Teaching Biology in the Schools

EDUCATION is effective in proportion as it produces changes in the thoughts or feelings or conduct of people, in proportion, that is, as it makes people think and feel and act differently from what they would otherwise have done. In this sense it may be admitted at once that all education is more or less effective. What really concerns every one of us is: What kinds of changes are produced; what are the thoughts and feelings and actions of those who receive the benefits of education, as compared with those who do not; what kinds of education produce the most desirable kinds of thinking and feeling and doing? In short, what kind of education is really practical ?

Educators have claimed for their processes that they yield training and culture; to the non-professional citizen these things have not always appeared as practical. It is not enough to say to-day for any subject that it yields training or culture; the public has been taught to expect every subject to yield training and culture, and it knows that some subjects are more directly of use to the pupil than others. The public wants to know the practical value of every subject in addition to its training or culture-value. And in this demand the public is entirely in the right.

But we find further that the common notion of what is “ practical ” in education involves not only efficiency in work, and skill in obtaining a livelihood; it involves also the idea of success in industrial or commercial competition. In other words, to the public mind “ economic welfare ” as an educational end is but another name for individual economic advantage.

Until public education became quite general, the aim of education was chiefly directed toward giving the individual certain advantages, some social, or spiritual, or military, others distinctly industrial or economic. It is still possible for the individual to advance his private material interests at the expense of the community at large, or at the expense of his neighbors; and there are those things in “ education ” which make it possible for the individual to get for himself certain material benefits in his competition with other individuals. Thus the individual who has acquired more skill or more knowledge of certain kinds has advantages over other individuals. A good medical or technological school may give its graduates an equipment that will be of great advantage to them in their competition with graduates of a less efficient school.

On the other hand, the aim of the public school cannot be considered to bear on the economic advantage of the individual over other individuals; public education cannot concern itself with the training of individuals for a keener economic competition. We cannot suppose that the state is engaged in the enterprise of training boys and girls to become expert in outdoing one another. When education is not only offered to, but actually imposed upon, all children at public expense, it seems absurd to speak of the advantages that are to accrue to the individual in competition with others — as a result of this education. Public education is concerned, first and last, with the public and the general welfare; it is its purpose primarily, not to give each individual what he needs as against all others, but to give each what he needs as a member of the community, to give all what it is important for all that all should have. Teachers in public schools cannot claim for their subjects that they give to the pupils economic advantages over other individuals; they cannot claim for Latin or geography that it enables the student to excel others in the arts of making money, succeeding in business, and the like. The relation of a subject to the “economic welfare” must be sought on the non-competitive plane of general advantage.

In taking the economic point of view, we must consider the effect of any study upon the community’s producing power, and upon its methods of utilizing its wealth. Leaving out of account for the present the direct effect of technical or industrial training upon the skill — and thus upon the productivity — of all workers, I wish to consider some of the effects of one branch of education upon the thoughts and feelings and conduct of the citizen with regard to the utilization of the wealth of the community. And, by way of illustration, I shall refer to the teaching of biology in high schools: first, because I happen to know more about this subject than about any other; and second, because this subject is so commonly considered a “fad” that its “ practical ” use finds very little appreciation.

There are many plants and animals, and many organic processes in nature, of which mankind makes direct use; it is important that those who have to do with these plants and animals and processes should understand these things. But very few of the boys and girls in our high schools, especially in the cities, are to become farmers or fishermen or foresters, or even physicians; and if any of them do take up these callings they will not do so on the basis of the year of biology they can get in the high school, nor will any one be able to dispense with the services of a physician in sickness because of having studied biology in the high school. Nevertheless, there are many points at which the practical welfare of the people touches the biology which every highschool pupil can get.

The economic welfare of the people rests upon the economical utilization and husbanding of the natural resources. The conduct of the citizen in relation to the natural resources of his community or nation will depend to a very large extent upon his realization of the importance of the various factors of the natural environment to the life of the community, and to the life of the various members of the community. Such a realization can be acquired only — or, at any rate, most economically — by learning at a proper time and in a proper way of the relations between man and the living part of his environment.

To understand wherein the “ fertility ” of the soil consists, the relation of the soil to plant and animal life, how it may be preserved and how it may be improved, is of great practical importance to the farmer; the farmer who does not understand these things is to that extent inefficient, and foredoomed to failure as a farmer. But to the extent that all the citizens understand these things, whether they are farmers or not, the soil of a nation will be preserved as to quantity and as to quality.

To understand the conditions for the growth and renewal of forests, the enemies and the friends of the forests, is of great importance to the forester and to the lumberman; but it is of greater importance to the whole people that each citizen should understand the relation of the forest to the welfare of the nation. Such an understanding would make impossible the shameful waste that has been going on for the past fifty years. A nation with such an understanding would not tolerate the absurd spectacle enacted in the last Congress, the spectacle of that august body solemnly refusing to appropriate funds to fight the mistletoe which is destroying valuable oak trees in some of the states, on the ignorant — or the insolent — pretext that it was placing sentiment above dollars. A nation with such an understanding would not tolerate the disgraceful frauds connected with the seizure of millions of acres of the people’s forest lands.

It is important to the fisherman to know something about the habits of his prey; but it is more important for the community that it shall regulate the disposal of refuse that may contaminate its streams, and that it shall prevent the depletion of its fish-supplies with some regard for the morrow. The factory-owner who throws waste poison into the river, and the wholesale fisher, are concerned with quick profits; but the community continues to need its rivers and its fishsupplies after the manufacturer and the fisherman and you and I are gone. The safety of the community lies in a public intelligence that will be quick to rebuke the absence of private conscience, that wall refuse to tolerate anything that is inimical to the common welfare, even in the name of private enterprise or business success.

