Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/Educational Values in Elementary School

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1232212Popular Science Monthly Volume 48 March 1896 — Educational Values in Elementary School1896Michael Vincent O'Shea


By Prof. M. V. O'SHEA.

IT is perhaps safe to say, without attempting to enter into the question in detail, that there has scarcely ever been a time when intelligent people have not been concerned about what their children should be taught in the schools. Leaving the attitude of bygone ages out of view, it is apparent to a careful observer that in our own time and country there is marked interest manifested in the question. What materials of instruction are of greatest value to be employed in elementary education? The last quarter century has witnessed many and important changes in the curricula of the elementary school; new subjects have been introduced and old ones dropped, or less time and emphasis put upon them. The recent appearance of two of the most important educational documents of modern times,[1] both considering in the main the relative worth of branches of instruction; and the rapid growth of book and periodical literature dealing with the same problem, are indications of the importance which is being attached to this matter by all educators. Our educational gatherings, too, in every part of the country are largely given over to the discussion of this old but yet very new question; and not only teachers, but parents and statesmen take sides in the debates, some maintaining that the classic three R's furnish superior material for the scholastic training of childhood, while others believe that the many new subjects of history, literature, science, music, and art are better adapted to prepare our youth for the circumstances they will encounter when they leave the room. So there are taking place in the educational arena warm contests between the champions of conservatism and those of radicalism; between those who cling to the things of the past as adequate for the exigencies of the present, and those who feel that the complexity of our modern life demands somewhat different training in the schools, and who realize that contributions from recent scientific investigation along various lines have given us many valuable ways and means for improving and extending the work of the schoolroom that could not have been known or appreciated a century ago. Perhaps in no matter of public interest, all things considered, is there such ferment of ideas as in elementary education; and one potent cause of this disturbance is our changing standards of educational values.

Whatever things are contributing to alter the opinions of people as to the comparative values of various materials of instruction, there are at least two or three agencies whose influence may be clearly and easily traced. In the first place, modern psychological inquiry is leading toward a very different view of the mind and the mode of its development from that which has been held in previous times. This is not so much to be wondered at, though, for psychology, while a very old subject is a very new science, at least in its applications to the choosing of educational materials and the determination of educational processes; and some of the theories advocated a hundred years ago by eminent teachers show that the knowledge of mental activities in those days was extremely meager and formal, as perhaps those who follow us a century hence will be able to say of our present notions. One view commonly held at that time, and which seems to have determined school work ever since, maintained that the mind is composed of parts, each of which may accumulate general power by exercise in any special direction, in some such manner as we believe the muscles of the body grow and develop for future use in all sorts of ways by being disciplined in the gymnasium in youth. Now, it seems evident that, referring to physical things, the employment of the muscular system upon any kind of work develops a capacity which may be of service, at least in a measure, in all kinds of work, A young man, for example, who has passed his youth upon a farm engaged in manual labor is generally a more promising candidate for the football eleven or the crew when he enters college than is an individual whose early life has been spent in intellectual pursuits, or amid the idlenesses and luxuries of the city. A crew in preparation for a race, to illustrate further, spend a portion of the training period in running, believing that the strength and endurance accumulated in this way may be advantageously used in the final great effort, which will require activity of a different kind from that necessitated by the training. But it is not needful to multiply examples; the proposition will be granted to be true, in a general way at any rate, although it has been pointed out by many[2] that it does not hold absolutely, in the sense that the power developed by one special line of work can be used as well to perform other kinds as the particular kind by which the power is accumulated. That is, to illustrate, a blacksmith can not use his strength so advantageously in farming or carpentry as in making horseshoes, or performing other kinds of labor common to the forge and anvil.

