Science in the High School

The science in the high school that flourished a generation or two ago is best known to us as "natural history." It is as far away from the science that flourishes in our universities and colleges or even our high schools, as the Gentleman's Magazine is from a wissenschaftliches Centralblatt.

It is not difficult to regret this passage, to recognize the human interest, the power of inspiring healthful curiosity, the fact that it was on all fours with even adolescent intelligence; to recognize, in a word, that it possessed reality for the student, and quickened rather than deadened his interest in the sciences to which it served a s humble portico. Our regret may even pass over into a program, an extension of the culture-epoch program. We can point out that it was out of beginnings such as these that the most scientific of modern sciences arose; that, further, the concrete interest, the shrewd guesses, the search for tangible causes, which a Franklin incarnates, is just the attitude which high-school boys and girls can be drawn seems to be that secondary-school science should return to natural history as the proper introduction of the secondary-school child to science properly so called.

It does not seem necessary that the natural history of a modern school curriculum should embody the mistakes and crudities of an


(237) earlier phase of the science. What is necessary rather is that the immediacy, the tangibility, the comprehensibility of the older natural history should replace the technical introduction to university sciences which have ousted it from its former place. That is, there is seemingly no necessity for the loss of immediate touch with the experience of the child.

Certainly the same problems face him which faced his father and grandfather, and there is unquestionably in him as in them the same native interest in the solution of these problems. Perhaps we should add: There is the same interest, provided they remain as concrete and comprehensible as those which his predecessors found or accepted when presented.

It is equally necessary to recognize, however, that while the same problems arise from one generation to another, the solutions differ with each scientific generations; and the fallacy of a culture-epoch theory lies int the assumption that, because the problems seem to be identical, it is possible to give the modern child the antiquated solution. We state only half of the educational problem when we emphasize this identity of attitude of the boy in his teens with that of the old-fashioned natural history. In spite of ourselves we are compelled to answer his questions in the language -- the scientific language -- of today. And it is upon this difficulty that as yet our high-school science has been wrecked.

We cannot speak of fluids and forces and substances in what to use is the nonchalant manner of earlier days. The phenomena of the world about us have been translated into facts of motion, and the very things themselves -- their substances and attributes--are defined in terms of motions. The teacher who has bee adequately trained in his subject-matter cannot project himself into outworn theories, simply because they are more comprehensible to his students.

It is only natural that he should assume that his task is to train the students to understand the language which he must eventually use in the solution for the problems he meets. He must understand and speak this language, if he is to solve the problems, so that it becomes of the first importance to master the vernacular. The problems -- the familiar experiences of light, of heat, of electricity, of


(239) chemical changes, of growth and reproduction in plant and animal --can be safely postponed till he understands how so to state them that hem may then satisfactorily answer them.

There have been, of course, many compromises offered, lying between the two positions suggest above: that science in the high school should be adapted primarily to the immediate interest of the child, being taught only in so far as it is stated in terms which he understands, and only those problems being presented which arise naturally in his own consciousness; and that science can be profitably presented only in so far as it is expressed and received in the language which sciences uses; that it is a body of truth that cannot be diluted nor flavored to suit the taste of the child; that, on the contrary, it is the child's first duty to acquire that language, and put himself by this and similar training in a position to comprehend the actual problems of science, when presented to his more matured intelligence.

It cannot be said, however, that these compromises have succeeded. And in is natural that, on the whole, the scientific expert should carry the day. He stands for the university requirement in the first place; and, though but relatively few of the high-school students enter college or university, the college requirement is, after all, a standard that is explicit and definite; while the world into which the majority of the students pass from the high school sets no explicitly standards, and take in general very little interest in the high-school curriculum.

The result is that at the present time science means from one to three possible units. University prescription lays the emphasis upon physics. Chemistry is but slightly encouraged, for college instructors in chemistry prefer commencing de novo to building upon foundations that can be laid in the high school. Biology may be represented by a general course which is an introduction to botany and zoology, or by a half or entire unit give to either. Here the modern physiological method is superseding the older systematic method, and there is present the somewhat unsatisfactory leaven of evolutionary ideas, which are either too dogmatic or too vague to serve the purpose for which they are used. The absence of mathematics favors biological sciences in the mind of the high-school


(240) student, but its position is too isolated, and the demand for it in entrance requirements not general nor peremptory enough, to give it the importance which physics has obtained. Physiography, the lineal descent of the older physical geography, is acquiring a growing importance, for reasons which will be discussed later; but it uses ideas which require training in physics and chemistry for comprehension, and as generally taught, lacks the concreteness of experimental sciences.

The university influence upon the study of science has not been fortunate. Even its power to introduce definite standards has been attended with grave misfortunes. Entrance requirements present alternatives. The high school is encouraged to expend the money and hours at its disposal for science upon some one branch, and the result is that, even if a number of branches are represented, they are treated as units with little or no relationship to each other. And, as above noted, the university is the only power that comes forward with definite demands that have penalties attached to them. Thus the sciences in high school are hopelessly isolated. They exist in water-tight compartments, with none of the interrelationships which are implied in their own subject-matter, and which are essential to their comprehension, especially for the student of this period. The textbook writer or the teacher trained in his subject unwittingly uses ideas belonging to a world of science, which his own specialty implies, and forgets that his students have yet to build up that world in their own experience.

That isolation is most felt in the separation between mathematics and those sciences of which it is the language. The students pursue algebra, geometry, and reaching physics, where they meet the abstract quantity to the measurement of which these branches of mathematics are fitting them or should fit them, they do not and perhaps cannot feel the connection. The subject has been presented to them as a study quite by itself, much as grammar in the study of language which one is not familiar. As we have discovered that it is impossible for a child to learn the rules for the used of a language first, and then apply them in speech afterwards, so we have to learn that the rules for mathematical processes cannot be acquired in advance of the application of these processes. It is


(241) at least a fact which no one familiar with the teaching of physics will deny that the training, which children receive in algebra and geometry, as it is now taught, does not assist them in stating in mathematical terms the problems which physics presents. If there is any preparation which the teacher of physics would ask for, if he could get it, it would be that his students should come to him with the power of stating a physical problem in exact quantitative terms. But the formal training in adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, of whole numbers and fractions in algebra, does not advance a whit toward this end. The problems of physics call for the statement of continuous processes in discontinuous terms, of movements in number. The mathematical discipline that accomplishes this is algebra applied to geometry. But in high-school mathematics there is no suggestion that these two branches have any relationship with each other. And no training that the child receives in them there assists him in bringing the two together. They are completely isolated form each other and from physics.

This is so apparent that the demand on the part of the educational authority is for physics which shall not be predominantly mathematical, that there shall be a return to the standpoint of the old natural history.

This is, however, a single illustration of a situation which embraces the whole field of science in the high school. That the child may really comprehend any of the phenomena which he studies in any field of science, it must be stated in terms of a world in which he lives and moves and has his being. That world is the nave world of the child, and he cannot live in it and learn something that belongs to another world, the world of science. His whole world must be in some sense transformed before he can approach the problem of the separate sciences in a scientific fashion. The result of the type of teaching which is now predominant in our secondary schools is that, what the child learns does not interpret his own world at all. A teacher of psychology has recently complained that his classes have not the faintest knowledge of the physical phenomena of sound and light, though in the high school a very large proportion of them have studied these very topics. What they learned there did not enter into their own experience and become


(242) an interpretation of the sounds that they heard, or the light that they saw.

The conclusion of this seems to be, not that we should turn to an antiquated method of presenting science, but that the child should be carried into the world of science before he is dispatched into the separate divisions of that world. And the high-school student should be brought into this world, not simply that he may overcome the isolation of the separate sciences in his curriculum, but because he has reached a period at which he naturally analyzes and refers the results of his analysis to some whole to which they belong.

The child below the high-school period has, as a rule, no such interest. Each experience is to him a matter of interest in itself, and though it is unconsciously interpreted by what he sees and hears and reads, sill his interest does not lead him to make it consciously a part of some larger whole. All that he has learned or experienced converges upon the immediate thing before him. It does not radiate out into a new world which his thought constructs.

The predominant intellectual characteristic of the adolescent age is that the child wake up to the existence of a world about him that he belongs to, but of which he is as yet ignorant.

Adequate materials for the reconstruction of his social world are placed at his disposal. Literature, history, stories of adventure and travel, especially novels of all descriptions, are in these days within easy reach, and are made so tempting in style, illustration and content that the process of building up the new social world is pushed to fast, and the child becomes socially over-stimulated.

Something of the same opportunity is offered in popular works on scientific subjects. Boys' books of invention and discovery, Jules Verne's stories, and the articles in our countless magazines popularizing scientific discoveries and methods, awaken an interest which the applications of steam and electricity keep alive. With these interests come the instincts for constructions and collections of various sorts, out of which a scientific spirit and a wide acquaintance with the world of science should result.

The result, however, is not what it should be. The study of science in the school is neither extensive enough, nor does it grow


(243) out of the instincts and interests of the children. While the language of his new social world is that of everyday life, that of the science he studies is a mathematical vernacular, which is not even comprehended without serious effort, and, as we have indicated above, he is not even allowed to use the language till he has mastered its grammar and syntax. There is nothing into which he cannot enter by the door of his vivid imagination, if it is presented to him in terms of human experience. He acquires almost unconsciously the political and social structure of this world. It is essentially comprehensible to him from the start; while most scientific concepts and laws are acquired with painful effort. And this effort is requisite, not because the concepts and laws are incomprehensible in themselves, but because they belong to a different world from that of the child's immediate experience, and one that does not grow up naturally and unconsciously out of that experience.

It is this background of a scientific world which the high school must supply if it is to give the child the same natural attitude toward the scientific studies in the curriculum, as that which he occupies toward the studies in language, literature, and history. It cannot be give him as the fait accompli of the trained mind. It must grow out of the immediate experience of the child, and yet it must stand out as a whole within which lie the fields of the difference sciences. It is impossible that the child should comprehend the meaning of a physical, as distinct from a chemical or a biological, problem, unless he has felt them arise our of a common matrix of experience.

Such a common matrix is suggested in physiography, not as it is presented in the textbooks of the subject, but as it might be present in a course which would be an introduction to science. Physiography at least takes its world as a whole, and the world is in the main that which appeals to the direct sense perceptions of the children. It presents that as a subject for investigation, and for the time being all the scientific problems are there lying side by side, and mutually conditioning each other. Problems of pressure and precipitation, of electricity, of solution, of plant and animal growth and distribution, of commerce and land formation, all arise from the study of the habitat within which the human race is found.


(244) That habitat has a meaning as a whole for the child, and the problems that grow out of it are not isolated. On the contrary, they can be kept in intimate interrelation with each other and with the world within which they appear.

Physiography as presented in our textbooks assumes rather than develops the scientific conceptions. The students receive without any concrete experience terms such as "solutions," "precipitations," "warmth," "electricity," "disintegration of rocks through weathering." The opportunity of making the important conceptions of science fundamentally real at the very outset is lost. They become terms with little meaning, that are oppressive rather than enlightening thereafter. The beginning of scientific world with children must be field and laboratory work. Such a course in the introduction to science would be given best of all without a textbook. Taking as its starting-point the problems of erosion and weathering that are to be found on the large and small scale everywhere, coupling with this some of the problems of plant distribution and dependence upon surrounding conditions, field-work would be the beginning, while the questions of the effects of cold and heat, of solution and precipitation, the physical processes involved in wind and the change of seasons, would present opportunities for laboratory experiment; in other worlds, for the development in the children's concrete experience of the conceptions necessary for the study of the physical environment as a whole. At the same time, it would be the differentiation of physical, chemical and biological problems as distinguished from each other.

