Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/March 1888/Editor's Table
NO part of Darwin's biography is more interesting than the pages which tell how his powers first manifested themselves, and how they were educated. He shared the opinion of his cousin, Francis Galton, that talent is due to Nature rather than nurture, to innate ability more than to education. Crediting then to Nature Darwin's wonderful aptitude for observation and for protracted pondering over observed facts until they became digested into laws, it is instructive to note how badly his formal education was adapted to draw out and develop his powers. Formal education, we say, for what is statedly taught is fortunately but a small part of what is really learned. Darwin's teaching and training were the best current in his boyhood and youth, the best which a wealthy and most intelligent father could provide him, and this is his comment on his first school: "Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler's school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught, except a little ancient geography and history. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank. During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language. Especial attention was paid to verse-making, and this T could never do well." At Edinburgh University, where he spent two years, the instruction was wholly by lectures; these he found intolerably dull, with the exception of those on chemistry. When he went to Cambridge, the recollection of the Edinburgh lectures was so strong upon him that he did not attend Sedgwick's course. This he afterward much regretted, as it seriously belated his study of geology. He, however, derived great advantage from Professor Henslow's lectures on botany; these he much admired for their extreme clearness and fine illustrations. Otherwise, his incapacity for mathematics and languages made his Cambridge studies unprofitable. When a boy, Darwin was a collector of shells, seals, coins, and minerals; at Cambridge his passion for collecting began to be purposeful, and he confined himself to gathering insects. While his formal education was so meager, his real education was proceeding apace, mainly through friendly intercourse with eminent teachers and promising students of the university, attracted by his charms of mind and manner.
Since the years of Darwin's early life much has been done to improve educational methods, and yet more remains to be done. School, college, and university courses are no longer confined to oral instruction, to language learning and book-lore. It is found that the direct study of Nature is quite as valuable as the memorization of printed pages, or the ability to write in Latin or Greek. Natural science is vindicating its claim to discipline the important faculties which the study of mere verbal symbols neglects. To Darwin, the ability to describe a cirripede in seven languages would have been an accomplishment of doubtful value; to find the cirripede's place in Nature was an important and attractive task. He improved his faculty for observation by assiduous exercise until it became of marvelous keenness. His delight was in receiving impressions direct from Nature, not in receiving impressions of impressions, such as words convey. His rending and parting of books in His library, regarding them simply as 60 much material, was thoroughly characteristic.
Darwin's school and university experience emphasizes again the utter inadequacy of any education which makes too much of words—especially the words which only live in lexicons. Because language is a noble faculty, and verbal expression is a power of high importance which can be conspicuous in manifestation, utterance has been vastly overrated in schemes of education. After all, what can be verbally expressed is but a small part of what can be thought, or felt, or done. Who can describe the individualities of tone by which one recognizes a friend's voice, or the peculiarities of feature by which one classifies a face as English or Irish? What successful merchant or banker can fully tell why he expects truth and honesty from one applicant for credit, and the reverse from another? What judge can define wherein the manner of one witness impresses him favorably, and that of another adversely? Who can express in speech the feelings stirred by beholding sublime scenery or the starry sky? Where is set forth in print some detail of how music works its magic—now soothing to reverie, now quickening the pulse, arousing resolve and heroic emotion? In attempting to communicate art and skill, to convey impressions of form and color, language is powerless. Its dominion, though wide, has its strict limits:
"Far out on the deep there are billows
That never shall break on the beach."
