Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/August 1875/The Higher Education

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EDUCATORS, to-day, are divided into two schools, especially with regard to colleges and universities. The older of these schools insists very vigorously upon the importance of thorough instruction in the so-called "dead languages," and makes all else subordinate to them. The new school, on the other hand, the school which seems to be steadily gaining ground, upholds the claims of the sciences, and gives to them the places of honor in every general course of study. The controversy between these schools is well worn, but has not yet become threadbare. The questions at issue cannot grow stale and hackneyed until after they have been finally settled.

In discussing all such questions many commonplaces must be uttered. Indeed, much confusion has arisen among educational writers because they have too timidly feared to seem commonplace. These commonplaces are the necessary, rough foundations upon which we must build; if we ignore or lose sight of them, our structure will be unsound. Simple facts must be stated in a simple way.

The first thing to be determined is, the true object of the higher education. Is it, as some would seem to suppose, purely ornamental, a thing valuable only as far as it gives a man extra polish and elegance of mind, a mere luxury, with no practical bearings upon the every-day duties of common, busy life? Such an idea is preposterous. Of course, ornamental culture is something to be desired; its acquirement confers honor upon the acquirer; facilities should be furnished for its attainment. But true education, including all this, goes far deeper. Its purpose is to develop the mind; to strengthen the thinking faculties in every possible direction; to render the acquisition of new knowledge easier and surer; to increase the student's resources; and to render him better fitted for dealing with the useful affairs of the world. Such an education is never completed; it grows throughout a lifetime; it is self-propagating; its most valuable features are acquired outside of schools and colleges. All that a college can do is to help lay its foundations, by training the mental power for subsequent use. Which course of studies best carries out this purpose?

The argument has been summed up by certain advocates of the new school in the following very condensed way: "Science deals with things, language with words. Words merely represent things. Surely the knowledge of the thing itself is worth more than the knowledge of its symbol." But this reasoning, however sound it may be at the core, is rather too curt and dogmatic to carry conviction. No reasonable being can deny the great value of a study of language. Different races of men must exchange their ideas. A man cannot be called liberally educated who has no knowledge of any tongue other than his own. But shall linguistic studies be allowed to occupy the first rank in our college courses? Are they to almost monopolize the attention of the student, or shall they be made subordinate to other things? Ought they to be taught independently for themselves alone, or should they be brought to bear upon other studies, so that all branches of learning may be made to fortify one another? The latter view, at least as far as our colleges are concerned, is unquestionably the correct one. The study of philology, or of language by itself, is undoubtedly of great value; but it is rather a study for the specialist than for the average student. It is, certainly, a true science; only, lacking precision in its methods, and being deficient in practical applicability to the general affairs of life, it must be left out of account for the present. In a general course of study a language should be taught because of its value in opening up other departments of knowledge. It should reveal to us the thoughts of other peoples, and enable us to avail ourselves of their experience. For most men these purposes are best fulfilled by a study of the modern tongues. Latin and Greek are valuable, no doubt, only they are less indispensable than French and German. These newer languages are not only of practical value, being spoken and written by millions of our fellow-beings to-day, but they have also many direct bearings upon all modern life. The sciences cannot be well studied without them; they open up the widest fields of recent thought; they bring us into closer harmony with the spirit of our own times. We can get along better without a knowledge of antiquity than without a knowledge of the days in which we live. The history of the siege of Troy has less interest for us than the history of the great social and economic problems which are being worked out in such deadly earnest in our own country and in Europe to-day. The ancient languages have their uses, unquestionably; so also have the Russian and the Chinese; but are those uses of sufficient importance to warrant universal study? Remembering the aims of education, we must also remember that every student has but a limited number of years to spend at college. In those few years he must acquire that learning which will best fit him to go forth and grapple with active duties. If he has both the taste and the leisure, then he can learn the dead languages after graduation. It is nothing to urge that Latin and Greek facilitate the acquisition of French and German, since the latter can be studied directly as well as the former. Few people can afford the time to study four languages in order to use but two.

