Studies are conventionally and conveniently grouped under these heads: (1) Those especially involving the acquisition of skill in performance—the school arts, such as reading, writing, figuring, and music. (2) Those mainly concerned with acquiring knowledge—”informational” studies, such as geography and history. (3) Those in which skill in doing and bulk of information are relatively less important, and appeal to abstract thinking, to “reasoning,” is most marked—”disciplinary” studies, such as arithmetic and formal grammar. Each of these groups of subjects has its own special pitfalls.
(a) In the case of the so-called disciplinary or pre-eminently logical studies, there is danger of the isolation of intellectual activity from the ordinary affairs of life. Teacher and student alike tend to set up a chasm between logical thought as something abstract and remote, and the specific and concrete demands of everyday events. The abstract tends to become so aloof, so far away from application, as to be cut loose from practical and moral bearing. The gullibility of specialized scholars when out of their own lines, their extravagant habits of inference and speech, their ineptness in reaching conclusions in practical matters, their egotistical engrossment in their own subjects, are extreme examples of the bad effects of severing studies completely from their ordinary connections in life.
(b) The danger in those studies where the main emphasis is upon acquisition of skill is just the reverse. The tendency is to take the shortest cuts possible to gain the required end. This makes the subjects mechanical, and thus restrictive of intellectual power. In the mastery of reading, writing, drawing, laboratory technique, etc., the need of economy of time and material, of neatness and accuracy, of promptness and uniformity, is so great that these things tend to become ends in themselves, irrespective of their influence upon general mental attitude. Sheer imitation, dictation of steps to be taken, mechanical drill, may give results most quickly and yet strengthen traits likely to be fatal to reflective power. The pupil is enjoined to do this and that specific thing, with no knowledge of any reason except that by so doing he gets his result most speedily; his mistakes are pointed out and corrected for him; he is kept at pure repetition of certain acts till they become automatic. Later, teachers wonder why the pupil reads with so little expression, and figures with so little intelligent consideration of the terms of his problem. In some educational dogmas and practices, the very idea of training mind seems to be hopelessly confused with that of a drill which hardly touches mind at all—or touches it for the worse—since it is wholly taken up with training skill in external execution. This method reduces the “training” of human beings to the level of animal training. Practical skill, modes of effective technique, can be intelligently, non-mechanically used, only when intelligence has played a part in their acquisition.
(c) Much the same sort of thing is to be said regarding studies where emphasis traditionally falls upon bulk and accuracy of information. The distinction between information and wisdom is old, and yet requires constantly to be redrawn. Information is knowledge which is merely acquired and stored up; wisdom is knowledge operating in the direction of powers to the better living of life. Information, merely as information, implies no special training of intellectual capacity; wisdom is the finest fruit of that training. In school, amassing information always tends to escape from the ideal of wisdom or good judgment. The aim often seems to be—especially in such a subject as geography—to make the pupil what has been called a “cyclopedia of useless information.” “Covering the ground” is the primary necessity; the nurture of mind a bad second. Thinking cannot, of course, go on in a vacuum; suggestions and inferences can occur only upon a basis of information as to matters of fact.
But there is all the difference in the world whether the acquisition of information is treated as an end in itself, or is made an integral portion of the training of thought. The assumption that information which has been accumulated apart from use in the recognition and solution of a problem may later on be freely employed at will by thought is quite false. The skill at the ready command of intelligence is the skill acquired with the aid of intelligence; the only information which, otherwise than by accident, can be put to logical use is that acquired in the course of thinking. Because their knowledge has been achieved in connection with the needs of specific situations, men of little book-learning are often able to put to effective use every ounce of knowledge they possess; while men of vast erudition are often swamped by the mere bulk of their learning, because memory, rather than thinking, has been operative in obtaining it.