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CHAPTER V

SCIENCE

BY PROFESSOR T. PERCY NUNN, M.A., D.Sc.

There is a well-known passage in Herbert Spencer's Education where that stiff old Victorian, for once “ dropping into poetry,” speaks of Science as the household drudge in the family of knowledges, who, while ceaselessly ministering to the rest, has been kept, like Cinderella,“ in the background that her haughty sisters might flaunt their fripperies in the eyes of the world.” But, he continues, “the parallel holds yet further. For we are fast coming to the dénouement when the positions will be changed ; and while these haughty sisters sink into merited neglect, Science, proclaimed as highest alike in worth and beauty, will reign supreme."

This confident and uncompromising prophecy was uttered in 1861. Since that date there has been at least one period when it seemed well on the way to fulfilment. During the closing years of the last century the encouragement of sporadic instruction in science which was one of the functions of the Science and Art Department of South Kensington, developed by rapid steps into an elaborate scheme for fostering the systematic teaching of the subject in schools. Seduced by the substantial grants which were the reward of conversion, many an ancient foundation turned from the cult of the Latin grammar to the cult of the test-tube, and renewed its youth as a "school of science.” Nor was the movement confined to schools commonly recognized as secondary. The powerful and ambitious School Boards of the larger towns, overlooking or ignoring the statutory limitations on their activities, joined in the fashion, and organized their “higher elementary” and “higher grade” schools as “schools of science.” These, unhampered by older traditions and well equipped from the ratepayer's purse, not only secured a full share of the Department's grants, but also entered into a vigorous and successful competition for pupils with their secondary rivals.

rivals. Meanwhile, the “whiskey money,” which, with typical British inconsequence, had been diverted from the compensation of displaced publicans to the coffers of the Technical Education Committees of the County Councils established by the Act of 1899, began also to be largely devoted, with other local funds, to the encouragement of science teaching in secondary schools. Thus the last decade of the nineteenth century and the earliest years of the twentieth saw a very remarkable impetus given to the study of science in a rapidly increasing number of grant-earning secondary and quasi-secondary schools. The Cinderella of the curriculum had already become, at least in these schools, the favourite and privileged daughter who received all the attentions of the visitors and monopolized the pin-money.

Then came the famous Cockerton judgment, the great Education Acts of 1902–3 and the “new orientation ” of administrative policy that followed on the establishment in 1899 of the Board of Education. The first of these declared the illegality of the “schools of science " set up by the School Boards ; the second

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swept those bodies out of existence and assigned their powers, together with new powers in connection with secondary education, to the general local authorities; while the policy of the Board of Education, as it gradually declared itself under the influence of a new personnel, put a stop to the triumphant progress of science and destroyed its privileged position as grant-earning subject.

The present situation, then, as compared with that of twenty years ago, is roughly as follows. In the Elementary Schools there is, undoubtedly, less teaching of science. The existence of “schools of science within the elementary system was not only a symptom but also a cause of a concentration of interest upon the subject that had distinct effects in the ordinary schools and a strong influence on the attitude of the rank and file of teachers. With the disappearance of the special grants the attention given to science has very sensibly diminished. As regards secondary education the changes have been more complicated. In 1898 Secondary Schools could be divided into two well-contrasted groups.

Those which accepted the grants of the Education Department were compelled to give a predominantly scientific curriculum ;1 those—including all the “public” schools—which could afford to keep their freedom, or refused to barter it, continued to go their own way : that is, they retained the old classical

1 The Regulations required a “school of science to give not less than thirteen hours per week to an obligatory course containing not more than five hours mathematics and, in addition, physics, chemistry, drawing and practical geometry. Of the ten hours to be devoted to “other approved subjects," two might be given to manual instruction, and two others to mathematics or art. After two years, practical geometry became optional. Thus, out of twenty-three compulsory hours, only six were required to be given to languages (including English), history, geography and other “ general subjects.”

curriculum modified to a very variable extent in deference to the demands of the modern spirit. During the twenty years science teaching has been levelled down in the former group and levelled up in the latter; it has lost its predominance in the grantearning schools, but has secured a much stronger footing in the rest.

A reference to these historical circumstances forms, for several reasons, a convenient introduction to this chapter ; for, in the first place, the English tradition of science-teaching was largely formed in the “school of science.The more enthusiastic friends of the subject are prone, sometimes unconsciously, to asses its present position in terms of the standards which obtained during its brief period of empire ; its enemies derive from the same epoch much of their hostility, and its lukewarm friends many of their reservations. Secondly, in a period when interest was so much concentrated upon science-teaching, curricula and methods of instruction were subjected to a testing process whose results are of permanent value. A third reason goes deeper. The earlier work of the Science and Art Department was based upon the sound idea that a wider familiarity with science was an urgent national need : that science, particularly chemistry and physics, had become “bread-and-butter knowledge,” without which a modern industrial State must starve. But in time this idea became merged in a wider one-preached with a rather narrow vehemence by Spencer, with a sweeter reasonableness by Huxley. The gospel of these writers and their followers was that the study of science is not merely useful, but may be made the basis of a culture alternative, and even superior, to the older linguistic culture. The “school of science was an embodiment and a manifesto of that gospel. It challenged the supremacy of the culture based on letters by offering one based on the achievements of the chemist, the physicist, and the biologist. Lastly, the conditions of twenty years ago have in some important respects returned. The educational conscience of England is once more stirring uneasily in its sleep; is, in fact, more nearly awake than it has been for centuries. Once more

Once more “neglect of science' is the loudest of the cries that disturb its slumber. Once more we are urged to protect our children against the faery spell of the old learning ; to clear their vision by science so that they may see the world as it really is. And we are about to witness once more an outburst of administrative activity and the establishment of new institutions—the Continuation Schools and the “advanced courses " in Secondary Schools—which will offer fresh fields for experiment on a large scale.

We shall hardly deal with this situation wisely unless we remember the lessons learnt in the schools of science." Those schools proved beyond doubt that science, well taught, may be an excellent educational instrument; but their very efficiency in their own line only made more evident the unwelcome truth that no one instrument, however admirable and however skilfully used, can do the whole work of education. That is why the system was abandoned, and rightly abandoned. Scientific culture, made universal and exclusive, would become, it was seen, as oppressive a tyrant as the culture it sought to dethrone, and would not fail to develop an equally narrowing pedantry.

This discovery not only stands as a warning to the incautious enthusiast ; properly understood, it also helps to make clear the true grounds for the inclusion of

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