child, and explain all about it, while he passively looks on and remembers what he may, we shall still find that the similarity and number of the different parts of the flower, and the duster of new terms that at once crowd upon the attention, confuse and hinder, if they do not positively repel, these youngest beginners.

  1. Essay on "The Cultivation of the Observing Powers of Children." (1870.)