The Want of Economy in the Lecture System

IT is the object of this paper to point out that the lecture system, unaccompanied by what may be called laboratory work, is an uneconomical method of imparting information, when the intellectual outlay and the results attained are compared.

There are those who firmly believe in the lecture system unsupported by any practical work on the part of the listeners. They have apparently unbounded faith in the ability of a great man to put one on the road to knowledge by lectures ; and they are ready to exclaim with a distinguished modern French writer on St. François d’Assisi, “ Rien pour communiquer la pensée ne vaut la viva vox.” Undoubtedly a great man may succeed in communicating an enthusiasm for knowledge, but it can be said of enthusiasm, as it has been said of faith, without works it is dead. Of what use, it may be asked, are lectures on modern whist without practice with the cards ? What young lady cares to listen to lectures on embroidery ? Of what avail are lectures on cookery unaccompanied by practical work ? Yet we still see in certain medical schools the endeavor to teach surgery by lectures, and in some law schools the attempt to teach law by lectures, without practice in the investigation of cases.

When we carefully examine the educational methods of the present time, and compare them with those of twenty years ago, we can perceive, however, that a slow but steady progress has been made in substituting economical methods of instruction for uneconomical ones. Thus, the recitation from textbooks in chemistry and physics is largely giving place to laboratory methods. Law lectures in the best law schools are subordinate to the investigation and study of cases, and hospital work and laboratory work in medical schools are steadily demanding more attention than recitation and lecture work. It is said that the superior excellence of medical instruction in Germany largely resides in the fact that bedside instruction has taken the place of general lectures on pathology. If we consult the catalogues and announcements of studies of our principal American colleges and universities, we find few purely lecture courses offered to students. In almost every case it is stated that the lecture course will be supplemented by certain practical exercises, such as the preparation of theses, the comparison of authors, and the looking up of cases and authorities.

There is, however, an innate fondness in the human breast for lecturing our fellow-men. When a man by long study has conquered the difficulties of a subject, and has made, it may be, a discovery, he desires, chanticleer-like, to give the world the benefit of the light that has come to him. This desire, of course, is highly commendable ; but does not the lecturer often forget that be arrived at his intellectual elevation by a slow educating process of practical experiences, and is he not mistaken in supposing that his audience can appreciate the importance of his work without some practical work on the road which he has traveled ?

The lecture system may be said to be a relic of the Middle Ages, and undoubtedly arose from the difficulty of obtaining manuscripts, or what might answer to printed directions for the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge then was in the hands of a few. The lecture system has been perpetuated like many processes of law, having been made respectable by age, and having been practiced by scholars whose training is the opposite of that of business men, and who have not made a careful study of economical methods.

At this time, when schemes of university extension are very much discussed, the question of the utility of the lecture method becomes an important one. The university extension plan resembles in some respects the system of lyceum lectures which once marked an era in the intellectual life of New England ; though it should be said that the most capable advocates of the university extension method insist upon accompanying work and examination. It may be interesting, however, to examine the rise and fall of the New England lyceum.

