Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/March 1890/Editor's Table

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THERE was an interesting discussion a month or two ago at a meeting of the Chicago Institute of Education. A paper had been read by one of the members of the Institute, Mr. Fernando Sanford, on "The Disciplinary Value of Scientific Study," which is stated to have been a strong and well-constructed plea for the study of science by original observation rather than by the ordinary text-book methods. Many of our readers would expect that unqualified assent would have been given to the argument of the paper; but it happened that an eminent educationist was present in the person of Superintendent Howland, of the Chicago public schools, who dissented entirely from Mr. Sanford's thesis. He thought all this talk about observation of facts and handling of objects was great nonsense; why not let children learn out of books that things were so and so, and commit the facts to memory? What was the use of all the accumulated knowledge and intelligence of the ages, if children were to begin at the beginning and make over again for themselves discoveries that were made centuries ago? Life was too short, he held, for this kind of thing. Let the pupil start with the knowledge of his own day as gathered and garnered in books, and not bother to find out things for himself. Moreover, man and his institutions are more worth studying than all the world besides. It would be a misfortune, he thought, if the advice given in the paper were followed in the schools.

We take the report of this speech as we find it in the columns of our contemporary "Intelligence" of Chicago, and we judge by the remarks that followed that the meaning we attach to it is precisely that which it conveyed to those who were present. These views, expressed by a man holding a most important official position, and eminent as an educational leader, are so strikingly opposed to the general verdict of scientific educators as to challenge examination. The question is, how shall science be taught? Only experience can answer. If there is any fact that experience has overwhelmingly illustrated and established, it is that mere book-teaching of science is void and of no effect—nay, that it is worse: that it has an actively injurious effect on the mind, which it deadens with meaningless jargon and befogs with ill-comprehended notions. The highest scientific authorities have proclaimed this; and a committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science put on record three or four years ago their deliberate opinion that the book science taught in the schools of this country was valueless for any purpose of intellectual discipline. Superintendent Howland must have observed in the course of his wide experience how hollow and often how fantastically absurd are the ideas children acquire of things of which they are told, but which they have never seen or handled. Every one who has been a close observer of his own contemporaries must be aware of many a man and woman who, for want of early and practical familiarity with this or that class of physical facts, labors under a confirmed disability in dealing with all facts of that particular order. How is a knowledge of or interest in flowers and plants (for example) to be acquired, if not by personal handling and observation of the objects themselves? And are there not many persons who, for want of this practical training, go through life with little knowledge of flowers beyond the fact that they are of various colors and odors, and of plants that they are for the most part green and require soil and sunlight for their growth? Many a man will give abundant testimony showing how hard he has striven in mature years to gain a little knowledge from books of this or that branch of science, and what terribly uphill and, in the main, ineffectual work it has been, just on account of defect in his powers of observation, and in that memory for the forms and qualities of physical things which due exercise of the observing habit in early life develops. Take any man on the ground that has become familiar to him by actual observation, and he is at his best. Talk to the sportsman about guns and game, and you are amazed at the profusion and minuteness of his knowledge. Talk to the naturalist, and he is inexhaustible in his descriptions and explanations of the objects of his craft. Talk to the geologist, and you will find that the strata and their fossil contents are the true realities amid which he lives. But talk to any man about that which he has only learned from books, and, though his speech may be copious, it will lack a certain living quality that comes only from conversance with realities. Even in such a domain as history, which some may say can not be learned except from books, there is a marked difference between the man whose memory is simply laden with names and dates, and the man who has become, in a sense, practically acquainted with the memorials of past ages—who has studied their monuments, their arts, their coins, their charters, their institutions, and who has vivified the whole by a knowledge of similar things belonging to the present time. It is safe to say that no man will ever understand history from the mere perusal of a narrative; he must, in a manner, make himself a contemporary of the times he is reading about; and then he may know the past a little as an intelligent man of affairs knows the present.

We had a splendid example here in this city not many weeks ago of what book-teaching of science amounts to. The "Evening Post" gave a selection of over fifty answers given by young women of the average age of seventeen, all pupils of our public schools, most of them having gone through the highest grade, to five very simple questions forming an examination paper set for candidates for admission to a free stenographic class at the Cooper Institute. These damsels were asked, among other things, to state how many motions the earth has, and how much time each occupies; also what causes the change of seasons. These things had been fully explained to them, as was supposed, at school; and all, or nearly all, had in point of fact retained some shreds of the phraseology in which the explanations had been conveyed. Here are some examples of the answers to the question as to the motions of the earth:

"One motion. One year. The motion of sun round the earth."

"Two motions. Night, Day, twelve hours for each."

"Four motions, it revolves on its axis around once a year, and the four motions cause the seasons spring, summer, fall, and winter."

"The revolution of the earth on its axis, and the inclination of 2312 per cent of its poles to the plane of its orbit."

"Two motions, day and night. The sun causes the earth to move around its axis every twenty-four hours."

"Two, Regular and Circular, twelve hours for each."

