Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/October 1875/Mental Discipline in Education

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I THINK it is safe to assume, on the one hand, that all, or nearly all, mental discipline is of value; and, on the other, that all, or nearly all, knowledge is of value. It will also be conceded that a life spent in disciplining the mind, while the mind so disciplined is never employed in the direction of utility, is a life wasted. It seems equally true that utility, when so narrowed as to relate only to the outward trappings of the human being, is not real utility.

By mental discipline we mean nothing more than habit of mental action. The disciplined mind does not differ in kind from the undisciplined any more than the strength of a man differs in kind from the strength of a child. It is evident that the best mental discipline must be that which prepares the mind to grasp and direct the facts, realities, and influences, on which human well-being depends.

It is thought that there is study which gives mental power or discipline, while it results in little useful knowledge. By a method of study the mind is to be developed into an intellectual Samson, but a blind Samson; and it is hoped and believed that a mind so trained will do something better than to involve itself and others in a common ruin. That is, it is assumed that a habit of thought which does not lead to useful knowledge in school, is the habit of thought which will lead to useful knowledge in common affairs of life.

The study of a dead language is supposed to give this mental discipline. Such study has almost nothing to do with present realities. It trains the mind to look, not so much at the thought as at the manner of expressing the thought. It deals with the tools of thought rather than the thought itself. For years the mind is habituated to work upon those things which must be discarded as soon as school-life is ended; and this is called education. It is not to be denied that such discipline is better than no discipline. It is conceded that such discipline does aid the student in the use of language. But of what value is a discipline which, while it gives power or facility in the use of language, gives little power to investigate those things for which language was made?

Language is the implement of thought, and it would seem that no study of this implement can give the best training, for studying the thought itself, or the reality that lies back of the thought. It is probable that the highest efforts of the mind, those efforts in which new truths have flashed out, then vanished, then returned again, until the investigator has finally made them his own, have been made without the aid of language. Language is a medium between man and man, not necessarily between man and Nature. Thoughts which come to us through language must come to us at second-hand. Language, being the medium of thought, cannot precede thought.

Not that the study of language, when pursued in relation to the thought, is of little value; but the folly is in the prolonged study of a language which, with rare exceptions, can never be a highway of knowledge nor a medium of thought. What is the value of words? Words mean the same to those persons only who have had the same experiences. Words do not convey ideas; they suggest them. When a word is spoken, the hearer is at first conscious of sound. If he has been accustomed to associate the spoken word with some idea, the mind instantly represents the idea. If the experience of both speaker and hearer has been the same, the word has the same meaning to each. In the mind of the speaker the idea suggests the word; in the mind of the hearer, the word suggests the idea. No word ever explains any sensation, pleasant or painful, to one who has never felt the sensation. By aid of the imagination we may, to an extent, give meaning to language that does not directly appeal to experience; but the imagination can do nothing more than recombine materials that have been furnished by experience, so that directly or indirectly words derive their meaning from experience; and words have a common meaning because they suggest ideas of a common experience.

It seems to follow that the real value of language must depend upon the amount of knowledge attained. To make the study of language the principal means to an education appears as irrational as to gather stores of the implements of husbandry in the midst of a desert waste—as irrational as to expect to make a skilled mechanic by setting him to study the tools of his trade. Much more irrational does this appear when the language is one in which the mind never does its work, and which contains at best but the literature, philosophy, and fables of a past age.

I do not mean to disparage language as a means of influencing action and recording thought; but why spend years in the study of languages which we never use to influence action or record thought, under the plea that this study disciplines the mind for useful work? Can useless work produce useful habits? It must not be forgotten, however, that the power of language is greatest where there is least knowledge. It is not difficult to show that the influence of oratory declines as intelligence increases. Men seldom engage in oratory where positive knowledge leaves no play for the imagination. Indeed, science is constantly devising plans to avoid the verbiage of ordinary statement; hence the mathematics. The same general truth appears in the proverb, "A word to the wise." The very word "demagogue" is a warning that we should beware of the specious arts of the orator. Language presupposes thought; a community of language presupposes a community of thought and experience. While correct thinking may exist without correct speaking, it needs but the observation of every day to show that correct and truthful speaking never can exist without correct thinking.

It is pertinent to inquire here by what discipline society has progressed toward the most excellent things. Undoubtedly by the discipline of experience, or it might be called the discipline of environments. Men have not marked out the course of human progress, nor have they, to any considerable extent, been able to forecast it. Two thousand years ago, who would have believed that the northern barbarians would surpass Greece and Rome?

