Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/Metamorphoses in Education

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By Professor A. E. DOLBEAR.

INSTITUTIONS are necessary for society of all grades. The Hottentot needs them as well as we and has them. In society that has been stable for a long time the institutions have been so adjusted that they are very perfectly adapted to the needs of the people, as those in China are. In a community where nothing new is learned and nothing forgotten, the mechanism for the maintenance of society runs with the least friction, and in a good sense the institutions of a country are the mechanical supports which maintain its form and give coherence to it. When one thinks of an Englishman, a German, a Russian, or a Turk, he is not thinking of one who chances to speak this or that tongue or who has this or that cast of countenance, but of one who has been molded by certain institutions in which he was brought up, and which have given to each one a personality different from any of the others, which personality has adapted him to live comfortably with an environment different from the others, and in which each of the others would find more or less that was disagreeable, and in which, at any rate for a time, he would be uncomfortable. This fitting a man for his environment is education in the large sense, and every human being is educated thus. The great difference between both individuals and nations is traceable to the breadth of the environment or the number and variety of institutions that are operative in their growth.

Wherein is the difference between the German and the Turk, that one is a synonym for civilization while the other is a symbol of barbarism and lethargy? One has been educated not only by his own institutions but by all other available ones; he has laid the world under tribute and the heavens bring to him comforts, while the other with as good opportunities has been for centuries content to shut out from himself all foreign influences whatever. His environment has been simply that of his own involuntary efforts, and it has made him a beast, as it will any who are content with less than the universe can give.

This environment of which I speak is not one of locality merely, and does not imply that the one who has traveled most is the best educated. The mountain does go to Mohammed if Mohammed commands it aright. Through literature and science all institutions are available for the one who wants them. That is a very poor education that fits a man to be a citizen content with a dozen neighbors who all do and think as he does. That is the highest and best education that fits one to be an inhabitant of the world—a cosmopolitan who feels the Englishman or the German or the Russian to be his neighbor as much as the man who lives across the way—and if there can be a higher one still, it is that one who, if physical boundaries allowed, could traverse space and find comradeship and attractive society in Mars or the milky way.

Environment is mental as well as physical, and it too has a natural history, and in a given individual the limits of his possibilities are determined for him and not by him. This has been the result of stable institutions in the past upon successive generations, and is exemplified in the history of every people that has been subject to them. From this one may learn either that stable institutions are not desirable, or rather they are to be dreaded and fought against, or else that such stable institutions as history can show are not adapted to humanity if mankind is to have any worthy future. During the two or three centuries embracing the best days of ancient Greece, as looked at from this distance, not only was she troubled with hostility from without and with jealousies within, but nearly every individual, from the greatest to the least of them, was addicted to the grossest immoralities, which we have been and are still taught were not only scandalous and not to be tolerated, but that they are fatal to the existence of society, and so must not be tolerated. Yet Greece was not killed by its bad habits.

Since the time of the revival of learning, all those people that were subject to it sought for other influences than those of their own time and nationality to react upon them. Each one had a barbarian for a neighbor, but in the literature of Greece and Rome they had illustrious examples of men molded in other ways and by different methods, and these became in a measure the ideals toward which mankind should strive. The proper study of mankind was man, but the man studied should be a worthy one. The Catholic bishop declared that all the saints were dead. Inquire in any neighborhood for the wise man, and you will be told that he lives in another town. The ancient glory that could be read about was available for those who aspired for knowledge, and it soon came about that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Demosthenes, Horace and Lucretius, Xenophon, Herodotus, and the rest became the teachers of western Europe. For most students and teachers it still holds true that a well-edited man, though he has been dead a thousand years, is preferable to an unedited living man, however eminent he may be. It is a great saving of time and of the risk of oversight to the schoolmaster to have the beauties, the grace, the appositeness, the truth, in an author’s works pointed out by another. Until men can get along without models it is well that they choose good ones. Phidias, Michael Angelo, Mozart, and the rest of the masters never needed them and would have wasted their time in studying them.