This reference to physical things is important for us here only in illustration of certain theories that have been, and are still perhaps, extensively held concerning the development of the mind, and that have been largely influential in determining the material and method of elementary education. Reasoning from analogy, which seems to have been the principal method followed by early psychologists, it would appear that exercising any part or faculty of the mind in a given direction would create a power in the part exercised that could be employed with equal advantage in all directions. Thus if memory were employed in recalling and retaining any kind of facts—whether in language, in science, in mathematics, or in history—there would result a general power which in later life could be profitably used to remember anything and everything that was desired. It would follow, then, that if a pupil should master the vocabulary of a language so that it could be recalled readily, he would because of the power thus generated more easily remember legal matters after he left the school if he became a lawyer, medical matters if he became a physician, commercial matters if he became a merchant, or theological matters if he became a minister of the gospel. In the same way, and perhaps in a more serious sense even, if a pupil should pass some time in reasoning upon any kind of material in the schoolroom, he would thereby be prepared to reason accurately and readily upon all sorts of things after he left the school, just to the degree that he reasoned accurately and keenly upon the special thing in the school. The conclusion rushes upon us that if you wish men and women to be reflective beings, judging wisely upon all matters with which they may be concerned in daily life, you should require boys and girls to reason much in school; and that kind of material of instruction should be chosen that gives the greatest opportunity for the exercise of the ratiocinative faculty. Until recently—perhaps we ought to include our own time—this material was supposed to have been most largely comprised in mathematics; and as reason has been regarded as the highest faculty of the mind, the ability to exercise which keenly and readily was the thing most to be coveted in life, it was a natural result that mathematics should have formed the backbone of school studies. And since we are still in that period when reasoning is regarded by most people as the highest attribute of man, we of necessity must have arithmetic as the most important subject in the elementary school curriculum.

It will not be possible within the limits imposed upon us here to examine in detail the theories of this "faculty" psychology: it will suffice to say, although perhaps in a dogmatic manner, that in our own day students of the mind are breaking away from these old notions, and establishing what seems to be a much more rational and simple system of psychology; and following upon this there must come a different appraisal of educational materials, and a consequent change in the subjects taught in our schools. To be very brief, one important general conception of modern educational psychology is that the mind is a unit, and develops as a unity. As an inference from this it can be seen that the material of instruction in the school must be chosen with a view to train the whole individual—his perceiving, remembering, imagining, judging, and reasoning faculties, so called, and not any one of them singled out from all the others. And not only must this material train one intellectually as a unity, but it must affect him emotionally and volitionally as well—that is, it must develop character. We have had in the past, as every one knows, a kind of educational philosophy which declared that there should be one subject to train one faculty, another subject another faculty, and so on throughout the list of faculties and subjects; and there should also and particularly be special material to cultivate the emotions and furnish proper incentives to the will. The error of this sort of thing must be plainly apparent to any one who will study the problem concretely, by observing and interpreting the activities of his own mind, and looking into the various types of mind in his environment. If one will become introspective for a little time he will see that his perceptions are not divorced from his memory and reason along the lines that he is perceiving; and he will also discover that what he perceives, remembers, or reflects upon has its effect upon his emotions and will in leading him to some sort of action, immediate or in the future. One never sees a physician who is keen and ready in his perceptions of things relating to the practice of medicine who can not and does not remember, reason, and imagine equally well in regard to those matters; nor is his character, his personality free from the shaping influences of his system of thought. The same may, of course, be said of the lawyer, the merchant, or any other type of individual. The truthful view of the case seems to be that perception, memory, imagination, and reasoning are phases of one process, and they can not be separated from each other except by logical procedure; nor can the intellect be considered apart from the emotions and will. There is no virtue either in this separation except for the mere purpose of analysis, for in daily life these faculties are never divorced in their activities from each other; and in training the individual in school, educational psychology declares it to be a serious mistake to try to separate one faculty from the others and train it by the use of some special material.

