Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/December 1890/Correspondence
THE INFLUENCE OF SPENCER'S PHILOSOPHY.
Editor Popular Science Monthly:
SIR: Being a diligent reader of the review which you direct, and which I consider one of the best exponents of scientific progress, and spending a short time in this city, I have read with satisfaction in the number for August the article entitled Mr. Spencer's Place in Philosophy. Only ignorance of the influence which the scientific philosophy of Mr. Spencer is exercising in the modern world, and of the place which philosophy in general occupies in the order of human knowledge, could have permitted the editor of the New York Times to question the position which the superior intelligence of the English philosopher has conquered.
While I do not know what the respondents of the writer who calls himself "Outsider" have brought forward, and while I have no books at hand and can only follow the tone of your reply, I hope I may be permitted to indicate a few of the points in which specialists in different sciences have been anticipated by Mr. Spencer.
When he wrote his Principles of Biology, organic chemistry was in its infancy: Gerhart had not yet occupied himself with the serial classification; Kekulé had not yet discussed the molecular constitution of the carbon compounds; and the mind of the philosopher was still only occupied with the application of mechanical principles. Nevertheless he was able to anticipate the true function of organic carbon and the peculiar chemical properties of nitrogen. Many chemists were not agreed respecting the importance to be ascribed to nitrogen in vital reactions. But the inertness of that body; its strange manner of entering into combination; the inverse reactions which it provokes; the variations of its equilibrium with the proportions in which it forms part of compounds; the different modes of its behavior under the influence of electricity; the personality, as we might say, which it possesses in every reaction; and, especially, the difficulties which chemists like Schoenbein, Deville, Munst, Marcam, and Berthelot have met in accounting for the method of its entering into combinations to form vegetable substances, now proceeding from the air and now from fertilizers—all these features Mr. Spencer's paper assigned to this body and illustrated before chemical studies demonstrated them. We will not concern ourselves with the later spectroscopic observations, nor with the discussions, of which the two very different spectral systems that nitrogen presents have been the occasion, for they are not in question here.
Until a recent date, chemists held to a conception of the atom not widely different from that which was accepted in the time of Epicurus, and his atoms were identical with those which Dalton conceived. But Mr. Spencer, before William Crookes had resolved yttrium into its more simple components, before he conceived the idea of protyle, had spoken of the physical atoms that constitute the chemical atom.
If he who calls himself "Outsider" had read a letter of Mr. Spencer's addressed to the North American Review, which was inserted at the end of the first volume of the French edition of the Principles of Biology, in which he declared himself against the theory of spontaneous generation, not only as it then existed among students, but also as Haeckel afterward denned it in his theory of perigenesis of the plastidules, he would have been convinced that the philosopher had anticipated the results obtained by the latest biological studies and the conceptions of the chemists of to-day on the complexity of organic molecules.
Mr. Darwin introduced an epoch in the history of thought. But, before the Origin of Species appeared, Mr. Spencer had formulated the doctrine of transformism in a manner so universal that the truths demonstrated by Mr. Darwin are seen to be a necessary consequence of the laws of evolution.
The opinions of the philosopher on the constitution and mechanical function of the nervous system, as well as respecting the office which is filled by the system of the great sympathetic in the higher animals, occupy a distinguished place in modern physiology.
In the subjective analysis of thought, Mr. Spencer has reached a point that no one had attained till his time; and his incontrovertible criticism of the concepts of Kant, and of the ideas of time and space, reveals a profundity of intelligence which was not surpassed in Aristotle.