When educational institutions are being founded and a curriculum organized, men will and must take the best material to be had. With such data the educational scheme of the old universities was organized and it became assimilated with the religious institutions already present, and out of them grew a philosophy of education which was theological at its base. Man was a fallen being; he had originally been perfect and upright. He was not an integral part of the universe and necessarily related to it, but was a new creation, endowed in a supernatural way, but who had, unfortunately for him, lost apart of his original patrimony. If he was to better his condition his efforts must be directed to making himself like the best models of men who had lived, which could be done by becoming acquainted with their works and imitating them as closely as possible. The ideal man was the man of the past, and nothing of great importance to character was to be learned by giving attention to things not directly related to humanity. It might be convenient to know something of other matters, but it was not essential to the attainment of character or needed for the ideally perfect man. The so-called humanities consisted of a series of studies into the things that had interested the men of the past, to the end that men might become great and learned and wise and eloquent and good. In that way men could, in a degree, recover their lost estate while in this life, and be fully redeemed in the life to come.

The educational institutions became strong allies of the religious institutions, but the former were subservient to the latter. Any man who attempted to teach differently or who taught matters that were plainly at variance with such principles, though only by implication, met instant hostility from both, and the history of the times is the history of martyrdom.

Vested interests are essential to institutions of any sort and serve as their protectors. Although we can not see how it could be otherwise, yet because of it hundreds of thousands of the choicest of the race have been tortured and have perished in dungeons and in fire.

About two hundred years ago Newton published his Principia. It dealt with physical forces and their laws. It was what we would call to-day a treatise on mechanics. He discovered and formulated the laws, and, after no great contentions, they were quite generally adopted and taught as a branch of learning which it was useful to know. As it was mathematical in its character, it was of a sort that compels assent by the one who understands it; but it was adopted for what it then appeared to ho, not for what was necessarily implied in its acceptance. The implications of which I speak were not perceived until long afterward, and had these been seen by Newton or by his contemporaries, and had they been pointed out, the probabilities are that Newton himself would have joined the great band of martyrs for truth that had preceded him. It is now seen that the whole doctrine of what we call the conservation of energy is involved and implied in his laws of motion. If that had been seen in Newton's day it would have been interpreted as an attempt by Newton to dethrone the Almighty by a mathematical process, as such work has been so often stigmatized within the last hundred years. Happily, we live in the post-martyr age, and we have no fears for our lives. But while the laws of mechanism had been accepted and taught for a hundred and fifty years, they were taught mostly as abstract propositions or as applicable to appreciable motions of inanimate matter, not at all as applicable to such a problem as the formation of the earth and of the solar system. So, when Laplace developed the nebular theory on the basis of Newton's laws, the attempt was denounced as impious and tending to overthrow all religious teachings; but the multiplication table holds good, no matter who denounces it or for what purpose; and now, after the lapse of three quarters of a century, men have become able to contemplate the nebular theory without danger of vertigo, and the proposition that the solar system has been evolved from a nebulous mass through the operations of simple mechanical laws is held by all astronomers and others capable of rational effort. When it was perceived that energy existed in several forms, and that these were transformable into each other and stood in quantitative relations to each other, another mechanical step was taken, for the chemistry and geology of the earth were brought under physical laws and relationships, but it was still held that all this could be granted as applicable to inorganic matter, without trenching at all upon the idea that life, and especially mankind, held divine prerogatives, and were not to be included as a part of the general scheme of the development of the earth. The educational institutions were hostile to these various advances, and decided that if true they were premature and not proved, even long after they were accepted by those competent to judge; but, so long as life and humanity were not involved in the problem, they did not need to feel much concern. And wherever, in any college or university in the land, the above advances in physical science were taught or mentioned, it was always with the carefully added statement that it was all outside of humanity, its interests, its hopes, or its fears, and that the statements made by other persons who taught differently in scientific matters were untrue, and were instigated by hatred to Christian beliefs and the institutions founded and maintained by them. Now there have been skeptics in all ages and upon all matters, some giving reasons and some not. Everybody is a philosopher, whether he knows it or not, and consciously or unconsciously makes every new fact or experience fit into his theory of things; it must be explained in accordance with the principles recognized by him and supposed to be known. Experience of mankind and the tricks of jugglers have made it easy to believe that all phenomena may be explained by personal agency of some sort, and to most persons that water should run down hill is no more of a surprise or mystery than that a juggler should be able to take four dozen eggs out of a borrowed hat, while to the physicist the first is an unaccountable phenomenon. It is this easy philosophy that gives so great a following to spiritualism. It is so much easier to understand than physical laws and movements, and is in such complete accordance with human experience of the lowest grade, that it is easier to imagine an immaterial personality that can be summoned to tip tables and rap on the floor, than it is to understand how the laws of energy must be recognized and can not be infracted.

