Developing Mental Power
George Malcolm Stratton

[Childhood Education, 1922]


The controversy is thus in brief before us, each side with its different account of the mind. "Believe the psychologist," cries a recent writer to the schoolmen. And this encourages one to examine these two descriptions, and judge them by our present scientific knowledge. It may well be that neither can be accepted; that in their place there must be a picture of the mind markedly different from either and with a far richer promise for education. Even in opposing these rival accounts a truer outline of the mind will, I believe, appear.

Surely the mind is ill-described by most believers in mental discipline. In so far as our remembering is explained by a faculty of memory, and our reasoning by a faculty of reason, we are offered mere words in the place of causes. But along with explanations that do not explain are clear errors. The mind is divided into great powers - like sight, hearing, memory, imagination, reason - each of which is supposed to be almost simple and uniform throughout. And this we know is false. Memory is not a simple thing, but involves many kinds of acts, several of which are no more important for remembering than for seeing, imagining, or reasoning. Again, if by reason we mean syllogizing, it is not one of our principal powers; and if we mean by it the v V ability to think and act reasonably, this comes only from a fine conspiring of almost every power we have.

Moreover, the believers in mental discipline too often fix their interest upon the powers by which we know, our intellectual faculties, and treat like a stepmother those great powers by which we take delight and are moved to passion and make resolve and act. Not only do large matters thus suffer neglect, but in consequence the very spring and strength of our intellectual powers themselves are ill-understood. The sources of judgment are not seen nor the conditions of its success. A certain deftness of bare intellect is overvalued, to the misprising of the deep forces that drive and direct the intellect, as well as of something more nearly external, the definite and detailed knowledge of the objects with which intelligence must deal.

The defects of this account of mind are thus greater than many even of its critics seem to know. But some of the defects are caught and well denounced by those who hold the mind but as a receptacle to be given "contents." They rightly see the mind helpless even were it deft and strong, they see its lack of actual knowledge. They see also that the mind is of immeasurably more varied powers than are nominated in the short list of faculties in which the old schoolmaster was taught to believe.

But with these rugged virtues why not take the whole doctrine of "contents" to our hearts?

First and perhaps least important, its watchword confirms the ignorant in their ignorance. We are only too ready to regard the child's mind as a vessel into which knowledge is to be poured, and the new doctrine would appear to give to this crude notion a scientific seal. So far as the child's training is viewed as metital contents, the mind itself is viewed as a receptacle, a container. And a container is both inert and indifferent. A tool-chest takes no active part to receive its tools, and a sharp chisel is to it no better than a rusty broken one. Merely glance at the metaphor and its absurdity is revealed depth on depth. Those who believe in mental contents would cry out with one voice that they did not mean that.

For if there is anything upon which psychologists are agreed, it is that the mind is active; not indifferent but selective, forever choosing and rejecting. Even its humblest experiences, the colors and sounds by which the world is known, are not "given" us, but are the mind's unique and mysterious response to external stimulation. Hue and tone, as we directly experience them, the students of physics and psychology are agreed, do not exist in the external world.

They are our reaction; and with them we create for ourselves a strange counterpart of the reality without. And for one object awakening enough interest to be noticed, ten have vainly assailed our eyes and ears and been ignored. These acts of notice and selection do not seem acts, being without effort, without strain of will. But action is not always marked by effort: a child at play is as active as a child at some deadening task.

If the things we see and hear enter the mind hardly as into a passive receptacle, more clearly is this true of our recollections, our imaginings, our conclusions reasoned out. Unless we actively reconstruct the past and recognize it as past, we do not remember. The child can possess no imaginings or judgments save what he has himself imagined or judged. Nor can he create them once, and forever after "contain" them; each time that they are before him they must be created afresh - on the instant, usually, and with no slightest hint that power has gone into their remaking. As well call the ever-new movements of some graceful dancer the "contents" of her body as use this name for the marvelous expressions of the mind.

And still more clearly is this dead image broken by the will. In his purpose the boy proclaims himself no mere recipient, but a doer; not day, but the potter. He takes his place among the infant deities, imposing his ideas upon brute substance until in some measure it is made into the likeness of his mind.

But we waste time upon this unhappy watchword of the party. Not until we find a tool-chest that helps to fashion and use the tools it holds, a tool-chest that is also both machinist and carpenter - not until then will this image do more than darken counsel.

* * *

Turning now from metaphor to plain statement, let us ask whether it be true that practice keeps its place, that you train only what you train. It would be of startling, and, to some, almost disheartening, importance if the child's improvement in a foreign language - French or Latin, let us say - had no effect upon his command of the English language, or upon his interest in European history.