His social studies are instructive to the statesmen of the present. His criticisms of the parliamentary systems of Europe have modified the ideas of political men. The recrudescence of the military régime, with all its consequences, was foreseen by Mr. Spencer; the exposure of the absurdities of much modern law making by constituted states is his work; no one has demonstrated as he has done the wonderful power of individual initiative as opposed to the Attila's horse of state intervention; the force of German socialism as a consequence of the socialism of the state imposed by Herr Bismarck was foreseen and censured by the philosopher. The New Toryism and the Coming Slavery which he foresaw, already exist in Europe. The pernicious consequences of protectionism, which have occasioned great commercial crises in the old continent, but which the United States have escaped suffering only because the economical errors of the system are in great part balanced by the magnificent political organization they possess and the conditions of the environment and the ethnical relations that help you, were all pointed out in the sociological works of the philosopher. What authority can be seriously opposed in this day to the arguments of the socialistic party in its contentions against the present organization of society, except we invoke the sociological principles established by Herbert Spencer?
It remains, in concluding this letter, to point to a fact which relates particularly to my country, Spain. Before the doctrines of the philosopher had spread among the Spanish thinkers, radical partisans had no faith except in the processes of the French Revolution and in the Declaration of Rights written in the Constitution, the precepts of which, however, were not complied with in practice. But to-day, the radical Prof. Salmeron, as well as the conservative D. Antonio Canovas del Castillo, invoke only the principles of the laws of evolution. In no other principle has been founded the changed course of conduct pursued by the eminent tribune, Don Emilio Castelar, during the last fifteen years. I remain your obedient servant,
A DEFENSE OF MECHANICAL TEACHING.
Editor Popular Science Monthly:
Dear Sir: In the November Popular Science Monthly I notice a letter from Anna Chapin Ray in which some educational methods, so called, are severely criticised. While I acknowledge a certain justice in the criticism upon the particular points cited, I beg leave to suggest that possibly a closer observation of school work might show reasons for the line of action indicated in the different instances. To designate pupils by numbers instead of by their names does seem mechanical, to say the least; but when we remember that a teacher has perhaps eighty children, with a recitation period of not more than thirty or forty minutes, and when we also remember that it takes less time to count eighty than it does to pronounce eighty names, we can hardly wonder that the teacher resorts to that means which will secure her the most time for actual class work. The teacher is not responsible for being driven to this. School boards are responsible, and we should understand that it is impossible for any teacher to do natural educational work under such conditions.
I have not yet considered the subject of writing to the accompaniment of music sufficiently to give a decided opinion upon this question, but I think I can see that music may be a means of obtaining certain desirable ends in this connection. It may be the means of securing regularity, precision, uniformity, and rapidity of action, and so may be of value. It does not follow that, if music is used as a means in teaching writing, those pupils who may become accountants should do their work to the accompaniment of music. The music is only a means to an end, which in this case is skill in writing. If by means of music this end be attained with a less outlay of time and energy than it could otherwise be secured, it seems to me that the teacher shows wisdom in using it. As soon as the end is gained, the means, of course, can and will be dispensed with. Whether the use of music here be judicious or not, I think that no one will question the importance of securing uniformity of action upon the part of pupils. In a writing-lesson, as in other lessons, it is well that the pupils all observe a direction at the same time. If every child were allowed the privilege of being a few moments behind every other, your correspondent can see that very little work would really be done. Concerted action on the part of children is desirable; by means of it the more impetuous pupils of the class are restrained, while slower ones are brought forward more rapidly than they otherwise would advance.
Class interest, and indeed all social interest, is based either directly or indirectly upon concerted action. It does not render the pupil less capable of acting alone when occasion requires, and it does enable him to adapt his actions to those of another person when such adaptation is necessary, as we find it to be more or less in all the relations of life.
In regard to the book work, I can also understand that a teacher might very wisely take means to prevent the children from anticipating the work on hand. If original work on the part of the pupil were required, it would be well that he should not make use of the matter contained in his book, as the end in view would certainly thereby be defeated.
Again, I should like to suggest that the line of action pursued by the different teachers in the different instances stated can not possibly be considered as "methods" of instruction; they are at best but crude plans employed by the teachers for the purpose of securing certain ends. Method in instruction implies the uniform observation of educational principles; while those plans mentioned very often illustrate in the teachers an excess of that individuality which your correspondent claims for the pupils. If the child is to be individual in his actions, the teacher should certainly be so. The fault in the instruction in our public schools at present, however, is not a lack of individuality, but rather a lack of uniformity. If our teachers depended a little less upon their own individual impulses, and more upon the recognized principles of education, we should probably have fewer imperfect plans to criticise, and would secure better results in our work.
