Monday, March 02, 2015

Herbartianism Made Fun and Easy, Part Six: On observation and interest

Part Five is here.

Quick, what colour are the bottoms of the shoes you're wearing?

If you're not wearing shoes, what colour are your socks?

How much milk is in your refrigerator?

What, exactly, does it say on the front of your computer printer?

How did you do? Don't worry if you did not pass these typical tests of observation skills, because Sir John Adams asserts (in Herbartian Psychology, Chapter VI) that those facts are at present of no consequence. There is no shame in not knowing exactly how many buttons are on a shirt.
But what is observation for? Is the habit itself more important than actual facts? Adams beats around the bush on this one:
"The observationist educationist...wants the pupil to observe everything. He writes books like that tiresome 'Eyes and No Eyes.' He tells us of one-eyed dervishes who see more with their one eye than most of the rest of the world do with two....he points to the marvellous deeds of Sherlock Holmes."
Then he has the temerity to poke fun at nature walks.
"The pupil is supposed to go along with all his senses on the alert. He is to observe the note of the skylark, the scent of the violets, the form of the clouds, the colour of the primroses, the smoothness of the grass, the springiness of the turf. he is to amble along with all the Five Gateways of knowledge wide open, and we know that the mouth is one of them." 
So what's wrong with taking children outdoors to take it all in? The Herbartian answers:
"Interest and knowledge...mutually determine and react upon each other. In view of this, the teacher's first duty is to ascertain the contents of the mind of his pupils, and then to bring within their reach material specially prepared for those minds to react upon. Children can observe only what their apperception masses are prepared to act upon; to all else they are literally blind, deaf, callous."
What do you think Charlotte Mason would say to that? My guess is that she might partially agree, because I don't think her intent in nature walks, or anything else of that sort, was that they should be entirely random. Of course going anywhere is more interesting if you are at least somewhat prepared, if you've been given something ahead of time to look for or look at. Think about an art gallery, Westminster Abbey, a fort, a bird sanctuary. The more real interest and information you bring with you, the more likely it is that you're going to find the visit worthwhile. Think of crowds of children being dragged through museums, with nothing more on their minds than getting a day off school. Of course it's a waste of time. (I'm not so sure about the "specially prepared" material; I think that's where CM and Herbart part company.) You can stare at the night sky with nothing more than the idea that it's very big and that there are a lot of stars, but how much richer your experience would be if you knew a little astronomy. You start to form a relationship with what's out there, make "sense of those first-born affinities."
Back to Herbartian Psychology: Adams then spends several pages on the methods of Sherlock Holmes, and plays a little game with perspective (like those puzzles where the answer is "an elephant on his back in a swimming pool"). What it comes down to, he says, both in what-do-you-see puzzles and in Sherlock Holmes-type stories, is often not observation or even deduction, but specialized knowledge. There is something that the writer or the artist knows, that you don't know, and that makes the whole thing not 100% fair. It's like those maddening Encyclopedia Brown books where the solution is always something like "Encyclopedia knew that those sorts of nickels were not made until 1960, so therefore the dealer was lying."
It helps to be observant, but it also helps to have knowledge, and the Herbartian will say that you can't put knowledge in a mind unless there's already an apperception mass there to stick it to. Charlotte Mason said that it was important to begin with what you know.
Adams ends the chapter with a paragraph that sounds very CMish:
"To cultivate observation, then, is not to train the eye, the ear, the hand, to extreme sensitiveness, but rather to work up well-organized knowledge within the mind itself. If we desire minute observation in a definite direction, we must cultivate special knowledge to correspond. If we wish to encourage general observation, we can only succeed by cultivating wide interests. The reciprocal interaction of interest and knowledge in relation to external facts, is what ought truly to be called observation."
How that well-organized knowledge gets into the mind is another issue, but the point that you have to know something in order to see something or to learn something is well made.

Photos from My Cousin Vinny. 

Part Seven is here.

No comments: