Sixteen years of Treehouse talk

Sixteen years of Treehouse talk

Friday, November 14, 2014

Education is a discipline: Mrs. Dowson and the great realities (Part Three)

Part One is here.  Part Two is here.

Abridged and slightly adapted from "The Discipline and Organization of the Mind,"  by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P & S.,I. (Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ireland), in The Parents' Review, Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 83-92

Mama Squirrel: You said that we are standing in peril if we either believe "excessively" everything we see, or if we disbelieve everything we don't see; that in fact "overbelieving" is a kind of superstition. Do you mean that we are trying to say that there is no meaning beyond the bare facts? How is it too much to believe in what you do see?
Professor Hinkle: You silly children believe everything you see. When you grow up, you'll realize that snowmen can't come to life.
Karen: But we...
Professor Hinkle: Silly, silly, silly! ( Frosty the Snowman)

Mrs. Dowson: It can get out of focus, out of right proportion. We need to offer science that includes the truths of experience as a whole...yes, they do need to be using their intellectual powers to be able to describe a thing with precision and with clearness, to say all that needs to be said about it and no more, to seize its characteristic differentia from similar things, and the essential points of its likeness to them, and to express the whole notion about it in just the right words. This too, like the power to observe accurately, is an accomplishment and will reveal, in its use, a pedant or a prig.

M.S. I have heard that somewhere else recently.

Mrs. Dowson:  We do need analysis, yes! It has its proper uses. It is only by a process of abstraction, by taking a thing out of its full context in the universe of things to which it is related, by cutting the bonds that tie it to all else and to its true meaning in relation to all else, that we are able to give it precise definition at all. But Nature--our experience of reality--defies our exactness and makes a mock of our descriptions; and unless we know she does our power to impose definitions upon the superficial bits of her that we gaze at in the contracted field of scientific sight must give us a false conception both of her and of ourselves and of our intellectual gains. The great realities of human life, moral and spiritual facts, are entirely beyond the reach of any such precise definition.

M.S.: So there is a danger of concentrating too much on only what is right in front of us?

Mrs. Dowson: There are also things that have their very being through mutual inclusion; and thus, they limit their mental field of view by an artificial horizon shutting out the most precious truths in the possession of mankind. But even greater than this danger is the rather lofty idea that our science-centred students will achieve the the splendid mental qualities developed, for example, in Darwin and Newton.

M.S.:  Isn't that a good goal to have?

Mrs. Dowson:. But the fine qualities displayed by Darwin and Newton are no more to the point in this matter than is the greatness of Caesar or of Wellington in connection with the educational value of learning the date of Waterloo or the successive stages of the Gallic War. Students do not acquire Wellington's powers of generalship by having a school acquaintance with his campaigns, or even by 'getting-up' his admirable Despatches; nor are they in the least degree more likely to gain the power of mental concentration and selection, and the sound judgment and untiring intellectual patience of Newton or of Darwin, through learning physics and biology even by a better method than that in vogue at the present time.

M.S.: You've named several points of both of character and of intellect: courage and wisdom; then sound judgment, intellectual patience and power. But as you say, knowing the facts of science does not give one the qualities of a scientist. So, that makes me think...are we being presumptuous when we encourage young children, or teenagers, to think of themselves as writers, or artists, or scientists? Doesn't that just give them a sense that their own thoughts and ideas are valuable? And isn't it good that the ground has already been so much broken for us?

Mrs. Dowson: On the contrary, the very fact of being able to roam over vast territories in the kingdom of science conquered and opened up by other men not rarely turns the weak heads of those who follow, and makes them, like lunatics at large, think themselves potentates when they are only tramps.
M.S.: So is it humility that we're lacking?

Mrs.. Dowson: Perhaps humanity. If we were tied down to a choice between science and letters, in the name of all that is human and living and universal, we should choose letters....those great organizers of our chaotic democracy of knowledge--the subjects which treat of the mind of man, of his knowing, feeling and acting, and of cause and purpose and meaning in the great whole of things.

M.S. But we don't have to choose between science and humanities.

Mrs. Dowson: No, we may safely make use of both, if we employ, as a necessary corrective to their separateness and their peculiar limitations, those subjects by means of which alone we can shew their fundamental relations.

This is the end of Mrs. Dowson's Part One; but she wrote a Part Two, still to come.

1 comment:

Queen of Carrots said...

I'm reading a really fascinating book called, "The Master and his Emissary," about how the analytical/wholistic distinction in thought is reflected in the hemispheres of the brain, and what happens when we let the analytical take over, both on an individual and a societal level. Very similar thoughts to here.