Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Herbartianism Made Fun and Easy, Part Seven: Education is making a life dictionary

Part Six is here.

Chapter Seven of Herbartian Psychology is one of the most original in the book, I think. I don't know how much of it is Herbart's idea and how much is John Adams', but anyway it's worth reading. You can, you know--it's right there on Archive.org.

This is how it starts: someone in the 17th century named Isaac Habrecht is quoted (by Simon Somerville Laurie in a book on Comenius) as saying that it would be handy if we could all get tickets to Noah's Ark, because then we could learn all the names of all the animals all at once, without having to go out and learn them bit by bit. (When I first read this chapter, I wondered if "Noah's Ark" might be an early English zoo or menagerie, but apparently Habrecht  did mean the original Noah's Ark.)

Adams, speaking for Herbart, says no, actually, that wouldn't work well at all. In fact, trying to learn all the animals at once, out of their normal habitats and without any other context, would be about as interesting as trying to learn all the words in the dictionary. At once. (He admits that he tried that when he was young...the dictionary, that is...but gave it up.) It's like trying to remember the names of everyone you get introduced to at a meeting or party; again, people there are away from their normal lives and contexts, "not their natural selves, yet Isaac calmly assumes that the animals in the Ark were at their ease."

Yes, the Ark idea is useful if you want to compare one animal with another. But, says Adams, "the great defect of Ark education...[is that it] tears away objects from their natural surroundings, and thus renders them meaningless; then it tries to make up for this loss of meaning by studying with great elaboration the details of the objects thus unnaturally isolated." It reminds me of Mr. Gradgrind's classroom in Dickens, where Bitzer gives the "correct" definition of a horse. Adams criticizes even "school museums," if their aim is "to save the pupil the labour of wandering about to pick up knowledge for himself." I find this fascinating in view of Adams' Herbartian leanings, with his often-repeated phrases about teachers being right on the spot to take care of the apperception masses. This sounds much closer to Charlotte Mason's insistence that the only real education is self-education--which is not a plea for unschooling, but just a different way to say that you really have to learn things for yourself. Adams talks about two dangerous fallacies in education: trying to save the pupils time, and trying to save them trouble.
"It seems eminently sensible, not to say humane, to save children as much labour as possible. But it is necessary for parents and teachers alike to remember that children are not sent to school to be saved trouble, but to be taught how to take trouble. Taking pains is one of the main things to be learnt at school."
But school museums don't bother Adams so much as teachers who are "forever preparing [a] little list of specific gravities, or genders, or constitutional changes, or words sounding the same but spelled differently. These are all little arks, each with its more or less choice selection of animals which can be thus more quickly known than they could be had the pupil to find them out for himself in their natural place." This is a wonderful image, and it can apply to so many not-so-good educational tools: reading textbooks full of facts, dates, and vocabulary lists, for example, instead of allowing that content to appear in the natural context of "many living books."
"For Isaac has not been left without successors who have marched with the times. The short cut to knowledge is not the menagerie or the museum. The Ark of Arks in education is the dictionary."
Dictionaries are bad? Doesn't every schoolroom need a dictionary? Yes, says Adams, but (pay attention!) "we must work up to the Ark, not down from it. We must go to the dictionary to find the meaning of words we have actually met; we must not go to it as to an armoury of words where we may choose what is best suited to our purpose." "The dictionary meaning may be compared to the skeleton of the full meaning; something fixed and definite, to which person who uses it adds his own special flesh and blood."

And then this is the best quote in the chapter:
"May we not, without putting an undue strain upon the words, say that education consists in the making of dictionaries?...The pupil must first learn to use his own private internal dictionary, and then learn to compare and correct it with the standard dictionary."
So a lifetime of learning, in a way, is about making our own mental dictionaries. Or encyclopedias, if you like. As adults, when we want to learn things, we wander. We poke around, we discover, we ask questions, we read, and then we add, line on line. Teachers must also allow students the privilege of wandering, of trouble, of "taking pains." When we require them to learn large amounts of freeze-dried, devitalized information, it shouldn't surprise us at all when they either resist altogether, or obediently try to learn the words without understanding the meaning. There is a right time for "arks," for charts and lists, even (I am sure of it!) for pre-printed timelines! There is definitely a time for seeing how things fit together. But we can't start there. Arks are our ending point, not our beginning.

Part Eight is here.

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