AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles AmblesideOnline.org

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
Cultural Value of Science

by D. Avery, M.Sc.
Volume 31, no. 9, September 1920, pgs. 651-664


"If thou hast two loaves, sell one of them and buy thee some flowers of the daffodil."
"I love flowers and goodness, and I hate Botany and Theology."

The value of any particular subject in education will be determined by the aim of education itself. If the aim of education is the efficient tradesman, with trained ability to produce wealth, those subjects which offer the greatest utilitarian advantages will be selected, and that aspect which relates to the material service of man will be emphasised. If again the aim of education is to "broaden and strengthen our human sympathies, giving living interests in the world of men, of nature, and appreciation of the aesthetic joys of life," subjects will be chosen which offer the greatest cultural value, and their relation to the intellectual and spiritual will be important.

Man's nature is threefold—physical, intellectual, spiritual; his capacities and interests are threefold. His relations to the surrounding world should also be threefold, or his life will be dwarfed and cramped. His nature will be unsatisfied unless his threefold self finds sympathetic response in the physical, intellectual and spiritual world in which he lives.

By spiritual, I do not mean Man's inner life of personal relation and experience that we call religion. I mean by the spiritual that part of our life, and that corresponding part of the world of nature that affords us the keenest sense of enjoyment, and stimulates appreciation and enthusiasm in a way that cannot be explained on any physical or material ground; nor can any logical or intellectual reason be given for our experience. The spiritual dwells in the intangible harmonies of music, in the beauty of form and colour, in the exquisite adaptation of parts in a perfect whole. We recognise it as something super-added to the material and intellectual, that reaches us through them, and yet is not of them. It finds statement in our emotions, we call it the poetry, the philosophy, the aesthetic or cultural value of things, the spiritual.

The danger has been the over-emphasis of efficiency, the insistence on the value of material to the exclusion of cultural ideals. The necessity for increased wealth production which has arisen out of the wastage of war has intensified this emphasis, and in spite of the endeavours that have been made to introduce work of cultural character, it is still necessary to guard against the lives of our children being robbed of their wider and deeper possibilities.

This tendency to neglect cultural development and to give undue place to the utilitarian runs through education as we know it to-day.

In the schools the tendency is to regard those subjects as most important that are immediately related to future wage-earning capacity. Anything that has not some material connection of this kind is regarded as unimportant if it is not despised as frill and fad.

In the technical Schools the training is wholly and professedly vocational, there is no attempt to give any training of cultural value, and any attempt to do so directly or professedly would be strongly opposed by the students themselves.

Even in the Universities where culture and broad education should be enthroned, they have in many cases been sacrificed on the altars of apparent necessity. For example, in the ultra-specialised professional courses, science, engineering, medicine, the subjects are selected for their utility; their value is measure by the extent to which they will be useful afterwards in active business of life; there is no definite broad culture, no deliberate widening of the interests of life, no attempt to develop, in the true sense, a professional man, but rather a super-tradesman.

If education sets up as its standard of values, ability to minister to the material advantage of man, if from the elementary school to his work in the world, a boy is taught, directly or indirectly, that the value of everything he meets is measured by the use that can be made of it, the influence of his education, the outlook given by his science training, and the traditions of the industrial life he enters, will all conspire to convince him that the world in which he lives—society, industry, nature itself—is of value and of interest to him only as it can be exploited for his benefit. His world is the materialistic world of the utilitarian.

Education should introduce a boy to a wider world than that of the office or the factory, it should give him interest, human, scientific, aesthetic, in which his leisure will be fully occupied, and his life find freedom.

But education of this kind, a "cultural" education we have been told, is obtained by the study of the humanities, the so-called classical education, and cannot be provided by a scientific education which is essentially material and utilitarian. I do not propose to discuss the antithesis of classical and scientific education for the simple reason that there is or should be no such antithesis. I believe that each is complementary to the other, and they both must be included in any satisfactory plan of education. Both may lead in the end to the same goal, but knowledge of the story of the struggle of men that gave us the social and political advantages, and the appreciation of ideals we have to-day, comes more directly from the study of history and literature; just as knowledge of the progress of civilisation in trade, communication, industries, and of the world in which we live comes more directly from the study of science. But man's intellectual aspirations, and man's material activities, are each counterparts of the whole story; each, to be complete, must somehow include the other.

If a man finds himself in intelligent sympathy with the aspirations of his fellow men, at home in the world of nature, if he finds kindred fellowship in the intellectual questionings and investigations, in the aesthetic beauties and harmonies and mysteries that fill the world of men and things; that man has entered into his kingdom, whatever the pathway may have been that led him there, whether it led through the story of mankind and his relations to nature, or through the story of nature and its relations to mankind.

The important thing—one might say the only thing—that matters, is to be sure that the path does lead into the Kingdom. Does education do this for our children? After all, it is not so much the subjects themselves that make the difference—whether they be literary or scientific—what is of importance is the way in which the subject is treated. For every subject has its threefold value: material, intellectual, aesthetic. Not that it can be divided into clearly defined parts, because as in nature and as in man himself, the physical, intellectual, and spiritual, though distinct, blend into each other. The trouble in school life is that too much time is spent over the details of the material of many subjects, little time can be given to the intellectual, and usually none can be spared for its aesthetic interests and values.

Every subject is like a building. Its material is the bricks and mortar, intellectual work is involved in the construction of the building, how the pieces can be used to provide strength, distribute loads, take up stresses; and aesthetic value lies in the architectural beauty, the symmetry, composition, and harmony of the whole.

The recognition of this threefold content of every subject must begin in our schools. In literature, this recognition is definite already. Words and phrases are its bricks and mortar, the materials out of which language builds itself; grammar and syntax, analysis and parsing are our names for the way the materials are used and tested, the intellectual statement of the laws of construction or building; and the architectural beauty is found in its poetry, its literature, the exquisite statement of beautiful thought.

History also has its materials—events, wars, treaties, kings and men; its principles of construction are found in the sequences of cause and effect that trace the story from event to event in natural sequence. We have all learned this history, but how many of us have been taught to stand back from the detail of event and date, and realise something of the spirit that lives all through the slowly growing desires and aspirations of mankind—at first dimly felt, then taking shape, then realised more and more fully, down through the ages to to-day, developing, maturing, man's nature seeking for statement and satisfaction.

But with Science this threefold content has not been recognised. The very greatness of its material service to men has hidden its other values. Nature's materials have such wealth producing possibilities, that we spend all our time in studying the properties of matter, and the forces that enable us to use them. The bricks and mortar and the principles of construction occupy all our attention, we have no time to spare for architectural beauty in this busy world. Our world wants factories where men can produce the goods; of what use is architectural beauty in a factory? Will it increase the profits? Will it pay higher wages or bigger dividends? And we wonder why there is industrial unrest! Until we bring into the factory something of the beauty of life, there will always be industrial unrest. When we can recall the craftsman with his pride in work well done, when the workman can express himself in his work, when the factory hand becomes the artisan, and the artisan the artist—then industrial unrest will find its solution—the satisfaction of the man who is something more than a human machine, something more than a wage earner, something bigger than a mere wealth producer. When the factory and the workshop, the warehouse and the office, learn that man, man's life and man's world are threefold, body, mind, and spirit, when man's work provides scope for man's nature, then and then only will man find satisfaction in his work, then only will true contentment and happiness give peace to the struggle in which men are blindly seeking statement and satisfaction of their fuller selves. Civilisation counts the discoveries of science, milestones that measure its triumphal progress. Civilisation has gloried in making nature of value to man, now civilisation is faced with the necessity of making man of value to himself, and the struggle through which the civilised world is now passing bears witness to the desperate need. We cannot let our science be the tool of man's greed. It must point the way through its utility to intellectual interests and spiritual experiences that will show him, through the factory smoke, the sunshine of the world and the blue skies of heaven.

Scientific training should have three objectives clearly in view, and should shape its methods definitely for their realisation.

(1) It should lead to a knowledge of the properties of substances and of the forces in the world around us: what they are, and how they can be used for the benefit of man. This must be a knowledge of the things and forces, not about them. It must be obtained by personal experience.

(2) It should lead to scientific methods of thinking: accurate observation, careful comparison of results, and the formulation of general principles. It should make the imagination quick to see possibilities, to suggest methods, to devise experiments to test their truth.

(3) It should introduce to the living world of men and nature, a world of absorbing interests that will enlist our sympathy or arouse our enthusiasm, a world of mystery that fascinates with promise of discovery and fuller knowledge, a world of wonder and beauty that we cannot explain, but in which we walk reverently with uncovered head.

I would not suggest taking away anything of utilitarian value. Science is of immense value to mankind because of its service to him. It brings him health, comfort, luxury, wealth. The improvement of existing industries and the establishment of new industries are essential to our national prosperity. Nature crowns her gifts to us by assisting us to make the fullest use of those gifts, if only we know how to claim her help.

I do not wish to decrease the utilitarian value of teaching in our technical schools. I hope to see it extended and improved that the wealth-producing capacity of the students may be increased for themselves, for our industries, and for our country. But I would add to its utilitarian value something that would give it human interest, that would, through the science, link the spirit of man with the spirit of the universe. I am in the fullest sympathy with the education that "prepares a boy for earning a living." But as Dr. Welton asks: "Why?" "In order that he may live." "But what is the object of his living?" "In order to earn a living." Thus the utilitarian and material object is that of the purposeless treadmill of earning a living in order to go on earning a living. If science does no more for us than this we have robbed it of its real value, and sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.

But a Scientific training should also be a thorough drilling in accurate methods of thinking, and incredible as it may seem, this is often wholly absent from the teaching of science subjects to-day. And the reason is, that there is no time for it! I have no hesitation in challenging science teachers to answer two questions,
(1) What is the "Scientific method?"
(2) How have you, during this year, made your classes work according to the "scientific method?" Not explained it to them, but made them think accurately and critically from individual observations to the ultimate conclusion.

Scientific training is not merely to explain how, but to drill in actual use until thought automatically follows the path of carefully observing the facts, rigorously comparing the results of different observations with each other, the imagination reaching out and suggesting fresh possibilities, experiments to test their truth, and, finally, collecting the fact into a generalization, the general statement which we then call a "law" of nature. It is one thing to understand how a motor engine works, it is another to drive a car over a bad road or through thick traffic, controlling, stopping, starting, almost automatically. Until your students follow the scientific pathway through the obstacles and difficulties that beset the search after truth, and follow this pathway naturally, you have failed to make science much more to them than a shop filled with catalogued merchandise. True, it takes time, but there is nothing in the world worth having that doesn't take time. If the demands of a syllabus prevent sufficient time being given for this training, the syllabus must be altered. And the syllabus will be altered without any hesitation if it is shown that training in scientific methods of thought is incompatible with its present form. The desire of every one is, not that the syllabus should be "got through," but that "science teaching" should be truly science teaching. The syllabus is, after all, only an indication of the milestones along the road to mark the progress of the traveller, and to prevent him losing his way. If at the end of his journey he has counted only the milestones and knows nothing of the road itself, why it climbed the hills or followed the river, if he knows nothing of the country or the people, his journey has been wasted time.

Take the simple things of everyday life and set them as problems for your class and let them solve them, drill them in observing carefully, and still more carefully, show them how often superficial observation is incorrect, let them devise experiments to test their suggested explanations, have at least some of the experiments carried out, not by yourself, but by the students, and follow to a conclusion as completely as possible. Don't take stock examples of which they already know the answer—take the obvious things of every-day life, you will find them wonderfully complex as soon as you begin to go beneath the surface of accepted things. For younger children, nature study offers numberless opportunities, but see that observing and thinking are not loose, but strict and orderly; see that conclusions are reasonably supported by sufficient observations. For older children, take more difficult things from every-day experiences. Why does sugar dissolve more rapidly in water when it is stirred? Why does water splash upwards when a stone falls into it? What mechanism starts the rings of waves that follow each other out in widening circles? Or investigate popular beliefs that are not well founded. Why does bright sunshine put out a fire? Or suggest problems for them to solve during a holiday. Is every seventh wave always the biggest? Why are some waves bigger than others? Why do they occur at fairly regular periods? Is the period the same at different parts of the coast? Or why does wet sand on the shore become wetter when patted with the foot? The everyday world teems with problems of this kind, problems that can in many cases be investigated by the children themselves, and form excellent opportunities for drill in scientific thinking.

In addition, however, to its utilitarian value, in addition to its training in accurate thinking, every science subject has its romance, its poetry, its philosophy, and it is for the recognition of this that I wish to plead most strongly. We give to the humanities, to classics, literature, history, recognition of their intellectual and cultural possibilities, we value their training in accurate thinking, and the wider life they make possible. Why should we ignore the inspiration of science, neglect the mental training it offers, and reduce science to the equivalent of a collection of cookery book recipes? The world is too poor, and our lives too denuded, to allow the robbery to continue. Let us give to our children the greatness of their inheritance. Make every science subject the portal to a fuller and wider world.

But, it is objected, this is too idealistic, it is quite impractical. How do you suggest that beauty or poetry or mystery can be taught to a class, the suggestion is ridiculous. My answer is that I do not suggest that these things should be taught—they cannot be taught. They are too delicate, too intangible, too subtle to be exhibited or explained to a class-room of high spirited youths. They are attitudes of mind, and can no more be taught than any other attitude of mind. How would you propose to teach appreciation of one of our gems of literature? Certainly not by analysis and parsing—that is the surest way to destroy the poetry of poetry. Not by pointing out the beauty in any set lesson for the purpose. It can only be done by suggestion, by the personal attitude of the teacher, by the "atmosphere," by the mysterious message that somehow flashes from mind to mind, from perception to perception. All of which simply means that if the teacher appreciates the beauty or mystery and feels it, the class will instantly respond. If the teacher is a true teacher, in touch with the class, noting more is wanted than the suggestion of the thought; a simple remark after explanation of some general principle will throw a new light on the whole and make the bald truth live with new meaning.

Sometimes more than this is possible. For example, we accept at every turn the superficial as the complete explanation of some phenomenon, when, if we probe beneath the surface, we are face to face with the unknown. Everywhere in science, our ignorance of fundamental truth is hidden and often ignored. Dig deep, and at every point you will find mystery. Let the children know of the mystery, let them know of our ignorance, tell them how little we really know of anything below the surface of things, and they will learn a reverence for the unknown that baffles our enquiries, that cannot be explained. For example, we talk of the force of gravitation, and demonstrate its "laws," we explain how it acts, and the inference must be that we know all about it. But search beneath the name that hides our ignorance. What is gravitation? What is the nature of the force? Why does the force exist? How does it reach out from our world to the sun and stars? What is this intangible something that binds the solar system, the whole universe, in a harmony of motion? There is only one answer: we don't know. We know nothing of the force itself, why it is, what it is. Gravitation is a mystery. Even if we accept Einstein's theory, we only replace one mystery by another. The same is true of all the forces. What is electricity, why is one substance a conductor and another not? Why is iron magnetic? Or what is chemical action? Why do some atoms combine with each other while others do not? How are molecules held together? How do these forces change, one into the other? We know nothing of the fundamental nature of matter or of forces. Explanation or theories may take us a step further into the unknown but they leave the mystery still there. Our knowledge of nature is only superficial at best. It behoves us to walk humbly amidst these things whose very intangibleness is their glory and our despair.

To-day the danger is that the intangible things of life, things without utilitarian value, should be ignored or depreciated. Teach the boy that the forces of nature are intangible things that we cannot explain, but nevertheless forces that govern the world we live in, and control the behaviour of everything therein; and the boy will learn to reverence the intangible and recognise the greater value of things that cannot be handled or explained. And such intangible things as ideals of honour and justice that have no utilitarian value, yet govern the behaviour of the world's best men, these too will have for him a deeper meaning and a more real existence.

