Some Defects in our Present System of Education.
A Lecture.By James Smith.
Welbourne: Published By S. Mullen. 1877.
Education and instruction.
"We carry our sick hearts abroad amidst the joyous things
That through the leafy places glance on many-coloured wings,
They hold us from the woodlark's haunts and violet dingle's back,
And from all the lovely sounds and gleams in the shining river's track.
They bar us from our heritage of spring-time, hope and mirth,
And weigh our burden'd spirits down with the cumbering dust of earth?"
Why is this? The dissatisfaction I have spoken of is in and of the mind. It is both the result and the evidence of mental disorder or disease, and more often than not of mental vacuity. A morbid craving for excitement pervades all classes of society, and we find the outcome of it to be fast men and fast women, fast living, fast travelling, fast literature, and a fast drama. Life is not an orderly march, but a swift race. It is not a beautiful procession, but a wild, helter-skelter rush of phantom horsemen upon phantom horses in pursuit of phantom objects. Many are trodden down, mangled, maimed, bruised, and killed in the impetuous chase, and those who are not so, reach the verge of the grave with ex- page 5 hausted energies and empty hands. We have lost both the desire for leisure and the capacity to enjoy it. Our lives being entirely out of harmony with nature, which is merely another name for God's mind in operation for our instruction and delight, are as miserable and as unsatisfying as they deserve to be. For what is the one unalterable and universal lesson which nature teaches us? Is it not this? That all her processes are gradual, orderly, sequential, regular, and harmonious, admitting of neither acceleration nor of retardation, excepting only in so far as we interfere with them, and that they are equally removed from stagnation and precipitation. For thousands of years the length of the day and night in a given latitude, at a given period of the year, has not varied a single second. For millions of years there has been and could be no infraction of the law that two atoms of oxygen combine with one atom of carbon to form a molecule of carbonic acid, and that that molecule cannot possibly be combined in any other way. To do so would require the performance of a miracle, and to perform a miracle would involve a supernatural act, and to imagine anything supernatural is to depose the Almighty from His supremacy, by supposing some being above Him, and capable of overriding and overruling His laws, which being, like Himself, absolutely perfect, are therefore absolutely immutable. We sec, then, in nature, that all moves on with sublime stedfastness and steadiness, calm, equable, progressive and unresting, free from the tumult and the stir which agitate us, and exempt also from the fret and fever of our discordant and misdirected lives; while it is beginning to be dimly discerned that those convulsions of the physical world which seem to be inconsistent with this order and regularity, are due to unnatural causes—to the destruction by human agency of the exquisite balance of nature. For the scientific definition of a storm is this:—" It is the movement of the air caused by its tendency to re-establish an equilibrium which has in some manner been disturbed." Now, at every point of the earth's surface to which the so-called civilized races have penetrated, that equilibrium has been not merely disturbed but destroyed by us. By no modern student of nature has this subject been investigated more thoughtfully and more successfully than by Professor Marsh, of the United States, who writes:—"Wherever man plants his foot the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. The proportions and accommodations which insured the stability of existing arrangements are overthrown. Indigenous vegetable and animal species are extirpated by others of foreign origin; spontaneous production page 6 is forbidden or restricted, and the face of the earth is laid bare or covered with a new and reluctant growth of vegetable forms, and with alien tribes of animal life. . . . Man pursues his victims with reckless destructiveness; and while the sacrifice of life by the lower animals is limited by the cravings of appetite, he unsparingly persecutes, even to extirpation, thousands of organic forms which he cannot consume." Let me illustrate this connection of natural convulsions with human agency by the mention of a familiar fact. More than one-half of the old Roman empire is now either a desert, or is greatly reduced in productiveness and population. Vast areas that once waved with cornfields, and were adorned with forests, orchards, and gardens, are now an arid wilderness, with no evaporation, and with only a fitful and violent rainfall. Upon huge tracts of blinding sand the glare of the summer sunshine beats with fiercest power. The lower strata of the atmosphere, intensely rarefied, rapidly ascend, and there is a violent inrush of colder air from cooler latitudes. It depends upon the velocity of this inrush whether, in the districts over which it passes, there is a gale, a tempest, or a hurricane. These violent disturbances of the atmosphere, it is well known, have been increasing in frequency and in their calamitous results during the last century, because the area of devastation is being annually expanded by the spread of population in North America, in South Africa, and in Australia, where the overthrow of the balance of nature by the destruction of forests is being pursued with frightful vehemence and effect. Now, what lies at the root of these evils? It is not merely selfishness, but it is a selfishness which is greatly aggravated by ignorance. And for this, our systems of education, which are an inheritance from the middle ages, are mainly responsible. There never was a time when we knew so much—that is not worth the knowing; or knew so little—of what we ought to know, as the present.
"Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and we linger on the shore,
And the individual withers, and the world is more and more."
our annals are all so
"Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands;"
"Centred in a doleful song.
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,"
that I could heartily wish they were obliterated from our literature, and that we might be no longer confronted by these ghastly chronicles of spoliation, butchery, brute violence, and devilish malignity.page 8
I have said that the first thing a boy should be taught is, what he is! And I do not know any branch of study which is more delightful, or fuller of perennial interest, than that of the anatomy and physiology of the human frame; certainly none which is more indispensable to every one of us. Each of us inhabits a "temple not made with hands," which is so wonderful in its structure that the most imposing monuments of human architecture are mean, clumsy, and unsightly in comparison with it. But what do the generality of us know about this elaborate palace, with its five gateways, its two rivers, its exquisite windows, its symmetrical dome, its telegraphic system, its never-flagging furnace, its double-action force-pump, its laboratory, its complicated and delicate mechanism, and that invisible something which sits in the upper chamber and communicates with the outer world by the intermediation of the senses? Upon the healthy and harmonious working of this wondrous fabric depends our happiness, as also our attainment of the natural term of our lives. And remember that all disease is unnatural. Health is the normal condition of humanity, and disease is simply the product and the penalty of disobedience to the laws of nature—that is to say, the laws of God. Sir John Lubbock has pointed out in his Origin of Civilization," that savages are rarely ill. It is only when they are brought into contact with us, who call ourselves civilized, that they wither away before our epidemics and are blighted and blasted by our spirituous liquors. Much of the illness that exists is the result of sheer ignorance. We are strangers to the human edifices we inhabit; and being unconscious of the exquisite delicacy of their details, we derange and destroy them with criminal recklessness. But I think if every boy and girl were made acquainted with the general structure of the human frame, with the nature and operation of the five senses, and with the processes of respiration, nutrition, circulation, and locomotion, you would find such pupils coming back, like Oliver Twist, for more. Children are greatly interested in phenomena, and care very little for words, and names, and dates. But words, and names, and date?, unfortunately, make up the greater part of the sum of our education; and I entirely fail to see their value. Why do I want to burden my memory with such rubbish as the particulars of the Battle of Marathon, of the League of Cambray, of the number of rooms in the Vatican, of the year of the Norman Conquest, or of the nature of the Pragmatic Sanction; when I can turn them up at a minute's notice in a Dictionary of Dates? But it is very material to my happiness and com- page 9 fort, and to the welfare of those who are dependent upon me, that I should be well acquainted with the mortal tenement I inhabit, so as to keep it in perfect repair until my lease expires, and the old and worn-out building is pulled down. And children, I repeat, would receive with avidity any information respecting their own bodies. Suppose you see a boy lifting an apple to his mouth, and you explain to him in simple language all the actions involved, would he not listen to the narrative as readily as to a fairy tale? You say to him, either through the eye, or the sense of taste, stimulated by the recollection of the pleasure received from eating previous fruit of the same kind, a message was sent to the brain along the afferent nerves that you wished to renew the pleasure by eating that apple. The mind reads off that message in an instant of time, and transmits to the hand, through the efferent nerves, a message to grasp and convey the fruit to the mouth. In so doing, the cerebellum or little brain acts as a battery, and sends a current of electricity along the telegraphic wires; and in obedience to this command some thousands of delicate fibres, uniting in an elastic rope called a muscle, contract or shorten themselves, and by this means bring the arm up to the head. In so doing 30 bones are called into active exercise under constraint of the tightened muscular cordage, involving the rapid and easy play of such mechanical principles as the ball and socket, the hinge-joint, the block and pulley, and so forth. But the two sets of wires or nerves, the battery or cerebellum, and the ropes or muscles, as well as the machinery or bones which co-operated in producing this .simple motion of your arm, lost something of their substance in the complex process. There was what physiologists call a waste of tissue, and this had immediately to be compensated for. All motion is the result of force, or mind; and involves the breaking down, decomposition, and removal of the material agencies through which it is accomplished. Now, an ordinary machine of steel and iron would wear itself out in time by friction and oxidisation; but the human structure possesses the inherent power of reconstituting itself during the term of its natural existence. It has been aptly compared to a stupendous factory, in which vegetable and animal food is being transformed by solvent fluids into the raw material of the blood; and this, when aerated or vitalised by the lungs, replaces, by living cells, the dead cells which have fulfilled their office and have ceased to be. And thus you will see the paramount importance of a regular and adequate supply of page 10 nutritious food for body-building purposes, as also the indispensable necessity of breathing none but pure air, by day and night, so that the blood—" which is the life"—may not be impoverished or contaminated.
