Science in Education

Grant Allen

[Chapter III from the book, Post-Prandial Philosophy, published 1894 in London by Chatto & Windus]

I mean what I say: science in education, not education in science.

It is the last of these that all the scientific men of England have so long been fighting for. And a very good thing it is in its way, and I hope they may get as much as they want of it. But compared to the importance of science in education, education in science is a matter of very small national moment.

The difference between the two is by no means a case of tweedledum and tweedledee. Education in science means the systematic teaching of science so as to train up boys to be scientific men. Now scientific men are exceedingly useful members of a community; and so are engineers, and bakers, and blacksmiths, and artists, and chimney-sweeps. But we can't all be bakers, and we can't all be painters in water-colours. There is a dim West Country legend to the effect that the inhabitants of the Scilly Isles eke out a precarious livelihood by taking in one another's washing. As a matter of practical political economy, such a source of income is worse than precarious—it's frankly impossible. "It takes all sorts to make a world." A community entirely composed of scientific men would fail to feed itself, clothe itself, house itself, and keep itself supplied with amusing light literature. In one word, education in science produces specialists; and specialists, though most useful and valuable persons in their proper place, are no more the staple of a civilised community than engine-drivers or ballet-dancers.

What the world at large really needs, and will one day get, is not this, but due recognition of the true value of science in education. We don't all want to be made into first-class anatomists like Owen, still less into first-class practical surgeons, like Sir Henry Thompson. But what we do all want is a competent general knowledge (amongst other things) of anatomy at large, and especially of human anatomy; of physiology at large, and especially of human physiology. We don't all want to be analytical chemists: but what we do all want is to know as much about oxygen and carbon as will enable us to understand the commonest phenomena of combustion, of chemical combination, of animal or vegetable life. We don't all want to be zoologists, and botanists of the type who put their names after "critical species:" but what we do all want to know is as much about plants and animals as will enable us to walk through life intelligently, and to understand the meaning of the things that surround us. We want, in one word, a general acquaintance with the results rather than with the methods of science.

"In short," says the specialist, with his familiar sneer, "you want a smattering."

Well, yes, dear Sir Smelfungus, if it gives you pleasure to put it so—just that; a smattering, an all-round smattering. But remember that in this matter the man of science is always influenced by ideas derived from his own pursuits as specialist. He is for ever thinking what sort of education will produce more specialists in future; and as a rule he is thinking what sort of education will produce men capable in future of advancing science. Now to advance science, to discover new snails, or invent new ethyl compounds, is not and cannot be the main object of the mass of humanity. What the mass wants is just unspecialised knowledge—the kind of knowledge that enables men to get comfortably and creditably and profitably through life, to meet emergencies as they rise, to know their way through the world, to use their faculties in all circumstances to the best advantage. And for this purpose what is wanted is, not the methods, but the results of science.

One science, and one only, is rationally taught in our schools at present. I mean geography. And the example of geography is so eminently useful for illustrating the difference I am trying to point out, that I will venture to dwell upon it for a moment in passing. It is good for us all to know that the world is round, without its being necessary for every one of us to follow in detail the intricate reasoning by which that result has been arrived at. It is good for us all to know the position of New York and Rio and Calcutta on the map, without its being necessary for us to understand, far less to work out for ourselves, the observations and calculations which fixed their latitude and longitude. Knowledge of the map is a good thing in itself, though it is a very different thing indeed from the technical knowledge which enables a man to make a chart of an unknown region, or to explore and survey it. Furthermore, it is a form of knowledge far more generally useful. A fair acquaintance with the results embodied in the atlas, in the gazetteer, in Baedeker, and in Bradshaw, is much oftener useful to us on our way through the world than a special acquaintance with the methods of map-making. It would be absurd to say that because a man is not going to be a Stanley or a Nansen, therefore it is no good for him to learn geography. It would be absurd to say that unless he learned geography in accordance with its methods instead of its results, he could have but a smattering, and that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A little knowledge of the position of New York is indeed a dangerous thing, if a man uses it to navigate a Cunard vessel across the Atlantic. But the absence of the smattering is a much more dangerous and fatal thing if the man wishes to do business with the Argentine and the Transvaal, or to enter into practical relations of any sort with anybody outside his own parish. The results of geography are useful and valuable in themselves, quite apart from the methods employed in obtaining them.

It is just the same with all the other sciences. There is nothing occult or mysterious about them. No just cause or impediment exists why we should insist on being ignorant of the orbits of the planets because we cannot ourselves make the calculations for determining them; no reason why we should insist on being ignorant of the classification of plants and animals because we don't feel able ourselves to embark on anatomical researches which would justify us in coming to original conclusions about them. I know the mass of scientific opinion has always gone the other way; but then scientific opinion means only the opinion of men of science, who are themselves specialists, and who think most of the education needed to make men specialists, not of the education needed to fit them for the general exigencies and emergencies of life. We don't want authorities on the Cucurbitaceæ, but well-informed citizens. Professor Huxley is not our best guide in these matters, but Mr. Herbert Spencer, who long ago, in his book on Education, sketched out a radical programme of instruction in that knowledge which is of most worth, such as no country, no college, no school in Europe has ever yet been bold enough to put into practice.

What common sense really demands, then, is education in the main results of all the sciences—a knowledge of what is known, not necessarily a knowledge of each successive step by which men came to know it. At present, of course, in all our schools in England there is no systematic teaching of knowledge at all; what replaces it is a teaching of the facts of language, and for the most part of useless facts, or even of exploded fictions. Our public schools, especially (by which phrase we never mean real public schools like the board schools at all, but merely schools for the upper and the middle classes) are in their existing stage primarily great gymnasiums—very good things, too, in their way, against which I have not a word of blame; and, secondarily, places for imparting a sham and imperfect knowledge of some few philological facts about two extinct languages. Pupils get a smattering of Homer and Cicero. That is literally all the equipment for life that the cleverest and most industrious boys can ever take away from them. The sillier or idler don't take away even that. As to the "mental training" argument, so often trotted out, it is childish enough not to be worth answering. Which is most practically useful to us in life—knowledge of Latin grammar or knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in, physical, social, moral? That is the question.

The truth is, schoolmastering in Britain has become a vast vested interest in the hands of men who have nothing to teach us. They try to bolster up their vicious system by such artificial arguments as the "mental training" fallacy. Forced to admit the utter uselessness of the pretended knowledge they impart, they fall back upon the plea of its supposed occult value as intellectual discipline. They say in effect:—"This sawdust we offer you contains no food, we know: but then see how it strengthens the jaws to chew it!" Besides, look at our results! The typical John Bull! pig-headed, ignorant, brutal. Are we really such immense successes ourselves that we must needs perpetuate the mould that warped us?

The one fatal charge brought against the public school system is that "after all, it turns out English gentlemen!"