If in Science, we look for this threefold content, we find numberless examples of its material, intellectual and spiritual values. In Botany we study in detail the structure of a plant, we classify it accordingly and give it a name it never knew. We learn something of the mechanical changes of its growth, we try to read the chemistry of its processes, and if we can, we find some use for its leaves, or flowers, or fruit; its roots or stem, its fibres or its resins or its scent. And if we succeed in finding for it an economic use, we rejoice in having given value to a worthless weed. All of this is admirable, but why stop there? Is it nothing to us that its flowers are of exquisite beauty, that its foliage a bewildering repetition of fundamental form expressed in a thousand variations? Is there no romance in the majesty of the forest, the vast cathedrals of nature, in the giant trees that through long centuries have watched the world of men change and change again while they stood, adding inch to inch, layer to layer? What is the mystery of life that governs the growth of the simplest plant and baffles all our questionings, the mysterious something that remoulds our chemistry and physics in harmony with its higher operation? Think of the never-ending interest that a study of the so-called "habits" of plants offers. Whence came they? Are they very different from the "instincts" of animals? Transfer to the animal kingdom the provision for the protection of off-spring, the growth of a seed—leaf up, root down, the twining of climbing plants, their movements, sleeping, waking, response to touch; transfer the "habits" to animals and they would be accounted "instincts" of a high order. The world to which Botany holds the key is full of fascinating problems, mysteries, wonders, beauties. Shall we not claim this world for our children and give them the inheritance that should be theirs?

Chemistry has become a wearisome task of remembering the properties of substances, how they are prepared, how identified. Its facts and formulae, its molecular weights, equivalents weights, atomic weights, its laws of combining proportions, laws of volumes, tax the memory and bewilder the understanding. Even its experimental character still leaves much of it mathematical and abstract. Its text book usually presents a devitalised science—only a genius can write a scientific book that throbs with life and is still scientific. Read Fabre's descriptions of insect life, those fascinating stories from which one has to tear one's self away, and compare the description of the same insect in a text book of biology—the one is a living story of living creatures, the other a lifeless account of dead, dissected things. Wherein lies the difference? Should our text books be the guide books of a museum or road maps to nature?

For the average student, Chemistry is saved from utter wearisomeness only by its novelty, its smells, and its alluring wealth-producing possibilities. If to its material value we add the intellectual interest of its problems, solved by the students themselves, calling for all their initiative, imagination, and ingenuity, their critical observation and ordered reasoning, chemistry would have new life given to it. Its facts would become living ideas, its information would be transformed into the knowledge that means power.

What should chemistry give the student—a knowledge of the fundamental principles of science, or a mass of superficial information? The former provides a training which gives experience in carrying out investigations and acquaintance with the possibilities that chemistry offers for the solution of problems; the latter provides only for the training of analysts who will follow prescribed methods, or investigators working under immediate and constant supervision; the former enables a man to devise his own methods because of his working knowledge of the subject, the latter gives a man sufficient practice and information to follow directions intelligently, but not to initiate or pursue an investigation to his own account.

There is at the present moment no scarcity of men who can carry out routine work, follow a method of analysis, or carry out of a process under instructions; there is a desperate scarcity of men who can undertake research or make investigations or devise methods or originate processes.

We want pioneers in industry, not camp followers; men who can leave the obsolete tracks that are proving unsuitable or useless for our needs, and find a new pathway for our industries. And this requires, not the ability to recognise the old fingerposts, but a knowledge of the country itself. We are training the routine analyst, we are not training the researcher, we are providing numbers of path followers, we are providing for no pathfinders, and the development of our industries, the improvement of our methods demand pathfinders.

But I would ask for the science of chemistry, too, something more than knowledge of its materials, its methods and its principles. Chemistry should lead us into the most fascinating world of romance and mystery. Think of the wonderful combinations and interchanges of atoms and molecules that go to produce the simplest chemical actions, the romance of radioactivity with its transformation of elements—the dream of all chemists, the discovery of to-day; or of the periodic law that steps surefooted out into the darkness of the unknown, of the fascinating suggestion of similarity that links the particles of gas in space to the dissolved substance in solution. Throughout the whole of chemistry glimpses of light flash from the darkness of the unknown—glimpses too vague to follow with certainty, but clear enough to tell of truths yet undiscovered, unrevealed. The mystery of chemistry is tantalising with its partial revelations, fascinating with its promise.

