Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/September 1912/Old Lamps for New
|OLD LAMPS FOR NEW|
By JOHN MILLS
NEW YORK CITY
THE lament for the good old days, which rises so frequently from academic circles, has recently in the case of Amherst College resulted in definite action and policy. Following the recommendations of a group of alumni of the eighties, Amherst has reacted against the commercial and technical tendency of modern education, and hereafter is to be wholly and frankly classical in its aims and its curriculum. Whether the hands of this particular college clock can be turned backward without injury to the works, or false guidance to the youths whose period of training it apportions, is a question for the future. That something is amiss in our present scheme of higher education, and that the unassisted processes of evolution will lead too tardily and expensively to a solution is, however, the feeling of many.
The form of the lament and the burden of its criticism depend upon the early training and business or professional experience of the critic, and upon his business or social relations with present-day college graduates. One critic attributes his own personal success to the study of Latin and Greek, another to the course in "moral and physical philosophy" pursued under his college president, and a third finds his intimations of immortality in the mathematical concept of an infinite series. But one and all, in final analysis, agree that the college prepares for no special vocation, and the technical school for a too special vocation.
The failure of the technical school is not due to the over-specialization of the doctor of philosophy or German-trained research student. The average doctor of philosophy can at least think in the terms of his own narrow division of the world's knowledge, whether he is gifted with scientific imagination or not. The average technical school graduate is a Tomlinson of the laboratories and text-books, a product of modern motion study, who can perform certain laboratory manœuvers or calculations with a minimum expenditure of mental energy. These various operations are listed in the school catalogue and referred to in the diploma. The better the name of the institution, the greater surety does it offer to the captain of industry who buys its wares that they will meet the specifications.
In part, this unfortunate condition has resulted from the sightedness of that large majority of employers who for years have required from the engineers they employ not broad training and scientific capacities, but a facility in the particular operative requirements of their industries. In part, this condition has arisen from the competition of technical schools for students, and the resulting tacit commercial agreement between institution and student that each graduate shall be found his first employment. Thus an institution chooses the heads of its departments, as far as its finances allow, not for teaching ability, but for influential acquaintanceship with men of affairs. To place the average of its product it must train for immediate usefulness. There results a number of attendant and contributory evils, such as shop methods of instruction by an inbred teaching staff, the detailed following year after year of the same outlines for courses, the performance of laboratory work as an end instead of as a means of encouraging analysis and vivifying principles, an over-emphasis of draughting and machine shop work, the construction by classes of dynamos and steam engines as advertising evidence of technical proficiency, the steady cramming of formulæ and numerical values of physical constants, the narrowing commercialized outlook upon all problems of life, the lack of esprit de corps, and the more or less entire absence of cultural studies and influences. Such an arraignment can not hold against all our technical schools, but upon the whole the exceptions are not individual institutions, but their individual departments.
Whatever may be the faults of curriculum and educational policy to which the technical school student is subjected, he learns to work hard, consistently and with scientific honesty. Upon this gospel of hard work depend almost entirely his chances of future salvation and success. In the commercial world, however, many pockets and ruts await the man of narrow training and hard-working proclivities. From these pockets, to be found in any large manufacturing or operating industry, too frequently the technical school graduate fails to rise. In many cases native disabilities are to blame, but more frequently the narrowness of an early training is the fundamental cause. This narrowness of preparation may be analyzed generally into three defects.
First, and most seriously to be charged to the account of the technical schools, is the lack of scientific breadth and depth which has been previously mentioned. Upon too thin a layer of pure science and mathematics does the engineering school build its superstructure of commercial machines and technical processes. Too soon do empirical equations and shop rules take the place of mathematical analysis and a priori reasoning, Too soon does the laboratory work become an exercise in the operation of commercial machines under conditions which require of the student only the throwing of switches and the reading of gauges and, later, the filling out of a printed blank form with the result of routine substitutions in formulæ. The obvious objection that there is not time in a technical course for a broader preparation and the existing superstructure is admitted, but it is to be met categorically by omitting the superstructure which can be easily supplied under commercial conditions by our industrial companies.
