Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/September 1910/Parasitic Culture

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IT is a fact well recognized in biology that a functionless organ is not tolerated by nature. In the evolution of life, whenever any organic structure has fallen into disuse, it has forthwith come under the law of atrophy and elimination. Until this law of atrophy and elimination is satisfied, the useless organ is a drain upon the vitality of the organism as a whole. It gives no equivalent for the support it derives from the life of which it is a part. In other words, it is parasitic. As a parasitic organ, moreover, it not only uses up energy that should go to the other organs that have a vital function to perform, but it also tends to become diseased and thus to impair the health of the entire organism.

There are numerous illustrations in the human body of the disuse and atrophy of organs, as well as of the incomplete elimination and disease of such organs. Thus there are many muscular structures, such as those of the pinna, epicranius and the platysma myoides, that are at present functionless and far on the way to complete atrophy. These useless organs are comparatively harmless, though, in strict truth, they must be nourished at the expense of the rest of the organic life. There are other functionless organs, however, that are not so harmless. Such is the vermiform appendix, in man a useless and retrogressive structure, which is apt to become the seat of serious disease. Such also are various functionless ducts, as, for example, the parovarium, which frequently become the seats of tumors, more or less malignant and destructive of life.

All these useless and, in a sense, parasitic organs of the human body, which modern research in the fields of physical anthropology, anatomy and embryology has brought to light and explained, point to laws of development that have a profound significance for every department of effort in which the control and improvement of man's life is an object. These laws are already beginning to be recognized by scientific educators. It is seen that the education of the mind and of the body consists essentially in doing what nature has been doing throughout the biological ages—that is to say, producing favorable variations through adjusting individuals to a progressive environment, perpetuating and perfecting these variations as more efficient organs of life, and getting rid of outgrown and useless organs so that no energy may be diverted from the channels of vital usefulness. Nature is sternly and rigidly utilitarian, and yet she is splendidly idealistic. Her aim is always an enlarged, and ever enlarging, life, and to this end she can tolerate nothing in her economies that is functionless and therefore an obstacle to progress.

Here, then, is the clue that modern education is beginning to accept for its guidance. As a result, the ideal of general culture in education is being subjected to standards of criticism that are as new as is our better understanding of the nature of life. Men have believed for centuries that certain studies, or forms of discipline, have the peculiar virtue of generating in the mind, or the body, a power, or wealth of resources, that may subsequently be available for any purpose to which mental or physical energy is applied. From the days of the renaissance to the present time, universities and colleges have contended for this ideal of general culture. Mathematics and the classical languages have been regarded as, in a special sense, indispensable to such culture. In the organization of secondary schools, these institutions have been subordinated to university and college entrance requirements. And so throughout our educational system, above the elementary schools, and frequently in the elementary schools themselves, the culture ideal has largely determined the subject-matter and methods of instruction. Thus it is that in our very midst, every boy and girl who looks towards higher education in our standard institutions of learning is compelled to have certain courses in mathematics and the classical languages. Greek has at last been made an optional entrance requirement, but Latin and mathematics still hold their distinctive places. No difference what the ulterior life-purpose of the adolescent boy or girl may be, no difference what their tastes or aptitudes may be, Latin and mathematics they must have; and Latin and mathematics they must look forward to pursuing even after they enter college. All for the sake of the general culture these subjects are supposed to give!

In the light of the biological law of wasted energy and disease, in connection with organs that are parasitic on the life, we are now prepared to estimate this ideal of general culture from a new point of view. And first of all, as being more obviously amenable to this biological law, let us consider the ideal of physical culture. Now it has been contended for generations, in accordance with the general culture ideal, that certain courses of discipline will give a fund of physical energy that may be available for all the demands of subsequent life. Thus physical culture has been separated from the natural, every-day functions of life, and made a matter of general courses of training in the gymnasium. Even since the play-idea of physical culture has come to the front, and the gymnasium has had to share its prerogatives with the athletic field, much of the justification of the undue absorption of large classes of students in football, baseball and the like, and of the over-strenuous combats waged among them, has been found in the supposed advantage of athletics in storing up a fund of physical energy for subsequent use. The line of reasoning has been the same as in connection with all phases of general culture; namely, that the discipline given, the power acquired, may be applied to all possible physical functions. In academic circles, this view of athletics, whether in the gymnasium or on the athletic field, has not even yet been very generally questioned. While the popular mind, as reflected in the newspapers, universally consoles itself for the bruises and broken bones of the strenuous athletes, with the thought that there is fine discipline in all this, and that the results in subsequent life will amply compensate for present injuries.

