Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/February 1895/Editor's Table
MUCH as has been written on this subject there seems still to be room for further insistence on the truth that the one living element in every system or scheme of education is science. By this we do not mean—indeed, are very far from meaning—that what is called physical science is the one useful subject of instruction; we mean that except in so far as education is animated by the spirit of science it is dead, and, for all purposes of mental development, useless. An excellent address on Scientific Method in Board Schools was lately delivered in London, England, by Prof. H. E. Armstrong, F. R. S. We shall take an early opportunity of transferring it to our columns, trusting that it may be widely read, as it presents the gist of the matter in comparatively few words. Prof. Armstrong bears testimony to the extreme slowness with which the educational world in England has moved in regard to giving science teaching the place to which it is entitled in school curriculums; but, on the other hand, he is able to speak encouragingly as to the results that have flowed from the intelligent and zealous efforts of a single teacher of scientific method, and he is evidently of the opinion that a better day is dawning for science teaching generally in the secondary schools of the United Kingdom. He refers in terms of high praise to Herbert Spencer's classic work on education. His words are worth repeating here: "It is a book which every parent of intelligence desiring to educate his children properly should read; certainly every teacher should have studied it thoroughly, and no one should be allowed to become a member of a school board who, on examination, was found not to have mastered its contents."
The point, however, which we wish to make to day is not that a certain amount of natural science should form an element in all education, for that is becoming more widely recognized and more fully accepted from year to year; but that all instruction should be pervaded by the scientific spirit, and that the teaching of what is called "science" is of value not only for the knowledge conveyed, but still more as furnishing, in proper hands, a type of what all teaching should be. If science itself is not taught scientifically, it is like salt that has lost its savor, utterly worthless; it becomes in such a case a mere burden on the educational system instead of its prime motor. In the address to which we have above referred. Prof. Armstrong deplores the bookish and unfruitful methods still widely in use in England, and unless we are mistaken the evil is quite as rife in this country. The fact is that even among teachers of science the true scientific spirit is by no means common. To have learned a certain range of scientific facts, and gained some comprehension of the methods by which those facts have been ascertained and by which further advances in scientific discovery must be made is not sufficient; it is necessary that the teacher's mind should be liberalized and quickened by the conception that in every branch of knowledge, in every pursuit, in every industry, in every line of thought and effort, the fundamental distinction of scientific and unscientific holds just as firmly as in the case of the best-explored departments of natural science. Are merely conventional views to be discarded in chemistry and physics? Certainly, the teacher of science will reply. How, then, about history, literature, and politics? It would seem as if a "certainly" would be in place here, too, and doubtless if the question were pressed it would come; but how few among the scientifically trained take homo to themselves heartily and thoroughly the truth that if scientific method is good for anything it is good for everything! But no one can be a true and inspiring teacher of science who does not feel in his inmost consciousness this universal applicability of scientific method, and who, in so far as he has been initiated into that method, does not rejoice in a sense of glorious liberty and power. It must be acknowledged that not a few men of "mere letters," as they are sometimes called, have gained a fuller entrance into the intellectual freedom which science bestows than many who have made science their special study. Such men as teachers will be eminently successful; they will have an intuitive sense of the distinction between essentials and non-essentials; they will grasp the roots of their several subjects; their teaching will have a certain organic quality that will cause it to germinate in the minds of others.
If we were asked what is the most characteristically or typically scientific idea that the mind can entertain, we should answer, with little hesitation. The idea of utility. Why? Because it involves the two fundamental ideas of the connection between cause and effect, and of the adaptation of means to ends; and because it points to an object apart from which science becomes mere intellectual trifling. It is possible to take an unduly narrow view of utility, but it is in no way necessary. There is nothing in the word itself to call for a narrow interpretation. On the contrary, it suggests the widest possible range of advantage for the human race. The conception of utility is one which we must more and more apply to our systems of education. In regard to any and every branch of study, let us boldly ask, as it is our duty to do, What are its uses? What is it going to do for those who are exercised thereby? Has it a bearing on health of body or of mind, or are its uses exclusively social? In the latter case, do they refer to permanent or to transitory social conditions? If to transitory conditions, how far is it desirable that these should be allowed to mold the education of the rising generation? No harm can come of pressing these questions one and all; and till we have answers to them—careful and satisfactory answers—we shall have no true criticism of modern education. If there is anything in this wide world that should be able to give a most rigorous account of itself it is the education we give our children. We started by saying it should be scientific, and now with equal conviction we declare that the first step toward being scientific is that it should be useful. A useful education—one founded upon and justified by use—is itself a constant training in scientific method and the best possible introduction to the scientific spirit. On the contrary, an education that can not constantly plead the justification of utility makes so far for unscientific habits of thought; for what can possibly be more unscientific than effort without definite and justifiable purpose?