We have not to complain of a "craze" for carrying methods to extremes so much as a "craze" for individual prominence, which results in somewhat absurd plans of procedure that must be abandoned as soon as their novelty wears away. Nothing will correct this weakness so completely as the uniform training of teachers in accordance with recognized psychological principles. When this is secured, the observers of school work will at least do teachers the justice to suppose that they have excellent reasons for what may appear to the uninitiated to be mere erratic action.
Editor Popular Science Monthly:
Sir: In your issue of November appears a letter from A. C. Ray, calling attention to the method of teaching reading in vogue in our public schools. To quote the writer's own language, "Children are taught to read without spelling, recognizing each word by its appearance, and learning it as a detached fact."
Your correspondent then goes on to show the unnaturalness of the "natural method" so called. Permit me to say that I personally thank the writer for having had the courage to bring this matter to the attention of your readers. The present natural method of teaching children to read is indeed an absurdity, and it is difficult to understand the reason and the authority upon which such a system has been adopted.
My little girl is attending a grammar school in Cambridge, Mass., which has the reputation of being a very good one. My child is in the fifth class, and I am informed by the teacher that this class offers greater difficulties to the average pupil than any of the higher classes. Night after night I have the pleasure of rehearsing with her the writing-lesson of the day. Now, how does the child learn to read! The school uses Swinton's History and Geography. From this book the teacher, no doubt acting under instructions, reads daily with the children, and then dictates to them the principal words contained in the paragraphs they have been reading. I beg to be understood that the words are dictated and written by the children as they are found in the text-book—i. e., the verbs not in the infinitive mood, but in any of the several tenses; nouns either in the singular or plural; all in confusion. I will give here a few of the words found in one of the lessons: Sachem, aurora borealis, Cheyenne City, arctic, eider-down, Phœnix, Indianapolis, Indian dialect, Latin language, French or Indian, Greek language, German language, Latin language, compound English-Greek.
It will be observed that these words represent a fine collection taken from several old as well as modern languages. No explanation is given by the teacher concerning the derivation of the words; if she thinks well of it, she will tell the children what the meaning of such a word is, but all the rest is a tabula rasa to the pupils.
No doubt some people will not believe me when I assert that, though my child has been attending school four years, has been studying writing and reading for the same time, she has never been taught the difference between a vowel and a consonant, and, consequently, she is ignorant of the very tools she is called upon to work with.
It seems but too simple a thing to call attention to the numerous recurring unchangeable prefixes, affixes, endings, etc.; such, for instance, as "ious," "ive," "able," "ation," etc., or to tell ihem that a certain grouping of characters as a rule produces such and such sounds, all of which would materially assist the pupils and save them hours of laborious work. But no, let them grope in utter darkness and recognize each word by its appearance! If that is a correct way of teaching children reading, why don't you apply the same method to teaching arithmetic? As the English language contains about forty thousand words, independently of numerous derivatives, compounds, and grammatical formations, the idea of teaching children reading by recognizing each word by its appearance is indeed absurd.
The evil effects of such a system are self-evident, but the means of overcoming the evil are not so apparent, and after a good deal of consideration I have thought best to apply to The Popular Science Monthly for assistance. No doubt many fathers and mothers will take a deep interest in this matter touching the education of their offspring, and as it is useless for an individual to go to the several school boards, laying his or her grievances before them, I suggest that through the agency of The Popular Science Monthly an association may be formed of such people as are interested in the education of children; that the aim of such association be united action to bring sufficient pressure to bear upon the several school boards to modify or abolish the method now used in the public schools to teach children reading, and to consider ways and means to best accomplish this purpose.
I shall be glad to hear from other people in this matter.