Economy in College Work

To view a man as a machine is considered materialistic by many persons ; but there are sufficient analogies between a man and an engine to warrant us in drawing certain conclusions in regard to the output from a definite amount of material furnished to the human organization. We are justified, I believe, from physical analogies, in considering the human brain as a receptacle of impressions which it can give forth when it is properly stimulated. Now a certain work must be done in order to make an impression upon a more or less yielding material. A dint in a rock will follow only upon the recurrence of more or less similar blows. Work must be continuously done, if a sensible impression is to be made. How can one make a German dint in his brain if he rushes from a recitation in French to a recitation in German, and then flies to a lecture in Greek, and finishes with two hours in a physical laboratory ? We see composite photographs of the faces of our college seniors and of the girls in female colleges ; but who will present us with an adequate representation of the interior of the heads of students who have upon their cards for the week Latin, Greek, mathematics, modern languages, and science ? The dim and confused photographs of the physiognomy of the composite student would be definite indeed compared with the representation of such an intellectual interior.

Some years ago a one-study college was established west of the Mississippi. Its cardinal principle consisted in taking one subject at a time, and in finishing it before taking up another. We are tempted, living in the shade of an old university, to laugh at this experiment in education, and to point to the experience of many hundred years in universities older than ours as a reason for not following in the track of the one-study college. There is a germ of truth, however, in this educational experiment; for the actual results of the system now prevalent in our high schools and colleges do not inspire confidence in it.

It is rare to find a college student who can read a German work on physical science, although he may have taken several German electives during his college course. If the same student had been three months in a German town, he would have been able to make himself understood, to understand others, and to read a German newspaper. It is true that in the latter case he is in a German country, and conditions are favorable for his getting a command of the language; but he will tell you that his success comes from breathing and eating in a German atmosphere. There is not a moment in the day in which he is not reminded of a German verb. He has become an intense specialist in German; moreover, he cannot depend upon the atmosphere alone of his environment, but he must supplement it by assiduous study with a competent teacher. Now if the same man had taken up his residence in a frontier town where German is spoken on one side of a river and French on the other, and had undertaken to gain a working knowledge of both languages at the same time in three months or even in a year, we all know how lamentable his failure would have been. It may be said that a university does not propose to give a man a working knowledge of any subject: it merely opens the book of knowledge and shows what there is in it, and how delightful it would be to gain at some future time a sound knowledge of the various subjects there presented.

I hear some one exclaim, “ Would you take away the mental freshness which a student gets in turning from subject to subject, and confine him to one subject until he becomes a dull specialist ? ” Many remember the intense relish with which they turned, while in college, from Greek to fine arts, or from mathematics to the classics, and are tempted to argue that this relish led to a better assimilation than if they had been kept on one diet for a prolonged period. The truth is that most of us sentimentalize in regard to our early education, and are apt to think that all should take a course which may have awakened intellectual curiosity for the first time in our special case. Thus the classical man would have all men study Greek, because he, having studied it assiduously, has obtained the grip which it should be one of the primary objects of education to acquire. If he had studied physical science, which offers an ample field for intellectual effort, with as much persistence as he had Greek, the classical man might have become an advocate of science instead of the classics. We often meet men who have received great pabulum from certain books which do not strike us as affording an extraordinary amount of stimulus.

I have referred to the blurred impressions which the mind of a student must receive who turns the sensitive plate of his brain to many points of view during the day. No one image has made a distinct impression. Besides the want of a material impression, which will be apparent when the student is required to apply his knowledge, there is a want of moral fibre, — a want of what may be called a second breath. Very little can be accomplished in the world without persistence and a certain bull-dog grip upon a subject. It is this grip which gives a man of one idea such strength. It seems, therefore, that a physical truth in education can be thus formulated : An enduring mental impression requires forcible and repeated blows, and also the element of time. Generally speaking, startling ideas are of uncommon occurrence. We must depend upon slowly made changes in the brain cells. Nor is it reasonable from physical analogies that any process of mental crystallization can go on if the medium repeatedly is disturbed by changes of treatment and by addition of different reagents. It may be objected that mental crystallization not inaptly describes a pernicious set into which the mind of a dull man may fall by long contemplation of one subject. We have all of us often wished to sever the button from our coat, and leave the button-holder to discourse to empty space, while we fled to some Admirable Crichton, whose mind, rendered flexible by turning from subject to subject, could make the weary hours trip to a delightful diversified measure. The work of life, however, requires in the main steady-going engines, and to perfect these is one of the greatest objects of human endeavor.

A long residence in a university town is apt to make one distrustful of one’s educational theories. The theorist is confronted immediately with a tabular view, and is asked to make his theories conform to the view. My theory, in short, is this : A student should study two subjects for at least three months, and two subjects alone. One of these should be a hard subject, giving plenty of opportunity for application, — like Greek, or German, or mathematics, — while the other may be a comparatively light subject, which can serve as a mental rest through the change which it affords. At the end of three months another hard subject may be taken up, and the first one relinquished for a time. A student of Harvard University, to whom I propounded this plan, remarked that many students practically carried out this idea in the arrangement of their electives. One will take a hard subject, intending to devote his principal effort to it, while he gives very little time or attention to the other electives. This practice leads to a certain demoralizing effect upon both student and professor, for the whole mind should be given to a subject under consideration, whether it is important or unimportant. Nothing is more deadening and disheartening to a teacher than the presence of a halfhearted student in the lecture-room.

I have examined the tabular view of Harvard University — for it is only in a college where the elective system prevails that the plan I advocate can be carried out — and that of the Institute of Technology in Boston, in order to see how many subjects are now offered to students. Every Sophomore, Junior, and Senior in Harvard University is required to take four elective courses. These courses are in addition to a slight amount of prescribed work in English and physics. The subjects offered are, in the rough, as follows : —

Latin, Spanish,

English, Philosophy,

German, History,

French, Physics,

Political economy, Semitics,

Chemistry, Sanskrit,

Natural history, Fine arts,

Greek, Music,

Mathematics, Roman law,

Romance philology.

A student can mass his work so that all his studies may be in two departments, or even in one department, for the year. It is not usual for him to do so. Most men have at least three electives a week in subjects not generically connected. There are certain studies which are so nearly related that intellectual effort in one immediately aids one in another. Thus Latin and Greek may be studied with profit, even in alternate hours. Philosophy and history, or political economy and history, should go together. But few students can get a command of German and French by pursuing them together, or of laboratory physics or chemistry, or physics in immediate combination with any philosophical or philological subject. In examining the nineteen or twenty subjects which form in the main the elective curriculum of Harvard University, — the actual number of elective studies offered being far greater, — I find that the division of subjects can be reduced to twelve, by grouping together the subjects which aid each other. Thus Latin and Greek can be studied together with philological profit. French can be studied with French history; German with German history ; political economy with history; chemistry alone, or in conjunction with English ; Spanish with Spanish history; philosophy with history ; physics alone; Semitics with ancient history ; fine arts and music with English, or fine arts and music as a let-up with any of the severer studies ; mathematics with English; Romance philology with its suitable language. Thus having twelve subjects, three of these could be pursued in the nine months of each college year, and in four years the whole twelve could be accomplished, — if a student wished to take all the subjects enumerated. At the Institute of Technology, I find that a student who takes the engineering course has each week of the first year mathematics, chemistry, history of the English language, English composition, French or German, mechanical and freehand drawing, — six subjects, three of which are not related to each other. During the second year he has each week surveying, mathematics, physics, political economy, German, with several options, — five subjects, three of which are not related. During the third year he has railroad engineering, mathematics, physics, geology, German, with several options, — five subjects, three not related to each other. In the fourth year he pursues engineering, metallurgy of iron, — two subjects which bear upon each other, but which are not connected in intellectual effort. A large part of the severe strain upon students in our technical schools results from the strain put upon the intellectual machine in changing the points of application of mental force too often. While seeking information upon this subject, I asked a professor in the United States Military Academy at West Point how many subjects were pursued there during the week, and he replied, “ Three, — mathematics, mathematics, mathematics.” No one who has met a graduate of West Point can deny that he has a grip on the subject of the calculus which few college men obtain.