The workings of this old analytic and analogical psychology are especially apparent in its teaching that the exercise of the mind in any direction generates a capacity which may be used equally well in all directions. The very statement of this doctrine would seem to show its falsity, but yet belief in it has practically determined the subjects taught in our schools for the last three centuries. No one, upon reflection, would maintain that an extended study of mathematics would prepare a man for the practice of medicine so well as would the special study of physiology and the effect of medicinal agencies upon the human system. Nor would such mathematical discipline be the very best thing to prepare for the profession of law, or theology, or any other business which does not directly call into play a large body of mathematical knowledge. Common-sense philosophy long ago concluded, and thoroughly believes now, that one who is to be engaged in the practice of some art should wisely acquire all the knowledge possible relating thereto; and it esteems this of far greater account than to be concerned in getting some foreign matter for the sake of whatever discipline this will give. Thus one who is to become an architect could spend his time to greater advantage in familiarizing himself with those things that relate to the successful conduct of his business, than he could to study profoundly into chemistry, botany, or theology in the belief that the general power gained by such mental gymnastics would make him more expert in architectural matters; and the illustration may be multiplied at pleasure.

To carry our point a step further, it must be obvious to any one who has thought about the matter that what an individual studies, and what he thereby gets to know, determines almost entirely what he can get to know in the future; not along general lines either, but in special directions. The mathematician, for example, is enabled by the abundance of his learning in geometry and calculus to appreciate and interpret further mathematical facts; but he is by no means empowered, by virtue of his mathematics merely, to be a competent or appreciative judge of historical, legal, psychological, or linguistic matters. It has become a truism in the public mind that a mere specialist grows more narrow every day of his life, and there seems to be plenty of evidence in one's environment to give rise to such speculation. The argument in favor of liberal culture before a man takes up his specialty is based upon a recognition of the fact that knowledge of one kind only predetermines a man to be able to appreciate and interpret things of a similar nature, and these merely. There are two reasons for this, as one can readily see from a little study of humanity around him. In the first place, what a man knows determines what he is interested in; and common-sense philosophy has often declared that people are essentially selfish, because they are interested only in their own kinds of business, their own pursuits, their own specialties, and they lack that many-sided interest which is necessary for any title to unselfishness. The lawyer feels little interest in what the medical fraternity are doing, and perhaps will never be seen at a medical lecture; the scholar, pure and simple, troubles himself little about questions of government, and is a very insignificant warrior indeed in the political camp. The mechanic reads theology or listens to a theological sermon with the greatest difficulty. But each of these types has the deepest interest for readings, lectures, and everything else that relate to his own specialty, or to the thing he is most familiar with. It sometimes happens, it is true, that a poet may be interested in psychology or theology, but this is the case only when he is already well versed upon these subjects; and other apparent exceptions to the general rule may probably be explained in the same way.

The second point in proof of this law, that what one knows determines what he can get to know, is that, psychologically speaking, ideas create the ability to appreciate and interpret other ideas of a similar nature. This also may be abundantly illustrated by the circumstances of daily life. A man very widely read in history may be unable to understand a lecture upon biology, mechanics, or any subject unrelated to history. The general power which he has accumulated in his historical researches can not be applied to the ready and easy mastery of all sorts of things, as the old psychology stoutly maintained. Again, one who has pursued mathematical studies to great length is not thereby qualified to become a statesman; the power which may be generated by the study of mathematics is not transferable immediately to the solution of social problems. Educational psychology, then, may be said to declare in a very broad way that ideas create capacity for the reception of ideas of similar kind, but that there is practically no such thing as the acquisition of general power by the mastery of special subject-matter. In explanation of this practically, it should be said that any kind of intellectual activity, no matter what it be, tends to create habits that may be carried into all kinds of study or business. One who has patiently, day after day and year after year, solved arithmetical or algebraic problems in the school, has by such exercise acquired habits of careful reflection and weighing of evidence that will lead him to dwell with somewhat the same care upon all matters that are brought to his attention; but unless he has sufficient data upon these new matters his reflections, of course, will come to but little. The practical conclusion is, and the one of importance in education, that study along any line limits excellence in perceiving, remembering, imagining, or reasoning to matters along this same line.

