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Developing Mental Power
by
George Malcolm Stratton

[Childhood Education, 1922]

I. IS THE MIND A GYMNASIUM OR A TOOL-CHEST?

If we can see, though in outline, what the mind is, much that is dark both to parent and to teacher begins to clear. One may now know in what quarter there is hope of success, and where failure, and may set his course accordingly. Decision as to the general character of the mind is thus momentous; it almost of itself writes down one's educational creed.

Yet upon the very outline of the mind the doctors disagree. Science is brought to the support of opposite assertions, and the layman, bewildered, knows hardly where to look for guidance. Perhaps for a short time we shall do well If we merely sit by, listening to the contention, knowing that it is of weight for practice and is no mere pleasant play of wits; knowing that we cannot, as teachers and parents, avoid decision and must heed the disputants so that our conclusion may be more wise than theirs.

The child's mind, says the one contending group, is a union of a few powers or faculties - like attention, observation, memory, imagination, and reason. And such powers it is the teacher's duty to render strong and supple by well-chosen exercises, found, some have held, in subjects such as mathematics or the classic languages. These great mental powers, once they become vigorous and elastic, stand ready throughout life for all important needs. Nor does it greatly matter whether the subjects studied have intrinsic value; the weighty thing is that they should discipline the mind. Reasoning, for instance, is of such value that time is well given to its cultivation even by a study such as geometry, a knowledge of which may never in itself be of any practical good. The particular kinds of knowledge needed for one's life-work, it is held, cannot be foreseen, depending so largely on later circumstance and choice. But by a mind disciplined this knowledge will readily be gained when the need itself is clear.

Schooling so planned need not be with an eye wholly averted from the useful; there may be heed first of all to the most useful of things, namely, the mind itself, training it well in the beginning and expecting it thus to meet, in true economy, the demands of whatever later is the work in hand. Schoolmen who hold to this belief purpose that the mind's powers shall be given strength and full activity; and that, if this work be well done, the person will meet the later need not only of buying and selling, of medicine and law, but also of the still wider service and enjoyment which is not a matter of bargain and sale.

But now for a moment their opponents shall have the floor. And these impatiently declare that all who believe in a few great mental powers and would direct the school to their discipline are suckled in a creed outworn. Science has destroyed the simple faith. Experiments by James, Thorndike, Woodworth, and others have shown how idle is the attempt to train these general powers; have shown, indeed, that there are no general powers to train. The belief in such powers goes with the antiquated idea of mental faculties, now of merely historic interest and swept aside with phrenology and its absurd map of the skull and brain. No study gives general training; it gives only particular training. James, for example, carefully noted the time required for him to learn a certain number of lines of Victor Hugo's Satyr and then for more than a month utrained" himself memorizing the entire first book of Paradise Lost. On going back to learn a new portion of Victor Hugo's work of exactly the length of the old, how much evidence did he find of a memory strengthened by its month or more of exercise? No evidence; he had to give more time than before to the task. Likewise Thorndike and Woodworth, who practiced the estimation of the area of rectangles, found that a marked improvement with rectangles of a given shape and size brought no like improvement with rectangles of another shape and size. And it has been observed that neatness attained in arithmetic papers brought no slightest neatness in papers of language and spelling.

Having destroyed in this way the faith in general powers and their training, what do the destroyers offer in its place? A belief in particulars and in particulars only. Instead of a single power of memory, there is a power to recall colors, another power to recall sounds; and so on, we know not how far. The mind, this group maintains, is our convenient name for countless special operations or functions. We may train one of these functions or a number of them, but not a faculty in general - attention in general, or observation in general, or reasoning. Further, these countless particular functions are independent; they act almost as though they were insulated from one another; when you have trained one of them, you have trained that limited function and none else. What you do to the mind by way of education knows its place; it never spreads. You train what you train.

The educational corollary of this latter belief is of wide effect. It means that we must discover the specific reactions, the specific information, which the child will use in after life and make sure that he possesses these and only these. If life will not demand of him the particular knowledge, the particular functions used in algebra, the study of algebra is time wasted. If in life he will find application for the special ideas, the special reactions involved in chemistry, time spent upon chemistry is well spent. The teacher's direction of attention here veers from east to west. At the center of interest is no longer the child's mind, but the particular situations in life which the child, become man, will have to face. Of a study we are to ask, "Does it contribute to the doing of the things that later will have to be done?" and not, "Does the study make the child's mind more alert, or sound, or sane?" "The purpose for which subjects are taught," writes Dr. Abraham Flexner, "lies not in the pupil's mind, but in the subject-matter and its relation to existence and life." Dr. Ernest C.Moore, who speaks with vigor at this point, holds that "when we teach we do not make minds or strengthen minds or draw them out." Instead of giving to the mind form, we give it information. Instead of moulding the mind, we are to fill the mind. Where the education whose aim is mental discipline might have as its symbol a stripped athlete busied with Indian clubs and chest weights for strength and agility, the education which opposes mental discipline and calls for mental contents might have as its symbol some receptacle that is being filled - a tool-chest, with screw-driver, chisel! and plane.

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