The instructors in science in American colleges would certainly agree to the proposition that it is useless to attempt to obtain original scientific work from undergraduates. I do not mean by the word “ original ” anything more than respectable research in a limited field of scientific inquiry, in which valuable results might be secured even by a Senior. This inability to achieve logical intellectual effort is due not so much to immaturity in the student as to the multiplicity of studies which most students carry on at the same time. The mind cannot rest sufficiently long upon one subject to become creative in it. The work that is done by students of science in laboratories is accomplished by college graduates, or by men who have concentrated their minds for a considerable period upon one subject. This concentration has not in general been taught them by the course of education laid down by their instructors, but is the result of an intellectual discovery made by the students themselves. The discovery is quickly made in the subject of athletics. A college oarsman, in preparing for a race, does not spend an hour at tennis, an hour in putting the shot, or an hour in swimming. The base-ball player, before an important match, concentrates his attention upon those exercises which will perfect him in base ball. Thus the student, when brought face to face with the practical problem of winning a victory, pursues an opposite course to that which characterizes his intellectual career. Can there be two true solutions to the dynamical problem of running the human engine so as to produce the most telling effect ?

If the college year is blocked out into periods of three months, during which a student pursues only one subject, the odium of specializing too early in education is escaped. During these terms or periods of three months, I would have the student become thoroughly imbued with his subject. If it be German, he should get his news through a daily German newspaper; he should attend a German seminar, where German subjects are discussed in German ; he should read German novels, play German games, puzzle out jokes in the Fliegende Blätter ; in short, should surround himself with as perfect a German atmosphere as is possible. If he is studying physics, he should give his days to the laboratory, his nights to the theory of the subject; he should look up a physical subject in a library; he should attend a physical seminar, where physical subjects are discussed.

During the past thirty years a remarkable group of young mathematicians have grown up in the English universities. This group of men, who in English parlance have a grip upon the subject of mathematics and mathematical physics, have obtained this grip by assiduously devoting themselves to doing riders or problems. This work admits of no rival occupation. The questions set require the exertion of the entire intellectual man for a long period ; and it was largely by this prolonged and specialized exertion that the English mathematician won such mastery. A most interesting account of this feature of intellectual development can be found in the Life of James Clerk Maxwell. The world has known periods of intense devotion to one idea, and the outcome has always been remarkable. Perugino and Raphael could paint pictures that seemed inspired because they were permeated with the atmosphere of the time. There was but one subject before them, and that was devotional art. The Puritan founded a state and built a city whose rise and intellectual and commercial influence upon the United States have been as remarkable as that of Venice, and left a fibre which is felt even now in the far West. The strength of the Puritan came not from his narrowness, but from the quality of his training. The truth that it is not so much what we do as how we do it dawns upon us all very slowly. We are all spendthrifts of physical and intellectual exertion.

The subject can be considered also from the point of view of strengthening the memory. It is difficult to separate the faculty of memory from that of adaptation for any special work, for the mental and tactual memory are closely combined. Merely gathering up the reins brings back the art of driving a four-in-hand. The faculty of memory can only be cultivated by dwelling upon one idea at a time. In the art of photography the best pictures are produced by slow plates; that is, by sensitive plates which require a comparatively long exposure to the elaborating action of the rays of light. Quick plates, it is true, catch the fleeting images ; but they are apt to produce thin negatives, from which only poor and indistinct prints can be obtained. Something similar can be said of the action of the brain in regard to storing up impressions which constitute memory. With strong images in the brain, and with a method of excitation to which constant and prolonged use has accustomed us, we are not far from the plane of genius.

John Trowbridge.