Applying this principle to the work of the schoolroom, we see that no subject should be studied merely for the discipline it may be supposed to give. The old theory that the school should cultivate the senses, the memory, and the reasoning powers of pupils, means nothing as a matter of pure discipline; in the light of modern psychology we must understand that the only way to secure this cultivation is in special directions determined by the peculiar nature of the material upon which the mind is exercised. Assuming, then (for it will not be deemed necessary to argue the matter here), that one ideal of our civilization is to have an individual understand himself in relation to his natural environment, so that he may be able to adapt himself to natural laws and turn them to the promotion of his own happiness and welfare, it follows that the study of natural law, the method of adapting one's self to it, and the industries that are based upon an adequate comprehension of it, should form an important part of school work; and it is some such argument that has introduced Nature-study into many elementary schools, giving it a prominent place there. In like manner, if it is desirable for one to be able to adjust himself in the best way possible to his social environment, he should study the organization of society, and the ethical and material conditions upon which his own and others' welfare and advancement depend. These considerations have been at the bottom of changes in the school curriculum, and are now at work in the endeavor to introduce still further improvements, as many educators think.

At all events, the old idea of formal discipline is gradually losing the breath of life, and we can think no better of it than that the sooner it releases its hold upon those who make school curricula, the sooner will the material of instruction be more nearly adapted to prepare the individual for his needs in after life. Whatever may be said in favor of the study of any branch for its disciplinary value, because of the good habits which are formed in its pursuit, may be said with equal force of those subjects which have direct worth in giving the pupil knowledge that will be of service to him outside the schoolroom, for these also will create habits of attention, reflection, and industry equally well. Thus, in the study of history, literature, or science, habits of careful observation and reflection may be formed with as great readiness and surety as in the study of algebra, English grammar, Latin, or Greek. And, moreover, the conditions for accurate observation and reasoning in science or in the conduct of society are somewhat different, as every one will admit, from what they are in Greek, Latin, or arithmetic; and if the purpose is to lead the pupil ultimately to observe keenly and accurately and interpret readily and serviceably facts of Nature or the phenomena of social intercourse, then the more he has to do of this in the school the more will he become familiar with right methods for future activity. On the other hand, if the object is to make the pupil keen in the appreciation of linguistic matters, then, of course, he must study language; and we might speak in a similar way of any special subject.

