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Elements of Natural Science in Our Public
BY PROF. HORATIO O. LADD,
No part of our educational system receives so many complaints as the Common School. Great burdens are laid upon it. Like an over-taxed servant, it does not fulfill expectations. We find some elements of its reform and greater efficiency in answering the question, What place should the elements of natural science have in our public education?
Public education includes neither that of the university nor the kindergarten. The district school and the graded system, including the high school, are properly maintained by the State. We must meet, at public expense, the wants of the average pupil in ability and social position. We must teach what will make the best citizens out of the masses of youth under our care. The question divides itself into two. Can the natural sciences be profitably taught the average scholar under fourteen years? How should they be taught the advanced pupil in the high school?
We admit the plea of the radical teacher, that whatever is, in the practice of the past in regard to these
studies, is likely to be wrong. Yet we would be wary of the zealot of science. He is often but a theorist, holding firmly his own, while he attacks other systems of truth. We believe that the sober experience of ages is a factor in the educational problem which must always determine the value of the unknown quantity sought.
Our first inquiry leads us to distinguish between the natural and artificial studies to which the child is introduced. The child's mind is an instrument for acquiring rather than using knowledge. He voluntarily begins the study of nature, "the whole world of force and movement in time and space." Here he goes to school long before his parent sends him. His five senses take him singly, hand in hand, by twos, or all together, like loving sprites of the forest or field, and lead him, going out and coming in. His school walls are Heaven's canopy; its precincts are the material world. He finds text-books in the field. In the light or shadow of nature's curious workmanship, he knocks at many doors. He listens long for a friendly step. He touches with child-hand many forces, and tries to grasp them. His studies are natural, for they are in the order of his mental development. At this school he is happy. Study is play; play is study. The objective part of mathematics unfolds to him in the shapes and numbers of things. He begins physics with the weight of his toy, or in watching the ripple and dash of a brook, or the whirl of a water-wheel. He opens his botany when he plucks the flower, distinguishing color and form. He notices the material of rocks, and gathers varied stones Įike a zealous mineralogist. He curiously observes the fire. He tests by all his senses the etherial sunbeam, and even questions the stars of their rising and setting.
But the State interrupts this self-directed, yet divineArtificial studies must disHis knowledge must be
ly planned course of study. turb his delightful dreams. made practical. He is therefore taught language before he has acquired materials to express by it ideas. He must accustom himself to artificial types of language and the sounds it contains, just as the Chinese scholar "backs his book" in rote recitation of incomprehensible symbols. He is pulled up into practical arithmetic, and made to solve problems which he will not use for twenty years. At eight he is expected to be a skilled. penman in a chirography invented by man or demon; at ten, a master of coast lines, and the productions of countries never heard of out of school; at twelve, an artificial orator, and an author on the most varied subjects. He is finally presented to the State as a candidate for citizenship, with a decided aversion to abstract studies, and his most valuable powers of observation hopelessly dwarfed.
But right teaching requires that the child's powers of knowing accurately should be developed, and hence should begin and largely continue with his senses. Words and numbers, over which so much time is spent in reading, spelling and arithmetical problems, are valuable to his mental development, as they are associated with things really known. Hence the elements of science furnish the proper material for such study, Knowledge is not power to the child, if it is abstract, He cannot use knowledge which lies beyond the sphere of his daily observation and experience. What the State needs is intelligent citizens, and intelligent youth from whom they can be made. These come of the power of knowing and judging accurately. We claim. for the Natural Sciences this effect on the child. They
deal with facts more sensible than those of arithmetic. The parts of a leaf or a flower are definite, easily comprchended, and classified with certainty. This is true of the nature and species of the common animals, shells and insects, the constituents of a stone, the qualities of an acid or gas, the history of a rock traced in forms of life, the nature and effect even of geological changes.
No wide range of knowledge is required to understand definitely and surely scientific facts simply presented to the youthful mind. It easily comprehends them as a whole. We claim, therefore, that to whatever degree the reasoning faculties should be developed to furnish the child-mind with power, this is best secured by its reasoning on facts and things rather than on ideas of the imagination, or history, or morals, to which children's studies are usually confined. The last knowledge gained by man is the correct understanding of human nature, or the causes of human actions. The sciences teach the relations of cause and effect in their clearest manifestations. With enlarged comprehension the child may learn the secondary character of causes. He will trace their relation to effects with the certainty of conviction to his mind. Thence will be imparted the element of positiveness to the pupil's acquirements and habits of character. He learns to act unwaveringly on what he knows, and to know positively that upon which he acts. Correcting by his own observations the conclusions to which he is led by the inductive methods of science, he gains independence in thought with that confidence in his own powers of judging, which are the safeguards in his character and of his rights as a freeman under our republican institutions.
Thus early introduced to the elements of science, the foundations of his character as a citizen are more
broadly laid. The child becomes more excursive in thought, more inventive through familiarity with the mechanisms of nature, and more appreciative of the wealth and beauty of his country's resources. Taught to observe, he never ceases to be affected by the changing lines and hues in nature which his daily vision embraces, and the elements of a true esthetic culture find place in him which will add to his social worth and power as a citizen. A child confined as most of our pupils are to the reading, writing, and arithmetic method of discipline, might as well be brought up in a desert as in the world of beauty and power which surrounds him. His eyes are gradually closed to a thousand alluring truths; his ears are dulled to the myriad voices of nature.
It is a just inference from these considerations, and an acknowledged fact, that, to a majority of pupils in the public schools, the acquiring of knowledge is uninteresting and positively irksome. The old idea that knowledge is for discipline is faithfully maintained in our education. Yet knowledge is one of the natural desires of the mind. The true science of education will make it a pleasure. This will require for the senses larger opportunity than they now enjoy. Moreover, we owe to the State and its free institutions, to raise the standard of intelligence and culture among the people, among mechanics, farmers, merchants, and laborers in the mill or the street. A discernment of the true nature and qualities of things in their daily use will secure this far better than drills in spelling, arithmetic, and grammar. The mass of our citizens are not intelligent enough to understand one-half the instruction contained in a good weekly newspaper.
We make, therefore, this demand for the sciencesfirst, that they have an equal place with the usual