Discussion of "Science in the High School" by George Herbert Mead

F. R. Moulton, R. A. Millikan and C. R. Barnes

Believing that the points raised by Professor Mead's paper would form a fruitful basis for discussion, the editors submitted the paper to three members of the scientific departments fo the University of Chicago, whose comments follow. The editors would welcome further brief discussion of the paper by teachers of science in secondary schools or elsewhere. Any experiments already made along this line out to be especially useful. -- Editors of School Review.

Professor Forest Ray Moulton, of the Department of Astronomy:

Two things in Professor Mead's article particularly impress me. One is its indictment of present methods and results, which is undoubtably supported by abundance of evidence; the other is its conception of the place of science in secondary education.

If we admit that science has, so far at least, partially failed, we have before us the problems of finding the courses of the failure, and then the remedy for it. While these questions doubtlessly have been carefully considered, too often it has been from the necessarily prejudiced point of view of the scientific specialist. The pressure of the marvelous development of research in this country during the last fifteen years has made specialists more and more narrow. The whole emphasis has been thrown on research in a narrow and technical sense; and the method, rather than the spirit, of this epoch has spread beyond its legitimate bounds, and has forced itself into domains where it cannot find a place. As has been so well pointed out in the article, a student's conception of anything depends not only upon the thing, but also to a very great extent upon his own intellectual horizon and body of experience. It is when we forget this, that we expect a more or less technical scientific fact or theory to become as fully a part of the intellectual life of a young student as it is of our own. I feel that many serious mistakes have been made by not recognizing the narrow horizon of the student and his lack of interest in wide generalizations until adolescence, and it seems to me that the suggestion of turning again more toward natural history is in the nature of a remedy. Yet the difficulty is largely one of method and general attitude, and must be overcome whenever it appears


The ideas encountered respecting the object and usefulness of scientific study are extremely varied. Parents and students usually regard science as having only a narrow utilitarian value. The educated classes recognize that it has enormously extended our experience by making the whole civilized world in effect a single community. Some of the more reflective minds recognize that it has had a deep and really revolutionary influence on the fundamental conceptions of philosophy, morality and religion, and that its spirit and method have to some extent permeated every phase of intellectual activity. Probably its greatest contribution so far to secondary education has been indirectly though the influence of its spirit upon the humanistic and linguistic subjects. But, in my opinion, its high mission, which so far has not been realized, is not to work marvelous changes in our physical lives, or to enable use to see the activities of the whole world, or to compel use to modify old systems and creeds, or to make more valuable the study of other subjects; it is, rather, to flood our minds with the riches of the universe which surrounds us, to show us the perfect system and order and unity of nature, to dissipate the almost universal superstition by instilling in us a firm belief in what we call cause and effect, to make us honest and fearless with ourselves, and to give us breadth and balance and sanity and highly cultivated common-sense. If the high-schools can in someway make real science a part of the lives of all the students who go out from their halls, may we not look for as great a change in intellectual lives of the next two generations as the physical lives of the last two generations have undergone?

As one whose interests to some extent reach beyond his own specialty, let me express my appreciation of the paper and its attitude.

Professor Robert Andrews Millikan, of the Department of Physics:

I shall confine my of Professor Mead's paper mainly to its bearing upon the teaching of physics, because this is the only division of science concerning which my experience enables me to speak with any authority or knowledge.

I find myself in the fullest agreement with the author in the attitude which he takes toward the influence which, in the main,the university has had upon the course of physics in the secondary schools. This influence has been unfortunate (1) because it has tended to force university methods and university material into a sphere of education to which they are wholly unsuited, and (2) because it has tended to restrict high-school physics to too narrow a filed making it , to too large an extent, a minute study of the mathematical and mechanical foundations upon which technical science is build, rather than inspiring insight into the meaning of the physical world.

This result has been brought about, I think, not so much because of a conscious effort n the part of university teachers to make high-school merely a technical introduction to university science, as because of (1) ignorance on the part of many of the makers of college-entrance examinations and college

(251)-entrance requirements of the conditions and needs of high-school work, and unfamiliarity with any sort of physics save that which they teach in their own classrooms; and (2) incompetence on th part of hundreds of high-school teachers, which is responsible for the fact that their high-school courses are mere duplicates of the courses which they themselves were taught in college.

It is my observation that this state of affairs is passing away in the better grade of high schools. The tyranny of the university over the high-school is surely coming to an end. The field of the high-school physics course is rapidly broadening, and the technical introduction is being rapidly replaced by an immediate presentation, in language which the student already understands, and the ***hows and whys*** of familiar physical phenomena, followed, not preceded, by a limited introduction to the technical language of physics in the translation of ideas already gained into equations and graphs. As a result of this change, I can now name a number of schools in which physics is the most popular subject in the curriculum.

