Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/October 1908/The Specialist Blight on American Education

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1216069Popular Science Monthly Volume 73 October 1908 — The Specialist Blight on American Education1908James Phinney Munroe




SPECIALISM is the order of the day. From the professor of Greek down to the "professor" who shines one's shoes, that man is in demand who is disposed to concentrate all his energies upon the learning or the doing of one thing. Even our households have become infected, for therein is now to be found the very apotheosis of specialization. Even so late as the beginning of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, one maid would do substantially all the work of the house; whereas, to-day, the lady who condescends to burn one's beefsteak and to parboil one's potatoes will not enter the laundry or the dining-room, while the other maid (or maids) would join the family in general starvation before so far forgetting her "place" as to cook a single meal.

But what can be expected of the rank and file of the modern world when the leaders of American life, men in the professions and in those higher institutions which prepare for the professions, have seemingly gone mad upon the question of specialization? Like the gypsy-moth, the specialist was imported from Europe, either directly or through young men who went there for medical, linguistic or other higher studies; and many a green tree of scholarship, many a fair, broad field of general culture has been converted by this importation into a naked waste of narrow pedantry.

Of course, the time has long gone by when any man, no matter how brilliant, can, in Bacon's words, "take all learning for his province." But that does not justify the running to an opposite extreme, does not excuse the digging of a hole in the side of a small mound of erudition, getting into the farthest end of it, and maintaining that the tiny patch of sky framed by the mouth of the hole is all of the universe worth while. It is probably necessary that some man should spend his whole life grubbing at a certain obstinate Greek root; but why call him learned, when he is simply industrious? Why reward him with titles and emoluments, and give no scholastic encouragement to the far less erudite man who is nevertheless sending intellectual and moral roots over a wide area of human thought and life?

The curse of American scholarship and of American education is the Ph.D. For in exalting this decoration of the specialist, we are repeating the error of the Schoolmen, who confounded erudition, which dries up the soul, with real wisdom, which expands man into almost the very image of the All-Wise. Yet this hall-mark of erudition is to-day practically essential as a key to a faculty position; and it is so, not because there seems any valid educational reason for it, but largely because it is required in Germany and looks well in the prospectus. As a result, hundreds of young fellows are starving themselves and impoverishing their parents in order to secure this decoration. To get it they are pursuing so-called special investigations, by counting the number of adverbial clauses in Shakespeare, or by sending out questionnaires regarding the proportion of children who twiddle their thumbs. Having scraped together this fatuous information, they are spending much time and money in having it printed, in order that another doctorial dissertation may be added to the dustiest shelves of the college library. And these most precious years of a man's life, these years in which the youth ought to be learning how to broaden his mind and capacities, how to deal with men, how to handle his faculties, his tongue and himself—these the poor fellow is selling for this mess of pottage with which to feed the trustees of some lesser or greater university.

Having been admitted to the teaching staff of the university, the fledgling Ph.D., if he is to hold his place, must produce something, and that quickly. But since his days, as a subordinate teacher, are mainly taken up in such intellect-killing work as correcting thousands of themes or counting the apparatus in the laboratory, how is he to get that breadth, experience and wisdom which alone can make what he is expected to produce of any value to the world? Half-starved physically and wholly starved intellectually and socially, his only alternative is to specialize still more, digging, like a woodpecker, into some wormhole of erudition in the hope of extracting from it a maggot large enough to placate the learned university public accustomed thus to be fed by young doctors of philosophy. This digging is politely called research; but it is the sorriest counterfeit of the genuine thing, being but perfunctory and profitless grubbing. True research must be founded upon wide scholarship, upon profound knowledge of men, and upon extensive acquaintance with the world of letters and of things. To compel such callow men as these to specialize is to condemn them to intellectual suicide and, in so doing, to kill true scholarship.

In this hard-hearted world it would not very much matter that these poor aspirants should waste their intellectual powers in this way, did it affect only them and their long-suffering wives. But it is these men, as a rule, who become professors and heads of departments, it is they who determine the atmosphere and the trend of the colleges, it is this type of specialist who is setting the standards of learning and of scholarship for America. As a result we have our college tions sharply divided into grinds and drones; we have our professions filled with men who can do much within the little cell of their speciality, but who are wholly ineffectual in the great world of human interests; we have a rich and powerful civilization that is breeding pitifully few great leaders of human thought.

