Thursday, June 19, 2008

Making Use of Mind -- Herbart

I am on to Chapter 7 of Charlotte Mason's Philosophy of Education, titled "How we Make Use of the Mind". This chapter, like the section on "Ideas" in chapter 6, gets on to philosophical turf, and it can get very difficult since the differences between schools of philosophy can be very subtle. So be warned that I am going to be over-simplifying in what follows.

The chapter breaks down into three main sections (the sub-headings spring from the main points).:


I. Herbartian psychology and how it affects education
  • "Concentration Schemes"
  • Distinction from CM method "ideas" as organisms

II. Alexander Paterson (who was a penologist and wrote a much-discussed book called "Across the Bridges").
  • Continuation Schools.

So I get the feeling that this chapter is a sort of overview of what the educational field looked like in CM's day, some of the "topical" issues which were in the air the educationists of her time were breathing.

First of all, Herbart. What was of worth in his philosophy was in his respect for the power of "ideas". CM acknowledged that his understanding of the power of ideas and "associations" was an improvement on the "Knowledge is sensation" theorists like Locke and more particularly, Condillac, who held that "all our ideas, without exception, are derived from the senses, and especially from touch." (Elsewhere she spoke of "what Plato condemns as "that lie of the soul," that corruption of the highest truth, of which Protagoras is guilty in the saying that, "Knowledge is sensation.") Yet Herbart's "association of ideas" and "apperception masses" were still too reductive. They gave the ideas a power of their own and thus limited the freedom of the individual -- as CM wrote:

Herbart begins to account for man minus what I have called the person. (Person is used in the common-sense, everyday acceptance of the word.) He allows a soul, but he says, "The soul has no capacity nor faculty whatever either to receive or to produce anything. It has originally neither ideas nor feelings nor desires. It knows nothing of itself and nothing of other things. Further, within it lie no forms of intuition or thought, no laws of willing and acting, nor any sort of predisposition, however remote, to all this." (Lehrbuch zur Psychologie, Part III, sects.152––See Herbatian Psychology, by J. Adams)There remain two possibilities for the soul: an effective vis inertiae and what Herbart describes as the power of reacting on an idea; that is to say, the soul itself is no longer quite as it was after it has thus reacted.

Turns out Duplicates––Again, given two souls supplied with precisely the same ideas, in precisely the same order, and with no other ideas whatsoever, and we get duplicates of the same person, a possibility which would demolish once and for ever that great conception, the solidarity of the race. Once more, what does the Herbartian theory of man minister to our interest in personality, our sense of the sacredness of the person? The person is non est, or is the mere sport of the ideas which take possession of him. He has not so much as a special fitness for one class of ideas rather than for another; all is casual; and, as for the evolution of the individual it is not he, but this or that mass of ideas which possesses him, that expands. The man appears to be no more than a sort of vessel of transport to carry ideas into their proper sphere of action.

Herbartian psychology is rich in suggestion, but we cannot take it up as it stands without losing the educational value of the two or three leading principles which are, as we say, 'in the air' for the teaching of mankind.
(from School Education, Some Educational Theories Examined)

I went and consulted the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (a treasure trove of background on philosophical currents of the early 20th century and before) and found this on Herbart:

With Herbart interest is not simply a means: it is an end in itself. "Many-sided interest" frees from narrow prejudices and counteracts evil possessions, but it is also an ideal worthy of all admiration in se. Ignorance is really the main factor in vice. All action springs out of "the circle of thought"; hence the decisive influence of the matter or content of instruction in the work of character building. "Make your instruction educative" is the great Herbartian maxim. Connected with the insistence on the psychological agencies of apperception and interest is the Herbartian principle of correlation and the five formal steps of instruction. The former should, according to the school, govern the drawing up of the curriculum. Organize the course of studies so that the matter of the different branches simultaneously treated, e.g. the literature, history and geography, may be connected with one another; and as far as possible let the subsidiary subjects be arranged in concentric circles around the chief study...
(the article goes on to describe in more detail the Herbartian method of teaching, but CM also describes it in rather amusing detail in Philosophy of Education. If you go here to the Google repository you can see the Introduction to the Herbartian Principles of Teaching that CM was quoting from.)

The Catholic Encyclopedia sums up

Undoubtedly there is much that is stimulating and valuable in Herbart's works on Education. ...But there are other features in his theory to which serious objections are made. .. it implies an entirely mechanical view of the mind as rigidly determined as that of the English Associationists, with which indeed, notwithstanding Herbart's spiritualism, it has sundry points of similarity....The soul seems to be conceived merely as the arena for chance experiences coming from without.

To both CM and the author of the CE article, the objection to Herbart's ideas come from a diminished view of the human personality.

Jaime Castiello, SJ, who wrote in 1936, and whom I've quoted before on Personality, mentions Herbart in passing in his excellent book A Humane Psychology of Education, and makes a similar point:

"The association psychology of the last century (that of Herbart, for example) had a very superficial view of man when it assumed that a man could be reduced to his "actual thinking process."
For some reason, this research on the mechanistic psychology of the late 19th and early 20th century reminded me of a book I recently read called : IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea. The book told about the early tries at an objective form of intelligence testing and is a lively, critical history of the development and ramifications of the idea of testing the "actual thinking process" of the individual human person.

As Charlotte Mason points out, following the logic of Locke and the philosophies that derived from his tends to maximize the role of the teacher. Where Aquinas would say that the teacher is like a doctor -- supporting the patient's health by arts that as closely as possible resembled nature, and taking a secondary role -- the new educational theorists put the teacher in the primary place -- the students were in a sense, objects -- the teaching was done TO them.

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