Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/September 1894/Science as a Means of Human Culture

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1224843Popular Science Monthly Volume 45 September 1894 — Science as a Means of Human Culture1894Floyd Davis




THE day has long since passed when men expected to meet with success without faithful effort. We now realize that one of the fundamental principles underlying success in any field is concentration of thought and energy in rightly directed channels. We are glad to see so many of our higher institutions of learning, particularly the technical schools through their laboratory methods of instruction, training young men to concentrate their energies. The beneficent results of such training will be enjoyed by generations to come.

The trained intellect grasps in a comprehensive manner details which the untrained can never see; it analyzes subjects in all their bearings and gives wise direction to the advancement of truth. In all scientific work, and even in the business world, the demands are for men trained to comprehend subjects down to the very details in a single glance. A business firm once employed a trained young man whose energy and grasp of affairs soon led the management to promote him over a faithful and trusted employee. The old clerk felt deeply hurt that the young man should be promoted over him, and took occasion to complain of it to the manager. Feeling that this was a case that could not be argued, the manager asked the old clerk what was making all the noise in front of their building. He went forward and returned with the answer that it was a lot of wagons going by. He then asked the clerk what they were loaded with, and again he went out and returned, reporting that they were loaded with wheat. The manager again sent him to ascertain how many there were, and he returned with the answer that there were sixteen. Finally he was sent to see where they were from, and he returned, saying that they were from the city of Lucena. The manager then asked the old clerk to be seated, and sent for the young man, and said to him, "Will you see what is the meaning of that rumbling noise in front?" The young man replied: "It is unnecessary, for I have already ascertained that it is caused by sixteen wagons loaded with wheat. Twenty more will pass to-morrow. They belong to Romero & Co., of Lucena, and are on their way to Marchesa, where wheat is bringing one dollar and twenty-five cents per bushel, while it costs only one dollar at Lucena. The wagons carry one hundred bushels each and get fifteen cents per bushel for hauling." The young man was then dismissed, and the manager turning to the old clerk said, "My friend, you see now why the young man was promoted over you." This illustrates the tendency of our times, for we are rapidly advancing into an age when concentration of energy and grasp of a subject in detail in the shortest possible time are requisite for advancement.

This is largely an era of material progress, and the training which is needed most for the rising generation—especially here in the West—is that which will fit it for the application of its best efforts to the noblest purposes of life. The preparation for this work must come through our schools. Teaching here involves three distinct processes: instruction, or the imparting of knowledge; education, or the development of the faculties; and training, or the formation of habits of thought and work. The master teacher has a happy combination of these three processes, no matter whether it be in the primary grades, the college, the university, or the technical school. In the elementary schools instruction necessarily predominates; in the college and university, the educational; while in the school of technology, the element of training is the most important. And I believe that the principal work of a technical school like this should be the training of young men in accurate methods of thinking and working. Too many of our teachers in all grades of schools confine themselves too closely to the element of instruction, and many of them fail to recognize the importance of education and training. This is, perhaps, owing to the delicacy which the instructor's work assumes in the educational stage. Here the teaching should be full of suggestions and sympathetic guidance to develop the reasoning faculties and guard them against inaccurate and discursive habits. In the technical school there is a certain amount of preliminary instructional and educational work that must be done, without which no real progress in thorough and systematic training can be made. But this is a condition, I think, that is not fully appreciated by some of our technical schools. While I believe most thoroughly in elementary instruction and advanced education, I fear that too many of our higher institutions of learning neglect the importance of scientific drill, discipline, and mental gymnastics, on which the development and value of the mind as an instrument for the acquisition of real knowledge so much depend. Wrongly directed education, often so painfully acquired, lies like rubbish in the mind; it can not take root and quicken into life and grow, for the means are mistaken for the end, the working machinery is mistaken for the finished product. The great difficulty lies in too many young men to-day being overtaught in the hypotheses and under trained in the realities of life. We need more practical education and training, and possibly less speculative philosophy. This is demonstrated by the outcry that comes to us from Germany against overeducation. But there is certainly not too much practical education: generations will come and pass away before there will be danger of that. Still, this protest, coming as it does from one of the most intellectual countries of the world, where speculative philosophy flourishes most, will have its reaction in our leading institutions of learning, and will give us a deeper appreciation of practical education. The present educational methods being inductive and reflective, pertain more to the realities of life and less to its graces than the theories held half a century ago. The new education teaches us that it is unwise to spend the best years of one's life pursuing studies that are merely cultural, for most of us certainly have as much need of knowledge as of culture. We send our children to school to seek for knowledge, for we know that when they study for the love of knowledge culture will come as an incident in the attainment of it. The thing formerly considered was only mental discipline, and the result was depression; while the object now is to keep the mind alert, expectant, and enthusiastic by presenting the delights and rewards of learning. We now teach our boys to realize the activities of their own senses, to see that knowledge only comes to them through these avenues. and only as it thus comes is it entitled to be considered real knowledge. We now study subjects for what there is in them, so that the knowledge gained may be a help to thought; and the enthusiasm thus acquired begets new ideas. The youthful mind requires something tangible to grasp, or the reasoning faculties are slowly developed. In all scientific works, facts are used as an index to ideas, which is not a tax upon memory, but a stimulus to the intellect. Still "it is not for its facts, but for the significance of its facts, that science is valuable."

