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The Biology Course in High Schools

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ARTHUR S. DEWING

OME time ago a certain magazine which contains contributions from those interested in the problems of science instruction in high schools, discussed the position and character of the biology course. The articles were written by practical teachers of biology who looked upon the subject rather from the point of view of their own special science than from that of a wide educational perspective. As a result, lines were closely drawn between one set of men who preferred to teach either Botany or Zoology, or perhaps both, as separate and distinct sciences and another group of men who preferred to teach the biological sciences as a single course in which plant life, animal life and human activity each had its place. In other words the controversy narrowed itself down to the question whether a special biological science was to be taught as a unit in itself or whether all these biological sciences were to find their places in the general conception of life activity. The question is one of fundamental educational significance. It penetrates to a greater or lesser extent not only the teaching of every science, but also every part of the high school program. Shall a subject be taught as an isolated unit, the emphasis laid on a limited range of facts which it represents, or shall it be taught in terms of general problems having a wide significance and a general value?

Questions of this kind cannot be solved by a comparison between the relative values of the facts taught by stems and roots, frogs and grasshoppers, nor, by an appeal to the general utility of one or another of the sciences. On the contrary, the test which shall in the end decide this, as well as other questions of school programs, is concerned with educational values rather than mere fact values. Most boys and girls have a comparatively short time to spend on any of the sciences. It is, therefore, important that this time be so arranged as to produce the greatest intrinsic results, results which count for much, educationally.

The community or society before whose court of appeal educational values finally reach their decision, gives little heed to controversies of this character, provided they do not effect practically the permanent value of education. The world at large would contend, rightly perhaps, that it makes comparatively little difference to the average pupil whether his head is stored with the Latin names associated with animals or those with plants. But it does make a vast deal of difference whether the pupil has gathered in the short years of his school course that width of perspective and breadth of understanding which enables him to meet the vital problems of the environment into which he is soon to be thrown. There is the ultimate sanction of educational work. There is the test beneath which no educational pedantry can penetrate and there is the force which in the end shall determine the form of our school programs.

The educational value of a subject may be tested by two different standards. In the first instance a subject has value in accordance with the power which it may develop. This is a general expression and the literature of education is too prone to accept generalities. Yet the diversity of minds is so great and the variations in mental capacity so extreme, that one must appreciate fully that it is power of some kind, be it ability to make the best horseshoe or preach the best sermon, which must gauge educational values. Mental power is perhaps an overworked phrase, yet it conveys, as no other simple expression does, the practical ideal of a working educational system. It involves the ability to do some practical vital work; the ability to meet an environment the better which may test to the uttermost moral integrity and physical strength. These are the things that are represented in power and these are the things that any form of education must cultivate.

Besides mental power, which concerns itself with the individual's development, there is another standard, one associated with social values. The world into which the boy or girl is thrown is a world pulsing with life, throbbing with the deep realities which give experience its value. Science can best teach these values objectively. Literature can perhaps express life in a more vital mould than science, but yet science, in order that it shall have meaning, must likewise touch shoulders with life. Science is not pedantry; science is not mere facts; its vital germ is something

which transcends an empirical expression, for when all is said, the fact is nothing but the dead husk of an experience in which the vital germ is lost.

Remembering then that education is to be gauged by its ability to cultivate mental power on the one hand and the closeness with which it comes in contact with human life on the other, there are certain standards by which we may test the problem at issue. Again, it must be reiterated that it is not a question of mere fact value, for facts have their value only in life. The question whether there shall be a single biological science intensively taught or several of them harmonized into a single course depends upon which program contributes the greater to mental power on the one hand, and to life values on the other. One grants that keenness of observation has educational value, but one questions if keenness of observation cannot be obtained as readily by observing many diverse forms, even though the detail is not required, as one can from the examination of many facts. Is it not true that a student who has examined beans, roots and flowers, together with seaanemones, earth-worms and frogs, has had that power of observation cultivated just as much as if his whole time were spent entirely on either botanical or zoological material? And when it is remembered that a course in general biology usually begins with exercises in physiological chemistry and that it has in connection with botany and zoology, some experimental work in connection with digestion and circulation, does it not seem that the wider range of material cultivates the better this power of observation which those contending for the single science believe so valuable? Again, the ability to compare, to note differences and similarities, is certainly better trained if the material with which the student has to deal is selected from as wide a range as possible. He has his attention more closely directed toward vital essentials; he sees his facts from a broader perspective and therefore gains an extensive range even though he loses intension. Lastly, it must be strongly urged that ability to generalize is one of the most valuable results of scientific training. Our ordinary life activities require us to generalize constantly, but the student of science has learned the flavor of scientific inductions so that his conclusions are tempered by due appreciation of empirical fact. Few students who study biology are to become scientists. One in a thousand