Educational institutions as well as all others were founded upon a philosophy of things that presumed that the human mind was not necessarily related to anything in the world; that therefore its training could be best provided for by supplying ideal standards of excellence in those matters considered of most importance; these were studied chiefly for their gymnastic effects, and therefore best fitting a man for any career, but more especially a professor, a minister, a lawyer, or a doctor. It was true that many men attained to the highest eminence without the slightest aid from such institutions and without any of the gymnastic culture, but the argument was that they would have been better and have done more if they had had it, that it would have saved them valuable time. Inasmuch as the evidence goes to show that those who achieve success without such aids in this way do as much as an equal number educated the other way, it is plain that there is something wrong in the premises.

The world has been often surprised within the past two or three hundred years, but it generally takes a generation or two to discover the occasion of the surprise. The world is now aware of its surprise at the geological theory of the earth, of its surprise at the nebular theory, and at the Copernican theory.

The year 1859 was the year for another surprise, and it is just beginning to be perceived how great was the occasion for surprise. To be sure, the announcement of the theory of natural selection and that of the survival of the fittest aroused instant hostility, and bitter attacks were made upon it for a long time—all without the slightest effect in staying the acceptance of it. The surprise consists in the discovery by the world in general that it is true. Through enormous labors during the past thirty years the science of biology has covered the ground once supposed to be peculiarly the domain of mind, and the natural history of man, both body and mind, are so well known in their most general features that the biologists of every country are agreed that man is an evolved animal, that his lineage can be traced back into the geologic past and to an animal pedigree. In mind and body he has an ancestry reaching into time indefinitely remote, and those who hate to believe it are silenced by the evidence and no longer strive against it. Their only hope is to show reasonable grounds for the belief that Nature has in some way and at some time been supplemented, and that man has some arbitrary mental gifts that can not be deduced from his natural history. This acquired knowledge of the natural history of man has revolutionized every former conception of him, and has rendered worthless—absolutely worthless—almost everything that has been written. Not only physical science, but especially history, philosophy, psychology, ethics—all had to be rewritten, and all educational institutions founded upon these, as most all have been, have got to be metamorphosed to adapt them to the knowledge which has been acquired in this century and mostly within the last half of it. The case is precisely similar to the history of astronomy. After the Copernican theory was found to be the true theory, the overthrow of the Ptolemaic was complete. There could be no compromise between the two: if one was right the other was absolutely and irredeemably wrong, and there was nothing but complete surrender to the Copernican theory by every one who had any knowledge of the Ptolemaic system. It had to be complete and unconditional. The teachers of the Copernican theory may have been wrong in many of their statements concerning planetary matters, and some of the Ptolemaics may have been able to point out such errors, but such failures did not give any countenance to the Ptolemaic theory; they only showed that the details of the new science needed more careful investigation. The whole of astronomy had to be rewritten; the only things of any value that had been recorded were that an eclipse occurred on such a day at such a place, or a comet was seen, or an occultation, but the reasonings and deductions by the observers were of no account.