In the senior year, some time is spent on minor questions of the cost of engineering work. The larger question of costs, the whole field of modern economics, is in general passed by or alluded to in a brief introductory courses. In a day of economic questions, so many of which have direct connection with engineering, this failure to train the future engineer to assist in their solution is the second defect in the technical school. Many problems, such as those of public utility rates, of the conservation of natural resources, of the protection of workmen from industrial accidents, and of sanitation and transportation in cities, must ultimately be solved in conjunction with engineers. Men trained in the fundamentals of economics, possessing a knowledge of the economic history of our country, who are in touch with the practical engineering or commercial aspects, may be powerful forces for the public good. This second defect may be remedied by the student after graduation, but in the manner of human nature the chances are small that it will be.
The first defect limits the chances of success of the individual, the second more especially limits his value to society, and the third will be seen to determine to a large extent his social relations. The hours of the technical student are closely filled with laboratory, shop and draughting exercises, with classes and periods of study. His opportunity for acquiring social conventions and amenities are necessarily very limited, and, unlike the arts-college man of more leisure, the end of his course finds him but slightly changed by attrition with his comrades. While such training is not essential to the student who is favored with a socially alert family, upon the unfavored and favored alike the technical school imposes its third defect, by surrounding them with an atmosphere essentially devoid of all cultural interests of music, art, literature, or drama. The average technical-school graduate may be justly accused of being deficient in sympathetic points of contact with his fellow man. He is prepared for a too special vocation.
In regarding, upon the other hand, the arts colleges it is well, momentarily, to eliminate from the consideration those students to whom such an institution is but an intermediate step to medical, law, divinity, or technical schools, and to consider the normal college man whose days of study end with his graduation. There must also be eliminated all those whose college course is essentially a professional course, namely, those preparing to teach, whether or not their early intentions are toward graduate study. There remains the future statesmen, artists, executives or business men, to whom the college offers four years of broad cultural training, new points of view, and contact through literature with the best of the world's thought. Such a student is prepared by these four years for no special vocation, and perhaps not so well for any vocation as if the training had been for some special end.
The strong-minded and mature student appears the exception to this statement, but in general will be found to be pursuing a self-imposed curriculum with a definite vocation in mind. The prospective ministers, lawyers, doctors and teachers were excluded from consideration because their college course is not necessarily a broadly cultural one, but a selected vocational training. For the same reason must the mature student be excluded. A college instructor can separate his class into three groups, those who set the pace, those who follow, and those who fall. Of the first two groups some few are "grinds," some few "out for honors," and the rest with rare exceptions interested vocationally in the subject-matter. In every class prospective teachers help to set the pace; in English courses, writers; in biological courses, doctors; in chemistry, manufacturers. In other words, for the average students there is no broad cultural college course, but rather many individual vocational courses.
The essential differences, however, between the vocational college course and the technical-school course are both of degree and of kind. The difference in degree is due largely to the existence on the one side of a fixed required curriculum and on the other of a free or group elective system. In a fixed engineering curriculum are many closely related courses, those of one school year being immediately prerequisite to those of the next year. In the better and larger technical schools a failure in a prerequisite course, besides calling for a repetition of the course, prevents the progress of a student with his class and delays graduation one year. In arts colleges, under an elective system, the severe penalty of a year's delay in graduation need only occur in case the failure takes place in the last term of the senior year. Given students working under these two systems, beneath equally eager and requiring instructors, the pace of the average in the technical school will exceed that of the average in the colleges. The result of this difference reacts upon the atmosphere of the institutions and leads to cumulative effects. Thus in recent years athletics, as well as many other school diversions, have steadily decreased in prominence in technical schools and increased in colleges. This decrease in engineering schools has resulted in more time and energy for study and admitted of a still harder pace, while in arts colleges the increase has diverted the students' energies and slowed the class room pace.