Take the eye and ear again. Do not you think that if the structure and functions of each of these marvellous avenues to the mind were explained to a boy, that it would interest him far more, and be of infinitely greater service to him, than any amount of information he may acquire about the campaigns of Caesar or Napoleon? Show him that he possesses in the organs of vision a self-acting, self-adjusting photographic apparatus, compared with which the best instrument in Messrs. Batchelder's establishment is coarse, clumsy, and inconvenient: explain to him the formation of the ear, with its outer vestibule, its drum, its inner chamber, with its circular and oval windows, its hammer, and anvil, and stirrup, its two winding staircases, and its 3000 pianoforte keys and strings, and you will conduct him into a realm of wonders compared with which the cities we read of in the Arabian Nights are commonplace and uninteresting. Then show him that sound and sight are one, that the impressions produced by each are occasioned by vibrations—are merely modes of motion, in fact—and that the seven notes of music correspond with the seven colours which combine to form a ray of white light; and that boy, I venture to think, will begin to look at all objects, and to listen to all sounds in a totally different manner, while everything he sees and hears will be invested with a new interest, and possibly with an unexpected charm. Not only so, but he will understand the preciousness of the organs and faculties of seeing and hearing, and will take greater care of them in consequence. The second thing our children should be taught is "Where they are." so that they may be induced to prize this beautiful earth, to perceive its never-failing and inexhaustible majesty and loveliness, may use without abusing it, may cultivate it in obedience to and harmony with the divine order of nature, and may dress it and keep it in conformity with the beneficent purpose and commands of its Creator. I do not know of any direction in which theology has been more mischievous to the Western nations than in diverting them from the observation and study of natural phenomena. And this has been the more culpable because such a systematic discouragement of natural science is diametrically opposed to the written word of God. In a book, the plenary inspiration of which I acknowledge without qualification or reservation, I find it thus written: page 11 —"The invisible things of God from the creation of the "world—even His eternal power and Godhead—are clearly "seen, being understood by the things that are made, so that "men are without excuse." Thus, then, we can only understand the ideas of God by the observation of the "things "that are made"—that is to say, by the visible presentment of those ideas in the forms of which we can take cognisance by our senses. Nature must be our instructress. And the same impressive truth is repeated in the Book of Job:—"Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the "fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee; or speak to the "earth, and it shall teach thee; and the fishes of the sea "shall declare unto thee." Yet, until quite recently, the natural sciences had no place whatever in our systems of' education; and it was not until about the beginning of the present century that men obtained a glimmering of the idea of evolution, so explicitly enunciated in the 139th Psalm; or arrived at a faint perception of the fact that the mental constitution of the lower animals is identical in its nature with our own, although it is emphatically declared in the first chapter of Genesis that there is "a living soul" in "every "beast of the earth, and in every fowl of the air, and in "everything that creepeth upon the earth;" while it is also proclaimed in the plainest of language, by the same Holy Scriptures, that "we have all one breath, so that a man "hath no pre-eminence above a beast." What the human, race has lost during the last eighteen centuries by shutting its eyes to "the things that are made," and by placing the study of Nature under a ban, it is impossible to compute And if you are curious to know the amount of bloodshed, misery, and suffering which have resulted from