JMC : Essays Philosophical / by Brother Azarias

Psychological Aspects of Education.

IT is my object, in the present paper, to throw out a few suggestions -- suggestions that, I doubt not, are many of them familiar to you all -- upon some psychological aspects of education, by way of determining, as a practical result, how far, if at all, the pursuit of special studies is to be encouraged in our colleges. Now, in order to the solution of every educational problem, two elements must enter as necessary factors, namely, the intellect which would be served and the rules it would be governed by; and these two should be suited one to the other.

But it seems to me that their proper bearings to each other are not always taken into account. When, for instance, I take up some college catalogues, I must confess that I have great misgivings as to whether or no the persons preparing those catalogues ever realized the fact that it was for the untrained intellect of a student they were drawing up their course of studies. Another serious doubt enters my mind, and it is this: Do they themselves know the nature and bearing of the studies they assign to the beginner in such matters? For example, it is nothing new to find one year's course in mental philosophy embracing textbooks and subject-matter enough for three years' hard study. It is pretended to familiarize the young men with all the philosophical systems from Confucius to Emerson in less time than they could have learned to know thoroughly the difference between the quantity and quality of a proposition, or to tell the figure and mode of a syllogism.

The same blundering may be found in the physical science course. Indeed, to him who knows how to read between lines, a catalogue may be made the criterion of a school. But it seems to me that the planning of such impracticable courses as I have alluded to is due in a great measure to a want of thoughtful consideration of the nature of the human intellect, its habits and requirements, as well as to a lack of clearness of apprehension as to what constitutes the aim of a collegiate education.


(1) The human intellect is at all times active; it is always remembering, or imagining, or comparing, or drawing conclusions. Its inquisitiveness is never satisfied; its observing power never wearies. It takes note of phenomena; it generalizes its particular experiences, and by the aid of the primary principles of pure reason that lie back of all experience, it deduces laws that become the guiding truths of life. It is continually gathering up and assimilating materials from every available quarter, and unwittingly the materials so assimilated give color to all its thoughts and influence all its conclusions. They are silent but powerful agencies in determining action and giving special bias to opinion. They are more cogent than the syllogism; they are stronger than argument; they are not easily detected, for they lurk in the most unsuspected positions. They give force of resistance to our prejudices. Frequently, when the mind is evenly balanced between two arguments of equal weight, these silent influences step upon the scales and weigh it down in favor of that which strengthens them. These influences are not the work of an hour or a day; they began with our birth; they have grown with our growth and strengthened with our strength; and they will cease to be an element of our thought only when life itself shall cease. They do not arise from any single source; they are the outcome of various unseen and unnamed causes. The ways and doings of the home circle, the company one keeps, the air and climate in which one lives, the daily occupations that fill up one's life, the dispositions of one's organic temperament -- all are so many agencies secretly working their way into one's mental constitution and determining the worth of one's ideas. They are the real finishers of a man's education; they make him vulgar, or provincial, or refined, according to the tone and character they impart to his thought and language. The educator will not neglect them. Especially in the collegiate course, when the mind is somewhat matured, and when they begin to tell upon it for good or for ill, will he watch them, and suppress or encourage them according to their nature and tendency.

(2) I take it as a principle in the economy of nature that all man's faculties have been given him for a purpose. They are all of them necessary; it follows that each and every one ought to be cultivated, In the harmonious development of all consist the perfection and the efficient use of each. And it is one of the elementary duties of a collegiate training that it supply subject-matter to exercise every faculty upon. To do otherwise -- to develop one faculty of the mind, or one quality of the soul at the expense of all others -- were to shape an intellectual monster. And it would be well through life to keep in view the necessity of preserving a certain equilibrium between the various powers of the intellect. If one's taste or occupation involve the undue exercise of a special faculty, this strain in one direction ought to be counterbalanced by devoting part of one's leisure time to the cultivation of other and diverse faculties. A man, for example, is a lawyer, who spends his business hours in searching precedents and reading up arguments for and against a case in hand, or he is an engineer poring all day over the figures of a complicated estimate; it behooves the one or the other to devote some time daily to the reading of poetry or fiction, or history, or criticism, or any book which will refresh the mind, and draw out more prominently the aesthetic sense and purely imaginative powers. Or a student is passionately fond of literature; with all the more reason ought he to overcome whatever repugnance he may have for mathematical studies or severe scientific pursuits. Nor need the time so spent be regarded as lost. The exercise is invigorating. It is adding either directly or indirectly to the strength of all the faculties.


