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Special And General Education In Universities

( Originally Published 1913 )


Your University looks back to-day upon thirty-five years of educational work which has been of permanent significance for all the seats of learning and study in the English-speaking countries of the world. The conception of creating a University which should provide in various branches of knowledge advanced courses to be taken by men who had completed their general liberal education, was then a comparatively novel one in those countries ; and it requires an effort to carry oneself back to a time when the now elaborate machinery of post-graduate courses, which has been spreading itself through the leading universities in the United States, did not exist. To the Johns Hopkins University belongs the honour of having first put into practice this fertile conception, and of having carried it out with a thoroughness to which its diffusion and its success are very largely due. The name of your late admirable President will always be associated in the educational history of North America with this epoch-making " new departure," and the University has always since lived up to the standard of thoroughness, and preference of real work to display, from which it started. Its adherence to that standard, its continued embodiment of the ideal of scientific perfection, have given it the position of influence and dignity which it now occupies in the world.

A remarkable feature of the thirty-five years over which you look back is the wonderful development of many departments of human knowledge, and especially of those which are concerned with the sciences of nature, into special branches, each of which has been tending to become more distinct from the others. So far from finding ourselves approaching the end of knowledge, we find that the more we know the more remains beyond to be known, and that the realm of the unknown seems to be steadily increasing with every addition to our knowledge. It is as though the particular path which we are following was always di-verging into a number of different paths which tend to separate from one another, and each of which leads into untrodden solitudes to which we see no end. Within the recollection of most of us, new branches of science have made good their place, and have become recognized as separate fields of enquiry, and along with this it has befallen that the great majority of scientific enquirers now begin, as soon as their general scientific education has been completed, to devote themselves to one particular branch of investigation and throw their whole energy into pushing it forward. A man is now not a "natural philosopher" in the old sense of the term, but belongs to some one of the specific branches into which natural philosophy has become divided. The mass of papers and articles upon all the branches of science that fills the weekly and monthly and quarterly and yearly magazines and reports of proceedings of learned bodies in all civilized countries, is now so vast that the most powerful intellect cannot follow and keep pace with what is being accomplished even in its own special branch. Indices and books designed to be guides to the ever accumulating pile increase in number, but do not meet our needs. In chemistry, for instance, there is published every year a body of facts greater than all that stood recorded in the days of Black and Priestley. The same thing has happened in those practical arts which depend upon the application of science. They, too, have multiplied by division, and thus new practical professions, each employing many thousands of persons, such as photography and electrical engineering, have grown up, which were unknown seventy years ago.

The same thing has, of necessity, happened in university education. We have now in all duly organized universities professors of a large number of distinct branches of knowledge which were formerly lumped together as being one branch under one professor. When I was a student in the University of Glasgow, and also in that of Oxford, I remember that there was in each but one professor of physics.

So also among students the tendency is for those who have advanced some way to begin to concentrate their efforts upon one particular line of study and investigation. Both the teacher and the student are naturally fascinated by the prospect of discovery. The professor likes best to lecture upon the subject in which he is pushing forward his own investigations, and the student is able to find in them the most attractive field of experimental research.

This sort of specialization has become inevitable, but there is a consequence attached to it which appears almost equally inevitable, yet in some aspects regrettable. Part of the time which was previously given to general study, i.e. to a knowledge both of natural science in general and of other non-scientific subjects, must needs be now devoted to this special study.

The field of nature is unlimited. Human curiosity is unlimited. But human life and the capacity for using our time and our powers in the acquisition of knowledge remain within very narrow bounds. It would be rash to set limits to what scientific research, such as that which members of the brilliant medical faculty of this University carry on, may effect in the way both of extending human life and of making health more vigorous and thus improving the working powers of the mind. Still, life is short, terribly short for all that we want to learn and do, and there is no present prospect that it will be much pro-longed. Has it not sometimes occurred to you what a pity it is that the immense length of working years which mankind is said to have enjoyed in the days before the Flood, when scientific investigations, so far as we know, were slender, and directed to purely practical ends, could not have been reserved for times like our own, in which a long life is more needed for utilizing the accumulated knowledge and skill a great scholar and student can bring to bear upon the materials that now lie before us ? What might not Dar-win or Helmholtz or Kelvin or Mommsen or Ranke or the distinguished historian whom America has lately lost, Mr. Henry C. Lea, have accomplished with a working life extended in some proportion to the vaster fields of enquiry that attract us today ?

The problem which now confronts us in all universities is how to find time both for these specialized studies, which are daily becoming more absorbing, and also for the obtaining that kind of survey and comprehension of the general field of human knowledge which is necessary in order to make the university graduate a truly educated and cultivated man, capable of seeing the relation of his own particular study to others and of appreciating the various methods by which discovery is prosecuted. This problem of reconciling special with general study, although most urgent in the sciences of nature, shows itself in what may be called the human subjects also. In history, for instance, one now finds people who devote themselves entirely to one period of history, and will complacently tell you, when a question belonging to some other time is raised, that they know nothing about it because it is "not in their period." So there are people who give themselves up so entirely to the study of economic history that they may know very little of civil or ecclesiastical history in general.