The practice of hunting rests upon the individual’s interests or pleasure; the restriction of hunting as to seasons and territory, and as to species and age of birds or mammals killed, rests upon the larger need of the whole people. It is possible to have sane laws in these matters, and to carry out their intent, just in proportion as the general public both realizes their importance and sympathizes with their purpose.

I claim in the first place, then, that in the ways suggested the teaching of biology in the high schools may have a direct effect upon the conduct of a community, in leading it to oppose the exploitation of public wealth, in the form of natural resources, for private gain. Whether it will at the same time teach the general principle of resistance to exploitation of the public wealth in general, depends very largely upon the teacher.

The first wealth of a nation is the health of its citizens. The bearing of a knowledge of hygiene upon the well-being of the individual and of the community has been pretty generally recognized; but that the community actually needs that all its members should understand something of the principles of diet and nutrition, has not been so generally recognized. An understanding of the relation between green plants and the renewal of oxygen in the air is a good basis for realizing the importance of trees and parks in cities, from the narrower practical point of view, something apart from appreciating the need for playgrounds or the æsthetic value of these things.

The boy who learns to kill mosquitoes and to spare the lady-birds will probably not be the richer for it when he comes to make his will; but the community that learns to kill its mosquitoes and to spare its lady-birds will surely have an incalculable balance in its favor. The occasional individual who learns to avoid spitting is still exposed to infection from the spitting of others; the community that first eliminates spitting and pencillicking will probably be the first to eliminate the white plague. If an understanding of the relations of bacteria and ventilation and diet and work to people’s health will lead a generation of citizens to oppose with all their might the building of unsanitary dwellings, the operation of ill-ventilated factories, the marketing of unwholesome foods and quack remedies, and the overworking of men, women, and children, such an understanding is worth all it can cost. No other knowledge given to all the children of a nation will do so much for the general welfare as an appreciation of the relations between man and the organic factors of his environment.

I claim in the second place that a public opinion informed properly upon these subjects will oppose the exploitation of the health of human beings for private gain.

The application of science to technical and economic problems has in nothing produced more significant results than in the biological field. The tremendous increase in the yield of useful plants and animals for the work expended, the great improvements in the qualities of plants and animals, the gradual elimination of plant and animal diseases and of other destructive agencies, have advanced to the point where the material wants of all the people may be amply provided for.

It is of the greatest practical importance that the people at large should realize that, so far at least as the available supplies of materials are concerned, the problem of poverty is entirely within our control. A widespread appreciation of these facts would go far toward advancing the general level of living, inasmuch as it would strengthen the demand for a larger share of the world’s goods on the part of the mass of the people. A population that understands clearly, even if only approximately, how man has mastered his material surroundings, will not tolerate the destruction of human possibilities through the improper or insufficient feeding of children; it will demand such organization and administration of industries as will eliminate all want and privation that are not, from the nature of the case, absolutely unavoidable.

I claim, then, in the third place, that a general understanding of the control of the world’s food-supply by socially organized human beings will make the members of a community intolerant of the destruction of human happiness through unnecessary material starvation.

Now, it may be said that we have experts to look after all the things I have mentioned, and that it is not necessary that every individual receive a technical training in all the specialties. But, while it is neither possible nor desirable to have every individual thoroughly trained in all the specialties, it is still not sufficient that there be experts who are thoroughly familiar with the technical details pertaining to the utilization and preservation of our national resources and of the public health, that there be experts who know how to prevent the imposition of unfair conditions of life and work, or the sale of improper foods, drugs, and the like. We already have experts on gypsy moths and mosquitoes and Russian thistles; on tuberculosis and smallpox and timber-rot; on winter wheat and sugar beet and prize hogs. For years our experts have known that our forest policies, our food and drug laws, and our anti-spitting ordinances have been inadequate. Yet it has not been possible in the past to prevent, through the activities of these experts and of their corps of assistants, the stealing and the wasting and the destroying of the people’s wealth and the people’s health. The stealers and wasters and destroyers also employ experts. There is no reason to suppose that a mere increase in the number of experts, or in the size of their corps of assistants, will be more effective in the future in preventing the undermining of the people’s economic wellbeing.

It is necessary that our legislatures be better informed on the fundamental conditions of our very existence in the midst of the organic world; and it is necessary that every citizen shall be in hearty accord with the efforts of the official agents of the population in protecting and preserving the nation’s wealth. There is no way apparent for reaching the consciences of the would-be exploiters. But there is a way apparent for reaching the understanding of the whole people as to their own interests; and there is a way apparent for reaching the understanding of legislators, who are chosen more or less at random from the population at large, and for securing the active coöperation on the part of the unofficial portions of the population in resisting the various kinds of waste and exploitation; and that way is the teaching of the fundamental principles of plant and animal life, and of the relations of these to the life and welfare of man, to all pupils in the high schools.

In brief, the teaching of biology in the high schools cannot be justified on the claim that it gives the pupil any advantage in his competition with others. The economic return for the expense and effort put into a public-school subject must be sought in the gain to the community. The community that teaches all its children to appreciate the relations between man and the organic factors of his environment will gain economically in the direction of increased public health, in the wiser utilization of the natural resources, and in the increased resistance to the exploitation of natural resources belonging to the people, as well as lo the exploitation of individual human beings, for private profit.