There are only two kinds of simon-pure specialists allowable: the genius who has such a volume of treasure to bestow that every minute of his life should be devoted to dispensing it; and the man who is given the power of concentrated digging and who is vouchsafed no other ability. The latter will grub out the absolutely essential minutiae without which learning can not advance. The former will call down from heaven those divine fires which are to keep civilization aflame. The number of these specialists, however, is, in comparison with the university population, infinitesimal; and the great mass of educated men need, not concentration, but expansion, an intellectual highway, not a groove. Of course, every man who hopes to amount to anything must specialize in some degree. He must have a vocation and must strive towards the highest achievement in that specialty. But he must have, in addition, avocations to broaden and harmonize and sweeten him; and even his vocation must be founded upon such a knowledge of men and of life that—at least before his fortieth year—he could take up any other vocation and succeed in that.

We specialize our grammar-school children in bank discount and leave them to life-long ignorance of what mathematics really means. We specialize our high-school youth in battles and sieges and permit them to remain ignorant of the great historic development, through industry and commerce, of mankind. We specialize our college youth in haphazard electives, each taught by a specialist and most of them unrelated to all the others, and turn that youth out of college a veritable ignoramus in regard to himself and to those other selves with whom his whole subsequent life will be concerned. We send out from our schools of applied science many a man competent to put up a bridge, but not competent to put up a good front among his equals, wise in the handling of formulæ, but ignorant in the handling of men, full of little knacks and methods of calculation, but empty of that tact and that intellectual skill which are absolutely essential to professional success.

The college teaching of literature, for example, is being dried and mummified by specialists until the study of human thought has become a sort of subterranean, philological treadmill, with never a glimpse into the wide, high, lasting things to which literature should lead. College philosophy is, as a rule, but a comparative anatomy of dead and gone systems, never, as it should be, an inspiration to wisdom, leading to the love of and search for truth. And how seldom is the teaching of science a real search into fundamental principles and an exposition of all-embracing truths! "Facts," said Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, "facts alone are wanted in life"; and facts—the more minute the better—are the goal and joy of the specialist. But man is not an examinable fact; he is a veritable kaleidoscope of elusive impulses, impressions, ideals, fictions; and it is with man that the whole life of the educated man is to be lived.

In our schools and colleges (and especially in our professional schools), we need to get back to the humanities—not to the humanities of Greece and Rome as expounded in Oxford and diluted in America; but to the humanities of the twentieth century. For the study of the real humanities implies a working-knowledge of humankind, of men. We have been so overwhelmed with facts and discoveries and theories and inventions and names and classifications, that we are forgetting that the main fact in life is you and I. We have been so busy stuffing our children and our students with these facts that these classifications, that we are forgetting that the main things which they, as men, must know are men. Therefore give a boy, give a student all the facts and all the practise that he can get in school and college, provided you do not fail to give him, at the same time, a broad outlook upon history, upon literature, upon human experience and human life. Whether he is to start in a store, in an office or as a "drummer"; whether he is to be a minister, a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor, his success in life depends enormously upon his ability to get on with and to handle men. He can not have that success unless he is broad, catholic, tolerant, tactful and philosophical; and he can not be those things unless he has been trained, not as a specialist, but as a man. By success is not meant, of course, mere financial and professional success—though in nine cases out of ten those are most likely to be achieved by the broadest man—but that highest success which comes through the widest social usefulness, through the consciousness that one has got out of life that which has made the pains of living really worth while.

It may be an exaggeration to say that American scholarship is in a deplorable condition; but every American must acknowledge that we do not produce our due proportion of great men. There are, of course, many excuses which may properly be offered; but one of the fundamental reasons is that we permit our promising youth to specialize too soon. Consequently their scholarship, to paraphrase Bacon, is that of boys, who can talk but who can not generate. To produce men with the loins from which will spring great contributions to human thought and action we must gradually make over our whole system of elementary education so that youth, instead of being put through vast machines for imparting facts, shall be put into small classes under intellectually strong women, and especially under intellectually and morally strong men, who shall really develop that boy's mind and character. We must then persuade the college authorities not to turn callow undergraduates into a jungle of courses taught by specialists, but to lay out for those boys really developing and strengthening coherent work which shall make them acquainted, as far as they can learn at that time of life, with men, society, philosophy and genuine wisdom. As to professional training, the physicians are getting most nearly at the heart of the problem by means of their clinics, their hospital and "externe" training, through which the embryo physician studies not simply medicine, but human nature and human life.

Supposing a youth to be really educated in school and college and to be genuinely trained in his professional school, he ought not to specialize until he shall have had a number of years of wide experience in his work, until, if possible, he shall have traveled, until he shall have taken a thorough, graduate course in the university of the world. Then he will have breadth and wisdom and true learning; then he will know real scholarship from false; then he will be humble, reverent and eager to know the truth; and only when a man arrives at this mental and spiritual condition is he fit to be a specialist. Even then, as has already been said, no man except a genius or a "grubber" is justified in being an out-and-out specialist. All others must have at least one avocation with which to temper and to put in proper perspective their chosen specialties.