However, it is chiefly in the sciences of nature that the difficulty I am referring to arises. These are now tending to overshadow all other studies, partly be-cause the numerous practical applications to which they are turned have acquired immense industrial importance for men and nations, and partly also because we are all fascinated by the progress of discovery, and are so eager to attain certitude that we are disposed to turn from those enquiries in which complete certitude is unattainable to those in which the laws of nature provide an absolutely firm basis. And it is in the natural sciences that the subdivision and specialization referred to have gone farthest.

The problem has accordingly two aspects. It raises the question of a mastery of the principles of the sciences of nature in general as against a highly specialized study of some one department in those sciences. It also raises the question of the respective claims of the study of physical science, or some branch of it, as against the claims of what may be called the human sciences, or, if you prefer it, humanistic subjects. It is upon this latter aspect that I have a few observations to submit.

What do we mean by general intellectual cultivation as opposed to special knowledge ? Without attempting a complete definition — nothing is more dangerous than a definition - I will suggest a description. We mean such a knowledge of the main facts and distinctive methods of various branches of human knowledge as furnishes a general idea of the relations of each branch to other branches; that is to say, a comprehension of what truth and certitude mean in different departments of study, and of what are the various paths by which truth may be reached or approached. Were I asked to indicate what this would include, I should make some such answer as this : In the sphere of natural science, it would include a knowledge not necessarily wide, but sound and exact so far as it went, of a deductive science such as geometry, and of some science of observation such as a branch of natural his-tory, geology, for instance, or some department of biology, or of such an experimental science as chemistry. On the human side, it would include a knowledge of one at least among what may be called the more abstract subjects, such as psychology (in the older sense) or logic or ethics, and of one of the more observational subjects such as economics or politics. It would include a knowledge of the principles of language, and of at least one foreign tongue, ancient or modern, preferably an inflected tongue possessing a literature. And, finally, it must include the record of human effort and development through the ages, that is to say, history, which shows us how man has grown from what he was in the past to be what he is in the present, and holds out hopes of what he may be in the future. Without at least an elementary knowledge of these matters, no man is properly equipped for a life of study and thought, or for those branches of the practical work of life which require a wide intellectual outlook. It is not necessary to-day, as it would have been fifty years ago, to argue that every educated man should have some knowledge of deductive science and of the observational and experimental sciences of nature. But it is beginning to be necessary to vindicate for the other great department of enquiry, that which relates to Man, its rightful place in a general scheme of education.

Specialization is not only inevitable for the progress of discovery, but in many minor ways excellent. It is a splendid thing for a great university like this to have among its professors men each of whom is abreast of the highest development of some particular line of enquiry and knows how that line of enquiry ought to be prosecuted, so that it holds within its own walls, so to speak, an accumulated mass of various knowledge, rep-resenting that to which the world has yet attained. The scientific specialist makes interesting company — when I have a chance I always try to get beside him at dinner — because he is able to tell us what we seek to know of the progress of discovery in the growing sciences, and we have only to interrogate him to get at once, without the labour of consulting books, the latest results in the clearest form. The scientific investigator, moreover, seems to have on the whole the happiest kind of life that is now possible. Does he know how happy he is ? Engaged in the discovery of truth, he has for his helpers all others engaged in the same pursuit, and feels that all his labours are working to-wards a noble and useful end. He is free from the vexations that beset the business man or the lawyer or the politician. He depends on no man's favour. He is not expected to say anything of whose truth he entertains secret doubts. If he has not a happy life, granted good health, it is probably his own fault, for what more can one desire than to be, as Bacon says, the interpreter as well as the servant of Nature ?

Admitting all this, and much more that might be said about the interest and pleasure of enquiry concentrated on one department, it is nevertheless right to present to you some dangers that seem to arise from the immense extension of the specializing tendency and from the predominance, in particular, of the study of the natural sciences to the exclusion of other topics. We are accustomed to divide the subjects of enquiry into two great departments ; those, the human subjects, in which we deal with probable matter, and that field of Nature in which all is fixed, certain, positive, immutable. Some one may, to be sure, remark that the phenomena of nature may possibly be under-going some slow process of change. We cannot be sure that oxygen and hydrogen may not be different now from what they once were, or that alterations may not conceivably occur in the proportion of the constituents present in compound chemical bodies. However that is all speculation. For our present purposes, we think of the sciences of nature as being occupied with that which is permanent and unchangeable. They deal with those laws which we believe, so far as our knowledge goes, to be immutable, to have been operative in the past and likely to be operative in the future, even as they are operative now. Now he whose whole time and thoughts are given to the study of these unchanging laws does not learn thereby how to deal with that which is mutable and transient. But the mutable and the transient include not only most of what concerns our daily life, but the whole immense field of knowledge which covers the human subjects. Here we deal not with the Certain but with the Probable. The realm of ideas, beliefs, theories, emotions, institutions, habits, -- in fact, the entire realm of human thought, human society, human conduct, belongs to the sphere of the transitory and changeable. In investigating the phenomena of this realm, we have to walk by methods which are not only not the same as those which belong to the sciences of nature, but differ from the latter by being far more intricate. The investigation of probable matter is more perplexing and less satisfying because its results are less definite and positive than are those enquiries at the end of which stands, like a statue closing a vista between trees, the figure of certain and immutable Truth. Those accordingly who try to apply to the human subjects the same formulæ and methods which they apply to nature are in danger of failing when they enter the field which includes his-tory and all political or social phenomena. Differences in the subject matter imply differences in the proper mode of treatment. As men erred five centuries ago when they tried to explain nature by applying to her their own crudely formed abstract notions, so now it is an error to think that in probable matter the methods applicable to natural phenomena can be so applied as to attain equally certain and definite conclusions. Does it not follow that an education in the methods proper to these last-named historical and social fields is as needful as is a knowledge of the methods of physical enquiry ?