(1) Not in mental discipline is the brain-waste. But I will tell you where it abounds. In the untrained efforts to evolve a thought, which, in all probability, when it is expressed, will be found to contain but a commonplace notion; in the abortive struggle of an intellect to reason an issue out to the end, when that intellect never had severe drill upon any subject-matter; in the playing at words upon an idea that leaves behind only a sense of utter inability to cope with it; in a questionable facility for scattering thoughts upon paper without making them converge on a single point. In all this there is brainwaste. The improvisatore never becomes a great poet. Had Metastasio not abandoned in his youth the baneful practice of improvising, and in the stead subjected himself for years to a course of severe studies, he, too, might have aimlessly spent his intellectual force and fallen into oblivion "a mute, inglorious" poet passed into the category of lost geniuses. Study, meditation, concentration of thought in which all the faculties are brought into action; the breaking up of a subject into its component parts; the rearranging of these parts in their true relations -- all this is requisite before full and complete expression can be pronounced, and all this calls for the strengthening and disciplining, not of one or more, but of all the faculties. No faculty of the intellect can be neglected without detriment to the others. For, be it remembered, the faculties of the soul are not isolated; they are not divided into as many separate apartments as they bear names, their distinct locations are not in the various cavities pointed out by the phrenologist; these are things of brain and blood and membrane -- mere matter -- though indispensable conditions, in the present order of life, for the soul's thinking. But they are not the thinking soul. That is one and simple. It cannot be cut up piecemeal. It cannot exercise one faculty whilst the others lie dormant. The reason cannot work without the imagination; the imagination cannot put forth its beautiful creations without the aid of both reason and understanding. Each faculty helps the other; all converge upon an object of thought.

(2) And, as there is an intimate union of faculties, so are there an interlacing and an overlapping of the various sciences. "They have," says John Henry Newman, "multiplied bearing's one on another, and an internal sympathy, and admit, or rather demand comparison and adjustment. They complete, correct, balance each other." Ascending into the region of philosophy, we will find all departments of thought standing to each other in intimate relations. Those the remotest apart in their scope and bearing may be suggestive of ideas to one another. It is also true in the history of practical thought. You are occupied with the solution of a problem that has presented itself to your mind; it may be the discussion of a social or political issue, or it may be a philosophical question, or it may be a difficult mathematical equation; you find yourself unable to grapple with it; you cannot see your way clearly; in weariness of spirit you throw the subject aside, and take up another less fatiguing; an expression, a word, only a hint met with in the new subject throws a flood of light upon the abandoned problem, and puts you on the track of its correct solution. This is the epitome of many an intellectual struggle. And while it is so, we may justly applaud the wisdom of not allowing a student to stop short at the study of a single language or a single science, or the history of a single country. His knowledge becomes rounded and completed by coördinate and supplementary studies. One language explains the obscurities in another; one science assists another; one department of letters throws light upon another; and thus it is that ideas are corrected, improved, made accurate. Therefore it is rightly claimed that a collegiate education be thorough; that it embrace all the important branches in science and letters, and combine in due proportion the useful and the ornamental. All this, you may tell me, collegiate education not only proposes to do, but actually accomplishes. Pardon me, but I must say that, turn we to the north or to the south, we will find efficient collegiate education a rare thing amongst us. The institutions bearing the name of college are numerous enough; those supporting the dignity of that name and efficiently fulfilling the duties attached to it are comparatively few.