If we consider the languages in their bearings upon other studies, French and German again take the lead. For advanced study in philosophy or in science these tongues are absolutely necessary, while the dead languages are not. True, many scientific terms are derived from the Latin or the Greek; but the derivation is commonly lost in new technical meanings. Moreover, the derivation, if desired, can readily be learned and sufficiently understood without much knowledge of Latin grammar or much familiarity with Greek verbs. The philological facts may be valuable, but they are no more so than a host of other facts which must, for want of time, be omitted from every general course of study. As far as concerns the Latin, needed for the comprehension of nomenclature in the natural sciences, it is safe to say that any intelligent student can learn enough of the language in three months, if, indeed, he cares to study it regularly at all.

In the direction of literary pursuits, the modern languages, again, have the advantage. Undoubtedly', the literatures of the past are rich in grand poetry, in great thoughts, and in the history of noble deeds. But poetry as grand, thoughts as great, the history of deeds as noble, can be found in the literatures of to-day. Every thing of permanent value which the old contained has been translated into the new. Plato and Virgil may be read in English, French, or German; but Goethe, Racine, and Shakespeare, are not to be found in Greek. These modern literatures are certainly of as great value in any system of real culture as those of older times. No student can master all literatures, and therefore much must be rejected. First, a scholar should study the classics of his own language, next in order taking others of his own time. When he knows something of his fellow-beings as he will meet them in the present, then he may learn with profit about the people of two thousand years ago. We profess to admire the culture of the Greeks. This culture came, not from the study of some language dead to them, but from direct intercourse with Nature and mankind. Cannot we draw new culture from the same sources?

As far, then, as concerns direct bearing upon practical life, the modern languages must take precedence of the ancient. And, if we look at education from a utilitarian stand-point, we cannot doubt that a knowledge of those sciences which are involved in the arts, whose principles are applied in the steam-engine and in the telegraph, is of more value to the average mind than an acquaintance with the languages of antiquity. Ornament is worth having, but for most people usefulness must rank first. But another question here comes up. It is plain that a modern education best fits a man to perform the external duties of life. But which education best develops the mind? Here we come in sight of the stronghold of the classicist. He claims for his system that it affords the best mental training. Is this true?

Let us see what has to be done. Looking at education solely as a means of intellectual development, we must inquire what faculties of the mind need to be cultivated. Three may be suggested at once: the reason, the memory, and the powers of observation. The æsthetic tastes should also be brought into play, and given good material for wholesome growth. In the treatment of each faculty, education, as its name indicates, should be a drawing out rather than a cramming in. It should give the student not only material, but power; not only train him to express his thoughts, but also furnish him with thoughts to express.

Beginning with the memory by itself, it is hard to see how either system of education can outrank the other. In the old school the memory is trained upon words and grammatical rules; in the new upon facts of observation and the laws deduced from them. But, if we consider the memory in connection with the other powers of the mind, we must give the modern education the highest place. Memory and the perceptive faculty are here cultivated side by side, as they cannot be in the mere study of language. Language does nothing for the observing powers. In science, on the other hand, the eye, the ear, and all the instruments of the senses, are trained to observe facts accurately, these facts are stored up in the memory, and the memory then renders it possible to exercise the reason upon them, generalize from them, and compare them with other facts gathered from other observers.

In the cultivation of the pure reason science again takes the lead. The element of judgment, which is exercised in the work of translating, is brought into play as much among modern languages as among the ancient. It also finds its place in the classification of observed facts. Further than this, language offers the dry, arbitrary rules of grammar as food for the intellect, while science gives grand laws and generalizations already deduced or in process of deduction. The discovery of these natural laws may be counted among the greatest achievements of the human mind. To follow out the processes by which they were discovered, gives the mind its most rigid training, and elevates the tone of thought in many other respects. The intellect becomes self-reliant and yet conscious of its own weak points. On the other hand, grammatical reasoning binds one down to past authorities, and leaves no room for original thinking. It is purely conventional, nothing more. Originality, either of thought or of investigation, is discouraged by it. The mind may be filled, but not expanded. But surely the intellect ought to be trained to think forward as well as backward, in new regions as well as in the old, beaten paths. To the scientific student the universe appears full of great unsolved problems, whose solution is the noblest exercise for the human mind and a benefit to the race. To thoughts like these the mind of the mere grammarian is closed. He sees nothing but routine, and dreads all innovation. He fetters the intellect rather than loosens it.

