Monday, February 23, 2015

Herbartianism Made Fun and Easy, Part One

Here's an opening to a post which is sure to scare most people off:
Most of what I have read about Herbartian educational psychology has been through the lens of Charlotte Mason. I've posted what I know about him, and some still-useful links. I've even written an impertinent story about Herbartian teachers.  But it's only recently that I've had the chance to dig a little deeper and find out not only where CM and Herbart clashed, but where they agreed.
And you're probably wondering why you should even care about that.
Life is short. We're busy homeschooling or doing whatever else we do. Sir John Adams (1857-1934) says the same thing, at the beginning of The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education (1899)Teachers, as he knows, don't have a lot of time. They also like practical things they can use. They may be forced to read a book on Herbartian theory as part of an education course, or maybe they are just keeners who want to be able to talk educationese, but in any case they are probably not interested in Herbart per se, they are interested in teaching and in finding out if Herbart has any useful information that applies to them. So Adams' book is the late-Victorian equivalent of a Dummies' Guide to Johann Friedrich Herbart.
In Adams' view, at the turn of the last century educators could be either Froebelian or Herbartian. He confessed to being Herbartian, not so much because Herbart converted him but because that's what his educational sense told him was true. What is the difference between them? An American (Froebelian) educator of the same period wrote this:  "The great difference between Froebel and Herbart may be found in the difference of appreciation of children and child life. Herbart's greatest mistake was his lack of recognition of the instincts and spontaneous activities of the child. To fail to understand the child is a fundamental failure.To fail to appreciate the action of the child's mind up to the school age, is a great mistake." Froebel just sounds nicer, doesn't he? Besides, he started kindergartens, and they're nice and friendly and child-centered.

So why bother with Herbart? Why did Adams find himself in that camp? What do Herbart and Adams have to offer present-day CMers?
Herbart is all about ideas: where they come from, how we access them, sort them, prioritize them; and what the best way is of acquiring more of them, or, if we're teaching, getting more of the important ones into the minds of students. He has a couple of images that he likes to use. One, familiar to those who have read Charlotte Mason's criticism, is that ideas like to form themselves into clumps, or "apperception masses." In a way, it's like "science of relations": you can make more of information that connects with something you already know, and if there is no prior connection, the idea is meaningless and sinks into oblivion. Adams suggests, as an example, "hiro." It's a nonsense word, or at least one that, to most people, seems meaningless (it's actually a Mohawk word). No connection, no reason to remember it, at least until he tells you how the word became part of the French and then the English language. After that, the word has an "'apperception mass" to hang on to. For instance, I didn't even have to go back and look that word up in Adams' book; I actually remembered it because of his explanation.

The other Herbartian image is that of your conscious mind being a sort of dome shape, with ideas, that, once they're admitted, go floating up through the air (with their proper apperception masses), jostling for position towards the top of the dome. The floor of the dome is like the threshold of your consciousness; there are many ideas below that threshold at any one time, and they go back and forth between the levels. The biggest apperception masses, and the ideas spending the most time near the top, represent your main interests. Adams, for example, had a great big apperception mass labelled "educational theory" that took up a large part of his mind space, a large part of his time.
Charlotte Mason appears to have had no big argument with the idea of ideas, even of their needing to find other compatible ideas to hang out with. She says that she thinks Herbart's mind theory is more lacking in the application of habit: you have the ideas, but what do you do with them? She also has a different and important thought about how ideas get in there in the first place, and particularly the teacher's role in that. But so far, so good?

Part Two is here.

1 comment:

walking said...

I have been slowly working my way through this series and your titles crack me up!