Chapter 5 Psychology in Relation to Current Thought

Chapter 5
Psychology in Relation to Current Thought

Educational Thought in the Eighteenth Century.––If the end of the eighteenth and the end of the nineteenth centuries have one feature in common more than another, it is, that in both education comes to the front as among the chief ends of man. The eighteenth-century people had the best of it. They had clear oracles in their Locke and their Rousseau. They knew what they wanted to do, and they did it with charming enthusiasm. The period teems with memoirs; and it is very pleasant to read about the philosophically and consistently brought up children of the more thoughtful families. They had convictions, and they had the courage of their convictions. We are less happy. A few decades ago we too were in a furore of joyous excitement about education. Educational 'movements,' schools, colleges, lectures, higher education for women, 'public' day schools for girls, examination tests which should give assurance on every point, were multiplied all over the country and all over the world. It was a forward movement which has brought us incalculable gains; and not the least of these gains is the fact that today we are dissatisfied and depressed, and inclined to wonder whether we are not on the wrong tack. If educational work of the best kind had not been going on amongst us for the last two or three decades, we should not have arrived at this 'divine discontent.' All the same, it is pretty evident that the time has come when we must change our front. Now, elementary schools, now, girls' high schools, now, public schools, now, women's colleges, are pronounced to be, on the whole, 'a failure.' They do a great deal, it is said, but is what they do worth doing? Is it, in fact, education? The bolder sceptics go so far as to attack our two ancient universities; but they, very likely, will weather the storm because of the very inertness, the 'masterly inactivity,' let us call it, which their opponents abuse; the universities do a great deal of 'letting-alone.'

General Dissatisfaction with Education.––Our pretty general dissatisfaction with education, as it is, is a wholesome symptom, and probably means that sounder theory and happier practice are on their way to us. One thing we begin to see clearly, that the stream can rise no higher than its source, that sound theory must underlie successful work. We begin to suspect that we took up schemes and methods of education a little hastily, without considering what philosophy or, let us say, psychology, underlies those schemes and methods; now, we see that our results cannot be in advance of our principles. To-day the psychologist is abroad, as, twenty or thirty years ago, the schoolmaster was abroad.

Psychologies are many.––But, alas, psychologies are many, and educational denominations are bitterly opposed to one another. We must feel our way to some test by which we can discern a working psychology for our own age; for, like all science, psychology is progressive. What worked even fifty years ago will not work to-day, and what fulfils our needs to-day will not serve fifty years hence; there is no last word to be said upon education; it evolves with the evolution of the race. At the same time, that there should be at least half a dozen systems in the field, no one of them entirely satisfactory even to the persons who adopt it, shows that we, who practise education, should at any rate attempt to know what are the requirements of a sound system of psychology.

Conditions of an Adequate System.––That system which shall be of use to practical people in giving purpose, unity and continuity to education, must satisfy the following demands:––It must be adequate, covering the whole nature of man and his relations with all that is other than himself. It must be necessary, that is, no other equally adequate psychology should present itself; and it must touch at all points the living thought of the age; that is, it must not be a by-issue to be discussed by specialists at their leisure, but the intelligent man in the street should feel its movement to be in step with the two or three great ideas by which the world is just now being educated.

Sacredness of the Person––Among the thoughts which the mysterious Zeitgeist is employing to bring us up, I think we may put first the sacredness of the person. Every person is interesting to us to-day. The interviewer does more than satisfy vulgar curiosity; what he has to tell is equally welcome to us all, whether he interviews the London 'step-girl,' the costermonger, the man of the book-barrow, 'Arry and 'Arriet out for a holiday, an ambassador, an author, an artist, a royal personage; every detail that will help us to realise the personality of one or other is more than welcome. So, too, of what is called the 'Kailyard' literature; it rests on a sound basis. Literary merit it may or may not have, but it tells us what we want to know––everyday details about the people, any people, of any county, or of any country. Slang dictionaries, collections of folk-lore, big biographies which tell us minutely how a man dines and breakfasts, walks and sleeps, all is grist to our mill. We set an enormous and, I think, an increasing value upon persons, simply, per se; and any system of psychology which is to appeal to us must bring the person to the fore. He may be influenced by this and that; but he, himself, the indefinable person, of whom we are sensible while he is yet in arms, and of whom we never finally lose sight, however he be marred by vice and misery, must play for himself the game of life, and shape for himself those influences of environment, education, and what not, that do their part to make him what he is. A system of psychology which gives us man in this sort of relation to educational forces should become common property at once, because this is what every mother of a family and teacher of a school, every sort of director of men and women, knows about.

The Evolution of the Individual.––Next we demand of education that it should make for the evolution of the individual; should not only put the person in the first place, but should have for its sole aim the making the very most of that person, intellectually, morally, physically. We do not desire any dead accretions of mere knowledge, or externals of mere accomplishment. We desire an education that shall be assimilated; shall become part and parcel of the person; and the psychology which shall show us how to educate our children in this vital way will meet our demands. The doctrine of evolution has brought about a greater bouleversement in philosophy than perhaps we are aware of, and we shall find by-and-by that 'education' means nothing less than the evolution of the human being at all points; and that the acquisition of mere learning is not necessarily education at all.

The Solidarity of the Race.––One other idea that appears to be at work in the world for the elevation of mankind is that of the solidarity of the race. The American poet, Walt Whitman, expresses one side of this intuition when he tells us how he conquers with every triumphant general, bleeds with every wounded soldier, shares the spring morning and the open road and the pride of the horses with every jolly waggoner––in fact, lives in all other lives that touch him anywhere, even in imagination. This is something more than the brotherhood of man; that belongs to the present; but our sense of the oneness of humanity reaches into the remotest past, making us regard with tender reverence every relic of the antiquity of our own people or of any other; and, with a sort of jubilant hope, every prognostic of science or philanthropy which appears to us to be the promise of the centuries to come. Is it too much to expect that psychology shall take cognisance of this great educational force as well as of the two others I have indicated? I do not say that these three are the only, so to speak, motor ideas of our age; but I think they are the three of which we are all most aware, and I think, too, that any system of psychology which takes no cognisance of either, or of all of them, does not afford that basis for our educational theory and practice of which we are in search.

The Best Thought is Common Thought––Let us consider now some three or four of the psychologies which have the most widespread influence to-day. But we do not presume to do this as critics, rather as inheritors of other men's labour, who take stock of our possessions in order that we may use them to the most advantage. For the best thought of any age is common thought; the men who write it down do but give expression to what is working in the minds of the rest. But we must bear in mind that truth behaves like a country gate allowed to 'swing to' after a push. Now it swings a long way to this side and now a long way to that, and at last after shorter and shorter oscillations the latch settles. The reformer, the investigator, works towards one aspect of truth, which is the whole truth to him, and which he advances out of line with the rest. The next reformer works at a tangent, apparently in opposition, but he is bringing up another front of truth. Then there is work for us, the people of average mind. We consider all sides, balance what has been done, and find truth, perhaps in the mean, perhaps as a side issue which did not make itself plain to original thinkers of either school. But we do not scorn the bridge that has borne us.

Locke's 'States of Consciousness.'––We need not go further back than Locke, who represents the traditional educational notions in the homes of the upper middle classes. People who bring up their children by 'common sense,' according to 'the way of our family,' do so more often than they know because their great-great-grandfathers read Locke. He did not concern himself with the mind, or soul of man, but with 'states of consciousness.' Ideas, images, were for him to be got only through the senses; and a man could know nothing but what he got hold of through his own senses and assimilated by his own understanding. As for choice and selection in these ideas and images, Locke gives a comprehensive counsel––'What it becomes a gentleman to know' is the proper subject-matter for education. The mind (i.e. the man?) appears to have little colour or character of its own, but has certain powers and activities for the employment of the ideas it receives; and to account for these, Locke invented the pestilent fallacy which has, perhaps, been more injurious than any other to the cause of education––the fallacy of the 'faculties of the mind.'

Does not provide for the Evolution of the Person.––Now let us bring Locke up to the standard which we have erected, remembering always that our power to raise a higher standard is due to him and such as he. There is no unity of an inspiring idea, no natural progress and continuity, no ennobling aim, in an education which stops at the knowledge a gentleman should acquire and the accomplishments a gentleman should possess. The person hardly appears except in the way of the semi-mechanical activities of his so-called faculties; he is practically the resultant of the images conveyed through his senses. The evolution, the expansion of the individual in the directions proper to him, has no place here; every man is shut tight, as it were, in his own skin, but is taught to behave himself becomingly within that limit. That intellectual commerce of ideas whereby the dead yet speak their living thoughts in the work they have left us, and by which as by links of an endless chain all men are bound to each and all men influence each, has no place in a philosophy which teaches that a man can know only through his own understanding working upon the images he receives through his senses. In so far as we wish to attain to the possibilities of the hour we must take farewell of Locke, though we do so with gratitude, and even with affection.

Modern Physiological Psychology.––The modern school, which regards psychology strictly as a 'natural science,' works more or less on the basis of Locke, plus an illuminating knowledge of biology. Here, as with Locke, the 'mind' is apprehended only as 'states of consciousness'; the senses are the sole avenues of knowledge, which reaches the brain in the form of ideas or images. But I shall represent this 'rational psychology' best by citing a few sentences from Professor James (Harvard University), whose wise and temperate treatment of the subject commands the respect and attention of even those who differ from him. He opens with a limiting definition of psychology as the 'description and explanation of states of consciousness as such.' He treats psychology as a 'natural science.' After bringing forward facts familiar to most of us, showing the intimate connection between acts of thought and the cerebral hemisphere, he says: "Taking all such facts together, the simple and radical conception dawns upon the mind that mental action may be uniformly and absolutely a function of brain action varying as the latter varies, and being to the brain action as effect to cause. This conception is the working hypothesis which underlies all the physiological-psychology of recent years." This is not far removed from the announcement of the Frenchman that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile, both processes being purely material and mechanical, and doing away with any requirement for the profoundest thinking beyond that of a well-nourished brain.

Unjustifiable Materialism.––No wonder the author finds himself compelled to admit that to some readers "such an assumption will seem like the most unjustifiable à priori materialism." The discussion of 'the self' might be supposed to present insuperable difficulties, but they are disposed of, and, says our author, "The logical conclusion seems to be that the states of consciousness are all that psychology needs to do her work with. Metaphysics or theology may prove the soul to exist, but for psychology the hypothesis of such a substantial principle of unity is superfluous." That is to say, the important personage which I call I, myself, need be no more than perpetually shifting states of consciousness effected by the brain; and the sameness or identity of person, which seems at first sight the one bit of solid ground in a shifting morass, rests upon no more than the fact that the brain may be conscious of the same objects to-day that it was conscious of years ago.

Psychology, 'A Phrase of Diffidence.'––But, after proving with great clearness and power through a considerable volume (Outlines of Psychology) that all the phenomena of intelligent life may have their sole source in the physical brain, Professor James concludes––"When, then, we talk of psychology as a natural science we must not assume that that means a sort of psychology that stands at last on solid ground. It means just the reverse; it means a psychology particularly fragile and into which the waters of metaphysical criticism leak at every joint, a psychology all of whose elementary assumptions and data must be reconsidered in wider connections and translated into other terms. It is, in short, a phrase of diffidence and not of arrogance, and it is indeed strange to hear people talk triumphantly of the 'New Psychology' and write 'Histories of Psychology' when into the real elements and forces, which the word covers, not the first glimpse of clear insight exists. A string of raw facts, a little gossip and wrangle about opinions, a little classification and generalisation on the mere descriptive level . . . but not a single law . . . . not a single proposition from which any consequence can causally be deduced." This is soothing, and we close Professor James's book with satisfaction; but the pity of it is that all the 'new' psychologists are not so modest as the Professor, some of them are, may we venture to say so, not a little arrogant: what is more, the student who goes carefully through this text-book of psychology is only too likely to consider that the author has proved his case––that psychology is a 'natural science,' 'and it is,' like Peter Bell's primrose, 'nothing more'––up to the hilt, and he is not likely to go through a process of reconversion at the last page.

We become Devitalised.––It is dreary to suppose that one may not be anybody after all, but only a momentary state of consciousness. Hope goes out of life, for there is nothing pleasant to look forward to. If something agreeable should happen next year, there is no I, myself, to enjoy it; only the 'state of consciousness' of some moment to come. Faith goes where all is fortuitous; when other people and ourselves are, so to speak, the circumstances of the moment. Where there are no persons, there is no possibility of that divine afflatus which we call enthusiasm; for that recognition of another on a higher plane which we mean when we say 'I believe in so and so,' for that recognition of the divine Being which we call Faith. We become devitalised; life is flat and grey; we throw desperate, if dull, energy into the task of the hour because we shall so, any way, get rid of that hour; we are glad to be amused, but still more glad of the stimulus of feverish work; but the work, like ourselves, is devitalised, without living idea, without consecrating aim. Our manner becomes impassive, our speech caustic, our countenance dreary and impenetrable. This is the change that is passing over large numbers of the teaching profession, men and women of keen intelligence, who might well have been inspired by high ideals, quickened by noble enthusiasms, had they not imbibed an educational faith which meets all aspirations with a Cui bono? We give what we have, and only what we have. What have these to pass on to the children under their care?

This System Inadequate, Unnecessary, Inharmonious.––But we need not sit down under this blighting system of thought. It is inadequate, as the best of their own prophets––Mr. James, for example––freely allow; there is more in man than this philosophy has ever dreamt of. It is unnecessary, for, as we shall presently see, more than one other psychology accounts with greater, though never with complete, success for the phenomena which a human being presents. It is inharmonious with the movement of the age. It effaces that personality which the age tends to exalt and magnify, and to regard with tender interest, under even sordid conditions. The principle of solidarity is lost, and those of social and family life loosened; for what binding tie can there be between beings whose entity may be no more than a state of consciousness?

Evolution is checked.––Again, the evolution of the individual is checked at the point of mechanical perfection. Good mathematicians, clear-headed scientists, may be turned out; but what place is there for the higher forces of humanity, aspiration, speculation, devotion? We have reason to keep watch at the place of the letting out of waters, that is, the psychology upon which our educational thought and action rest. There is delightful certitude in the results of anthropometrical research. You may predicate with certainty given facts about a child from the way in which he stretches out his arm. Good pathological work is being done, and many a child's hidden weakness is revealed and consequently brought under curative treatment by the tests which it is now possible to apply. The danger is that we should take a part for the whole and allow this 'new psychology' to usurp the whole field of education.