Excessive cultivation of powers of verbal expression, excessive addiction to books, cause inevitable neglect of the education of hand, of eye and ear—of the senses which give us, when exercised, full and clear perceptions of the things about us. This neglect, by restricting observation and experiment, robs the reasoning faculty of the material out of which judgments may be rendered and new truth born. When a flower is planted and reared, dissected, classified, and sketched in its natural tints, it is known as it never is known to a mere memorizer of botanical text-books. Iron and sulphur become a student's intimate acquaintances in a laboratory; he learns hundreds of interesting facts about them, and how to recognize them in all disguises. Were he but a text-book scholar, he would know little more of them than their names. It is one thing to learn by rote the distribution in the heavens of the various constellations; it is another and deeper thing to know them as one must to track one's way across wilderness or sea. Progress in manipulative skill has in modern times not only given us truer graphic and plastic arts, it has led to important advances in physics and chemistry, and in surgery made the blind see and the lame walk. Every one who has practiced sketching from Nature has felt the reaction of growing deftness with the pencil upon the powers of observation and the appreciation of scenery. An artist sees so much more in a landscape than an ordinary observer, that he is justified in thinking that the ordinary observer scarcely sees anything at all. Darwin all his life bitterly regretted that he had not learned drawing when young; yet drawing is quite as easily learned by a boy as writing, and gives him the power of showing in a picture much that can not be described in words. Darwin also constantly lamented that he had not overcome his repugnance to dissecting, so as to practice the art and gain direct access to much valuable evidence. Yet, notwithstanding defects in his equipment, he rose, by what he calls sheer doggedness, to ascertaining through observation and thought one of the greatest laws of organic life. Tested by verbal standards, this great man would not have stood high. His verbal memory was poor. He always found it difficult to express himself clearly and concisely, yet this very difficulty was beneficial in making him think long and intently about every sentence, leading him to correct errors in observation and reasoning. He had the strongest disbelief that a classical scholar must write good English—he thought the contrary to be the case. Of literary style as an indulgence in power over words he evidently thought little; while he acknowledged the vividness of Carlyle's pictures of men and things, he questioned their truth. Darwin, by his life, more convincingly than by what he said, demonstrated the supreme value in education of addressing the senses and the reasoning powers rather than the verbal memory. Few boys are destined to be naturalists, and none may hope to be as great as Darwin; yet the lesson of his life is eloquent to every one surrounded by a world of things to be observed, of testimony to be elicited and sifted, of gaps in known truth to be bridged and filled. Because in times past the area of known truth has been vastly overestimated, and the value of language in the expression of such truth equally overestimated, written creeds, theological, political, legal, and educational, have on all sides blocked human advance.
Apropos of Cambridge and progress in the modernization of its curriculum, it is pleasant to read the recent remarks of Professor Seeley, who occupies the chair of Modern History at Cambridge. On the 10th of January, at the Congress of the National Society of French Professors residing in England, he said: "A crisis in the history of English education is upon us, in that classicism education is once more attacked, and the affirmation strongly made that the interests of practical life must no longer be neglected in our educational system, and that Englishmen must be prepared at school to compete in commerce and in business with their foreign rivals, and for this purpose they will have to renounce in part that training in Latin and Greek which former generations of Englishmen have received. The assertion is made more peremptorily, more impatiently, than ever before. I am myself by breeding a classicist of the classicists. In aim I am most heartily at one with the classicists. At the same time I think that in taking up their position they display a spirit of blind, unreasoning conservatism, such as in politics died out with Lord Eldon. What is to be done if the claims of practical life and those of culture are radically incompatible? I should say that the Master of Balliol laid the best basis for such an arrangement when he pointed out that French might be treated as a stepping-stone to Latin.
"Let us give up the preposterous doctrine that Latin must be learned in order to learn French, and let us teach French in order to teach Latin. In so doing we do not sacrifice literature to mere business, for the modern languages have literatures as well as the ancient. There exists a French literature which comprises books of poetry, devotion, philosophy, science, history, politics—a literature not less but more extensive and various than Greek and Roman literatures themselves. This literature indisputably excites the same sort of emotions and exerts the same influence as classical literature. It elevates the mind, stimulates the imagination, and forms the taste; in short, there is absolutely no good effect produced by the classical literature which is not also in some degree produced by this literature."