We have, therefore, this broad conception, that study along special lines does not create general but only special power. There follows a second principle of equal importance in determining the relative value of materials of instruction; but this, like the one just considered, has not yet received universal recognition among teachers. It has been maintained from aforetime that arithmetic, grammar, spelling, and the mechanical side of reading, writing, and the art subjects should receive particular attention because of the paramount necessity that the pupil should be master of these things before he leaves the school, in order to be able to make any progress in his learning thereafter; and there has always accompanied this first argument another, close of kin, that these branches afford opportunity for excellent discipline of the mind. Enough has already been said perhaps to indicate that the idea of pure discipline (or, as Prof. Hinsdale calls it, "the dogma of formal discipline"[3]) is not founded upon good philosophy; it remains to examine briefly this second position which many teachers, with their faces always turned toward the setting sun, declare with fervor to be impregnable. A survey of the subjects in the elementary school curriculum will show that they fall naturally into three great classes, usually styled (1) the real or content subjects, including history, literature, geography, and Nature-study or science; (2) the form or symbolic subjects, including language, grammar, arithmetic, and the mechanical side of reading, writing, music, and art; (3) the industrial or "psycho-manual" subjects, including manual training, sewing, and cookery. It has been held hitherto that the elementary school should be concerned very little if at all with the real or content subjects, because these could not be studied with profit until a considerable body of symbols had been acquired, by the ready use of which a pupil would be enabled to talk, read, write, spell, draw, and cipher in the expression of what he gained from his investigations; and, moreover, is it not impossible for one to study history, literature, or science until he has mastered a vocabulary that will enable him to intelligently comprehend what he is trying to study about? That is to say, must he not first study words so that through them as symbols he may finally get to know about the realities symbolized? It is doubtless familiar to every one who has looked into the matter that there has been a reversing of this doctrine in many places of late years, and the aim is now to acquire familiarity with symbols through the things which they represent. It has become a truism of modern educational psychology that a symbol is learned with great difficulty and with little serviceableness unless it be connected with the thing or thought it is to symbolize; it is learned only after great effort, because, in the first place, it possesses no characteristic in itself but that of form, and in the case of words and figures very simple forms at that, which increases the difficulty of mastery. A mature person looking at the end of a pencil in the endeavor to fix it in the mind so that it may be identified in the future from similar pencils, would find the task well-nigh impossible, although it appears so entirely simple; but if the same effort be made in remembering a horse, or large and complex object of any kind, the problem is very much easier, because there are more evident characteristics to fix the thing in the mind, and by which it may be identified when it appears there again. Now, in the case of learning the symbolic subjects in the schoolroom, the ease of mastery depends upon every word and figure learned being connected with the thought or thing it symbolizes; the thought being previously aroused in the mind, and the symbol fused with it, as it were. Hence the maxim now frequently heard: First the thought, then the symbol. Psychological observation has shown also that the use of a symbol can become automatic in acquiring or expressing thought (which is the sole ultimate object in the teaching of the form subjects) only when that symbol has been connected a great many times in one act of thought with the thing it represents; and then whenever the symbol appears in the mind the thing symbolized will be automatically suggested. It is illustrated every day of our lives that when two or more things are perceived or experienced as connected with each other in time or space, one being thought of or experienced again, the other invariably accompanies it in the manner of the original appearance. Psychology has long recognized that contiguity is the essential principle of memory; and it is particularly applicable to the automatic memory, upon which, as already said in substance, the teaching of the symbolic subjects must depend. The object is to have thought spontaneously suggested by symbols, with no conscious attention upon the symbols themselves; and, of course, there is the co-ordinate purpose to acquire power to use the means of expression automatically to convey thought. Neither of these objects may be secured if the learning of forms is divorced from their constant use in the ready acquisition and clear conveyance of thought; which, when applied to the work of the schoolroom, means that the study of arithmetic, language, grammar, or the mechanics of reading, writing, and drawing, apart from their natural connections with the pursuit of the content subjects, history, literature, science, and geography is a mistake. Common sense maintains, in everyday life at least, that the mechanism necessary to the performance of any art may be most advantageously acquired through actual practice of the art; and one never learns the mechanics of bicycle-riding, baseball playing, typewriting, and similar arts before he begins to ride the bicycle, play ball, or use the typewriter; but he acquires skill in doing these things by applying himself to their execution at the outset. A child at its mother's knee learns to talk by talking, and to walk by walking, rather than in either case to acquire beforehand the theory and mechanics of each in the hope to apply them some time later in life. But common sense, which has always been slow in carrying its philosophy of the activities of daily life into the work of the schoolroom, is just now beginning it seems to appreciate in a way that what is true concerning the mastery of the mechanics of doing things in daily life applies also to the formal subjects of education, in the sense that they may be most serviceably acquired in an incidental manner, while using them, continually to acquire and express thought aroused by the study of real things. It is, no doubt, necessary to have much drill upon these formal things to make their use automatic; but this drill must follow and depend upon the use of the symbolic subjects in the study of the real subjects at any time rather than to aim at mastering a body of forms which may be applied at some future period.

From the foregoing (and there are other arguments, such as the greater interest which the pupil will have in the study of the formal subjects when they are thus connected with the real subjects, which can not be entered into here) it may be concluded that the formal branches of instruction acquire a value from their connection with the study of content subject-matter; and taught by themselves they are, comparatively speaking, empty and valueless. What has been said of the symbolic studies may be said also, without repeating arguments here, of the psycho-manual or industrial subjects: they, too, must be concerned with the expression, and hence with the deepening and intensifying of thought gained from the pursuit of history, literature, and science. Thus when the pupil studies about the industries in his environment and gains an impression of the activities of the mechanic, farmer, seamstress, and so on, he makes his ideas effective and lasting by imitating these activities himself. But to require him to learn the rules and mechanism of these industries before having an opportunity to perform them is to create an indifference or distaste for them all because of the formality and emptiness of such work. In drawing, too, the object should be to have the pupil express what has been gained from the study of some real object, or to illustrate some scene from history or literature; and when the mere grammar of drawing is learned before putting it to any use, not only interest but effectiveness in the work is lost.