Why should all the romance, the wonder, the beauty that brings chemistry into close touch with the spirit of man be hidden from us? Here are some of Nature's innermost secrets, here we tread on the verge of the unknown at every step, but our eyes are holden and we see not.

Or turn to the science of Physics and again we enter a world of wonder and beauty; the mechanical theory of light is transfigured in the rainbow, the wave lengths of sound in the soul-inspiring harmonies of music. The spinning top would transport us to the spaces of the solar system—the electric discharge to the aurora of the polar heavens.

We cannot understand or explain the beauty of Nature, its uselessness baffles us, and what we cannot find a use for we are apt to ignore. But we shall never properly understand the world in which we live while we persist in regarding it as existing for the benefit of man. Consciously or unconsciously, man has been made the centre of the world of science—the service of a man is regarded as the object of its existence. Those things that can be of material service to him are useful, the rest are useless. According to the degree of their wealth-producing capacity, they are useful or valuable or precious. The greatest contempt we can express for anything is to say that it is "good for neither man nor beast." We must remember that this, though essentially human, is only one point of view. Utility must not dominate our souls as well as our bodies, or we shall never understand the meaning or message of beauty, of the substances, the plants, the animals that are "useless." Nature is a harmonious whole, whose parts are all interwoven and intertwined, building up one vast comprehensive unity of which man himself is a harmonious part.

This presentation of science demands two things—literature and teachers. Of these I think literature is the more important. Put into the hands of a student a book which brings him into touch with the thoughts of men—into touch with the living inspiring ideas of science, and he is in little need of a guide. But science has not yet found its literature, the world is waiting for the man with the brain of a scientist, the soul of a poet, and the gift of language. The simple utterly human stories of Fabre's searches after truth in the insect world—his disappointments, failures and successes—are excellent, but their matter makes them suitable only for grown-up children. We have most interesting descriptions of the industrial application of chemistry, but they miss the charm and inspiration of its poetry. Science has its dictionaries but not its literature, and a hungry world is calling for the prophet that will declare it.

With the literature, we need the teacher. And as always, it is essentially a matter of personality. Without enthusiasm, training is of little value. Teachers, like doctors, must be thoroughly trained. They must have all the help that the experience of others can give them. But above all else, they must have seen the vision, they must themselves know the kingdom to which science opens before they can lead others there.

Our teachers should be the best men, the choicest spirits amongst us. But teaching as a profession has not yet been given the place or appreciation that it should and must have. Great improvements have been made, but much still remains to be done before education itself and the profession of education is properly understood or appreciated. We have passed the day when the old gibe found a listener, "Them as can, does; them as can't, teaches." We are insisting that teachers shall be trained in the methods—the technique—of teaching. We can insist on the mechanical, how are we going to insure also the spirit of teaching?

The man that can be a great teacher can also be many other things in the world, and the teaching profession must be sufficiently attractive to enable such men to give their best to it. Not that the pecuniary attraction should be greater; the real teacher is an artist whose work is itself his compulsion and his reward. But this is a world of prose as well as poetry. As I have insisted on the recognition of poetry as well as utility in the world's work, in our industries, and in our teaching; so I also insist on the recognition of utility as well as poetry in the service of the teacher. As I have already said, the teaching profession must be sufficiently attractive not to hold the best men, but to enable the best men to hold to it.

Let us make the fullest use we can of the gifts of Nature for the benefit of man, give our students all the advantages that a knowledge of its utilitarian value can bring; let us equip them intellectually for their work in the industrial world as fully as we are able; but tell them, too, something of the unknown regions that can be explored only by patience, devotion and self-denial, tell them something of the noble self-sacrifice of the men who spared not themselves that they might give new truths to mankind, show them something of the new world in which they may live.

The Goddess of Science holds out many gifts to us. Greedily we have seized the gift of wealth, power and utility, and have ignored her other and better gifts. We have stripped the goddess of her royal robes and thrust upon her the garb of a slave to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water for mankind. Let us give her back again her robes of royalty and welcome her back to her kingdom—the kingdom that is rightly hers, and therefore, the kingdom that may be ours.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio