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THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF BIOLOGICAL STUDIES - SCHOOL
The courses offered by the various institutions of the country show a wide diversity, so far as biological work is concerned. Whether this is owing to a lack of unanimity regarding the educational value of the different branches of biology, or is simply a matter of convenience or necessity, does not always seem evident. Certain it is, however, that present ideas of eaucation differ in many important points from those of even a few decades ago. The distinction between education and information has never been more thoroughly appreciated than at present, as is made evident by the fact that the time-honored “culture” course which turned out men possessed of a faint knowledge of many subjects and a thorough understanding of none, which gave the observational powers no training and only practiced the reasoning powers upon imaginary premises, has almost ceased to exist. In its place we find a strong tendency to reduce the number of required subjects in the arts course and increase the extent and thoroughness of each. Although many of our colleges still retain traces of the old methods, to the extent of subordinating scientific work and doing the little that is done by methods decidedly open to question, those teachers whose opinions are most worthy of confidence agree that the value of work in any branch of natural science depends principally upon the training which the student receives in observation and in the methods of inductive rather than deductive reasoning. The training furnished by mathematics in the methods of deduction 'seems to be abundantly sufficient, and to render it desirable that inductive methods should be pushed to the front in other sciences as far as possible. Professor Huxley has thus expressed himself: “The great peculiarity of scientific training, that in virtue of which it can not be replaced by any other discipline whatsoever, is this bringing of the mind directly into contact with fact, and practicing the intellect in the completest form of induction.” The subsequent experience of leading teachers has been such as to confirm them in the belief not only that the above is strictly true, but further, that there is no one branch of science from which all of the benefits of scien. tific study may be more readily realized than biology. No other branch has a greater value in training a student in independent methods of thought, and in teaching him caution in drawing conclusions; nothing has a more decided tendency to make one truthful, confident, and selfreliant.
If we endeavor to decide how far this is appreciated and carried out in our own institutions, we find many in which it seems not to be recognized at all. If we take a number of the most progressive as a standard, it appears that a considerable proportion of our colleges are sadly behind the age, both as regards the natural order of studies and the methods by which they are presented. In many instances the order of study pursued makes it appear evident that there is no central idea underlying the course, and in more than one letter received by the writer has the statement been made that the biological course is arranged without any regard to logical order or any reference to its relation to other sciences. The present period is largely a formative one. The agitation now
. going on in regard to science teaching has begun at the top and worked its way downward. Something has resulted from the adjustment of college work to university work, the establishment of more definite ideas in regard to the sphere of each and the amount of preparation necessary for the work of the university. Most of the improvement made by the smaller colleges has been due to the example of the larger ones, but, as will be evident farther on, the smaller colleges are as yet by no means fully aroused. Many facts go to show that this is rarely due to a lack of appreciation of the value of biological training, but simply because the colleges are not able to put into practice what they wish. They stand convinced, but are not able to act upon their convictions.
We must likewise look to the colleges to influence the biological teaching in the schools. While this is a matter that frequently presents great difficulties in the execution, it is still true that in the large majority of cases, the schools will teach little more of any science than the colleges require for entrance. So long as the colleges are in their present condition it is hardly fair to expect that they will exert any great influence over the schools. And yet there is one fact which has an important bearing here. In a large number of States having several colleges, most of them may be meagerly equipped, but usually there is one (commonly the State university) that is strong. This one, drawing its students from all sections of its own State at least, can, through its entrance requirements, largely influence, if not, indeed, absolutely control the scientific work done by the schools.
ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS IN SCIENCE.
Referring to tables 2 and 3, it will be seen that in a representative number of colleges about half require some knowledge of science for admission to the classical course, while a slightly larger number require science for admission to scientific courses,
The exact numbers as well as the subject required may be seen in the accompanying table:
From the great predominance of biological subjects one would naturally infer that there existed on the part of the colleges a strong belief in the value of biology as a means of preventing the formation of habits of book cramming and reciting by rote, and leading the way most easily to higher work in science. Teachers generally will recognize as desirable that the first instruction in science that a student receives should be in a branch in which he can pass from the known to the unknown by easy stages, not being overwhelmed by a mass of new matter and yet not having the way made too smooth. He should not be exposed to difficulties of too serious a nature for him to extricate himself from with a little judicious guidance, and yet he should be given tasks of sufficient magnitude to call forth all his powers in their solution. The subject should also be one in which observational methods have a prominent place, both because the observational powers first develop, and because they must be trained before one can experiment with precision.
Judged by these standards, the prominent place given to physiology is difficult to explain. Taught by the more purely inductive methods, a knowledge of the functions of the body should be based upon observations and experiments made by the student himself. He should be guided rather than led to his conclusions, and should be himself encouraged to test their correctness and trust his own results rather than any authority.
It may, of course, be questioned how free a use of inductive methods is conducive to the best results. Certainly a little done well is worth vastly more than a great deal done poorly, and yet, in any science, such as physiology, in which a certain amount of ground must be gone over to secure completeness of treatment, it is frequently difficult to get the time which this sort of teaching requires. The student must therefore obtain many of his facts from his teacher or on the authority of a textbook. One of the great objections to physiology as an introductory subject is that it is almost entirely experimental, very little being learned from observation alone. The experiments, too, are of a character unsuited to beginners. They usually require more or less expensive apparatus, and frequently involve work upon living animals, hence can not be intrusted to students, but must be demonstrated. The technical difficulties to be overcome are often very considerable, and this being evident to the student, he soon acquires the idea that the teacher is
possessed of some mysterious power, the phenomena assume a far-away character, the student is not brought into contact with nature first hand, and thereby loses in great measure the benefit which the study should yield. An additional reason against the too early introduction of physiology is the uncertain character of the experiments. Unaccountable failures may occur in any simple experiment in any branch of science, as every teacher well knows; but in physiology the danger is especially great of obtaining contradictory and misleading results, and thus failing to impress a class with the accuracy of scientific work.
A branch suitable to teach to children should be one that will stimuulate inquiry, but it should be possible for the child to make many of his investigations himself. At least it is desirable that most of the questions that children are likely to ask be capable of being answered satisfactorily to them. In this much will of course depend on the skill and tact of the teacher. That perfect honesty must be exercised in dealing with children goes without saying, but it is not desirable for many reasons to have too many questions come up which the teacher must admit we can not explain. Much of this will be found to depend on the pupil's ignorance of chemistry and physics, which fact simply serves to make more evident the general principle that both of these subjects should precede physiology in the school no less than in the college. If these courses are conducted in such a manner as to furnish a real scientific discipline, many of the objections above urged against the study of physiology in schools are greatly weakened. When we consider systematic botany the case is very different. In many respects it surpasses all other scientific branches as an introductory subject. Primary teachers have found that almost without exception children will work at botany and enjoy it. Their enthusiasm is easily aroused. They will pull flowers to pieces and appreciate something of the plan upon which they are formed, using their childish inquisitiveness in prying into the why and wherefore of their structure. Something may be done, too, at a very tender age. Prof. William North Rice, in an address entitled “Science teaching in the Schools," delivered before the American Society of Naturalists, tells of a case in point. He says:
Some years ago I had the pleasure of a somewhat intimate acquaintance with a boy who, in his third summer, became very much interested in flowers. Having obtained some specimens of the tawny day lily (Hemerocallis fulva), he noticed the long, slender bodies in the middle of the flower, and he asked his mother what they were. It seemed almost absurd to be teaching botany to a baby hardly more than 2 years old, but his mother, having large faith in the general principle that the best way to answer a child's questions is to tell the truth, told him that the things he had found were the stamens and pistil. Of course the baby did not know much about the objects which he examined. It was not time for his brain to be disturbed with matters of morphology and physiology. It was not time for him to learn that stamens and pistils are peculiarly modified leaves, or that they are respectively the male and female organs of reproduction. But his eyes were often busy that summer in looking for the stamens and pistils in various flowers, and in that simple matter of observation he succeeded quite as well as some college juniors I have seen.
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This incident, together with many others which are occurring daily in the experience of primary teachers, shows that the perceptive faculties of children are apt to be greatly underestimated, for they have really attained a considerable activity at a time when the reasoning powers are in an almost embryonic condition.
Dr. Carpenter, in his evidence before the English Public Schools Commission,* said:
Any right system of education will take up the faculties in the order of their development, and it is quite certain that the observing faculties are developed before the reasoning powers.
The training of the observing faculties by attention to the phenomena of nature, both in physical and in natural science, seems to me to be the natural application of time at the age of, say, from 8 to 12.
The same views are embodied in the testimony of such men as Lyell, Faraday, Hooker, Owen, and others.
When systematic botany is introduced into a school course its main object is training in observation, and for that purpose it is unrivaled. Failure in observation means failure to find the name of the plant, which, instead of being the final end, serves merely as a check upon the accuracy of the work. In botany the step from known to unknown is especially easy, for in most schools it is possible to have children work upon flowers which they have themselves collected and which are to them familiar objects. In city schools, where pupils rarely see flowers growing, the case is somewhat different, and in this event it is suggested by at least one botanist of great prominence, that physics may serve better as a means of training the observing powers. The general sentiment of teachers is expressed in an article entitled, “A Plea for a Rational Education," by M. E. G. Duff.t In it he says:
I do not very much care to which of these attention is given, but probably botany is the one which it is most convenient to teach in most places.
If from circumstances physiology or, indeed, any study which trains the observing faculties, was more convenient than botany, I have nothing to say against it.
Systematic botany has the advantage of being entirely independent of other sciences and requiring no previous knowledge for its successful study. In this we find its great advantage for young students. But if we attempt with slightly older pupils to present the study more logically and with more completeuess, and to give along with the description of the floral structures even the briefest account of their uses and functions, we at once find ourselves again dependent upon physics and chemistry. More than ever are we impressed with the fact that all science is one, for in spite of the differences in character and aims existing between the works of the schools and colleges, the necessary limitations of the former and boasted liberality of the latter, it is evident that the most humble primary-school course, if conducted in a genuine scientific spirit, illustrates the mutual dependence of all branches of
* Quoted in “Culture Demanded by Modern Life," Youmans. D. Appleton & Co. 1889.
Fortnightly Review, N. 8., vol. 22, 1877, p. 170.