Sixty years ago people complained, and complained justly, of the narrowness of those persons, some of them of the highest eminence, who had been trained entirely on the old scheme of education, which largely consisted in grammatical studies, and especially in a knowledge of the ancient languages. Men so trained, men highly gifted and instructed, often failed to appreciate the interest and value of the study of nature, and showed a strange incapacity to understand the processes it employs. I remember some such among our leading English statesmen. A whole world of interests and pleasures was closed to them by an ignorance that was too often self-complacent. In travelling, for instance, distinguished historians did not see, because they had not been taught to observe, all sorts of natural features in a country which might have helped them to under-stand its history. Bacon has warned us against that absorption in a particular set of ideas, that prepossession in favor of one particular view which he classes among the Idola Specus, the phantasms of the Cave, which surround the man who sits in the dark recesses of his own remote and secluded thought unillumined by the light of the broad sky. So now the devotion to any special study, whether in the sphere of natural science or in any other, tends to narrow the mind and prevents its faculties from attaining their highest development. Many of the greatest discoveries have arisen from bringing together facts and ideas drawn from different regions whose relations had not previously been discerned. The more you extend the range of knowledge, the more you increase the chances of such discoveries. Most of the great men to whom the progress of science is due were in their early days trained not as specialists, but had minds that ranged far and wide like keen-eyed eagles over the vast field of knowledge.

The chief end of education is to stimulate curiosity, to make a man ask about all things, be they familiar or unfamiliar, the How and the Why, to discover matter for enquiry in facts which other people have passed over without thinking of the problems they suggest, to retain that activity and versatility and freshness which are the most characteristic marks of a forceful and creative intellect. Is it not wonderful how many things were overlooked in the past which we now perceive to need investigation ? The ancients, both in the Greek and in the Italian lands, must, for instance, have noticed how various are the aspects and structure of different kinds of rock. The differences between gneiss and limestone, between basalt and slate, stared them in the face. They saw fossil shells in the strata. But though observant men like Herodotus sometimes noted facts which suggested the working of forces that had changed the earth's surface, it did not occur to them to seek any general explanation of these phenomena, and geological science is not yet two centuries old. So ancient observers described plants and were interested in their pharmaceutical properties ; they described tribes of men and some-times raised questions as to their forms of speech, but it did not occur to them to classify either the plants or languages on any scientific principles. Hippocrates was a great physician, scientific in his methods. Why did his successors not carry them on with a perseverance and exactitude which would have produced great results? Was it because they had given themselves too much to the study of words and of rhetoric, and because their brilliant dialectical gifts had drawn them away from the observation of facts? One wonders how it happened that a race so wonderfully gifted as were the Greeks, who seemed frequently on the very edge of great discoveries in physical science, did not find and pursue the paths which have led us to the unveiling of the secrets of Nature. And one wonders also whether there are any phenomena which we now are passing by unexamined because it has never struck us that they deserve enquiry.

The wider the range of a man's interests, the more susceptible he is to ideas of many kinds, so much greater is the pleasure which life can afford him, and so much the better can he contribute to the progress of the world both by stimulating others and by himself pointing out the way in which advances can be made. Different as are the phenomena in different parts of the field of knowledge, and different in some respects as are even the methods to be applied, the habit of keen observation and steady reflection formed in any department quickens a man's powers in every other ; and just as an historian will profit by knowing some-thing of geology or botany, so a student of natural history may profit by knowing how the human mind used to approach nature before our modern methods had come into being. A university has to think not only of forming specialists, but of making these specialists better by giving them a wide range of knowledge, and still more of sending out men who sustain the level of taste and insight in the whole community and are fit to be its intellectual leaders.

You may ask how time is to be found both for special studies and for the sort of general cultivation that I have tried to describe. Must the general studies pre-cede specialization, or is it possible to carry them on together, and to show young men, even in their last university year, how to correlate their special scientific studies with a mastery of other fields ? These are practical questions which I must leave to your superior competence. The principle which we seem chiefly called upon to uphold is the principle of breadth and catholicity in education, the recognition not only of the duty of a great university to provide teaching in all the main subjects, but also of the truth that a one-sided education is an imperfect education. The error of those who a century ago deemed a grammatical and literary curriculum sufficient was no greater than is that of those who now dispute and seek to exclude the human subjects ; or who hold that any single branch either of the human or of the natural subjects is enough to inform the mind or to develop and polish it to its highest. efficiency.

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