But here the accumulated observations and inductions of science have begun to suggest troublesome questions about this more or less artificial muscular development of boys and men. It has been observed by physicians that very frequently athletic types of manhood have weak hearts, weak lungs and weak vital organs generally. Often their health and efficiency in later life are poor; and, in not a few cases, they break down prematurely. These observations have set both medical men and teachers of physical culture to thinking, and we are now being told that there is danger of over-developing the muscular system; that overdeveloped muscles impose a severe drain upon the rest of the organism; and that all muscular development, unless it is utilized, becomes a tax upon bodily energy, and may give rise to disease. Only very recently a naval officer, who was an athlete while in the naval academy, is reported as having failed to meet the required tests of physical efficiency; and his physician ascribes his failure to his earlier muscular development in excess of the needs of his later life. That is to say, his vitality was reduced through parasitic muscular culture.

All this suggests that we can not store up a fund of physical energy through specially devised forms of physical training. Indeed, the term "general culture" as applied to the organic life is probably a misnomer. The culture we get from gymnastic training and from the athletic field is really special in character, and is applicable mainly, or solely, to the types of physical activity that constitute the training. Hence the energy derived from such culture does not become available for the organism as a whole, but is limited to the special organs that have been trained; and unless these organs continue to perform the functions for which they were trained, they become useless and a detriment to the life. Functionless physical structures derived through the artificial exercises of any form of physical culture thus fall under the general biological law of atrophy, with all its attendant consequences of waste and disease. The only really economical form of physical culture, biologically speaking, is the culture derived through performing activities associated with the natural, that is to say, fundamental and longe-stablished, functions of life. These are, in general, the spontaneous play-activities of childhood, and the productive work-activities of manhood and womanhood, each performed under normal conditions of stimulus and environment. Neither artificial gymnastics nor the feats of strength and skill performed under the stimulus of the prize-ring or athletic field come under these heads.

How such considerations have begun to affect the thought of critical students of physical culture may be illustrated by the conclusions of Dr. Jules Payot, set forth in his book on "The Education of the Will":

The qualities of vital resistance are in no way dependent upon muscular strength. A man may be an athlete in a circus, or able to do the heaviest porter work, and yet have very poor health, while another man who lives in his study may have an iron constitution with mediocre muscular power. Not only have we no reason to aspire to athletic strength, but rather we ought to avoid it; because it can only be developed by violent exercise, and such exercises not only interfere with the regularity of the respiration, and cause very distinct congestion in the veins of the neck and brow, but they are undoubtedly weakening and exhausting. . . . We have come to the conclusion, therefore, that it is not England with her violent system of exercise which we ought to imitate in this connection, but rather Sweden who has completely given up such ruinous physical efforts for young people in her schools. There the object is to make young people strong and healthy, and they have perceived, that excessive physical exercises are more sure to lead to a breakdown than excessive study.

Turning now to intellectual culture, we have to consider whether the law of waste and disease, operative throughout the biological world, applies to the unused organs of the mind that have been developed through stunts in mathematics and the classical languages, as there is accumulating evidence for believing it does to physical organs trained in the gymnasium and on the athletic field. Here, it must be acknowledged, our evidence may seem less tangible and conclusive. It is harder, even for minds familiar with the facts of neurology and psychology, to image the special processes of nervous stimuli, the building up of cortical neurones, and the establishing of association-centers involved in mathematical and linguistic study, than it is to image the enlarged biceps of the disciple of punching-bag or gridiron education. For minds unfamiliar with such facts, it is absolutely impossible. Hence the whole process of intellectual culture, both to the average student and to the average onlooker, be he teacher or parent, has no concreteness whatever. It is a mere matter of subjective impression and a priori opinion. But the difficulty of our problem need not deter us. Our evidence, however intangible and remote from average experience, is sure to become clearer the longer it is considered in the light of the general scientific facts of life that are gradually becoming so extensively popularized.

To present our problem definitely at the outset, I submit the following proposition: The intellectual culture derived through standardized branches of education, as mathematics and Latin, for example, instead of having a general mental economy for the innumerable young men and women who study them, in reality becomes parasitic in the nervous and mental life, and thus is a cause of wasted energy and, possibly, of disease. This proposition has its proper qualification, of course, in all cases where such intellectual culture is so related to the functions of life that it can be utilized. There are two questions that confront us in such a proposition: (1) Is culture, unused for the specific function that called it into being, of no economy in performing other functions? And (2) is such culture, therefore, parasitic and wasteful of human energy? As has already been pointed out in connection with physical culture, it has long been assumed, and is still generally assumed, that culture acquired through any given discipline becomes a general fund of energy or skill, transferable to other organs and functions. And yet there has never been any really critical evidence in support of such an assumption. The belief in a hierarchy of culturevalues, which has standardized the various branches of our academic curricula, like many other beliefs relating to the world of mind and the world of matter, belongs to the category of the naïve, the uncritical and the prejudiced. In most of the learned decisions upon the constitution of this hierarchy, the judge, the advocates, and the jury have merely reflected the nature of their own training, and more especially the interests of their own calling. But we are now in a position to submit this question to the test of exact experiments. This has been done repeatedly within the last few years by experimental psychologists. Among such psychologists may be mentioned James, Gilbert, Fracker, Thorndike, Woodworth, Judd, Bair, Volkmann and Scripture. The net result of these men's studies may be stated in the words of Professor Thorndike, of Columbia University:

A change in one function alters any other only in so far as the two functions have as factors identical elements. The change in the second function is in amount that due to the change in the elements common to it and the first. . . . Improvement in any single mental function need not improve the ability in functions commonly called by the same name. It may injure it. Improvement in any single mental function rarely brings about equal improvement in any other function, no matter how similar, for the working of every mental function-group is conditioned by the nature of the data in each particular case.[1]

This is direct experimental evidence, and it is fairly conclusive against at least much of the indiscriminate championship of the general culture values of special subjects, like mathematics and the classical languages. Neurology, moreover, supplies additional indirect evidence no less conclusive to those familiar with the histology of the brain. The study of the development of cortical neurones and association fibers makes it probable that every mental process modifies these nervous elements; so that education, whatever else it may be, is a matter of developing specific nervous organs through which the mind may work. Thus the study of mathematics means, on the neurological side, the building up of cortical neurones, with their association fibers, which shall constitute a mathematical nervous mechanism. So, likewise, the study of Latin or Greek means the building up of nervous structures specifically adapted for those languages. The clinics of nervous and mental pathology tend to show that this probable process of specialization of brain-structures, parallel with special mental activities, actually takes place. Thus when the centers of the brain having to do with mathematical relations are diseased, the subject may lose the power of perceiving mathematical symbols, or of thinking in them. So, too, when the centers of the brain having to do with language relations are diseased, the subject may lose the power of perceiving words, or of thinking in them. That is to say, the elements of mathematical and linguistic experience and culture may be lost, and meanwhile the other elements of experience and culture remain unimpaired. This would seem to prove that human experience is mediated by specialized nervous organs, and that the culture derived therefrom is special, and not general, in character. In fact, it but confirms the conclusions that all scientific students of nervous organs and of mind must reach, in any comprehensive interpretation of the facts.

Here then, is a body of facts and inferences supplied by experimental psychology, the histology of the brain, and nervous and mental pathology, which point to the conclusion that so-called "general culture" is not general but specific, that it affects organs and functions appropriate to the particular study pursued, and that to be. of any adequate advantage to the life such organs and functions must continue the activity through which they were developed. There is here, evidently, a vast territory of unknown and debatable ground, but the headlands and mountain peaks stand out more and more clearly for the explorer who approaches the problems of education and life in a scientific spirit and with adequate command of scientific facts. It is clear, for example, that those educators who will subject an adolescent girl to five or six years of severe training in higher mathematics, should be peremptorily challenged as to why they do it. They should be asked to show, in terms more specific and modern than most of the vague opinions one commonly hears about "culture," just how the fund of power that is supposed to be generated by mathematical study, is, in fact, generated; and how it becomes available throughout the girl's subsequent life. So, too, these same educators should be asked to give reason why they compel an adolescent boy to spend five or more years upon the study of Latin before they will accredit him as being educated. What is there in this comparatively immense expenditure of time and energy upon Latin that will develop organs and functions continuously available for the boy's mental efficiency and usefulness in the world? How does a nervous mechanism, with its infinitely complex system of neurones and connecting fibers, fashioned through and for the study of the Latin language, become adapted for all other mental processes? In short, it is time to read a new and compelling significance into the old query of instinctive common sense as to what is the value of the so-called culture that is doled out to our children in the secondary schools and colleges.

