Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/September 1894/Scientific Education

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By Dr. H. E. ARMSTRONG, F. R. S.

ENGLISH boys and girls at the present day are the victims of excessive lesson learning, and are also falling a prey, in increasing numbers year by year, to the examination-demon, which threatens to become by far the most ruthless monster the world has ever known either in fact or in fable. Ask any teacher who has to do with students fresh from school his opinion of them: he will say that in the great majority of cases they have little if any power of helping themselves, little desire to learn about things, little if any observing power, little desire to reason on what they see or are called on to witness; that they are destitute of the sense of accuracy, and satisfied with any performance, however slovenly; that, in short, they are neither inquisitive nor acquisitive, and as they too often are idle as well, the opportunities offered to them are blindly sacrificed. A considerable proportion undoubtedly are by nature mentally very feeble; but the larger number are by no means without ability, and are, in fact, victims of an acquired disease. We must find a remedy for this state of things, or perish in the face of the terrific competition now setting in. Boys and girls at school must be taught from the very earliest moment to do and to appreciate. It is of no use our teaching them merely about things, however interesting—no facts must be taught without their use being taught simultaneously; and, as far as possible, they must be led to discover the facts for themselves. Instead of our placing condensed summaries in their hands, we must lead them to use works of reference and acquire the habit of finding out; they must always be at work applying their knowledge and solving problems. It is a libel on the human race to say, as many do, that children can not think and reason, and that they can only be taught facts; early childhood is the time at which these faculties are most apparent, and it is probably through failure to exercise them then that they suffer atrophy. The so-called science introduced into a few schools in answer to the persistent demands of its advocates has been in most cases a shallow fraud, of no value whatever educationally. Boys see oxygen made and things burned in it, which gives them much pleasure; but, after all, this is but the old lesson learning in an interesting shape, and has no superior educational effect. I would here repeat what I have recently urged elsewhere, that in the future all subjects must be taught scientifically at school, in order to inculcate those habits of mind which are termed scientific habits; the teaching of scientific method—not the mere shibboleths of some branch of natural science—must be insisted on. No doubt some branch of chemistry, with a due modicum of physics, etc., is the subject by means of which we may best instill the scientific habits associated with experimental studies, but it must be the true chemistry of the discoverer, not the cookery-book-receipt pseudo-form which has so long usurped its place. Whatever be taught, let me repeat that mere repetition work and lesson learning must give place to a system of allowing children to do things themselves. Should we succeed in infusing the research spirit into our teaching generally, then there will be hope that, in the course of a generation or so, we shall cease to be the Philistines we are at the present time; the education given in our schools will be worthy of being named a "liberal education" which it never will be so long as we worship the old world classical fetich, and allow our schools to be controlled by those who reverence this alone, having never been instructed in a wider faith.

As regards our college courses, I see no reason to modify the views expressed in my address to the Chemical Section of the British Association at Aberdeen in 1885; on the contrary, the experience I have since gained as a teacher and examiner has served only to strengthen them and to convince me of the paramount necessity of a very radical change in our system of instruction, and I rejoice at the increasing evidence of a state of unrest both at home and abroad. The "thorough" course of qualitative analysis which it has long been customary to impose at a very early period of the student's career must, I venture to think, be relegated to near its close; this course certainly has not the effect of producing competent analysts, and but too often reduces those who toil through it to the dead level of machines; in hundreds of cases I have seen students, as it were, hang up their intelligence on the clothes peg outside and enter the examination room masked with a set of analytical tables, through which alone they allow themselves to be actuated, and to which they render the blindest obedience. Qualitative analysis actually requires the fullest exercise of the mental faculties as well as considerable manipulative skill. By introducing this branch of study at too early a period we force our students to act as machines, inasmuch as they do not, and can not, know enough to work intelligently; we are but trying to make them run before they have learned to walk. Even when the interactions on which qualitative analysis is based are fully studied, and the equations relating thereto are conscientiously written out, the result is not much better, owing to the slight importance of so many of the interactions apart from their technical application in analysis, and especially on account of our ignorance of the precise nature of many of the interchanges of which we avail ourselves: the persistent misrepresentation of facts which such a course encourages is, in my opinion, one of its worst features.