So in like manner, if evolution be true, it follows that all previous philosophizing upon history, philosophy, education, or science, is of no more account than the reasonings of the Ptolemaics. And one to-day will not be advancing himself in knowledge by perusing the volumes of the pre-evolution age. They can not help him, no matter how ably they are written. Nor does it follow that because objectors are able to point to errors in the works of those who are doing their best to interpret Nature on this basis, that the views of the objectors are more tenable, though there are too many who for some reason imagine that, if an author can be found to be in error in some point, his fundamental principles are not trustworthy. That would be as if Kepler should condemn the Copernican system when he found that the planets move in elliptical orbits instead of circular ones, as was assumed by Copernicus, and should say that Copernicus "would talk pretentiously about matters that he knew nothing about."

The astronomer pays no more attention to old theories of his science than he does to astrology. He even says of Kant's presentation of the nebular theory that he gives no reason for it that an astronomer is bound to respect. No chemist to-day needs to know or care what anybody thought about chemistry before Dalton. No physicist to-day needs to know or care what any one thought of electricity before Faraday. Even Franklin's opinion carries no weight. In heat Rumford and Davy are the first whose opinions have any value. In biology nobody appeals to Cuvier or Agassiz. Psychology was revolutionized by the p ublication of Mr. Spencer's works in 1855; and the other day Ferrier was honored in England for his work in the localization of mental faculties. The new sciences of ethnology and comparitive philology have also revolutionized all notions as to the history of mankind. Histories of the past, written within the last fifty years, are of no more account than the stories of Herodotus and Diodorus about the Egyptians and Assyrians.

About twenty-five years ago Lenormant, the French historian, announced as nearly ready for publication a history of India. In 1870 he notified the public that he had abandoned the work, having made the discovery that most of the data he had collected were worthless and that it was impossible to get anything that was trustworthy. Henshaw, of the Anthropological Society of Washington, declares that the languages of the Indians of this country, of which there were fifty-eight linguistic families and three hundred dialects, north of Mexico, at the time of the discovery of America, are none of them related in any way to Asiatic tongues; also, as to the origin of the Indian, it must have been in ages so far removed from our own time that the interval is to be reckoned, not in years of chronology, but by the epoch of geologic time.

Again, what shall we think on religious matters when a man like Le Conte states that we are on, the verge of a profound and radical change in the basis of Christian beliefs; when Rev. Dr. Martineau, whose life has been spent in the defense of historic Christianity, concludes as the result of his best endeavors to discover the truth, and whose hopes and wishes and expectations were all in its favor, that the Christ of the Church is unhistorical; when a man like Clifford says he parted with Christian beliefs "with such searching trouble as only cradle faiths can cause"; when a historian like ex-President White, of Cornell, declares that the anthropologists have destroyed the whole theological theory of the fall of man!

The significance of all this lies here. Our institutions of learning were all founded upon theories of life, of mind, of society, of history, which have broken down. There is not a single one that has stood the test of modern science, and disintegration set in some time back. It came first in a demand that colleges should furnish a knowledge of matters that books and periodicals were teeming with, and for which there was no provision in the curriculum. It came from those who objected to fooling away their time in the study of languages that had proved their unfitness for the needs of mankind, and so had perished from off the face of the earth; who objected to be forced to the study of history that was not true. A sop was offered by some institutions in the shape of scientific courses where instruction was given in the new sciences—physics, chemistry, geology, etc. These, however, were treated in a most unworthy manner by text-books and discourses instead of by practice; second, as if they were topics unrelated to each other, and thus, having no necessary relations to other matters held to be of much greater importance; and, third, the men who pursued them to the exclusion of the old curriculum were snubbed and made to appear as of an inferior grade. Under such circumstances, what should be expected but an educational failure? The institutions, as institutions, felt a profound contempt for the new demand, apparently considering it a kind of craze which in a little time would die out, and matters would settle back into the historical ways which time had honored and experience approved. As we now know, nothing of the kind happened, for the very good reason that the old curriculum and the new knowledge were incompatibles. The new knowledge was not and could not be assimilated by the adherents of the old. Amalgamation to any extent was impossible, and compromise was equally impossible, for the new has destroyed the foundations of nearly everything the old held to be true.

