Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/May 1896/Natural Science in a Literary Education

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THE greatest forms of literature hold the mirror up to Nature—that is, to life. Literary conventions, even, go hack at some point to real life. Because actual Sicilian shepherds once piped their happy songs where Theocritus heard them, the world has had its long line of pastoral poetry, an intolerable deal of the sack of empty repetition and formalism to one half pennyworth of the bread of reality. In spite of traditions, however, the more important literature of the world has kept in touch with actual life. Of Shakespeare and Chaucer we can confidently say that, though each had a library at home, he found another and a better one upon the street.

Modern science has invaded modern life; its devices meet us at every turn, its great conceptions fill our minds. What shall be the attitude toward science of those students who wish a literary education? Shall they devote themselves entirely to the study of the classic productions in the languages of ancient and modern nations? or shall they take up also those advancing lines of scientific investigation and speculation which are producing new instruments for everyday life and new themes for thought, and which are fashioning anew the very minds and language of men?

The clearness with which Wordsworth foresaw, in 1800, that poetry itself would in the time to come draw its subject-matter more and more from the domain of science, seems truly marvelous. He said in that year, in the preface which he wrote for the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads:

"If the labors of men of science should ever create any material revolution... in our condition and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science.... The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man."

The literature of an age takes up into itself the whole mental life of the time. He who would adequately interpret modern literature should know modern life, and in that life science is a marked element. A general knowledge of contemporary science is needed to interpret contemporary literature. Tennyson, for example, constantly refers to the great scientific discoveries and conceptions of his time. How shall a reader ignorant of those conceptions fully appreciate him? Prof. William H. Hudson, in a remarkable article,[1] speaks of "Tennyson's keen interest in science; his sympathetic hold upon the vast movements in progress around him; his manly attitude toward the changes that life and thought were everywhere undergoing." Even the casual reader of Tennyson must have noted how deep is his interest in scientific study, and how fully the great conceptions of modern science find expression in his poetry. Indeed, there seems to be a prophetic element in this. As Miss Scudder notes in her recent volume,[2] it is hard to realize in reading some parts of In Memoriam that it was published in 1850, nine years before Darwin's Origin of Species.

Great forms of thought, mighty molds which of necessity give shape to our thinking and then to our very imaginings—these come to us from the study of things, not from the study of language. Literature itself must largely find its raw material, its great metaphors and similes, its vivid pictures and mighty symbols, within the domain of natural science, and this increasingly as the years go by. The chemist's law of definite and multiple proportions; the laws of motion; the phenomena and laws of light, heat, and electricity; the strata, the glaciers, and the processes of earth-sculpture of the geologist; the winds, tides, and ocean currents; the theories of animal evolution; the struggle for existence, the survival of the fittest; the mighty phenomena, the impressive uniformities, the nebular hypothesis of astronomy—these are great forms of thought as well as facts and theories of science. A man who is unacquainted with modern science can not well understand the language of educated men, and he can not interpret sympathetically and adequately the literature of his own day. Were any writer completely ignorant of these facts and conceptions, he would be unable to make use of some of the most powerful symbols that exist for the expression of ideas. Standing in the midst of a mighty speaking universe, he would find himself, in a measure, tongue-tied because deaf.

Prof. Drummond's suggestive book, Natural Law in the Spiritual World, shows what powerful instruments science furnishes for the exposition and enforcement of thought. The fundamental importance to the speaker and writer of finding effective symbols for his thought is perhaps best illustrated by the parables of Christ; "without a parable spake he not unto them."

The larger facts of modern science constitute an incomparable challenge and stimulus to the imagination. The electric thrill circles the earth ere a swift-footed Achilles could gird up his loins to run. An instructor in rhetoric in the University of Chicago recently stated that the most vivid and imaginative themes which came to him from a certain class were written by some pupils interested in geology upon simple topics connected with the history of the earth. Some of the great writers of coming days are already

. . . nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science.

The value of scientific study is not to be measured, of course, by the extent to which it ministers to the production and appreciation of good literature. The necessity of some knowledge of science, in order that the educated man may possess his intellectual birthright as a member of his own generation, furnishes a fundamental and unanswerable argument for such study. That ideal of education will never go entirely out of fashion which demands that each student make a brave and earnest attempt, even though it can never be more than partially successful, "to see life steadily, and see it whole." This ideal will always appeal to some minds, and its advocates will judge colleges and universities by their success in furnishing education of this type.

Is there any practical difficulty besides the obvious limitations of time and strength which prevents students of literature from obtaining an outline knowledge of the more important branches of modern science? Unquestionably, the great difficulty is a conviction on the part of these students themselves that scientific study is without value for them. But in some cases this is not the only obstacle. Some of the introductory courses in science in the American institutions of collegiate grade seem to be planned for those who wish to make specialties of the sciences. Brief, synoptic culture courses—such as can be covered, let us say, by means of a daily class exercise for a period of twelve weeks—are accessible in many institutions, and sometimes in all of the major sciences; but in other cases they are disbelieved in and are not offered. In study of this sort, of course, two or three hours of field or laboratory work often take the place of a lecture or recitation. Sometimes the first course in a particular science, while brief enough to come under the description given above, is evidently planned entirely as "first steps," not as a synoptic course that shall by itself minister to a broad culture.