A further difference in degree resulting from the close correlation of courses mentioned above may best be shown by illustration. Mathematics enters more or less into every engineering curriculum. Consider as an example that of the electrical engineer. Differential equations are frequently met in the study of electricity, and hence a mathematical course in this subject is a prerequisite. The sequence of subjects immediately prerequisite to this study, given in descending order, is integral calculus, differential calculus, analytical geometry, college algebra, trigonometry, solid geometry, plane geometry, elementary algebra and arithmetic. These are actual prerequisite courses and a study of differential equations requires a knowledge and ready facility in all of them. As commonly taught, and except for plane and solid geometry, there are few daily lesson assignments the subject matter of which does not enter directly into the later study of differential equations. The penalty for slip-shod work in the early courses is sure and cumulative. Consider, upon the other hand, the study 'in college of the books of Herodotus, the plays of Sophocles, or the orations of Demosthenes. Certain prerequisites are usually assigned by the Greek department, but the underlying idea is generally to prescribe sufficient elementary Greek to assure a homogeneous class with a fair facility in the language. Slipshod work in earlier courses does not bear so immediate and evident a penalty as in the case of differential equations. The entire omission of some prerequisite as Homer or certain dialogues of Plato would not seriously inconvenience a student. In fact, no particular day's lesson in most of the earlier courses may be said to be absolutely prerequisite.
Many illustrations similar to the one just cited are to be found in engineering curricula. A further illustration in arts may well be given. Thus consider history. A general introductory course in medieval and modern history is usually a prerequisite to further study. But later courses dealing with special periods as that of the French Revolution, do not demand so imperatively exact and complete preparation in the introductory courses.
The technical school, with its groups of continuous and interdependent courses, offers more severe mental discipline for the average student than does the arts college, where the prerequisites are largely formal requirements for the sake of a logical continuity that lays small burden on the student's mental powers. This is true even under a group elective system. Thus imagine a group requirement which called for four courses in the same scientific department. Biology offers general, introductory, and but slightly related courses in physiology, anatomy, botany and zoology. The disciplinary value of a general introductory course in any subject, which is not followed by a punishing and detailed study to which it is immediately prerequisite, is slightly more than that of a popular series of illustrated lectures with collateral reading.
The aphorism of pedagogy, "No impression without expression," may be extended to read "There is no enduring impression of an unused truth." A truth of fact or method may be expressed in recitation and examination, but its impression frequently will not endure to graduation unless it has been reenforced by use in later and more advanced analysis.
The difference in kind between the vocational-college course and the technical course is esthetically in favor of the college. What is "shop" to the writer or artist is culture to the general, but what is shop to the engineer is shop to every one. Those subjects of a college curriculum which, unlike the sciences, are not shop, are to be classed popularly as either pedantic or cultural. The economic group is an illustration of the first division, the language and literature group of the other. The technical-school graduate, as has been noted, is sadly deficient in both divisions. The arts-college man pursuing his individual vocational course may be practically as deficient as the graduates of the better technical institutions. In general, however, he is not.
Some possible difficulties in the way of the Amherst scheme have been indicated by this analysis. To those students, whose individual vocational courses do not include the sciences, the Amherst curriculum will be essentially that of other colleges of the same rank. The attempt to supply a general broad culture and training for those students who have no definite objective, but are potentially future statesmen and administrators, seems to promise nothing more than do Harvard, Williams or Yale. Except for the students in vocational courses, however, the pacemakers will be gone. It is hard, as has been noted, to say of any day's class assignment of history, philosophy or language, that it is likely to be of service in later life. For the engineering, law or medical student, a statement of the probable usefulness of each particular lesson can be made with more certitude and definiteness; for other vocational students with less, but for the student of general culture, with a minimum. The question then is whether, in the distraction of interests, without a single and definite goal, lacking the disciplinary sciences, when of no single day's lesson it can be said that it is immediately prerequisite to the student's life work, the class-room standards will not suffer.