What wonder, then, is it to-day that educational institutions show such visible signs of fermentation! Metamorphosis is taking place rapidly. Among schoolmasters one hears a good deal about pedagogy, but the pedagogy is a mongrel, a kind of cross between a theory built upon experience with minds fed on abnormal diet, and a metaphysics as extinct as the dodo. I feel like advising all such to go to Clark University and study psychology.

The pedagogy which is in consonance with the new psychology has not yet been written, and can only be known to one who is well grounded, in modern psychology.

At the outset I spoke of education as fitting a man for his environment. Every man ought to know what kind of a universe he is in, what his relations to it are, what and where invariable conditions are imposed, what in the nature of things is possible and what impossible, within what limits all his achievements must be, and hence what ideals he may consistently cherish that his work may not be in vain. It hardly needs to be said that neither literature nor art nor history nor theology can acquaint a man with these. Only science can do it—science not as a mass of facts, but as a body of relations. If there be anything that the ordinary man is markedly deficient in, and which the best schooling has not added to his mental equipment, it is his failure to see the necessities of relation. Exercises in logic and the study of mathematics have been supposed to qualify a man to be logical, but if by this is meant that for every effect to be explained an adequate cause must be assigned, then most men are unequal to the occasion. What should be thought of the man who believes that the character of the weather for the next month is determined by the position of the horns of the new moon, or of the supporters of the pretensions of Dr. Gary and of Keely—some of them are not only college-bred but have reputations for business sagacity quite out of proportion to their knowledge of possibilities. Now, the study of mathematics as it is conducted to-day fails to develop a very strong sense of the necessities of mathematical relations, for the reason that most of it is symbolic and the symbols are not translated into experience. On the other hand, geometry is well calculated to induce in one an unshakable belief in such necessities; but this subject is neglected, while algebra and other symbolic processes engross the time and attention to the detriment of the student who goes no further than his prescribed studies. I know of a college president who a few years ago denied the validity of simple arithmetic processes when the numbers rose to millions! Now, most men have beaten into them in their business lives these necessary relations about which I am speaking, so far as their own business is concerned, and there is no trusting to superstitious factors, for superstition is but a belief in an inadequate cause; outside of their business their judgments are untrustworthy. But physics and chemistry, when pursued in the laboratory, present in a tolerably simple form relationships in an invariable and quantitative way, and the student learns by experience that, where .certain conditions are, a certain result will follow with rigorous exactitude. Familiarity with facts of this class leaves him with the consciousness that among physical and chemical phenomena, wherever they occur, there is always a quantitative as well as a qualitative relation, so that, given the antecedent, he can determine the consequent, and vice versa. Now, the point to this is that it is of application wherever such phenomena occur, that for the past and the future they must hold good for the same reason that the multiplication table must hold good. If, however, the student goes not beyond these sciences, he has not learned half his proper lesson. In physics the phenomena are relatively simple. In such sciences as those called natural history the complexity of phenomena becomes very great. Exactitude is not possible to the degree it is in the former studies, and judgments must be formed on different grounds from those. Here there are estimates and probabilities to be considered, and a degree of caution in forming a judgment, not called for in the simpler sciences. There are principles he has got from these physical sciences which he must carry into the more complex studies, viz., that complexity does not impair the certainty that the laws of matter hold true wherever matter is. He is prepared in a good measure to say what can not happen, but not so well prepared to say what may happen. These sciences then act as a check upon hasty deductions; but both of them enforce the idea of continuity, an idea which is very vague in most minds, and is the source of no end of confusion among so-called philosophers.