the proscription of science by the various churches, you will find plenty of information on the subject in the works of Dr. Draper, Professor White (of the Cornell University), Sir David Brewster, and Mr. Lecky. In putting forward a plea for the education of the young in the natural sciences, so as to enable them to understand where they are, and what are the causes, operations, and consequences of the most familiar phenomena of every-day life, I am pleading for the means of their happiness, as well as for the cultivation of their minds. Believe me when I say it, as the result of my own experience, in the study of a great many branches of knowledge during the course of a busy life, that there is none so delightful and fascinating, none so ever fresh and never tiring, none which make us feel so truly that there is nothing smaller than ourselves and nothing greater than God, as the study of the page 12 natural sciences, and especially of natural history, more particularly if we look at all the forms of life—mineral, vegetable, and animal, as mind manifesting itself in various stages of growth. I have read, in my time, some exceedingly silly books, written by some exceedingly learned men to prove that certain things which our Lord assured us were done "in parables" were actual miracles, or contraventions of natural law; but if you want a miracle in the true sense of the word—that is to say, something calculated to excite wonder and admiration, just look at the germination and growth of a seed. That is the most amazing fact with which I am acquainted, and the more I reflect upon it the greater is the awe I feel in its presence. Let us say that you visit Egypt, and obtain from the hands of a mummy embalmed 3000 years ago a few grains of wheat. To look at it you might suppose it to be dead. But you plant a single corn under favourable conditions, and, after a short time, the life—dormant for 30 centuries—begins to stir within it. Its vital principle—its mind—commences working in the darkness with a marvellous intelligence. It sends down a number of delicate fibres into the earth. These are its stomach. They absorb from the soil, digest, and assimilate the food it requires. It sends up a delicate shoot into the light and air. This becomes its organ of respiration, or lungs, as also of circulation for the sap or fluid, which corresponds with our blood. Why do these rootlets plunge into the dark mould, while the green blade aspires towards the light, breaks its way through the hardest crust, and rejoices in the sunshine? You will say that it obeys a law. But have you ever reflected upon the very obvious and simple truth that obedience is a mental operation, and that wherever such obedience is rendered, whether by gases in their combinations according to certain definite proportions, or by a crystal in repairing its fractured edges, by a plant, by a bird, beast, or man, the king of the beasts, there must be mind. Without it, obedience to law would be impossible. But pursue this phenomenon of plant-growth through all its stages. Watch the evolution of the stalk, the leaves, the flower, and the perfected grain or seed, and try to imagine yourself looking at these processes for the first time, and you will feel that you stand before the embodiment of a series of miracles, compared with which every achievement of human "genius," as it is called, sinks into utter insignificance. Then reflect Upon this further miracle. You sow the seeds of six different plants in the same plot of ground, the constituents of the soil being identical throughout. Not only does each plant, page 13 in its growth and maturity, differ from all the rest in form and colour, in the shape of the leaf, and in the aspect of the flower, but the first will elaborate from sun and soil a certain quantity of sugar, the second gum, the third oil, the fourth starch, the fifth resin, and the sixth opium. And the more you examine the structure and functions of these plants with the microscope or otherwise, the more you will find to wonder at and admire.
"The fools to those they fool;
Envied, yet how unenviable! what stings
Are theirs! One breast laid open were a school
Which would unteach mankind the lust to shine or rule."