(1) It is a frequent and a pernicious mistake to crowd into a college course the work of a university. No student can do justice to more than one-third of the subject-matter mapped out for him in the time required. He is compelled to "cram" upon several, if not all, of the subjects upon which his final examination is based. Were man intended to be a mere repeating machine, this system might do well enough. But to make him such is not the aim of a collegiate training. Its primary aim is to strengthen all the faculties by thorough mental discipline in such departments of knowledge as form a solid basis upon which the student may afterwards build up. The facts and figures, the fragments of positive information given, are all too crude and elementary to be available for any practical purpose. These things may be acquired as thoroughly without as within the walls of a college. Knowledge is imparted not so much for the amassing of knowledge as for the learning how to amass it; the grandest thoughts of the greatest thinkers are placed before the student, not to dispense him from thinking, but to teach him how to think. To learn how to learn and to learn how to think, this is the sum of all education. It places in the student's hands the instruments and it teaches him how to use them in after life. The school-room and the text-book and the professor's lecture are the least sources of information. They are only preparatory to the great university of the world in which the knowledge that is acquired is practical rather than speculative, of things rather than words, and therefore the only real knowledge. Here it is that every man is both teacher and learner; each can impart to the other some new idea concerning his specialty. And in this mutual intercourse and instruction is it that the trained intellect asserts its supremacy and wields influence. For this reason, collegiate education ought to deal with principles rather than with rules and methods. But the reverse is the process most frequently pursued. Rules and methods, which may be forgotten, are laid stress upon, while principles, which are scarcely ever forgotten when once they are well known, are ignored. And here let me add that a modern philosophical fallacy tends to give color of correctness to this evil. Cousin and others tell us that method is everything. Not at all. Method is nothing without the principle that gives it life and being. The method is informed by the principle; and where there is a method there also may be found a principle; and he who, in investigating a method, stops short at the method as such, understands neither the method nor its principle. Would you say that he understood a rule who knew nothing of the reason for its existence? The same criterion holds for philosophic methods. And hence the worse than uselessness of that only too prevalent practice of learning mere systems of philosophy without the principles that give them meaning.

(2) Equally pernicious is that custom which has filtered into our primary schools of placing young children, before they know how to read or parse, at nearly all the learned 'ologies of the day. It is productive of incalculable evil. It gives disgust for all study; it imbues the hearts of youth with a large share of self-conceit and self-opinion, so that it is difficult for them to mend their short-comings, for they are seldom aware of their ignorance. It impedes the purpose of education. It encumbers the mind; it overtaxes its powers; it weakens its activities; it destroys its effectiveness for life. It places it in a condition that ignorance were preferable; for then at least the mind would be possessed of its natural force and elasticity; and excited by the stimulus of seeing new sights and hearing new truths, it would mature into a much more healthy condition. Man can never become too educated. His capacity is far greater than any artificial limits which may be placed upon it. But he may be so educated that the brain-action connected with his mind-action becomes strained; or he may get so absorbed in, and weighed down by, the thoughts of others, that he forgets he has a mind of his own, and knows not what it is to form an independent opinion. And let me ask you candidly, is this not the desolation to which our modern systems of teaching youth everything till they know nothing is bringing us? Surely, no one who has given a moment's consideration to the matter will say otherwise. Wise heads and great thinkers long ago recognized the evil. Among others, no words that I could quote will have greater weight with you on the matter than the caustic words of that ingenuous thinker and great master of English prose, John Henry Newman:

"I will tell you," says he, "what has been the practical error of the last twenty years " -- and let me add, parenthetically, that the error has been growing since these words were spoken in 1852 -- "not to load the memory of the student with a mass of undigested knowledge, but to force upon him so much that he has rejected all. It has been the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not; of considering an acquaintance with the learned names of things and persons, and the possession of clever duodecimos, and attendance on eloquent lectures, and membership with scientific institutions, and the sight of the experiments of a platform and the specimens of a museum -- that all this was not dissipation of the mind, but progress. All things are now to be learned at once -- not first one thing then another; not one well, but many badly. Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing."{1}

The picture is not overdrawn. It portrays a crying abuse; and the abuse exists because educators persist in ignoring the workings of the human intellect.

