Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/December 1886/The New Requisitions for Admission at Harvard College

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AT the close of the last academical year the Faculty of Harvard College published a new scheme of requisition for admission, which will be followed at the admission examination of 1887, and thereafter. This scheme has been very slowly matured. It was originally prepared by a large committee of the college faculty, and was discussed in all its details for more than three years, first by the faculty, afterward by the corporation and the Board of Overseers, and finally was adopted by all the governing boards of the college. The scheme is complex, and any one desiring to understand all its possibilities must study the details in the pamphlet in which it has been announced. It is sufficient for the present purpose to say that, while it permits and even encourages the old line of linguistic studies on which students have hitherto been prepared for all the New England colleges nominally with nearly the same requisitions, the new plan opens other avenues of admission; and, among these, one to which we desire especially to call attention, as it demands and invites a thorough preparation in mathematics and physical science, with only that minimum of linguistic training which is universally regarded as an essential prerequisite of liberal culture.

In the new scheme students will be admitted to Harvard College as candidates for the B. A. degree who can write correctly a short English composition, and thus show that they are acquainted with a few prescribed classical English works; who can read at sight simple Latin, German, and French prose; who have a general knowledge of the history of the United States and of England; who have mastered the elementary mathematics, including analytic geometry and the rudiments of mechanics; and, lastly, who have had a certain amount of laboratory practice in physical science, including both physics and chemistry.

Of the several alternatives which the new scheme offers, the one above described will probably be chosen by most students who are seeking a scientific rather than a literary education. But this general plan of preparatory studies may be varied in details to meet different circumstances: thus, an advanced course in Latin or French may be offered in place of the German; but this substitution is not generally advisable, for the study of German, if deferred, must be taken up in college (the ability to read ordinary German as well as French prose being an essential requisite for the A.B. degree), and this linguistic power is more easily acquired in early youth than afterward, when the mind is engrossed with severer studies.

This broadening of the requisites for admission is the last step in a series of changes by which, at Harvard College, scientific culture has been placed on the same footing as literary culture, and recognized as an equally fitting preparation for the degrees in arts. Those who have advocated these changes have seen clearly from the first that the study of natural science could not compete with the study of literature as a means of culture unless the discipline were equally severe, and unless legitimate scientific methods were strictly followed. To master a scientific subject as a body of systematized truth, and present it elegantly at a written examination, is a literary work, and the ability to do this work well is a normal result of literary training. The nature of the subject-matter does not essentially alter the character of the mental effort, and the power of ready acquisition and clear expression works very much in the same way, whether the material fashioned be science, history, or literatui'e. This literary power is a talent of the very highest order, in many professions the one power needed, and in all professions a power of great value. But it is not the scientific power. It is not the power by which the physician investigates disease, by which the navigator crosses the ocean, or the geologist explores a continent; it is not the power by which a large part of the practical work of modern civilization is accomplished. The true test of scientific power is the ability to interpret Nature, and this can only be acquired by cultivating to the utmost—1. The perceptive faculty, by which observations are made; 2. The delicate manipulation required in experimenting; and, 3. The inductive method of reasoning by which correct conclusions are drawn from the results of observation or experiment. Moreover, long experience has shown that the old literary methods of education, so far from tending to cultivate the scientific faculties, rather tend to blunt them, and therefore that, without unusual native talent, the best results of scientific training can not be attained unless we begin with pupils at an early age. It is easy to awaken among college students a taste for natural science, and all the easier on account of the barrenness of their previous studies; but, so long as the average college student is not taught to use his perceptive faculties until that late stage of his education, it is obvious that the standard of scientific culture in our higher institutions of learning can not compare with that of the literary culture which has engrossed the attention of the student from childhood. We can not reach a standard that will command general respect until we can secure real science training in the preparatory schools. The acquisition of scientific knowledge by the study of text-books, however excellent in themselves, will not in the least degree promote this end, unless possibly by awakening a desire to study Nature. What we require is, that the eye should be trained to observe, the hand to experiment, and the judgment to reason. Hence it is that, in the new scheme of requisitions for admission to Harvard College, the requisition in chemistry has been stated thus: "A course of at least sixty experiments in 'general chemistry,' actually performed at school by the pupil.... The candidate will be required to pass both a written and a laboratory examination. The written examination will be directed to testing the candidate's knowledge of experiments and experimenting, as well as his knowledge of the principles and results of the respective sciences. The laboratory examination will be directed to testing his skill in experimenting. At the hour of the written examination the candidate will be required to hand in the original note-book in which he recorded the steps and results of the experiments which he performed at school, and this note-book must bear the indorsement of his teacher, certifying that the notes are a true record of the pupil's work." The requisition in physics is stated in similar language.

The pamphlet, whose title is given at the head of this notice, was prepared chiefly for the purpose of accurately defining the requisition above stated. It presents certain novel features.

In the first place, the course here presented is limited to the fundamental principles of chemistry, and no attempt is made to develop the scheme of the chemical elements. At Cambridge this scheme is fully illustrated in a subsequent course, which is the natural sequel of the one we are here discussing. Such a limitation of the subject-matter has a very great advantage in an elementary course, by enabling the teacher to fix attention on the general principles of the science, selecting for illustrations only those facts which have a general interest, and avoiding the great mass of details which usually so greatly encumber the elementary presentation of chemistry. But, although the scope of the course is thus limited, all the fundamental principles of the science are considered, the most important of its facts are illustrated, and the general method of each of its great departments is explained.

In the second place, demonstrations by the teacher are systematically used in this pamphlet to supplement the experiments made by the students, and a complete outline is given of a systematic course of instruction in the elements of chemical science which is logically followed out from beginning to end. The ground is taken that it is not necessary, in order to secure the full advantages of the experimental method, that each student should perform every experiment for himself. If this is attempted, a course in chemistry must be made very meager, since, on account of either their danger or their expense, a large number of the most instructive experiments must be omitted; but these can be shown once for all, without danger and with comparatively slight cost, on the lecture-table. If the student has actually performed in the laboratory a sufficient number of expiriments to give him the spirit of the method, he will usually comprehend the full significance of others which are plainly exhibited before him.

In the third place, quantitative as well as qualitative experiments are introduced from the first, and all the usual measurements of chemistry are illustrated. Examples are given of the determination of melting and boiling points, the student first constructing the thermometer with which the determinations are made. He further learns how to measure with the calorimeter the amount of heat evolved in chemical processes, and to find the specific heat of the materials used. There are also simple examples of quantitative analysis and of the determination of molecular and atomic weights; and, lastly, easy methods of determining gas and vapor densities place even those measurements within the reach of elementary students.

In the fourth place, great pains have been taken to reduce the expense of the course to the lowest possible point. To this end common household utensils such as may be made by a tinsmith, or found at any house-furnishing store, have been adapted to the purposes of instruction. The small (so-called "American") petroleum cooking-stove serves an admirable purpose for heating, its oven is an excellent drying-chamber or hot-air bath, and, with a simple attachment furnished by the makers, it may be used as a tube-furnace. So also a farina-kettle makes a good steam-bath; and the quick-sealing fruit or milk jars are not only good gas-holders, but enable any student to perform experiments which formerly were only made with costly apparatus. The only apparatus of precision required are the scales and thermometers, which can be purchased from the dealers in chemical supplies at a very moderate cost. Indeed, the expense of the absolutely necessary outfit for a class of twenty students need not exceed one hundred dollars, and twice this sum will purchase everything that could possibly be needed for the course here laid out.

Lastly, the course has been made inductive throughout. It is a wise economy in education to seek from each study that discipline which it best affords. The memory is a greatly abused faculty. The necessities of language, the commonplaces of history, and the requirements of literature and art, task even the most retentive memory, and it is a waste of resources to overburden it with a mass of scientific details which, even if retained, will be of little value except to the specialist. Chemistry is peculiarly an inductive science, and to teach it deductively is to use it for a discipline, which is much better furnished by mathematics or mechanics; yet chemistry is taught deductively whenever, as in most elementary text-books, the chief stress is laid upon the symbolical expression of chemical facts and principles. To secure the peculiar discipline of chemistry, it is essential that it should be studied as it has been built up. The student must begin by observing phenomena, and be led up to the general principles through his own inferences. To begin with an abstract statement of these principles, or, what amounts to the same thing, to express from the first every phenomenon observed in symbolical language which embodies these principles, is to invert the natural order, and to abandon the inductive method. Undoubtedly, such are the precision and grasp of this system of symbols that it is of the greatest value in aiding the chemist to see relations and predict results which, without its aid, he might not have discovered at all. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that chemical symbols simply stand for the facts and theories they were devised to express, and for nothing more. They have not the generality of mathematical formula?, and are, therefore, far inferior to such formulæ as forms of deductive reasoning. In the pamphlet before us the full meaning of chemical symbols is explained, but they are not used until the principles of the science have been developed.

An inspection of this pamphlet will show that the author, who has been for thirty years one of the most constant advocates of scientific culture in school and college, has no desire to lower the standard of university education. Except to those who have unusual mathematical and scientific talents the new scheme of preliminary studies is a decidedly more difficult way of entering college than the old classical curriculum. It has, however, a special end in view, and has been adapted to this purpose with great care, and is the result of large experience. Our colleges have always been the nurseries of scholars, of men who knew how "to clothe thought in beautiful and suggestive language, to weave argument into correct and persuasive forms, and to kindle enthusiasm by eloquence."[2] But we earnestly hope that while rendering as fully as ever this high service to the state by educating the men who will defend the right and repress the wrong, uphold the true and expose the false, these same schools of liberal culture will also do the equally important work of preparing earnest men "to unravel the mysteries of the universe, to probe the secrets of disease, to direct the forces of Nature, and to develop the resources of this earth."[3]

  1. Descriptive List of Experiments on the Fundamental Principles of Chemistry. By Josiah Parsons Cooke. (For the use of Teachers preparing Students for the Admission Examination in Chemistry at Harvard College.)
  2. The writer, in an address to the Harvard Club of Rhode Island, Newport, August 25, 1883, and published in this "Monthly" for November of the same year.
  3. Abridged from a paper on "Cruises in Melanesia," etc., read before the Royal Geographical Society, April 12, 1886.