The problem of the proper relation of mathematics to the sciences is a much more serious one, and one that will involve a very considerable reorganization of the study of mathematics from the beginning. For the purposes of application to science, mathematics must be considered as the theory of the measurement of motion. Geometry and algebra -- the continuous and the discrete -- can never be separated from each other if this point of view is to be maintained. It is a point of view which should be maintained from the start -- not one that has to be achieve with pain and effort later. The equation presented in the form of the graph is the natural tool, more easily grasped when properly presented than the


(245) complicated manipulations of algebraic symbols in the processes of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, with their applications in fractions and factoring. If mathematics were approached from this standpoint form the beginning, its value as the language in which scientific meaning is to be expressed would be won; instead of being a subject-matter largely incomprehensible because hopelessly abstract, it would become a transparent medium within which the concrete contents of science would appear.

There are, then, two great separations that have to be overcome in bringing science into the high schools; to its legitimate position, to its rights: (1) the separation between the science and the world to which it belongs -- the isolation of the science -- and isolation from the experience of the child, the isolation from the other sciences which leaves them each abstract and helpless within its own compartment; (2) the separation of the science from the language in which to so large a degree they must be expressed -- a separation which is rendered necessary by the manner in which the mathematics is taught. It is this separation which constitutes especially the middle wall of division between the child and his expert instructor; it is this separation which calls for a physical science which shall be non-mathematical. The instructor has learned that his physical problem can be stated only in terms of mathematics, and is helpless when he is deprived of the medium in which alone he is able to express himself. There is not question that the highly abstract form in which the mathematical statements of university physics are given is unnatural to the boy and girl of the high school; but this is quite different from the statement that their physical science should be presented without mathematics. It is not necessary that mathematical statements should be eschewed because the child is not interest in the niceties of exact mathematical statement. The graph remains a mode of presenting continuous change which is graphic and concrete and which welds together what must be presented together if physics is to have the value of scientific training-motion measured in discrete terms.

There is another respect in which the influence of the university upon the high-school science has been unfortunate. It its sense of competency and the incompetency of the high school and the


(246) high-school child to deal with science, the influence of the university has inevitably been to restrict the extent of the field of science in the high school. Let science be confined to that which the child in these years can accomplish in accordance with exact methods. It does not matter so much how much the child learns. The important thing is that he should make use of the proper method. The amount that he can adequately conceive is very small; let him therefore confine himself to that and doe it correctly, leaving the rest to a period which is equal to the more difficult task. Thus he will at least bring to later study an unspoiled mind, and what method has be acquired will not have to be unlearned. From this standpoint, it makes very little difference what a child learns, if he only does it in a really scientific manner. Let him keep the tentacles of observation sensitive. Whether his few observation are made in one subject or another is unimportant. The important thing is that he has learned to observe, to distinguish between what is uncritical assumption and what is fact. Science in the high school can almost be left to the chance of the equipment of the teaching force. If the science teacher is especially well equipped in biology, let the subject-matter be botany or zology; if he is a physicist or chemist, let one of these be the scientific pabulum of the child. What must be insisted upon is that the instructor be competent to direct the child's work in the scientific spirit and method, giving him the doctrine pure and undefiled.

I have already indicated that this is theoretically almost impossible, because the fundamental conceptions of all the sciences are so interwoven that it is impossible to pursue one branch by itself, without making use of conceptions which are to the child abstract and meaningless. If the position taken above is correct, it is necessary that these fundamental scientific conceptions be developed out of the experience of the child in a course which shall be introductory to all the sciences. But this isolated manner of giving a child his science does ham a wrong that is more serious than that of forcing him to use conceptions that he does not comprehend. It deprives him of the world of science, to which he has as incontestable a right in his years as the adult in the university or elsewhere.