As early as 1823, there was a movement in Massachusetts to establish lyceum courses of lectures, and in 1830 there were at least seventy-eight in the State. Sir Thomas Wyse, in a paper published in London in 1838, On the Lyceum System in America, with a Consideration of its Applicability to Mechanics Institutes in England, estimates that in 1831 there existed one thousand town lyceums, and fifty or sixty county lyceums, in America. The chief function of the lyceums was to provide courses of lectures, although in some cases, like the Essex Institute at Salem, collections in natural history were formed. In most cases, the lyceums as a centre for the diffusion of knowledge by means of collections in science died out, and were replaced by courses of lectures, independent of any widespread organization like that contemplated by the founders of the lyceums. The lyceum maintained its hold, however, for more than fifty years in certain towns, and an earnest attempt was made to preserve its simplicity and austerity. It was gravely debated whether music and the stereopticon or dramatic readings should be allowed to encroach upon its intellectual character. The student of the lyceum can probably find the best example of its work in the records of the town of Concord. At the fiftieth anniversary of the Concord Lyceum. January 7, 1879, Judge Hoar said : “ I ask you to pause with me a moment and think what this simple institution has done for this town ; what an impression it has made upon this community ; what an instrument of education, of culture, of social acquaintance, it has been. For fifty years, through successive winters, the old and the young have come here together to see each other’s faces, — the young men and maidens sometimes, perhaps, with other views than strictly intellectual culture ; but all of us friendly, neighborly, and engaged in a pursuit innocent and wholesome. And there has been poured out before us, received into our minds and hearts, instruction the value of which no statement of mine can possibly overestimate. The institution has been conducted in the most catholic spirit. Every shade of opinion has been presented and respectfully entertained. After Dr. Brownson, the accomplished Catholic scholar, we had Dr. Manning of the Old South and Dr. Stone of Park Street, the Baptist Dr. Neale, Dr. Hedge, Henry Ward Beecher, Dr. Chapin, Starr King, Edward Everett Hale, James Freeman Clarke, Mr. Weiss, Theodore Parker, sonnding the gamut from one end of the scale to the other. Our lyceum has heard lectures from two presidents of Harvard College, Mr. Felton and Dr. Hill, from Dr. Leonard Bacon of New Haven, from Dr. Huntington, from Dr. Gannett, from Dr. Sears, from Professor Horsford, from Waterston and Quincy, from Horace Greeley and John P. Hale, from George Thompson of England, from Dr. Palfrey, Dr. Francis, Dr. Ellis, from Agassiz and Holmes, Lowell and Dana, Whipple and Fields, from Jones Very, George T. Davis, Joseph T. Buckingham, and Dr. Charles T. Jackson.” The judge gives the names of eminent jurists, also. The list shows the aims and the activity of the lyceum ; and although the lyceum organization was early abandoned, courses of lectures continued to be established in most New England towns. Such courses were perhaps most flourishing between 1850 and 1860 ; for the great question of the abolition of slavery and the issues of the civil war brought forward earnest orators, and people thronged to public halls to hear them lecture.

The necessity of attending at least one course of lectures may be said to have haunted the Puritan conscience as late as 1866. Up to this period lectures on serious topics were well attended. Professor Lovering, my predecessor at Harvard University, told me that he often had to repeat his lectures on physics before the Lowell Institute in Boston, in order that the overflow might hear them. Today even a Helmholtz would be painfully conscious of the array of empty benches after the public had satisfied their curiosity in seeing a distinguished man. There are few towns in America in which, at the present time, there are courses of lectures which may be called intellectual. Where Emerson and Phillips and George William Curtis once lectured, there are now occasional lectures on the wonders of electricity, stereopticon views of the World’s Fair, or journeys through Spain with a kodak. The reason for the decay of the systematic courses of lectures in the lyceums I leave to the student of sociology ; merely expressing my own conviction that the public found the results attained were not commensurate with the effort they made in attending the lectures. Then, too, the great increase in the number of public entertainments, the circulation of illustrated magazines, and the Sunday newspapers have had their influence.

While the effort to provide systematic instruction by lectures has died out in the lyceums, the lecture system is still strongly rooted in many of our normal schools and colleges. Certain young men and young women still feel a source of satisfaction in enrolling themselves in lecture courses, and count their advance in intellectual training by the number of these lectures and by the size of their notebooks. In the subject of physics, the qualification of being a good lecturer is considered a fundamental one in the appointment of a professor. I occasionally receive letters from trustees of educational institutions, asking if I can recommend a candidate for a professorship in natural philosophy who would also be capable of conducting morning prayers and of giving instruction in chemistry. I feel that I may be guarded in my commendations on all these points save on that of the qualification of being a good lecturer. This must be testified to without reserve. It is apparent that, notwithstanding the advance that has been made in laboratory methods of instruction, the attempt is still made, even in our leading universities, to convey a body of systematic instruction by means of lectures. Is it not well to ask ourselves if this attempt leads to economical results ?

If lectures are unaccompanied by some kind of laboratory work, some practice in looking up cases, or some method of investigation, I believe that they are uneconomical. A lecture in science, with illustrations and experiments, requires at least two hours of preparation on the part of the professor. In the course of this arduous work, the latter is doing exactly what the student who is to hear the lecture should do in order to appreciate it. The professor does all the work, and the minds of his listeners, not being prepared as his has been, are not in a receptive state, and the amount of instruction that is assimilated is vanishingly small. We see often, in our colleges and technical schools, the spectacle of a worn and wan professor, exhausted by the labor of delivering courses of lectures, returning to his home more tired than a ploughman and sower of seed; for he has not the certainty the latter feels that the ground has been well fitted for the reception of the germs.