I grant that literary students should study some one fundamental science more fully than I have indicated, as a guard against habits of superficiality; but if they are to make any such acquaintance as it seems to me that they should with the "circle of the sciences," it must be by means of synoptic culture courses, since their literary studies will of necessity claim most of their time.

Some scientists will think my proposal foolish and impracticable. It will seem to them absurd that a man should try to study chemistry, for example, especially on the side of its value for mental culture; that he should be vitally interested in the fundamental facts of metallurgy, in the law of definite and multiple proportions, and the atomic theory, and have only a very languid interest in bad smells and the details of the chemical laboratory. But I know that there are scientists whose standing is unquestioned who believe in the value and practicability of the courses that I am advocating.

Undoubtedly some work in natural science can be satisfactorily accomplished in the schools preparatory to college. The more external study of plants and animals should be made prominent here. Ornithology in particular, now that Mr. Chapman's admirable handbook and helpful works by others have been published, may well furnish delight and refreshment to the youth of the present and coming generations. Who can fail to be interested in birds—in voiced sunshine and winged music—especially when the appeal is re-enforced by such writers as John Burroughs, Olive Thorne Miller, Bradford Torrey, and Frank Bolles?

I can not think, however, that other branches of natural science can be handled in a manner adequate to the needs of a broad education in the secondary schools. A certain preparedness of mind for college courses and a very moderate amount of acquirement seem to be all that can be expected in many departments of science from such preparatory work; but I am not entitled to have a very definite opinion on this point.

If I say a few words in favor of natural science as a mental discipline, I shall take a line of argument that is not now popular. Still, the educational world has its fashions. Our present way of thinking, therefore, may change, at least to some degree; and mental discipline in education, the old idea of to-day, may become one of the new ideas of to-morrow.

Since Harvard University gave to its undergraduates practically complete freedom in the choice of the courses which lead to something that it was nevertheless decided to call the A. B. degree, the principle of election in undergraduate study has had free course and been glorified. Some persons would even claim that the various departments of study are substantially equal and identical in disciplinary power and general educational value. This proposition I can not accept. Literature, for example, is an indispensable element in an education, but it does not give all kinds of knowledge and mental training. Those students who look upon literature as in itself an education will find—or others will find it out if they do not—that they have accepted it in some measure instead of an education. One can not omit the other great subjects from his training, and then make up for their loss by reading his Browning, his Chaucer, or even his Shakespeare, more often and more strenuously. The mathematics and the more exact physical sciences help, as no other branches of study can, to give to the mind habits of accuracy and a sense of proportion. In a class in literature many questions do not admit of exact answers; the personal element must come in; the answers of the most careful instructor are only an approximation to the truth; the answers of the most superficial scholar will not be entirely wrong. Indeed, since a literary masterpiece makes its appeal primarily to the emotions and the imagination, the whole conception of definite, exact answers to specific questions has but a limited application to the work of the class in literature. In mathematics and the more exact physical sciences each problem is specific, and has one answer that is exactly right; all other possible answers are exactly and entirely wrong. Every man needs the discipline of such study.

Let the man interested in literature study mechanics. When he learns that many forces differing in quantity and direction can all combine in a single resultant motion, he will not be quite so ready in studying literary movements to fix the attention upon one force or circumstance and neglect all the others. Let him study chemistry; let him determine all the elements in a given compound, and how much of each is present; then he will not be quite so apt, when analyzing a piece of literature, to fix the attention upon one quality and ignore everything else.

Even professional literary critics are often decidedly lacking in proportion, poise, and sharpness of outline. Let me illustrate. Mr. Swinburne speaks thus of Collins: "He could put more spirit of color into a single stroke, more breath of music into a single note, than could all the rest of his generation into all the labors of their lives."[3] The same critic comments as follows upon some of the poems of Keats: "The Ode to a Nightingale, one of the final masterpieces of human work in all time and for all ages, is immediately preceded in all editions now current by some of the most vulgar and fulsome doggerel ever whimpered by a vapid and effeminate rhymester in the sickly stage of whelphood."[4]

I do not care now to object to the qualitative judgments here expressed; but how about the quantity of praise and blame that is bestowed? Is it probable that the writer of these words ever had much thorough training in the mathematics and physical sciences? Indeed, can he ever have studied anything quantitatively?

It is not my main purpose, however, to argue for the disciplinary value of scientific study; its more direct and substantive value for the student of literature is what I have wished especially to set forth. There seem to be two great types of collegiate education, the literary and the scientific. That natural science has an important rôle to play in the ideal literary education I firmly believe; and in support of this position I appeal to the prophecy of Wordsworth, to the poetry of Tennyson, and to the reason of the case.

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  1. Poetry and Science, Popular Science Monthly, October, 1894.
  2. The Life of the Spirit in the Modern English Poets.
  3. Ward's English Poets, iii, p. 282.
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica, article upon Keats.