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It has been already indicated that the child finds a literature so adapted to his intelligence that he is capable of fashioning in the adolescent period a social world into which all his experiences and acquirements fit naturally. It is not the world which he will have in his maturer years, when he has learned to apply historical criticism and literary judgment to the subject-matter of his study, but it is a world which is a whole, and which as a whole serve to interpret the individual things that he learns and experiences. Ancient history dovetails with the ancient languages and literature. Whether he is studying one or other, it remains all a part of one organized piece of human experience. Each element serves to interpret the other. In the same way there arises very soon a mediaeval period, even if it is gained only through the sources of Walter Scott. The Reformation, and the wars and struggles that gathered around it in England and the Netherlands and America, constitute another whole into which the different facts of history, modern institutions, and movements of population and commerce fit naturally enough, and from which they get their interpretations. There is no necessity of any fact or change standing shivering by itself. They can all have their relations brought out through the whole movement or situation to which they belong.

We should at once cry out that the child was being cheated if our high schools should deprive him of this whole, and the interpretation which it carries with it; if we would attempt to isolate history form language and literature, to isolate the study of institutions from that of biography, discovery, and warfare; if we should say the child cannot take the attitude of the historical critic as yet, but what he must learn at present is to use properly the method on a small scale, with a few facts. Let him then take some isolated problem in history and gather the data from sources; when hi is older he will be able to comprehend when he has done. Let him simply keep his capacity for observation keen, and later he will come with a matured mind to grasp the import of what he observes. We should replay that, no matter if he does revise his judgements of men and affairs, their history and achievements, when he is older, he has an unquestioned right to comprehend and think them earlier according to his powers. He has a right to the world as he can


(248) present it to himself, and especially to the interest and meaning which this carries with it. He has an equal right to the world of science as a whole for the meaning and interpretation which it carries with it; and a high-school curriculum which gives him some of the fragments of this world only, and does not allow him to form such an idea of it as an entirety, is cheating him out of what belongs to him at the time.

It is a commonplace of the times that we are living under the sign of science, that greater changes have been brought about by the applications of science to human affairs and apparatus than have ever been wrought before in human history. We recognize also that the discoveries of science have made the reconstruction of institutions, governmental and religious, necessary; that the bringing together of the ends of the earth, by steam and electricity, has presented us with entirely different moral problems, has reconstructed the theory of who is my neighbor. We know that change in scientific hypothesis has brought with it a new era even in philosophy. And yet, while the high-school student gets the sweep of the development of democracy as a whole, of the long struggle of liberty, of growth of empires and the spread of commerce; and while these vast organic wholes rest in the back of his mind to correlate the events of yesterday and today, he is not helped to a view of the scientific world as a whole. What he gets in this way is confined largely to the popular articles in the magazines, and the science he has in the school is so isolated that it does not event dovetail into this. It follows that, at a period when he is peculiarly sensitive to moral forces and ideas, he does not come into touch with the high morality of science, with its decalogue of disinterested exactness, its idealistic hypotheses, its gospel of human intelligence. Furthermore, the set he gets against science in the high school follows him into the university or out into the world. The scientists in the university complain that scientific courses are not placed upon the same level with the language and literature courses. They fail, however, to recognize that back of these latter courses lies a whole organized world of human experience that takes up into itself history, philology, literature; while back of their scientific studies lies at first almost nothing. The beginning


(249) is a difficult reconstruction of current conceptions, or an equally difficult discovery of meaning in terms of phrases which have been loosely and uncomprehendingly used before.

This preliminary work should be done in the secondary school, not simply for the sake of the university, but for the sake of the student himself. For it is science that carries with it the most modern and most profound culture, for the simple reason that it is science which is the source of our ideas and ideals, at least of the formative ideas and ideals.

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