The time is forever past of the old idea that the study of the ancient classics, mathematics, and humanities is the only education. And the once popular notion that a broadly educated man is a sort of intellectual reservoir that can be tapped for all sorts of miscellaneous information is equally absurd. The social consideration which once attached to persons supposed to know Latin and Greek, whether gentlemen or not, has been abandoned, and the test of social rank now is what they are and not what they are supposed to be.

The benefits generally claimed to come from a classical education are that it affords an admirable intellectual training, opens up a magnificent literature, and contributes very largely to the right understanding of our native tongue. This is certainly all true, but such intellectual training is derived as easily from other sources, for when the modern languages are taught systematically they are useful in the same way, if not in the same degree; while the natural and physical sciences are admitted now by our best thinkers to be the most powerful agents in the development of the intellect. Their literature, to the great majority of university men is unknown; but the scholar who has laboriously studied for a dozen years or more over his Virgil and Sophocles is generally but little better acquainted with ancient literature than he who has spent a year upon adequate translations of the famous originals. And the understanding it gives us of our own language, which in utility means accuracy, grace, and ease of expression, might, I dare say, be more easily attained in boyhood through formative habits, if guided scientifically, rather than through the endless mysteries of syntax and inflection.

The study of the classics is no longer essential, except in traditional schools. A well-known New York book merchant recently said, when asked about the demands for works on Latin and Greek: "We keep very few of the classics, and it doesn't pay to stock up any more. There is absolutely no demand for them, and a perfectly equipped bookstore can be sustained nowadays without a single classic on the shelves. Probably five times a year we have a call for one, and it doesn't pay to keep a stock for these stray demands." How many modern orators employ quotations from Cicero, Demosthenes, or Plato? Probably not one in a hundred. But formerly, when Emerson, Phillips, Holmes, Everett, and Alcott were on the lyceum platform, it was necessary for those who heard them to have a knowledge of the classics to intelligently follow them. Times have changed and the natural and physical sciences have taken their place. These offer the greatest advantage in holding the student's attention, stimulating thought, and cultivating the spirit of true investigation; they require the strictest habits of observation, induce concentration, arouse energy, educate the senses, train the hand to delicate manipulation, quicken the faculties of reasoning and powers of judgment; and the varied and useful information which they afford is given in the clearest and most convincing form. When pleasure and desire of learning are fostered together under these influences the amount of knowledge gained will be proportional to the time and opportunity for study.

In science, the student feels that rules are merely summary expressions of a number of concrete facts; and he familiarizes himself with methods of proof, and accepts only that which is susceptible of proof. It is in this way that the sciences become one of the most important means at our command for moral and intellectual training. When studied in a reverential spirit they develop the most intense desire for truth and inculcate an equal hatred for all pretense and falsity and an intolerance of all dogmatism and bigotry. They offer the same evidence for acceptance that they demand for conviction; and in the facts which they discover every theory is tested by being put on trial. All true scientific structures are builded on knowledge and not on faith, on proof and not on current opinion, for all opinions, preconceived notions, hypotheses, and even accepted doctrines are held in abeyance until the evidence is in and has been duly weighed. That mind and manhood are thus trained alike in a pre-eminent degree by the systematic study of the sciences is now beyond dispute. Many of the older classical colleges have abandoned some of their traditions to make room for these comparatively modern studies, which shows how general has become the appreciation of science as a means of intellectual and moral training, when taught by the laboratory method.

But beyond all these acquirements is the judicial attitude of mind which comes as a supreme characteristic of scientific study. In his investigations the true scientist endeavors to present absolute fairness toward all evidence and offers no resistance to its conclusions. His mind thus opens itself to all the avenues of truth, and he welcomes all the results of his investigations with equal cordiality.

Owing to peculiarities of the eye, ear, and brain, investigators of equal intelligence, training, and experience in their conclusions will generally differ from one another by a constant or nearly constant quantity, and each will differ from the truth. This difference from the truth in each individual is his personal equation or habitual error. Many investigators now correct their results for this constant error, but nowhere in the realm of knowledge are the processes for making this correction so perfectly worked out as in the physical sciences, geodesy and astronomy. A party of astronomers was once about to be sent on service to the southern hemisphere. Their personal equations were carefully ascertained, when it occurred to one of them that in the hemisphere to which they were going the apparent celestial movements would be reversed, and that their errors ought to be reinvestigated for stars of apparent reverse motion. This was done, when the differences were found to be oppositely as large as before. There was, however, one individual in the party to whom it mattered not which way the stars moved, for he had no personal equation in either case.