But turn from this black and bloody calendar of wrong and rapine, wickedness and woe, to the study of natural science, and it is like emerging from shambles, slippery with gore, ghastly with spectacles of ferocity and suffering, and foul with the reek of corruption, to "the balm, the bliss, the "beauty and the bloom" of a virgin forest, where the sunlight is sifted through the woof of aromatic leaves and fragrant blossoms, where the air is resonant with the melody of birds, and where everything the eye beholds is eloquent of God, the source of all good, the fountain of all wisdom, and the author of all blessings. Nature speaks everywhere the same language, which is the inspiration of the true artist, and the theme of the true poet. And of the many amazing thoughts which present themselves to our minds when we reflect upon her loveliness, there is none more startling than this—that so many of us should be, or should profess to be, hankering after another world, when we are so lamentably ignorant of that in which we are placed. We talk of a heaven which the theologian posits in some indefinable and undiscoverable region of space, but which the Holy Scriptures assure us must be founded within us, and established here on earth; but do we ever think of trying to make a little heaven around us? Do we ever, in the indulgence of that intense and all-absorbing selfishness which is the bane of society in all civilized countries, ponder upon the profound and impressive meaning of the inspired words, "If a "man love cot his brother whom he hath seen, how can page 16 "he love God whom he hath not seen?" Do we ever consider either the sacredness of the earth or the possibilities which lie within it? It is our native country and our home. We are "not set here to live as aliens," passing in disguise through an enemy's camp, where no allegiance is due; but we are bound to recognise our kinship to the whole of nature and to act accordingly. As an eloquent Writer once observed, "If no heavenly voices wander around "us in the present, the future will be but the dumb change "of the shadow on the dial." The more I see of the transcendent beauty of the world, in so far as it still bears the divine impress of the Mind from which it emanated, and the more I reflect upon the wonders which present themselves for our instruction and delight in the "things that are "made," the greater becomes my regret that the natural sciences should be altogether excluded from, or should occupy so inferior and unworthy a position in, our ordinary Systems of education. And let me beg of you to remember this—the students of nature never persecute, proscribe, imprison, torture, or destroy each other. No astronomer ever condemned another astronomer to the stake. No botanist ever butchered another botanist, because they disagreed about the classification of a flower. No geologist ever confined another geologist in the dungeons of the Inquisition, because they entertained differences of opinion with respect to the duration of the last glacial period. Nor have there been any scientific wars to soak the soil of Europe with the blood of controversialists fighting about a foolish symbol or concerning the genesis of life. On the other hand, if you would know how the study of the natural sciences inclines the human mind towards natural piety, just read that irrepressible burst of eloquence which broke from the lips of Lionæus when he had completed his admirable work on the organisation of plants, and with which I may fitly conclude the present lecture:—"The eternal, vast, omniscient and omnipotent God has passed before me. I have not seen Him face to face, but a dim reflection of Him seizing on my soul, has plunged it in a stupor of admiration. I have followed here and there the traces of Him amidst the works of creation, and in all these, even in the minutest and most imperceptible, what power, what wisdom, what indefinable perfection! I have observed how all animal life is superimposed upon and interlinked with the vegetable kingdom, and how vegetation is associated with the minerals deposited in the entrails of the globe, while the globe itself gravitates in an invariable order around the sun, to which it owes its life. Then I have be- page 17 held the sun and all the other stars—the vast hosts of heaven, immense, incalculable in their infinitude, moving in space and suspended in the void by an incomprehensible First Motor, the Being of beings, the Cause of causes, the Guide and Conservator of the universe, the Master and Workman of the stupendous fabric of the world. Everything that He has created bears witness to His wisdom and His divine power; while all things are at the same time the treasure-house and the element of our felicity. Their usefulness attests the bounty of Him who made them: their loveliness exhibits the magnificent beauty of His mind; while their harmony, their constancy, their exquisitely just proportions and their inexhaustible fecundity, proclaim the power of the omnipotent God. Is it not He upon Whom you bestow the name of Providence? That is indeed the attribute, since it is only by His counsel that we can explain the existence of the world. It is therefore just to believe that He is a God, immense, eternal, whom no being has engendered, whom nothing has created, without whom nothing can exist, and who has made and ordained this universal work. He eludes our vision, while He fills our eyes with light. He is apprehensible only by thought; for it is in that profound sanctuary that He veils His majesty from human ken." Such is the natural religion—such the glow, the rapture, the adoration, and the gratitude which are capable of being inspired by a loving and reverential study of the natural sciences, which ought to form one, at least, of the bases of all true education, in the highest and best sense of the word. And if I have refrained from touching upon the third of the questions with which I set out, namely, "Why am I?" it is because it would involve the discussion of a subject which would be provocative of angry controversy, for which this is neither the time nor place.