Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Herbert Spencer's essays about education on Project Gutenberg

Following closely Friedrich Froebel's autobiography, another pioneering work in education has been posted to Project Gutenberg, after being prepared by Distributed Proofreaders (see my earlier post on DP), and again I'm credited in the text for my work on it. The book in question is the collection Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects by Herbert Spencer, a leading 19th century scientist whose radical social and political theories influenced the likes of Alexander Berkman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Henry George, Emma Goldman, and Benjamin Tucker.

The group of essays "What Knowledge is of Most Worth?", "Intellectual Education", "Moral Education", and "Physical Education" were originally written in the 1850s and collected in book form in 1861. This edition adds five additional essays, as well as an excellent 1911 introduction by Charles W. Eliot. Known for creating the "Five Foot Shelf" collection of selected books, Eliot summarizes the essays in a concise space and describes the extent to which Spencer's reforms were put into practice in the intervening time.

As the titles of the essays suggest, Spencer applies the idea of freedom in education in very different contexts, as described by Eliot for intellectual education:
Spencer put very forcibly a valuable doctrine for which many earlier writers on the theory of education had failed to get a hearing—the doctrine, namely, that all instruction should be pleasurable and interesting. Fifty years ago almost all teachers believed that it was impossible to make school-work interesting, or life-work either; so that the child must be forced to grind without pleasure, in preparation for life's grind; and the forcing was to be done by experience of the teacher's displeasure and the infliction of pain. Through the slow effects of Spencer's teaching and of the experience of practical teachers who have demonstrated that instruction can be made pleasurable, and that the very hardest work is done by interested pupils because they are interested, it has gradually come to pass that his heresy has become the prevailing judgment among sensible and humane teachers.
physical education:
He taught that although gymnastics, military drill, and formal exercises of the limbs are better than nothing, they can never serve in place of the plays prompted by nature.... free plays are vastly better than formal exercises of any sort.
and most provocatively and originally, "Spencer's doctrine of natural consequences in place of artificial penalties" in moral education:
His proposal that children should be allowed to suffer the natural consequences of their foolish or wrong acts does not seem to the present generation—any more than it did to him—to be applicable to very young children, who need protection from the undue severity of many natural penalties; but the soundness of his general doctrine that it is the true function of parents and teachers to see that children habitually experience the normal consequences of their conduct, without putting artificial consequences in place of them, now commands the assent of most persons whose minds have been freed from the theological dogmas of original sin and total depravity.
This is an illustration of how a naturalistic and utilitarian worldview, in which human behavior is seen in context as part of the cause-and-effect structure of the natural world, and is judged by the harm or benefit it causes, leads to a more non-punitive way of dealing with and preventing harmful behavior.

Eliot puts Spencer's views on education in the context of his generally libertarian ideas, referring to "Spencer's objection to the constant exercise of authority and compulsion in schools, families, and the State". Also, Spencer's ideas for freedom in education were tied with his scientific worldview. According to Eliot, Spencer was one of the first people to assert the value of science both as a subject and as the basis for an experimental, experience-based method of learning superior to rote memorization.
He answered the question "what knowledge is of most worth?" with the one word—science.
Spencer himself shows the connection in "Intellectual Education":
Having a common origin in the national mind, the institutions of each epoch, whatever be their special functions, must have a family likeness. When men received their creed and its interpretations from an infallible authority deigning no explanations, it was natural that the teaching of children should be purely dogmatic. While "believe and ask no questions" was the maxim of the Church, it was fitly the maxim of the school.
Thus, Spencer is one of the many educational reformers and pioneers coming from a perspective of Enlightenment scientific humanism; others include Voltairine de Cleyre, John Dewey, Sebastien Faure, Fransisco Ferrer, William Godwin, Emma Goldman, Joseph Neef, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Bertrand Russell.

Interestingly, Spencer himself was homeschooled, due to health problems preventing him from being able to attend school. Also, Spencer was an early advocate of children's rights: see the chapter "The Rights of Children" in Social Statics (original 1851 edition online); long before A. S. Neill put forth his concept of "freedom" and "license", Spencer stated the idea of personal freedom and autonomy within the bounds of respect for the same freedom for others, regardless of age: "the law—Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man—applies as much to the young as to the mature". In the same book's chapter "National Education", Spencer argued against a compulsory school system. Given the stereotype that associates homeschooling with a fundamentalist and creationist mindset, and the common support of the compulsory public school system as a means to teach evolution, it's particularly ironic that he was also one of the main proponents of evolution, for instance, in the article "The Development Hypothesis", written before the publication of Darwin and Wallace's theory of natural selection (in 1852), he defended evolution against creationism:
Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution [originally "Theory of Lamarck"] as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none.
while he himself noted the irony in the 1892 revised edition of the "National Education" chapter:
The majority of those who vehemently object to a State-religion are disabled from seeing that their favourite measure, State-education, is objectionable on similar grounds.
Spencer seems to have been one of the influences on the Stelton Modern School. In Mike Gold's 1921 article "A Little Bit of Millenium", he mentions that one of the children at the school is named Herbert Spencer Goldberg; and in a statement by Alexis Ferm published in the April 1921 issue of that school's magazine The Modern School (online here), he quotes this passage from "Intellectual Education":
As suggesting a final reason for making education a process of self-instruction, and by consequence a process of pleasurable instruction, we may advert to the fact that, in proportion as it is made so, is there a probability that it will not cease when schooldays end. As long as the acquisition of knowledge is rendered habitually repugnant, so long will there be a prevailing tendency to discontinue it when free from the coercion of parents and masters.
It so happens that in this same statement, Ferm also mentions Froebel's ideas of the relationship of a teacher to a student in free education:
Froebel says that the true educator is a passive follower, but at the same time is positive in relation to his or her own life. This is the ideal of our teachers--always being ready to help the child to gain knowledge of his own power and through this knowledge to develop self-reliance....
Another connection between the two books is that, in the bibliography of the Froebel book, an 1879 edition of Bertha Meyer's Aids to Family Government, or From the Cradle to the School, according to Froebel is listed which also includes Spencer's The Rights of Children and The True Principles of Family Government.

For more information on Spencer, there's a good collection of writings by and about him at Roderick T. Long's website.

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