The experiments in clear support of this doctrine, however - that you train merely what you train - are few; most experiments contradict it. Improvement in judging the area of certain figures, as was just said, does not bring equal improvement in judging other figures. But the judgment of these other figures is not left untouched. On the contrary, it receives marked benefit. And while neatness in classroom may remain within narrow limits, it can easily be made to pass these limits.

If the children in writing their arithmetic lesson, for example, are urged to neatness as of universal value, their papers in geography also will be neater, even though this other subject may not be named in the urging. Or, again, if a person practice with the right hand the tossing and catching of balls, keeping two in the air at once, until he has attained a high degree of skill, will the effect of the practice be confined to the right hand? No; it will appear also in the left; it may be as though fully two thirds of the practice had in some way been transferred to the hand that has not been practiced at all.

And in many other directions of research, transfer of training is found. The cultivation of the mind is thus not at all like that of land, where the ploughing of one field does not affect the soil beyond the fence. Effects here do not stay confined, but spread.

It will hardly be possible to follow the attempted explanation of this spread; it can hardly be explained away. Nor need the teacher feel dismayed because the improvement in one study - let us say physics - is not transferred entire to all other forms of acquisition; that some of the good is lost in transit. Even a spread of small amount, as Thorndike has said, may be important; the effort would be well repaid if practice in justness of conduct in school were to bring even the slightest increase in justice of conduct in all other relations of life; or if his accuracy in work at school make him even a little more accurate in all ways when he has left school.

Instead, then, of proving that you train what you train, the psychological experiments which have so troubled the waters of education prove that normally you train what you do not train. Indeed, these experiments seem to have been seized upon by men convinced already and beating about for evidence, rather than by men unbiased and glad to go wherever the evidence might lead.

* * *

But the question just considered, Whether the benefits of training can be transferred to regions that have not been the immediate place of the training? is intimately connected with another. Indeed, we shall find this other but an aspect of the problem of transfer. But to it we must attend if we would judge aright the position of the partisans of "contents."

Is it then true, as some maintain, that our mental powers are stubbornly particular and never general in their character? Is it, for example, absurd to think that there can be a habit of punctuality, in accordance with which the child, and later the man, may practice promptness in keeping all manner of appointments? Or must we think that such a habit must be mere promptness at school, and promptness in no wider kind of conduct? Taken rigorously such a contention would seem to mean that there could be no punctuality for school in general, but only for the particular school, for the particular room in the school, for - but one must not press too far.

From some assertions that are heard one might think that a mental function is something good for little more than a single narrow situation, like the special bow that can be used only upon presentation at court. Let us, to test the truth of this, take almost an extreme case.

Even so particular a response, so particular a habit, as that of answering the telephone is far ifl less particular than it seems; it is run through and through with generality. It is called forth in many different situations; varied, too, is the action called forth. What you respond to is never quite the same: now it is a loud ring near by, and now a tinkle in the distance; now it is the clear note of a bell, now it is the whirr of a "buzzer." And your response is never the same: you arise, take a few steps and stand at the instrument; or again, you remain seated and bring the instrument to you; you speak with deference, you speak with impatience, you speak with a martyr's resignation. Never quite the same signal, never quite the same movements of the body, never the same words spoken, never in the same tone, never to the same purpose.

If one cannot but see the breadth and openness in even so restricted a habit as this, how much more general are the significant forms of action which the schools can rightly have at heart. The child who is inclined to "give up" at the least difficulty has a habit which applies to many and most varied situations. And if, instead, he can be turned about, can be made to assume a fighting attitude toward what is hard to do, he has been brought to attain what is applicable in ten thousand times and places.

The attitude of credulity, of helpless acceptance of whatever is stoutly asserted, is almost universal in little children. Nor is it a trait which is called forth only in some few and special situations; but rather upon all those infinitely varied occasions when persons meet and speak. And in its stead there can be the habit which means that one will hesitate, will weigh and test, will look to the evidence for all important statements.

Likewise the child's impulse to look first and foremost to his own particular self - to be vain, to be selfish, to sulk - this is a general form of action which displays itself in endless variety of detail and place. And no less general is the change from all this, so that he begins to see the interest of others and to let this be a constant check upon his self-seeking, a spur to action that is generous.

These habits of mind, and a host like them, are perhaps less wide than the memory-in-general or the reason-in-general of the older education. The question whether the only appropriate term for them is "particular" or "general" would have delighted the professors of old Padua or Bologna. For us the important thing is to see their immense range of use, in all manner of situations and by all manner of men, whether they be day-laborers or diplomatists.

Considered with care, then, we can heartily accept neither the description in which the mind is made to be a composite of a few great faculties, i nor that in which the mind appears as an endless array of distinct functions. We have discerned something of what is wrong in these accounts.

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