Having thus answered the first question involved in our proposition, it remains to consider the further question of what becomes of useless organs of culture. What is the effect upon the girl's life of having to support an elaborate nervous mechanism for dealing with mathematical symbols and concepts which she never has occasion to use? What is the effect upon the boy's life of having to support a nervous mechanism for declining Latin nouns and adjectives, conjugating Latin verbs, and construing Latin sentences, which he never has occasion to use? May not these unused nervous organs become parasitic upon the nervous vitality, just as the unused muscles of the athlete become parasitic upon the general organic vitality? It may seem to some little less than fantastic to suggest such a result. And yet, if we believe that life is a biological unit, and that the laws controlling it are identical in nature and operation, there is no escaping this conclusion. Moreover, there are many peculiarities in the nervous and psychic constitutions of a considerable number of educated men and women that await a plausible theory to account for them. The suspicion is harbored in many minds that academic communities are apt to become over-cultured. They are apt to lose that balance between perceptual and conceptual experience which is the supreme test of healthy-mindedness. At the very best, they suffer from an hypertrophy of the critical faculties, which reveals itself in philosophical and linguistic hair-splitting. At the worst, it may amount to a nervous tension and general intellectual straining after precision in scholarship and propriety in conduct that creates an atmosphere blighting to spontaneity of work and life in the students. This is frequently illustrated in schools and colleges for girls, where an excess of women teachers, with hypertrophied intellects and atrophied human interests, make education a process of mental arrest and disease instead of growth.

Outside of academic communities, there are to be found everywhere a cultured flotsam and jetsam. Europe has long had its proletariat of culture, and America is rapidly developing one. In the more intense nervous life of America, moreover, there are appearing numerous types of nervous instability among educated men and women. This is illustrated not only in the frequent neurasthenia of the cultured classes. It is also, and, perhaps, more characteristically, shown in the religious, social and other vagaries that often bring to light strange perversions of human energy. The movement towards the emancipation of women during the past few decades, with all its numerous and positive merits, abounds, nevertheless, with examples of mental and emotional distempers that find their psychological explanation in the strangulated intellectual energies of its votaries. Much of the current unrest among intellectual women is probably due to specially cultivated mental organs that find no adequate function to perform. All these forms of neuropsychical strain and instability are, I submit, at least partially explicable in terms of the useless and parasitic culture, which has become more dangerous to modern society in proportion as it has been extended to the masses of men and women. In earlier generations, when fewer men and women were subjected to the artificial culture of the schools, the general detriment to society was not so obvious. But now that thousands and tens of thousands of boys and girls, and young men and young women, are having their nervous and mental lives fashioned for activities they never have a chance to perform, it may happen that higher education, instead of being a means of racial advancement, will become a means of racial deterioration.

To summarize:

1. It is a law of the biological world that unused organs become parasitic upon the life, draining off the energy of the individual and tending to become diseased.

2. It has been found that physical culture which leads to the hypertrophy of special muscles, entails a drain upon the general vitality. As in life in general, so in physical education, organs that can perform no adequate function are wasteful of human energy.

3. Experimental psychology is showing that the culture of particular intellectual organs and functions can not be transferred to other organs and functions, except where there are elements in common. Histology and pathology of the nervous system confirm the conclusions of psychology in this respect.

4. Intellectual culture not being transferable must become parasitic and a cause of mental disorganization when it fails of application and usefulness in the life of the individual. Illustrations are to be found in the over-refinements of culture in academic communities, in the nervous instability frequently met with among educated men and women, and in the religious and social vagaries and perversions that crop out in the older and more highly cultivated centers of population.

5. The artificial culture of the secondary schools and colleges in our democratic society, in proportion as it is diffused throughout larger sections of our population, is likely to develop a cultured proletariat, ill-balanced and inefficient as individuals, and a source of danger in our civilization.

  1. "Educational Psychology," Chapter VIII.