Much ado is often made by persons hostile to science or—which is the same thing—having a partisan interest in opinions which they wish to maintain in spite of science, about the contradictions that mark the development of scientific theory. Because the theories which served a good purpose a year ago, or twenty-five years ago, or a century ago, have been put aside in favor of others that more nearly meet the facts as they are known to-day, science, they argue, is not in the least to be depended on; and therefore objections made in the name of science to any opinion or set of opinions should not be allowed to carry any weight. This is a very popular line of argument, but it is also very fallacious, as a moment's consideration will show. In the investigation of Nature the mind necessarily forms theories as it goes along. Some kind of a theory is almost necessary even to observation; and the theory which, at the moment, best accounts for the facts is the one toward which the mind must incline. This is a law which no one can hope to escape. The most reasonable thing any man can do is to accept from moment to moment the soundest and most comprehensive generalization offered to his thought. If that generalization should be incomplete, or in any way unsound, the quickest way to discover its weakness is to put it to the strain of daily use. The question to ask regarding Science—the only really pertinent question—is as to whether she has not, from the dawn of rational thought, been extending her observations and improving her theories. Is she not, has she not always been, on the road to truth? Has she not already established a great many substantially true theories, and is she not daily adding to the number? If scientific men have been too confident in times past as to the absolute truth of their hypotheses, one good result at least has followed from their over confidence: their partial views have all the sooner been displaced by more comprehensive ones. But because science is progressive, because its work is never done, is it never to venture to criticise opinions that are not progressive? We say that the holder of even an imperfect scientific theory, provided it is the best obtainable at the time, has a perfect right to say to one who holds a view that embodies no scientific theory whatever, but simply contradicts all scientific theory, that he is wrong in holding that view. Grant that the view in question may be in unsuspected harmony with some higher truth or principle not yet discovered, we may still say that, in the absence of a present justification in fact, it is not right to hold it as true now. Better far to take one's humble place in the great procession that is moving steadily onward toward the goal of a true scientific philosophy, and let the higher views dawn on us in their own good time.
It is a strange accusation to bring against science that it is progressive, that it provides means, from age to age, of expressing all the truth that is at the time obtainable, while reserving full liberty to widen, as circumstances may permit, the circle of its inductions, and consequently the basis of its theories. If this is something to be ashamed of, where is that which we should admire? The proper answer to give to those who love to point out the fallibility of scientific theories (as if elsewhere there were theories that were infallible!) is that it is better to follow any theory that, so far as our knowledge extends, affords an explanation of facts, than to make erode assertions: reposing on no theory whatever. At the same time let us take home to ourselves the lesson that science is progressive; that the thought of to-day can not assume to bind the thought of to-morrow; and while we still prefer any rational theory to an irrational lack of all theory, let us not by any undue dogmatism give occasion to the enemies of progress to blaspheme. Science, with all the confessions it has to make of past errors, and all its ad-missions of probable present errors, is going bravely on. Its very errors have been relative truths, and its service has at all times been the service of truth. Can those who delight and exult in the errors of science say as much for the service, whatever it may be, in which they are engaged?
We noticed, not very long ago, an extract from the article on "Brain-forcing in Childhood," contributed by Dr. Hammond to the pages of this magazine, doing duty apparently as an original article in the columns of the "Public School Journal" of Mount Washington, Ohio. In the January number of the "Canada Educational Monthly," published at Toronto, Ontario, there appeared two of our own editorial articles, one entitled "Culture and Character," the second "Encroachments of the State." The first is duly acknowledged, the second is not. It is quite possible that neither of the journals mentioned borrowed the unacknowledged matter directly from our columns, but it is evident that the journal which first borrows without acknowledgment does a very dishonest thing, destroying as it does the lawfully acquired property of another journal in the original matter published by it. We rejoice at every sign of public notice which the "Monthly" receives, and make our contemporaries welcome within reasonable limits to whatever in our columns they may desire to reproduce; only, we should like them always to do us the justice of acknowledging what they take.