Again, the science of life contributes to a proper discipline in still other ways. Here one meets with phenomena in which effects are not to be measured by the amount of the acting agent. Consider Koch's consumption-cure: the thousandth of a grain injected into the circulation not only presently brings about great physiological disturbance, but actually locates itself and does its work in diseased tissue in a distant part of the body, yet affects nothing if the body be healthy! Here is a contingent result which is a characteristic of organic phenomena. So to continuity and complexity there is needed a knowledge of contingency in phenomena. By themselves biology and geology, and indeed all the complex sciences, tend to render vague the idea of necessary relations; but when to a knowledge of them is added a knowledge of physics and chemistry, a judgment formed upon an involved question will certainly have much greater weight. Lastly, there is the necessity for a knowledge of psychology. A true understanding of the acts of individuals or communities can not be had without the knowledge of the laws of mind. Every question of a sociologic nature presupposes this as the condition for intelligent action, and it is for the lack of this preparation that all the mistakes in legislation, in schemes for education, for charity, as well as those that men have made in interpreting history, are due.

An adequate knowledge of psychology can not be had without a knowledge of the brain, its functions and relations, and this implies a knowledge of biology, and biology has its foundations in chemistry and physics. I do not think there is any one whose opinion one would care for who disputes these relations, but the necessities of them there are many who do not see; they are those whose ideas of physical relations are misty and unsound.

These are the essential things that every man ought to know whatever else he may know, for they have to do with the every-day life of every man. With them he is best prepared to act wisely in every calling in life, and without them right acting is a haphazard affair, as one is likely as not to be at war with the nature of things, even when his intentions are irreproachable. The stars in their courses fought against Sisera, but Nature never begins a contention. When one is initiated, she never asks for the character of the litigant. No distinction is made between ignorance and intention, piety and depravity, and no contention is ever settled by compromise, it is always an unconditional surrender. These are therefore the things that a college should teach, whatever else it might offer. But these are not to be learned from books. They must be got at first hand to be useful. It may be noted that these things are not to be learned so much for the facts presented as for the relations implied, though a true relation is as much a fact as any illustration of it can be. The law of gravitation is as much a fact as water running down hill is, and the continuity of phenomena is of vastly more importance to the race to know than all the mental efforts of the race before the time of Newton. If once accepted it dominates everywhere.

This is the condition of things that confronts us. The past has already been broken from, whether all are conscious of it or not. Its great ones are no longer our teachers and leaders in knowledge. The point of view of human affairs is not only changed, but there is demanded a change in the ideals of the race. Science has given us a new heaven and a new earth. The education of the past has proved not only inadequate, but wholly incompetent to train a mind so that it can assimilate or appreciate genuine knowledge. The names of those who have built up this new body, with few exceptions, can not be found on the registers of the great schools. Does it not appear to the disadvantage of the great schools that the discoveries which have so revolutionized men's ways of thinking and doing were nearly all made by men who had few or no opportunities for school education? To name but a few, think of Watt, of Stephenson, of Dalton, of Faraday, of Joule, of Huxley, of Spencer, of Franklin, of Henry, of Edison. There are no corresponding names to stand beside them for attainments, and the record of the exceptions is mostly for stupidity in the school work, while the opposition and hindrance to the general reception of new truth in any field have always been due to those educated in those schools, which shows that they were not only incompetent judges, but that they had no criterion of truth, and therefore did not recognize it when it was plainly set before them. The end of this is at hand. The old will be transformed. Metamorphosis is easier than creation. The grub has already entered the chrysalis stage, and the process of transition may be heard by the attentive ear. The custodians know that something serious has happened, but they try to console themselves with the hope that the same old grub will appear with all its essential features unchanged, while the observer of processes knows that when it emerges, its former friends will not identify it, for it will be not only different in form but will be adapted to life in another sphere and to be nourished with a different kind of food, and as soon as the sunlit air has dried out its wings it will surely fly from the grounds of its former protectors, unless they shall provide flowers in the place of leaves.