"If the earth would not be round, the sun and moon could not go round the earth. Sun takes twenty-four hours. Moon takes twenty-four hours. Stars at night."

We can not afford more space to this rubbish. Suffice it to say that our contemporary prints the answers given to the several questions by fifty-six of the candidates, and that they all display the most deplorable ignorance and confusion.

The problems of how science shall be taught in the public schools, or indeed whether it shall be brought into them at all, depend for their solution upon having the right kind of teachers. They need to realize the utter ignorance of the child-mind as it comes for instruction to the public school, and to understand how to build up in that mind a fabric of real and coherent knowledge. Let us turn children out of the public schools ignorant, if need be, of many things that are taught to them now; but let this idea at least be rooted in their minds, that this world is made up of real things; and this further idea, that words are worse than useless unless they can be applied in the most definite manner to well-understood objects of sense or of thought. What a blessing it would be if we could inspire the rising generation with a real horror of vague and meaningless language! It would mean nothing less than an intellectual revolution in the world—or at least in our considerable portion of it.


If there should arise a class of men who were able to distinguish, promptly and invariably, genuine things from imitations, facts from falsehoods, and truth from error, they would have an almost inconceivable advantage in the struggle of life. The tricks of impostors would never deceive them; the bubbles of visionaries would never delude them; they would never be misled by the sophistries of shallow theorists; never be enslaved by baseless superstitions. Such wisdom is so unlike what the world has ever known that the idea savors of Utopia or the millennium, and to express it seems almost childish. Yet it is a fact that some progress toward this ideal has been made—some increase of the power of recognizing truth has been gained. A class of men has arisen whose pursuit of health is not hampered by the delusion that disease is a punishment for lapses from religion, who do not waste their money on schemes for getting more power out of a machine than is put into it, who do not accept every statement that is put to them with rhetorical vehemence and defective evidence. This superior discernment—far from perfect, but the best that man has ever had— is the possession of those who have adopted the scientific habit of thought. A writer in the "Lancet" remarks that a supersensitiveness with regard to truth is the essential characteristic of a scientific frame of mind. Every suggestion that is offered in explanation of phenomena which are imperfectly understood is received with cautious reserve. This characteristic is liable to be mistaken for uncertainty or for prejudice; but in reality it is solely the outward sign of a just appreciation of the numerous sources of fallacy, which so often tend to render the most brilliant speculations worthless, when examined rigidly and coldly by the ideal standard of truth. When gauging the probability of the truth of any suggested explanation, it is held to be scientifically unsound to welcome it merely because some one of undoubted honesty of purpose has expressed his entire belief in it. There is always the possibility of mental bias to be reckoned with, as well as the possibility of unconscious delusion. No single sense is to be implicitly trusted. A preconceived idea may lead to the recognition of one property, while others of greater importance are over-looked. Pushed to its logical conclusion, this ideal standard of truth demands more proof than can ever be obtained, and for working purposes it is found convenient to employ what may be called provisional truths, which we accept on account of the facts that appear to support them being vastly more numerous than those that appear to oppose them, or because they have been set forth by careful, conscientious observers, after thorough consideration and elimination of all probable sources of error.

Imperfect education fosters delusion; indeed, delusions are most rife with the ambitious condition which often comes from "a little learning," when the whole is liable to be rashly assumed from the part; when a false appearance of truth may be mistaken for explanation; when the result of an erroneous observation, unchecked by scientific training, may be hastily considered to amount to demonstration. Education can have no more important aim than to equip pupils with the best known method for the recognition of truth. Every day of their fives they will have to decide as to the truth or falsity of some statement; and what is to prevent their going astray, if they have not been practiced in searching out all modifying circumstances of a problem, if they have not been accustomed to finding the balance of evidence, and taught the great lesson that judgment is not to be given rashly, but must be suspended when sufficient data to warrant a decision are not obtainable? The old studies of our schools do nothing toward training the young in examining evidence and forming judgments. The study of science, however, when rightly conducted, mainly consists of the process of investigation, the very instrument which pupils must be able to use handily in after life to save themselves from becoming the victims of impostors and swindlers. Aside from the material advantages involved, the habit of making truth the goal of his exertions inspires in the young learner a respect and fondness for truth for its own sake which can not fail to have an elevating influence on his character. Science should have, therefore, an important place in every school programme; it should be introduced in the lowest grades, in order to give the child's unfolding faculties the proper bent; and it should be continued throughout the school course in order to save the half-formed habit of intelligent inquiry from being lost by an interruption of its exercise. Our children could well afford to grow up in ignorance of the height of Mount Chuquibamba and the length of the Brahmapootra; they might dispense with a smattering of French, or do without the Latin declensions and conjugations, if the time thus saved enabled them to gain some facility in sifting truth from falsehood. An encouraging improvement in our educational ideas has been shown of late, and it seems as if the time could not be far distant when all who have any voice in the training of the young will see clearly what knowledge and what acquirements are of most worth.