I believe that in the near future our students will first be set to solve problems, each in its way a little research, and involving much simple quantitative work; they will thus be taught chemical method, or, in other words, the art of discovery. They will then be taken through a course of quantitative exercises with the object of making them acquainted, by direct contact with the facts, with the fundamental principles of our science, which are but too rarely appreciated at the present day. After this, they will seek to acquire proficiency in quantitative analysis and in the art of making preparations; and subsequently they will give sufficient attention to the study of physical properties to enable them to appreciate the physico-chemical methods of inquiry which are now of such importance. The study of qualitative analysis in detail will be left to the last, as being an eminently technical subject. Meanwhile, by attendance at lectures, by reading carefully chosen works of a kind altogether different from the soul-destroying text-books we now possess, and especially by the study of classical models in chemical literature, they will have acquired what is commonly spoken of as theoretical knowledge, but too often regarded by us as of secondary importance, and which it is so difficult to make Englishmen realize means a proper understanding of the subject. Students so trained—imbued from the outset, even from early school days, with the research spirit will at all times be observant and critical, nay, even logical; dogmatic teaching will cease to have any charm for them: they will actually take deep interest in their studies—a result devoutly to be hoped for, as nothing is more galling to the teacher at the present day than the crass indifference of the average student and his refusal to give attention to anything unless it will pay in an examination. At the close of such a course the student will be thoroughly prepared to undertake original investigation, distinctly with the object of exhibiting his individuality and originality, and not, as at present, with the object of acquiring for the first time an insight into the methods of the investigator; he will thus be spared the unpleasant discovery which the advanced student now too often makes that his early training has unfitted him, rather than prepared him, for the task of original inquiry.

Much to be feared, also, is the tendency to overestimate the value of examinations, and the great work of the future will be so to improve these that they shall have no prejudicial influence on the student's work and in no way check the development of original methods of teaching; we must fix our attention mainly on the influences to which the student is to be subjected during his career; the competent teacher will ever study his students while they are at work, and do the best for them, provided he be not rendered powerless by the trammels of an examination system which heeds "results" only and not individuals.

Finally, let me say that, while sympathizing most fully with those who advocate a complete course of study, I feel that it is very easy to demand too much—very easy to make it impossible for students to do justice to their work by imposing too many subjects. Our chief desire must always be that students shall acquire a knowledge of scientific method and the power of working independently. Certain subjects must be insisted on—for example, mathematics and drawing—if a knowledge of these be not acquired early it will never be acquired; but apart from these and a competent knowledge of the main subject, we probably may, as a rule, be satisfied with comparatively little. Those who have once learned to work and acquired a knowledge of scientific method will, of their own accord, in proportion to their intelligence, apply themselves also to the study of other subjects—as many among us have done; those who are not sufficiently intelligent to do this are not, as a rule, improved by being forced to pay attention to unpalatable studies; on the contrary, they are, more often than not, thereby hindered from acquiring a competent knowledge of some one subject which does appeal to them, and are spoiled for life in consequence.—Reprinted from Nature.

The studies of Dr. R. W. Shufeldt have led him to believe that the art of taxidermy has had an evolutionary growth peculiarly its own, and that of recent years the strong tendency in the leading museums has been to group animals, and for a variety of purposes. The author is convinced that in the future museums will carry this idea still further, and that the groups will be so combined as to exhibit, besides single species, showing some of their habits and surroundings in their natural haunts, also to a large extent faunal regions, and the animal and plant life of various geographical areas. By such arrangements the eye will be enabled to take in and the mind appreciate the aspect and the biologic forms of any particular region of the United States almost at a glance.
  1. From the Presidential Address delivered at the Chemical Society (Great Britain), on March 22, 1894.