(3) I am sure it has never occurred to the advocates and promoters of this free-and-easy method of dabbling in all branches without ever learning any, how difficult a thing it is for an idea to filter through the mind and pervade one's thinking till it becomes in a manner elementary in one's thought. It may not take a man long to get up the idea; he may be able to repeat it correctly; he may even apply it to concrete issues with a certain degree of accuracy; but all that does not imply that he has made the idea his own. He may go on repeating it for years, when all at once he stumbles upon a fact that sets him thinking; he finds for it no explanation in the light of the idea he has been holding; going back of that idea, he reconsiders the grounds upon which he held it, and he forthwith discovers that it is all wrong, or that it only partially expresses the truth, and for the first time in his life the whole truth comes home to him with a realizing force. Nor is the labor over yet. There remains for him to re-arrange and systematize all his thoughts so as to place them in keeping with the new idea. To any or all of us may this slow and painful process of acquiring knowledge and experience occur. How frequently does it not happen that men of mature minds find themselves compelled to abandon a religious opinion or a scientific theory or a political maxim upon the truth of which they had framed their lives and thoughts! And for this reason it is all the more necessary that the educational foundation be laid slowly, cautiously, solidly, and that the intellect be so drilled and disciplined, that when these crises in our thinking occur, we may be able to meet them with vigor and energy.

(4) Let us not ignore the fact that the human intellect, in its ordinary and undeveloped phases, is weak and imperfect. It is the duty of education to recognize its shortcomings and deal with it accordingly. The student requires to be disciplined upon what he learns. His lesson should be taken apart and placed before him piecemeal; then, when it is ascertained that the terms and expressions used evoke corresponding ideas in his mind, the subject-matter should be presented to him as a whole. The good educator does not weary of repetition, and each time he repeats he places the idea in a new light, and thus he reaches the greatest number of intelligences. Each individual mind has its idiosyncrasies. These must be consulted. The aspect of a subject that brings it home to one student may leave another entirely in the dark concerning its true bearing; moreover, upon first presentation, any idea can only be apprehended in a vague manner; the mind has simply received one among many aspects that belong to the idea; it has not yet begun to grasp it in all its comprehension. That is a laborious work for everybody but the genius. It is the result of a process much slower than many are willing to admit. To realize an idea, one must think over it long and seriously. It must sink into the soil of one's mental system till it takes root and grows; then tended with care, and watered with the dews of reflection, and fed with the food of solid instruction, whether from men, or books, or the experiences of life, it ripens and bears fruit, and for all time sheds its influence through the purposes of the ages. Far better is it that a student, -as a result of his college training, bear away with him one such idea, well digested and applied, than that he leave, a diploma in his hand, his mind laden down with an overwhelming mass of learned names and scientific symbols, and ill-understood facts, and his soul penetrated with an unsurmountable disgust for books and a horror for instruction, and a strong resolve to forget it all as soon as possible. That student may have a natural aptitude for some branch of science, or some department of letters; but it is buried beneath the mass of rubbish that oppresses his mind. His education ceased, and the ruin of his distinctive and characteristic talents began the moment he was compelled to remember and repeat without understanding. Memorizing is not learning, still less is it knowing. That memory alone avails which is based upon a right understanding and the experience that makes knowledge real.


(1) It has been truly said that collegiate education cannot create genius; it seldom draws it out, whilst it frequently impedes its progress. But, I would ask, do talents fare better at its hands? Are not as many of them crushed as are drawn out? It must needs be the case so long as the educator continues to ignore the intellectual bias of each student under his charge. Every man has a predominant talent, upon the proper development of which the success of his life-work, in a great measure, depends. In nature and direction, talent differs but little from genius. It is seldom, if ever, given to a man of genius to assert the full force of his greatness in more than one sphere of thought or action.{2} Genius is innate; it is not the outcome of any process of mental development; but it is neither more nor less than a vast array of talent concentrated and intensified in a given direction. It is not something distinct in kind from ordinary talent; it is simply the latter multiplied beyond all reckoning, exercised in a superior manner, with superior force, and by a superior capacity for comprehension and execution. Now, genius is the highest form of human intelligence. It furnishes a criterion for all other forms. According to the degree in which talent, in its range and power, approximates genius, is it efficient. Therefore, that is the most efficiently cultivated intellect which, untrammeled, can converge all its faculties, with greatest effect, upon a given subject-matter; and, furthermore, that is the most efficient method of education which develops such an intellect.