Some persons entertain a vague idea that a dominantly scientific education must be dogmatic intone, and therefore an unsuitable preparation for practical life, in which so many problems present themselves that require tact and a careful balancing of probabilities rather than the strict methods of the laboratory. Herein we see the fatal mistake of narrowing our idea of science too much. The logic of chemistry is one thing, the logic of politics is another; but each has its logic, each admits of scientific treatment. As we pass from one to the other we simply have to widen our methods of inquiry, and allow for somewhat less of absoluteness in our conclusions; but we need not lower the scientific ideal, and as to the scientific spirit, it can be seen to almost greater advantage in a sphere in which the difficulties of analysis and the chances of error are relatively greater. So long as we only think of science in connection with the so-called natural sciences, the true conception of science will not reveal itself to us, and education in general will remain unfructified by the scientific spirit. But when we reach the point of accepting the methods of physical science as far as they go, and applying them, with such modifications as the case may call for, to all other branches of knowledge, holding ever as our clew the idea of utility broadly and liberally understood, we shall be fairly on the way to that revolution, or rather transformation, of our educational systems which the new age demands.
It will be remembered that Lord Salisbury, in the address delivered by him last autumn as President of the British Association, laid stress on the difficulties which he found in the way of accepting the doctrine of evolution, and quoted in support of his position some observations made several years ago by Lord Kelvin. Lord Kelvin himself has now been delivering an annual address as President of the Royal Society, and part of his duty in connection therewith was to announce that the society had this year conferred the "Darwin Medal" on Prof. Huxley as a "token of the value put by the society on the part of his [Prof. Huxley's] scientific activity bearing more directly on the biological ideas with which the name of Charles Darwin will always be associated." That the Royal Society should have instituted a Darwin medal speaks plainly enough as to the hold which Darwin's theory of the origin of species has obtained upon the scientific world; and that the medal should have been awarded to so earnest and thoroughgoing a champion of that theory as Prof. Huxley is a plain indication that scientific opinion is not taking any backward steps in this matter. In referring to the award Lord Kelvin chose his words with evident care; but no fault could be found, so far as either Darwin or Huxley was concerned, with the following neatly turned sentences: "That advocacy [Prof. Huxley's] had one striking mark: while it made, or strove to make, clear how deep the new view went down, and how far it reached, it never shrank from striving to make equally clear the limits beyond which it could not go. In these latter days there is fear lest the view, once new but now familiar, may, through being stretched further than it will bear, seem to lose some of its real worth. We may well be glad that the advocate of The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, who once bore down its foes, is still among us, ready, if need be, to save it from its friends."
At a dinner which followed the meeting at which these words were uttered, Prof. Huxley having been called upon to respond to the toast of "The Medallists," took occasion to say that the theory propounded by Darwin "has never yet been shown to be inconsistent with any positive observations. . . . I am sincerely of the opinion," he added, "that the views which were propounded by Mr. Darwin thirty-four years ago will be understood hereafter to mark an epoch in the intellectual history of the human race. They will modify the whole system of our thoughts and opinions, and shape our most intimate convictions." In the face of such a declaration, delivered under the circumstances described, it would certainly be well if the honest and worthy people who are always flattering themselves on the strength, generally, of this or that pulpit utterance, that natural selection and the doctrine of evolution are exploded theories, would make up their minds that practical men of science are the best judges as to what theories are helpful, and so far deserving of acceptance, and that the criticisms of theologians and other amateurs, however well meant, are apt to be beside the mark.
Prof. Max Müller contributes to the Nineteenth Century for last December an article the title of which is, Why I am not an Agnostic. Just what the true definition of agnosticism may be we should not care to venture an opinion; but what interests us chiefly in Prof. Müller's article is the extreme similarity between the position he takes up and that of Mr. Herbert Spencer as set forth in First Principles. "If," he says, "we have to recognize in every single object of our phenomenal knowledge a something or a power which manifests itself in it, and which we know, and can only know, through its phenomenal manifestations, we have also to acknowledge a power which manifests itself in the whole universe. . . . That it is, we know; what it is by itself, that is out of relation to us, of course we can not know; but we do know that without it the manifest or phenomenal universe would be impossible." This is the Spencerian philosophy exactly, and is also the philosophy, we do not doubt, of a large portion of the thinking world of to-day. Mr. Spencer has never professed himself an agnostic. Apart from the objections urged by Prof. Müller, he would probably consider the term one of far too uncertain meaning to serve for a definition of any views which he may hold, whether of a positive or of a negative character.