As to the second point raised by Professor Mead's paper, namely the relations of the sciences to one another, I give enthusiastic welcome to an experiment upon such a general introductory science course as he suggests. The attempt to impress the student at the beginning of his course with the oneness of the world of science, and to give him some familiarity with the sort of problems which are dealt with in the various divisions of this world, as well as some little knowledge of the terms and symbols which are met with in each division, should assist greatly in the presentation of all the sciences. Furthermore, the immediate feasibility of the proposed plan is on of its attractive features, It will be a comparatively easy matter to transform the present physiography course into a course of the type proposed.

The third problem which Professor Mead discusses, namely, the correlation of science and mathematics, is one the solution of which is much more difficult, and the source of the difficulty is found simply in the fact that elementary science demands for its adequate presentation an extremely small amount of mathematical training. One single theorem in geometry, namely that of similar triangles, will suffice for a complete course in physics, and not more than five or six theorems at the most ever find application. With algebra the case is not very different for the equations which need to be handled in science-teaching are of the simplest nature. The mathematical problem of the physics teacher is simply to teach the student to express in mathematical form physical relation which he already understands, and the manipulation of the equations which are met with in elementary physics is extremely simple; so that, if we regard mathematics only as the language of science, and postpone the development of every mathematical proposition until we actually need this proposition in our work in physics, we shall eliminate from 75 to 90 per cent of the mathematics which the high-school course now contains. There are perhaps those who would be willing to see some of it eliminated, but such a wholesale demathematicization of the high-school curriculum would probably find few advocates.


I take it, therefore, that we shall always wish to treat mathematics in our high-school work as something more than the mere tool or language of science--something which may profitably be studied for its own sake. Nevertheless, in the study of mathematics for its own sake it is certainly possible to take away much of its abstractness and unreality be illustrations drawn from the domain of science. In other words, it is possible and desire\able to use science for the sake of fixing and emphasizing mathematical laws just as truly as it is possible and desirable to use mathematics for the sake of interpreting and fixing physical laws. Hence I welcome attempts to interweave the science and mathematics work, particularly in the early stages of the high-school course. The introductory science course which Professor Mead suggests ought to furnish an admirable opportunity to get mathematics and science into more mutually helpful relations than they now occupy. The feasibility of continuing the intimacy of the connection throughout the later stages of the course is perhaps more doubtful.

Professor Charles R. Barnes, of the Department of Botany

I have read with interest the article on science in the secondary schools which was put into my hands a few weeks ago. In the main, I think, I agree with its position. The insistence upon establishing a connection between science and mathematics, and brining the whole of scientific instruction into intimate contact with the child's world and his ideas, is certainly an excellent one.

If there is any criticism to be made, it is that the article has perhaps failed to emphasize sufficiently the difference between scientific training and scientific information. The present failure, as it seems to me, in our secondary schools, so far as science-teaching is concerned, lies in the failure to establish scientific habits of thinking. It is this scientific training in correct reasoning upon adequate evidence that can be imparted by instruction in any science, or, for that matter, in any subject. Up to the time of adolescence a child has relied, perhaps properly enough, upon the method of authority -- the authority of the book, of the parents, of the teacher. He ought to begin in the high school to lay aside this crutch and to rely upon the interrogation of real sources of information. I would not deprive him of other sources, nor minimize their importance as short-cuts to probable information; but he ought to learn how knowledge acquired, and particularly how it is to be tested when occasion arises; and he ought to acquire a wholesome skepticism in regard to "authority."

It seems to me that the article lays stress upon his right to a **body of information,,** which doubtless is both useful and interesting, inasmuch as it is interpretative of the modern world. It is much more important that he be stimulated, through interest in the world about him, to acquire a scientific *attitude,* than that he acquire a fund of information more or less accurate. If the latter is to be imparted, it can be done only when adequate time and an adequate teaching force is provided. From time immemorial the child has been given that comprehensive view of the relationship of the history and literatures of

(253) the past to this present epoch. That this has been highly useful goes without saying. When science began to develop, it was simply interpolated or superposed upon the previous course, or a bit of it was made alternative with language or literature or philosophy or economics. The real co-ordination, however, is between science on the one hand, and humanities, speaking broadly, on the other. If one compares the teaching force and the time devoted to these subjects of human interest and relation, with the corresponding factors in science teaching, it is obvious that the latter is still considered as merely one small feature of the curriculum. When each science stands co-ordinate with each language or division of history or each literature, then and then only, will it be possible to give the child his rights in the matter of a comprehensive body of scientific information.

At present I think all that we can hope for is a beginning, which shall have for its object the establishment of a scientific attitude of mind by interested study of natural phenomena in any line which may be permitted by the resources of staff and equipment.


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