It is the duty of the scientist to sift facts from theory, and he who is thus engaged constantly in separating what is really known from belief or mere theory gains intellectual strength and an appreciation for true honesty. The ability to weigh evidence and distinguish between it and the flights of the imagination is the natural foundation of greatness in all scientific work; and in proportion to his ability to rise into this lofty realm is a man's opinion and work entitled to authority.

The natural and physical sciences demand our attention on account of their technical applications in the arts, and the admirable preparation which they give for all practical work when concrete things are the objective study. The colleges that teach pure mathematics, languages, history, and philosophy, without their application to the affairs of mankind, do not get beyond the threshold of education. They merely place in their students' hands tools for work without training them in their uses, or to appreciate the variety and beauty of their finished product. It is certainly a high and responsible calling to instruct young men from text-books in what has long been accepted as truth, but the higher functions of a true education rise into the sphere of application and original investigation; and I believe the few institutions that strive to this end are doing more for the real intellectual advancement of mankind than all the traditional schools on record. Without the application of the instruments of knowledge, the pretense and self-stultification born in the class room often result in the dangerous and pernicious idea that it is better to be brilliant than to be sound, better to rely on opinion and faith than on experiment and knowledge. Too many of our classical colleges are yearly grinding out their grists of such intellectual chaff, for it would seem that the higher university classical education often unfits its recipients for anything except routine work, and they crowd into and often dishonor the so-called learned professions, and then make their living in questionable ways, or starve. In the great cities of Germany the poor boards are constantly called upon to relieve men of the highest classical training, because they can not make a living in their chosen field of work, and are unfitted for the trades and arts. Horace Greeley must have had in mind this kind of education when he exclaimed, "Of all horned cattle, deliver me from the college graduate!"

The colleges that accomplish the most good turn the students' attention to the demands of the times, and thus fit them for the most honorable walks of life. One of the supreme advantages that is derived from a technical education is that it does not unfit men for labor; but from its very method of acquirement—the laboratory—it teaches us that labor is the highest application of the intellect, and the only perfect means of acquiring real knowledge. Nor are the rewards of scientific education to be undervalued, and the industrial opportunities of the scientist to be overlooked.

The wonderful progress in the development of the natural and physical sciences has come through the agency of experiment and comparison. In this, the scientific method, the student at his home masters the text-books; in the library and reading room he studies the works of the best authors and investigators; in the lecture room he is drilled in theory and application; and in the laboratory he puts questions to Nature and receives her replies; and thus develops strength in all the faculties of a true investigator. Liebig, in chemistry, was the first to adopt teaching by experiment about fifty years ago; but other scientists, one after another, have since adopted the laboratory method, until it is now advocated in language, philosophy, literature, and even law.

The exigencies of modern progress in the arts demand that technical institutions of learning shall keep abreast of the times, and this is especially true in regard to schools that profess to turn out practical chemists, geologists, mining engineers, and metallurgists, thoroughly equipped to take immediate charge of important enterprises, or to advise as to investments in new and untried fields. The advances which are now being made in the practice of analytical and industrial chemistry and metallurgy, and in nearly all allied industries, are so rapid that methods described in text-books written for the use of students often become obsolete by the time the books are published.

The training of the specialist requires the most stimulating influences, and the process should be one of continuous and welldirected effort. If we learn, step by step, what Nature has in store for us, without hurry, we incur a minimum cerebral fatigue and a maximum acquirement. A strong constitution is required for successful work in any pursuit. The natural and physical sciences promote this because their study begets cheerfulness; they make life pleasant and interesting, and instead of injuring the nervous system as many other studies do, they give it tone and vigor in much the same way that manual exercise gives strength to the muscular system.

I believe that in some of our technical schools which provide for the most thorough and scholarly study of principles directed immediately upon the useful arts, and rising in their higher grades into original investigation and research, is to be found the ideal education for young men. Too long have these institutions been branded as furnishing only an inferior education to the socalled liberal arts, because it is practical and useful. Too long have they been regarded as furnishing only an inferior substitute for the classics, and their graduates have been spoken of as though they had acquired the art of livelihood at some sacrifice of mental development and intellectual culture. It is true that form and style may be sacrificed in the earnest, direct, and laborious endeavor of students of science, but that all the essentials of intellect and character are happily developed in these schools is thoroughly demonstrated by the eminent success of their graduates. When measured by the only true standard of intelligence, that of use in the world, these men will rise through their work and power of gaining knowledge to high positions of usefulness and influence.