Other matters should be considered in a complete and thorough analysis of educational values in elementary education; but from what it has been possible to say here it may be concluded that in the arrangement of the elementary school curriculum the central place should be given to the real or content studies—literature, history, geography, and science—and all other subjects must follow and depend upon them in the acquisition and expression of thought gained from their pursuit. As to whether the literary or the scientific subjects should receive greater emphasis there seems not to be so great agreement among psychologists and educators; although the ideal of the development of moral character in our schools, so frequently spoken of nowadays by teachers, would seem to argue the superiority of those studies that have a moral content—that is, those that deal with moral matters. Educational psychology points out a danger people are liable to fall into in thinking that because the material of instruction used treats of moral questions the result upon the character of the pupil must of necessity be moral. If this were true it would follow that the learning of moral subject-matter, as literature and history, would constitute adequate means for the training of exemplary men and women. In somewhat the same way it was once thought by religious teachers, and may be yet in some places, that the study of the catechism would cause an individual to become religious. But a little observation of types in one's environment will show that these theories do not hold absolutely, at any rate. If it necessarily follows that the study of history produces an estimable moral character, then we should find historians to be exemplary above all other men, and statesmen to be infinitely more than politicians. Taking things literally, we should expect all those individuals whose calling leads them to study history more or less, as the lawyer, the politician, historical teachers, and others to be distinguished for their morality above the scientist, the mathematician, or any one else in the community; but if this be so, it has not yet impressed itself upon the public mind. The more just view to take of this question is (to be dogmatic for the sake of brevity) that those activities which tend to become habitual are the ones that determine character; and an individual may study profoundly about charity, for instance, without ever exercising that quality himself; while, on the other hand, one may be little familiar with the literature of benevolence, but an exemplary person in its practice. Although it seems eminently true that our thoughts tend to get worked out into appropriate activities, yet we make a serious mistake when we conclude that those ideas which we get from books are uppermost in our minds when we are inspired to action; rather those impressions that have already become deepened and fixed through previous expressions are the ones that get mastery when we are about to act. This does not imply that literature and history have not great moral culture value when rightly used to furnish incentives and models for moral activities that become actually realized in the pupil's life—in the child immediately under the guidance of the teacher, in the older person at a more remote period perhaps. But at the same time it should be understood that character in a true sense includes the whole of personality, and a defect in any part is essentially a moral defect; so that what one can and does do, in a material sense, is as important to be looked after in elementary education as how he may think or feel in a bookish sense. These considerations alone (and there are other important arguments that might be advanced) indicate that, so far as values are concerned, the study of science, and of the various industries that maybe understood and improved upon only by a comprehension of its laws, should hold a place in the elementary school co-ordinate with that of literature and history. One may not dogmatize here, though, considering the present state of our knowledge upon the most effective means for training moral character; and it is to be sincerely hoped that we may ere long be in possession of further contributions along this line from psychologists and educators.

Cutting telegraph wires is, according to Mr. P. V. Luke, of the British-Indian Chitral Expedition, a favorite amusement with frontier tribes. They find the wire useful. Sometimes, too, they convert the hollow iron posts of which the telegraph poles are made into guns, by lapping them round with wire; and they cut the wire up for bullets.
  1. The Report of the Committee of Ten, 1893; and the Report of the Committee of Fifteen, 1895.
  2. For example, by Prof. Hinsdale, in the Educational Review for September, 1894.
  3. Educational Review, September, 1894.