I have said that the professor, in the preparation of his lectures, gets the chief intellectual advantage of the course of lectures ; the contact with things and the diligent examination of the conditions of the experiments give him an intense interest in the subject matter of the lecture. The audience, on the other hand, judge of the success of the lecturer by the smoothness and ease of his experimentation. The experiment is soon over. Everything is made simple, and the mind is not rudely arrested and confronted with difficulties ; indeed, the difficulties are often concealed by the facile lecturer. Even an intelligent student may listen with the best intentions to obtain the utmost from a course of lectures, for instance on light ; but when he engages in amateur photography he finds that he learns more in a day in regard to the properties of lenses and the intensity of light than he had learned in an entire course of lectures on optics. After a season of practice in photography he could attend a lecture on optics with interest and profit. I am inclined to think that if a student should try to imitate the style of the best prose writers before he attends a lecture on style, he would be in the condition of assimilation of the amateur photographer. The professor who attempts to give systematic instruction by courses of lectures, unaccompanied by some kind of laboratory work on the part of the students, I repeat, is largely doing the work which the student should do. Is it economical, for instance, to spend much time and a considerable sum of money in freezing water on the top of a red-hot crucible, when the audience have never tried the simplest experiment on latent heat, specific heat, or the tension of vapors ? How much intellectual progress is stimulated by showing electrical sparks three feet in length, if the audience have never obtained by systematic experiments a realizing sense of what electro-motive force, resistance, and current signify ? The minds of the audience are in the condition of those of children at a Christmas pantomime. The professor is worn out by the burden of lecturing with small results ; and the school committee or the trustees gauge his success in teaching by the fluency of his exposition and the aptness of his experiments. No greater praise, apparently, can be given than the remark, "Professor So - and - So never fails in his experiments.舡 I am inclined to think that his labor is uneconomical, because he is doing the work that his audience ought to do in order to appreciate the difficulties of the subject.

But we have not represented fully the severe burden undertaken by the lecturer. In many cases, forgetting the invention of printing, he covers the blackboards with notes, and himself with chalk, and then proceeds to lecture to an audience busily occupied in copying a paragraph just preceding that which he is elucidating. The young instructor, fresh from Germany, proceeds a step farther. Throwing aside the scaffolding by which he rose to his mental height, he invites his audience to ascend, by making those untrained in the art of taking notes fill their notebooks with a mass of directions in which their minds are apt to be irretrievably lost. I often pick up in the laboratory notes of lectures on various subjects, and I remember a book which contained on one page a careful statement of what the topics were to be in a course on philosophy ; on the next page were the notes of the first, lecture, which were fairly good, except that the lecturer was quoted in an affirmative proposition where he undoubtedly stated a negative one ; on the following page was an account of the second lecture, half as long as that of the first; on the fourth page there was simply the title of the third lecture ; and on the fifth a diagram of the relative positions of the quarter backs and full backs on the football field. If one is successful in filling a notebook with fairly good accounts of a course of lectures, how desirable are they in comparison with even a poor textbook? The latter has the merit of being in print, and of being therefore legible. The poor textbook is apt to cover more ground than the notebooks, and if it is properly criticised and annotated can be made a more valuable possession as the years go on than the imperfectly taken notes. I sometimes survey my pile of notebooks, relics of the days of my early education. They are musty now ; the writing is illegible, and pages are wanting here and there. I never consult them ; and the only permanent advantage of the lectures of which the books are reminders is a list of books of reference which one of the notebooks contains. The chance remark of the instructor that certain data could be found in print has outlived in usefulness all my elaborate notes. If I had been told where to go for information, and how to use my tools when I found them, and had been set to work with them, I should have been saved the labor of taking useless notes, and should not have the memory of an overworked and nervously exhausted teacher, who was annoyed by vapid yawning, snapping of watch cases, and who beat the air in vain.

The lecture system in our universities leads, moreover, to a system of cramming for examinations. Many students neglect entirely to take notes on certain lectures, and rely upon obtaining the notes of some student who makes a business of selling his information, and preparing indolent men to pass examinations on a year’s course of lectures by a two hours’ cram. To my mind the remedy is plain. The audience should be set to work, by some method of investigation which will compel the mind to fix itself upon a subject in order to become interested in it and to appreciate the lectures upon it.