(2) Here we are led to ask, What is that form of education which will produce this desired result? We have seen that it is not the over-crowded college course. It forces talents too much and too long from their natural bent. Under its exactions the vigor and energy of the intellect become prostrate. Weariness of spirit palls any effort it may make to regain its elasticity. The faculties are exhausted, not strengthened; broken down, not disciplined; cramped and distorted, not developed. Neither will the system of optional studies produce this efficiency. It narrows the intellect; it bars the door to further enlargement of mind; it merges the man in his profession; it makes him the slave of his specialty. But man has duties to fulfil towards society as well as towards science, and letters, and the industries; and those duties require him to cultivate all his talents, and to be generally intelligent upon the thousandand-one issues that beat at the door of his intellect for admission, and clamor for the formation of an opinion upon their merits and bearings. To go beyond the utterance of mere platitudes and truisms upon every topic that comes up in an hour's conversation, one must be possessed of a mind well disciplined and furnished with accurate information. That information must be many-sided. It must embrace facts and figures; names and dates; dry terminology and vivid word-pictures addressed to the imagination; severe scientific deductions, and food for the sentiments -- all methodized and clearly apprehended. Therefore, in the collegiate course intended to furnish this preparation, stress should be laid upon both literary and scientific training; the one or the other predominating according to the natural bias of the student. Not an exclusively classical course, but a good classical foundation; not an attempt to compass all the sciences, but a thorough acquaintance with the principles and elements of one or few; this I consider within the scope of a collegiate education, intelligently and efficiently imparted.

(3) Another fact to be taken into consideration is this: Our young men, as a rule, abandon their studies prematurely. Their college training generally suffices them. Upon it they build up their after-life of thought and observation. They have no leisured four years to digest, correct, improve, assimilate the crude material they have hastily picked up. If they enter a university after graduation, it is generally to pursue some learned profession, and not to continue their academic studies. For this reason, our colleges should, in matters of instruction, combine university freedom with thorough collegiate discipline. Instead of being multiplied, studies should be diminished, towards the last year. The student's predominant talent should be consulted. If the tendency of his mind is for mathematics and the physical sciences, let him be encouraged in the pursuit of mathematics and the physical sciences; if it is for the classics and philology, let him have a chance to develop these; if it is for literature and history, give him the opportunity and the required assistance to enable him to excel in these branches. The means by which to attain the desired result are many. Matthew Arnold points out some practiced in the higher schools of Germany. In one place, he found that the students had, each week, a "study-day" -- Studientag -- in which they were free from all lessons, that they might pursue their favorite studies. And he tells us that "in the same spirit, in the gymnasium generally, promising boys in prima are excused certain of the school lessons that they may work at matters which specially interest them."{3} He further remarks that the results of this private study are to be produced at the examinations, and are taken into account for the leaving certificate. Other and equally efficient means may suggest themselves to you all; what they are matters little, provided youth are taught how to think, are subjected to that mental discipline that begets vigor of mind and exactness of thought, and are thus braced to grapple comprehensively with the problems of life.

(4) In conclusion, I would make this remark: If in your experience or mine we happen upon a system that stands between a student and the right development of his intellect -- a system that is neither more nor less than a Procrustean bed for his natural capacity -- then, whether it be based upon antiquated prejudices, or whether it be the outcome of some new-fangled theory -- be its origin what it may -- perish the system, for it is of human hands, and let the intellect live, for it is the work of God.

{1} "Idea of a University," p. 142.

{2} I am reminded that there are notable exceptions to this assertion; Michael Angelo, for instance, who excelled as architect, sculptor, painter, and poet.

{3} "Higher Schools and Universities in Germany," p. 134.

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