It may be said, however, that the old education did not depend altogether upon the languages for intellectual training; that the mathematics were included, with a variety of philosophical and historical studies. True, but the new education also includes these branches, only in a better way. Their connection with modern times is much more intimate than their connection with antiquity. Modern languages aid in their cultivation to the highest degree. In philosophy, the modern has assimilated every thing of value from the ancient; and history, in the scientific sense, is just beginning to be written. As for mathematics, the old education made it a system of mental gymnastics; the new transforms it into a useful tool which the student must apply to the solution of many physical problems. Both the intellectual value and the utility of such studies have been vastly increased.

Turning toward aesthetic studies, we find the new education again foremost. Quite obviously, the æsthetic sense must be mainly cultivated through music, works of art and literature. The world's greatest music is all modern. So also are most of the famous works of art. The painter lives entirely among the achievements of recent or comparatively recent times. As for sculpture, one needs no Latin nor Greek in order to appreciate the Laocoon. Beauty is better understood by direct contact with beauty, than by reading about it in ancient books. And in literary studies the languages of to-day are more than on a par with those of the past. This part of the argument has already been mentioned.

In scientific pursuits, also, the æsthetic tastes find such nourishment as they can get nowhere else. In a truly scientific education the art of drawing is an important element, and in the study of acoustics the musician wins great advantage. But we may look in other directions than these. No one can long handle a microscope without having his sense of the beautiful enlarged; nor can any one study modern astronomy without gaining the loftiest conceptions of the sublime. The true student of Nature and her phenomena ever sees order and symmetry coming out of chaos, and finds the rarest beauty hidden where to the unaided eye naught but ugliness exists. Must it not bring the highest satisfaction to the lover of beauty thus to find its traces everywhere? Can any student, who looks upon the universe with vision thus unobscured, fail to find in his studies the truest æsthetic culture?

Theoretically, then, we may conclude that the study of science, with modern languages, literatures, and philosophies as aids, does all for the mind that the old classical education ever did, and more. A higher discipline, a higher utility, and a higher culture, are its natural results. It trains memory, intellect, the perceptive faculties, and the sense of the beautiful simultaneously, insuring a symmetrical development. It brings men into closer relations with the spirit of modern civilization, bears directly upon all modern work, aids in practical afterlife as no other education can, and helps the student to grow in all directions. This education not only fills the mind, but at the same time deepens and broadens it. In every definable respect it is superior to the old system. The latter was good enough in its day, but the new surpasses it in ours.

Yet it may be urged that all this is theory, and not borne out by facts. It is easy to point out college after college in this country in which, apparently, the classical and scientific courses have been tried side by side, to the evident disadvantage of the latter. Can this be explained?

Three things must here be taken into consideration: namely, the character of most American colleges, the character of many professed teachers, and the methods of study.

Beginning with the colleges and universities, it is noteworthy that there are to-day in our country about three hundred institutions bearing those names. Of these, Ohio has twenty-eight, while Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York, have each twenty or over. For this deplorable scattering of educational forces, denominational rivalry is chiefly to blame. Where, by judicious management, one really efficient institution might be established, half a dozen sects, jealous of each other, build up as many insignificant weaklings. Each college acts as a drag on all the others. Libraries, cabinets, and faculties are uselessly duplicated. Naturally, one result of this state of affairs is a lowering of educational standards. It would be well for education if the several States would compel each so-called "university" to act up to its pretensions, become what it claims to be, or else forfeit its charter. The educational frauds which many of these institutions perpetrate should no longer be tolerated. No new college ought to be chartered unless it has a proper endowment at the start. And, in a majority of our States, no new college should be chartered at all. Forces should be concentrated upon institutions already in existence.

But what has all this to do with the relative merits of the classics and science? Quite obviously, much. Since, on account of this foolish division of forces, most of these colleges are inadequately endowed, they are compelled to work short-handed. One professor has frequently several branches to teach. Not long ago, in one of our Western colleges, a man was elected "professor of natural philosophy, astronomy, and the theory and practice of preaching!" In the majority of cases there is a chair of Latin, a chair of Greek, and then—a chair of "natural science!" Each linguistic professor is to some degree a specialist; while the one who teaches science is perforce compelled to be a smatterer. He is expected to teach half a dozen dissimilar branches, each one being a life-work by itself. He is to be omniscient on about $1,000 a year. Of course, in such a condition of things, the new education must suffer. No man living is able to teach properly more than one science. Indeed, some sciences, as, for example, chemistry, need to be subdivided into several different specialties, under several distinct teachers. Except by specialists, no truly scientific education can be given; since each instructor has to deal with a constantly-growing branch, and not with a fixed, completed study. The teacher must keep up with the growth of his particular science, or else drop into downright incompetency. He who is overworked by teaching several subjects cannot properly keep up with any one.