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is to become a biologist. But the ability to draw general conclusions regarding the physiological activities of organisms or the little we know about inheritance is of service to every one of them, not because the generalisations themselves are so significant, but the spirit of scientific induction is something of permanent value in their mental equipment.

Experience can be interpreted either discreetly as a collection of units or continuously in terms of law. The one sees a plurality in a unity and the other a unity in a plurality. The former is natural for us, the latter is acquired. Many observed armadillos before the days of Darwin; many bred peas before the time of Mendel; but it was the genius of these two men, able to interpret separate experiences in terms of some principal of uniformity, which has given their observations their value. Many teachers of biology are merely morphologists, chained slavishly to their microtomes or oculars, and this spirit, unfortunately, has permeated the high school course in biology where freedom and extension are the things of value, not narrowness and intension.

The second standard which may be employed in determining the relative value of the single intensive study of a single subject or the broader general study of biology is that of the connection with life. This is an ideal, unfortunately, too seldom emphasized in determining educational merit. We have passed the days of dull formalism in education. We are approaching the days when educational forms shall be infused with the life drawn from the broad currents of social activity. Then only, can education meet the demand which society has put upon it. Then alone can it vindicate its high mission by working with, rather than against the social pulse. The general course in biology is a general course in life viewed objectively; botany is there; zoology is there; physiological chemistry; ecology; the known principles of inheritance; theories of evolution; social values and the ethical values which society but dimly recognizes. All these find their places, because somehow, somewhere they bear their fruit in the broader fields of life activity. Botany is not mere plant analysis; zoology is not mere comparative morphology; nor even is physiology merely a study of the moral degeneracy due to alcohol. These phases of the study have their places, but to be properly understood they must be seen in the broader perspective. For that

reason the flower can be taught, as the structural response on the part of a certain group of plants, to an environment. Studies in comparative morphology can be looked at in terms of a broad evolutionary background and the studies of alcohol and narcotics can be based on physiology and made to throw light on the social problems, and all this with a consciousness that it is life that is being studied, and not merely its objective facts.

Briefly then, one cannot help feeling that the demand which many are making for a broad course in biology, taught by a man fully conscious of its vital significance, has a permanent value. It has been contended that in many schools the one course in biology was given up years ago and the single course in botany and zoology substituted in its stead, and therefore the single course in biology represents a lower and therefore less desirable plan. But the biology which is merely a smattering of botany and zoology imperfectly synthesized, is a very different matter from a course in biology which has for its purpose the teaching of the majority of students-not necessarily the few that go to college a few of the general principles of that life which they see about them and which they themselves partially express. If this is done, then all the pressing social demands will be met by a science worthy of its position.

From what has been said it may be inferred that the present writer wishes to advocate the superficial study of biology, that the purposes for which nature study stand in the elementary schools should be made paramount in the high school course. Nothing is further from the point. One cannot help feeling that much of the twaddle that goes under the term of nature study is as pernicious to the training, from a scientific point of view, of the students as it is disorganizing to its general attitude towards school studies. There have, unfortunately, crept into educational theory, during the last few years, many of the ideas which are now dominant in kindergarten work. The teaching throughout the school course should be made as enjoyable as possible and the irksomeness and labor incident upon the acquisition of stern facts should be softened as much as possible by all that may lend superficial interest to the student. We have witnessed in science such ridiculous experiments as the study of the twentieth century

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