I hear, however, my antagonist and critic murmur, this is the argument of a narrow specialist. Lectures can be made liberalizing, and a general view of a subject can be given without the close and special attention which tends to narrow the mind, and prevent it from taking broad views of the subject. I believe that there is much false sentiment on the subject of what is a liberal education. A learned professor told me once that one of the chief liberalizing advantages, to his mind, of the study of the classics was the ability it gave him to unravel the etymology of scientific words, and therefore to afford him an inkling of what the subject represented by the term treated of. For instance, the word “bolometer ” he deduced from βολή, a throw, or cast, and μέτρο, a measure. “ Dynamo ” came from δύνаμις, power, some apparatus for producing power. He was content, being liberally educated, to skim the subject thus, and felt great satisfaction in his liberal knowledge. My critic will say, the student performs a certain experiment on sound, and, with his mind concentrated on the experiment, does not obtain a liberal view of the whole subject of sound which he might obtain from a systematic course of lectures. He looks up a special case, and the great philosophical bearings of the subject never enter his mind. I am afraid that my critic and I can never get upon a common ground ; for I believe that a superficial view of a subject is not liberalizing, and that accurate work even in a corner of a subject fits the ground to receive the seeds for a greater growth. A student, I repeat, who has actually worked with lenses —who has taken photographs, and has measured the intensity of light — will read books on optics with a certain avidity unknown before, and will be in the best position to gain a larger knowledge ; while the general listener and the general reader never understand what is important and what is unimportant in a subject. Their liberal ideas are often inaccurate ideas, and therefore far from being liberalizing.

Again, I can hear my critic say, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, walked from Woburn to Cambridge, eight miles, to attend the lectures of Professor Winthrop on physics, and who can tell how much influence they had on his remarkable career as a philosopher ? He remembered the college by a liberal benefaction to the subject on which he heard lectures. Other examples can be adduced of the interest which popular lectures have had in turning a boy’s mind toward science; but, I reply, the youth Benjamin Thompson and other boys of similar tastes had experimented before they attended the lectures, and were therefore in a condition to profit by the lectures. My remarks are largely directed to the great body of the audience, which has, I am tempted to say, the immoral desire of obtaining something without being willing properly to work for it.

A lecturer on physics, according to my experience, cannot expect to talk intelligently to more than ten students out of a hundred in his audience. These ten men will be those who have taken photographs, experimented with dynamos or telephones, or made some mechanical invention. They are the youthful Rumfords, and their minds have been fitted by actual experience in dealing with the difficulties of the subject to profit by the labors of the professor. The rest of the audience may receive a stimulus, a momentary exhilaration of enthusiasm, but it is a temporary effect unless the hands and eyes are immediately set to work. The professor is lecturing economically only when he lectures to his assistants who know the difficulties of the subject, and who are ready to profit by the smallest suggestions. To my mind, Rembrandt’s School of Anatomy is a great moral lesson to the university professor. The professor, with the subject before him, is giving his interpretation of the processes which his audience have studied with the same instruments and through the same lenses. They are therefore ready to see what the eye of experience points out. The painter has shown a group of faces, full of attention and thought, and the conversion of energy from the dynamo to the motors is well - nigh perfect. Let us suppose that an instantaneous photograph should be taken of a large, untrained audience listening to a lecture on physics. You would see in it listless heads, vacant expressions, puzzled faces which say plainly, “ You are lecturing over my head,” faces which betray impatience at what they consider elementary propositions, and faces wrapped in slumber. Here is no resemblance to Rembrandt’s picture. If, on the other hand, an instantaneous photograph should be taken of a laboratory section who are listening to a fifteen-minute lecture on the work of the morning before they go to the laboratory tables, almost every face will be thoughtful, bent upon the demonstrator, who is pointing out the precautions that must be taken and the facts that should be observed ; and there is a look in the eyes of the students which is analogous to that in the group of physicians painted by Rembrandt.

Realizing fully the danger of reasoning that the best method of procedure in one’s own subject would necessarily prove advantageous in other domains of knowledge. I am tempted, however, to dogmatize, and to maintain, from my experience of the advantages of laboratory work, that there should be a minimum of lecturing, and a maximum of audience work, in all subjects. Might not the student of the history of art, even, be in less danger of accepting limiting creeds if he engaged in what is analogous to laboratory work, — the testing of processes which have been used by masters of the art of sculpture and painting, the moulding of objects into classical forms ?

The metal worker strikes and moulds the objects he desires to fashion, when they are hot, and not when they are cold and unfit to take impressions. It is encouraging to see a slow but sure substitution of laboratory methods of instruction for lecture methods.

John Trowbridge.