It is plain, then, that this scattering of educational forces is lowering to the character of the teacher, and that this effect is more evident and more mischievous in the wide realm of Science than in the comparatively narrow kingdom of the ancient languages. In still another way is the character of each college reflected in that of its professors. A Catholic institution will employ only Catholic instructors; a Methodist or Episcopalian university will seek out Methodists or Episcopalians; and so on. Instead of selecting teachers on the basis of capacity, the basis of belief is commonly chosen. The exceptions to this rule are rare, and are to be looked for chiefly in some of the older Eastern establishments, such as Yale, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Union, and Columbia. This principle cannot fail to work mischief. A professor, and especially a professor of any science, should be elected because of his ability as a teacher, his knowledge, and his moral worth; not for his opinions upon some abstract theological dogma. A man may believe in sprinkling, and yet be competent to teach the chemistry of water even in a Baptist university.

One other consideration bearing upon the character of the teacher remains to be noticed, and this will bring us naturally to the question of method. A large majority of our American college professors are graduates under the old régime. Having been trained in the old education, by the old methods, they are, consequently, unable to adapt themselves perfectly to the new. In the modern system, modern methods must be used. The old bottles will not hold the new wine. Formerly, instruction was given by lectures and text-book recitations; the student received, but gave nothing; he was placed upon a sort of Procrustean bedstead, and shaped according to a common pattern. The classics and mathematics were established things; the learner must take them as he found them; he was neither permitted to add nor to modify. Routine governed every thing. Differences of capacity, of tastes, and of needs, among a class of students went for nothing; there was so much raw material for the teacher to work up, and he must do it by the clumsiest rule and measure.

The new education is very different. Here we have a variety of subjects to be studied, each one best suited to a particular class of minds. The scholar who proves to be dull in one branch may be brilliant in another. Every branch is continually undergoing the changes attendant upon progress and growth. In each science new questions are continually arising; the higher we go up the mountain the wider our horizon will be. Through these changes the minds of both student and teacher are kept in constant activity; a condition requiring very different treatment from that given in the colleges of thirty years ago.

But the greatest changes in the educational method must be looked for in another direction. No longer are text-books and lectures adequate means of instruction; a new element must be brought in. This is the element of laboratory instruction. The student must not only hear about scientific truths, he must be able to demonstrate them in person. There are tools to be handled as well as books. If botany is to be studied, it must be partly in the field and partly with the microscope; if zoology, then the scalpel must be used; if chemistry or physics, the student must learn to perform his own experiments. Without practice of this sort the instruction will be largely thrown away. It is to science what the exercise of translation is to the study of language, or what the solution of problems is to mathematics. The student must be trained to observe for himself; then to generalize upon his observations. In no other manner can the natural and physical sciences be taught. All other teaching in them is a mere pretense. How many American colleges can boast a "scientific course" in which this method is really employed?

But this necessity again brings a disadvantage to science in very many institutions. A poorly-endowed college cannot afford suitable laboratories and apparatus, any more than it can afford to employ the specialists who are alone competent to manage them. Accordingly, in four cases out of five, if not in a larger proportion, the sciences are improperly taught, by inferior or incompetent men, and therefore, as means of education, fall into disrepute. The classics have less rigorous needs, the proper teachers are more easily obtained, and thus they carry off a glory which is not rightfully theirs.

It is safe to say, in conclusion, that the new education will contrast unfavorably with the old only when it is imparted by incorrect methods or by improperly-trained teachers. The two systems, being so different, can hardly be compared upon the same ground. Let each do its own work, in its own way, with truly equal advantages, and, beyond a reasonable doubt, the new education will show the more vigor. Its greater utility, its wider range of discipline, and its more varied adaptability to dissimilar minds, unite to give it wonderful advantages.