We cannot go back to the ultimate cause, and tell why one class of the human family should progress and another retrograde or remain stationary. We may point out some of the conditions of progress; but the germ of that progress we do not know. We may believe that the best organized and most intelligent communities, by resulting strength, overcome the more poorly organized and less intelligent. We still ask. How came these communities better organized? Why did not this organization occur a thousand years earlier or a thousand years later? We reply, the conditions were not favorable. What do we mean when we say the conditions were not favorable? We mean that there is a certain correspondence or relation between human activities and outlying natural forces. These correspondences and relations are the problems of progress. As yet, we can do little toward their solution.

This much we observe, that in all progress discipline has not been an end but an incident of study. The discipline was attained by man in studying his environments and in altering his relation to those environments. Further, men attained a comparatively high state of mental discipline before schools existed at all.

Again, schools and education, technically so called, are not the antecedent but the consequent of progress. The men who have been most successful in penetrating the secrets of Nature and solving the problems of society have been in advance of any school. The education of these men has not been for mental discipline; they have studied to find the truth, and an incident of that study has been discipline. Whence came that discipline which rendered schools possible? Not from disciplinary studies, certainly. It came in the study of surrounding conditions, with the view to bring those conditions into conformity with what was deemed personal or social well-being. Mental discipline had then the same relation to human activity that it has now. Until schools were created, all study was in the direction of real or apparent utility; all study outside of the schools is at present for knowledge or utility.

That is, the law of education has been and is now, that mental discipline is the incident and not the end of study. Hence the conclusion, study what is most useful, and the resulting discipline will be most valuable.

We see the same truth in another aspect when we observe that the highest mental and physical power is attained in efforts to discover, measure, and control the forces around us. A language is never so easily or so well learned as when our personal comfort depends upon its use. The hand and eye of the hunter are never so thoroughly disciplined as when he knows that at any moment his life may depend on the accuracy of his aim. The mathematics have been invented to measure the relations of things in common life, or to investigate the less apparent relations.

I cannot forbear here to point out, further, that the truth in regard to mental discipline appears to be a universal truth or law of human activity, perhaps of all activity. Discipline is an incidental result of right exercise. In accordance with this truth are developed and disciplined the religious, intellectual, physical, social—indeed, every faculty and capacity within us. This law recognized, and science and philosophy will force us to accept the best truths of religion—those truths which take man out of himself, make him forgetful of himself, and teach him that he does most for himself who does most for others. Upon such a general truth appears to rest the proposition that we should study—for utility for utility in its widest and best sense—and not for discipline. In the light of this truth we recognize the dead languages—all languages—the mathematics, as but the means, the machinery of an education. Resting on experience, they direct us to new experience. These are the glass through which we may see something of ourselves and the universe. Why waste half our lives in studying the glass under pretense of disciplining our eyes, when our eyes would be better disciplined by studying Nature beyond? Better still to break through all barriers, and study things themselves, using the records of other men's experience as we may need them.

Again, mental discipline is mental habit. How do we form habits that are desirable? Not by seeking some course of activity that shall create the habit, but by trying to do something that is desirable. Useful habits are incidental results of doing useful work. The mechanic does not use extra care that he may form habits of accuracy, but that he may produce better work. The astronomer does not make his observations with the view of forming habits, but to learn the phenomena of the heavens; and if he be called upon to observe some phenomenon that occurs but once in a lifetime, he will hardly think of seeking that special discipline which the observation may require by studying the conjugation of the Greek verb.

I think we meet this fact everywhere out of the schools, that discipline is not sought as an end. The idea of discipline for its own sake was asceticism in religion. Men sought moral excellence by retiring from the world, and contemplating the things within them. The same idea of discipline led men to look for knowledge within themselves, instead of seeking it by observing things around them. But the system failed in religion and morals, as it failed in discovering truth and educating the intellect. We see why it must fail; it wastes the energies of the individual in acting upon his own powers. What is progress in its last analysis? Is it not change of relation? We are superior to our savage ancestors, because our relations to society and the forces of Nature differ from theirs. What is knowledge but a mental accumulation of true relations? What is reason but the power to compare relations, and what is wisdom but the ability to perceive true relations, and direct our actions in accordance with them? Discipline, habit, and character, appear to be activity crystallized in seeking adaptation to our environments. What is the truth that stands out in relief? Clearly, that character, habit, and discipline, are the reflex upon ourselves of activity, moral, mental, or physical. Whence it seems to follow that useless or vicious activity will appear as useless or vicious character and discipline. On the other hand, we may be sure that the study of those things which it is most important we should know, and the activities which it is most important we should pursue, will give the best discipline, the most valuable habits, and the most excellent character.

The conclusion appears to be that mental discipline is an incident of right education, never an end.

The real educational question is, not of the value of discipline, but of the relative values of the different kinds of knowledge. When we learn what knowledge is most valuable, the habit or discipline incidentally acquired in seeking that knowledge will, no doubt, be the discipline which will aid most in seeking and applying other valuable knowledge throughout the whole course of life.