To place the emphasis upon the "humanities" is retrogressive if the term is defined in its limited, derived and Scottish meaning of "polite and classical literature." Let the term be defined by a less derived meaning of "liberal knowledge befitting man" and it may be postulated that college and technical school alike should train their students in the humanities. This liberal knowledge should fit a young man for service to society and for sympathetic and congenial relationships with his fellow man. It must include not only the history and economics and the cultural arts and literature in which the present technical course is deficient, but also the science in which too often the arts college graduate is untrained. The position of science in present-day life needs no advocate.
It would seem that the difference between colleges and technical schools would then disappear. In part, this is true and is desirable. A difference of degree would still exist, as is evident from the following suggested changes in their respective curricula.
For the technical school there is suggested a standard five-year course embodying all the features of the present four-year standard, except some of the instruction in purely commercial operations. The resulting year and a fraction gained for further study would be expended in part upon pure science and mathematics, but largely upon history, economics and literature. The objections to such a curriculum are mostly in the nature of practical difficulties in its inception. The competition for students between technical schools is sufficient to forbid any except the largest and financially most secure from announcing to prospective students five years to accomplish a degree for which the purely technical requirements represent but four years' work. A large number of our technical-school students are so short-sighted that they resent and tend to avoid anything in the curriculum which does not seem to bear directly upon the degree and the job to which it admits them. Any instructor in English in a technical school can support this statement. The difficulties are then, on the one hand, shortsighted students, and on the other, short-sighted employers.
A technical school, however, should be distinctly above the grade of a business college or a school of stenography in its relations to the ultimate public welfare. It should exert a formative influence upon the future of its professions and not merely mirror existing commercial conditions. It should by precept and requirement lead the short-sighted members of its student body to a desire for a broader preparation, and, relying upon that increasing number of far-sighted employers to care for its graduates, it should confidently anticipate the market for its product.
For colleges, on the other hand, the following detailed suggestions may be made. First, that a general introductory course of a year's duration be required of the student in each of the subjects of physics, chemistry and biology. In biology the emphasis should be upon living forms and not on classification and nomenclature. Second, the student shall then elect one of these subjects for continuation. The character of these three subsequent courses departs radically from present college conventions. Each course should be of a year's duration and should treat briefly of the present-day commercial and technical applications of the principles studied in the introductory course. The aim should be to impart those scientific facts and methods of probable later value to the student either in business relations with scientists and engineers, in questions of public welfare, in questions of investment, or in the pursuit of personal health and pleasure. Thus there would be studied such practical matters as the generation, distribution, metering and sale of gas and electricity; hydro-electric and irrigation developments; water and sewerage systems; heating and ventilation; illumination; sanitation and hygiene; the chemistry and physiology of foods; electric and steam traction; steam and gasoline engines for power or pleasure vehicles.
Such courses are quite possible if based upon introductory courses of sophomoric grade. The ordinary high-school courses do not supply a sufficiently advanced basis. The introductory courses should be especially outlined in connection with their continuations. The advanced courses would best be presented under the direction of three instructors broadly trained in their respective subjects of electrical engineering, chemical engineering and sanitary engineering, in cooperation with a doctor of medicine, an economic geologist, and the pure science instructors of biology, physics and chemistry. The work of all the courses should be of the same standard as that for similar subject matter in the best technical schools. The subjects should be presented by illustrated lectures, class recitations from text-book assignments, exercises in problems, excursions to illustratory industries or public improvements, and written reports. The success of such courses depends much upon the teaching staff. The need of some such courses, however, is steadily increasing.
In the main the solution of the present educational problem may be said to demand more liberal arts in technical schools, and equally, more practical science in colleges.