The demands of the times have forced us to a high appreciation of specialization in all departments of knowledge, and he who attempts on general attainments to cope with advanced problems in practice generally meets with defeat in much of his work. A mere smattering of knowledge no longer suffices in professional pursuits, and the proverb—

"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring"

is too often realized by those who attempt work for which they are not fitted by professional training, or by those who have scattered their capacities over widely diversified fields. The weakest individual, by concentrating his energies on a single pursuit, may meet with success; but the strongest, by distributing his powers over many, may and often does fail to accomplish anything. Berzelius said that he was the last general chemist, and the single science of chemistry has grown to such enormous proportions that no one since his day has ever attempted mastery of the whole field. This being true, what can be said of the vast field of all natural and physical science? Those who attempt to cover it, or even a goodly portion of it, can not get much beyond the nomenclature used. The best results are always accomplished by co-operation and differentiation in work. The material progress of our times is due largely to the division of labor, which thus enables each individual to perfect his own skill. In my work as a chemist and metallurgist I am compelled to have a general working knowledge of all allied sciences, but by taking the results of the investigations of my fellow-workers, each in his own field, I am enabled to give more of my time to my own specialty, and therefore to accomplish what I could not do were I "a Jack of all trades." And it may be hoped that my investigations will in their turn come to the aid of the sanitarian, the pathologist, and the engineer. But more than this is required in this day of sharp competition, for it is becoming necessary for the specialist, not merely to confine himself to one subject, but to know more about some particular branch of his subject than does any one else. Those who pursue these special lines are the real investigators, and they give us the advanced scientific knowledge which we now enjoy.

The opportunities of the specialist are many and inviting. Every field of technical work opens up a magnificent series of unsolved problems, the solution of which will bring honor to the discoverer and benefit to the world. Technical chemistry, applied electricity, and metallurgy are yet in their infancy, but what grand achievements they have already made! Many of the greatest advances in modern civilization and the comforts of life have come through these channels. The brain and hand of the trained scientist transform the crude materials of the three kingdoms of Nature into things of beauty for the wants of men. The clay in the bank, the ore in the mine, the wood in the forest, by passing through his hands, take on the form of his thoughts and become expressions of his skill and power.

Specialization in knowledge carries innumerable advantages with it. The thoroughly educated scientist is acquainted with the ablest writers in his field, and reads and comprehends them. He appreciates their ideas and employs their knowledge and experience for his own purpose. If he decides that a process is imperfect, he knows in what direction improvement is needed. He is not misled by undetermined elements or impracticable theories, but through his knowledge of facts bases his conclusions on substantial grounds. He is prepared for any emergency and adapts himself quickly to his surroundings, for his scientific training enables him to apply himself in practice with the least difficulty and to the greatest advantage. Those who are trained in this way are always in demand, and their valuable services bring the highest financial returns.

Finally, I advocate technical education and specialization, because I believe that they are the most perfect means of securing good citizenship; for when the head and the hand are properly trained, the heart will respond to the noblest dictates of truth and virtue. But in addition to these attainments, I also believe implicitly in the broadest and most scholarly education in all that is useful and good. The specialist, as I have described him, feels the need of broad scholarship for its professional utility. In a court of justice an expert frequently calls into use sciences that have only a remote bearing upon his profession, as well as to present to the court the breadth of his scholarship and his experience. In one case a chemist may in the examination of an ore be called upon to use his knowledge of mining, metallurgy, mineralogy, and geology; in the examination of a drug he may be required to have a knowledge of pharmacy, botany, materia medica, and therapeutics; in another case his examination of a water may call into use a thorough knowledge of physics, pathology, and sanitation; while in another case of suspected criminal poisoning, when the life of the accused may rest largely in his hands, he is required to have a profound knowledge of the details of toxicology, jurisprudence, and microscopy. In fine, the sciences are so blended that a profound knowledge of one can only be acquired through the instrumentality of all the others, and the expert in the course of his professional experience will be called upon to bring into use all the various departments of useful human knowledge. Education for such professional service is a knowledge of how to use the whole of one's self, to apply the faculties with which one is endowed to all practical purposes. A liberal technical education broadens our views, removes prejudice, and causes us to welcome the views of others, and we no longer consider our methods the only ones worthy of adoption. It keeps us out of ruts and makes us desirous of being benefited by the experiences and teachings of others. It stimulates great mental activity, and thus leads to skill, investigation, discovery, and improvement.

It is proposed by a M. Lotz to apply photography to the testing of bridges. Photographs are taken from a convenient spot, of the bridge unloaded and of the same weighted with the heaviest burdens it is intended to carry. The difference in the appearance of the photographs will show the extent to which the bridge yields or sags under the loads put upon it.
  1. An address delivered at the formal opening of the New Mexico School of Mines, at Socorro, September 5, 1893.