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a myth, that the Iliad was not written by him, but by another
man of the same name. It is in very much the same spirit,
I fear, and with very much the same result, that I enter
upon the attempt to provoke in your minds a discussion of
the theory of mental training or formal discipline. My
thesis, in a word, is this: "The theory of mental training,
the old presupposition of our educational systems, is false,
but its lineal descendant of the present generation is true,
and that descendant rightly bears the name of its reverend
ancestor."

It is rather a pleasant task for a layman to do what he
can in defense of so old and worthy a tradition as that of
mental training, for whether true or false, it has done much
for the theory and practise of our education. It was formu-
lated not later than the Greeks, it was taught throughout
the entire classic tradition, it has been the common dogma
of educational science until the present day, it is advocated
by college presidents and Committees of Ten; if we accept
their own words, it is practised by many of those who de-
clare themselves its enemies. In a word, it is a respectable
old theory, perhaps even a sacred one; it has played its part,
and done its work well; it is worthy of such gratitude as
we may care to offer. So, at least, it appears to the lay
mind, for I have observed that however eager we may be
to press on to the discovery of new truths and the destruc-
tion of old dogmas in our own academic work, most of us

116



IS MENTAL TRAINING A MTTH 117

are impatient and distressed when the workers in other fields
direct their attacks upon those ancient structures in which
we have housed our uncritical beliefs and prejudices. As
a layman, then, speaking to students and practitioners of
educational theory, may I come before you to stir up dis-
cussion by saying a good word for the old theory of formal
discipline, and if it be no longer among us to receive the
praise, then let the praise fall at the door of that member
of the family who to-day lays rightful claim to the ancestral
place among educational beliefs.

As one reads over the literature of the discussion, the
most satisfactory statements of the position are found in
the illustrations rather than in the technical definitions.
This may, of course, be due to the layness of one's own
mind, but to the lay mind, at least, it indicates that the
discussion is still in its preliminary stages. The fact is
that the critics of the theory are applying in the educa-
tional field a psychological point of view which has not yet,
even in its own field, been brought to definiteness and
clearness; and, on the other hand, the theory of mental
training, formulated centuries ago, has for the most part
received expression from men not cognizant of, or, at least,
directly concerned with, the recent changes in psychological
science from college presidents, for example, and from
other men whose business it is to represent before the public
the aims and achievements of school and college. Now,
it is possible, of course, that the new view is the true one,
and that the college presidents quite unintentionally are
misleading their hearers. It may be, for example, that
President Woodrow Wilson is mistaken when he says:
"We speak of the 'disciplinary* studies . . . having in
our thought the mathematics of arithmetic, elementary
algebra, and geometry, the Greek-Latin texts and grammars,
the elements of English and of French or German. . . .
The mind takes fiber, facility, strength, adaptability,
certainty of touch from handling them, when the teacher
knows his art and their power. The college . . . should



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give . . . elasticity of faculty and breadth of vision, so
that they shall have a surplus of mind to expend. . . ." So,
too, President Timothy Dwight of Yale University may
have been wrong when he said of college education, "Such
an education is the best means of developing thought
power in a young man, and making him a thinking man of
cultured mind." It must be admitted that the statements
have something of the ring of the discredited and outworn
psychology of faculties rather than of that functional science
which is claiming the field to-day. But, personally, I am
of the opinion that the difficulty is only one of words. I
am inclined to think that the college presidents do know
what they are driving at, even though, strange as it may
seem, they are not able to express it very happily. And
if this be so, we may well take upon ourselves the benevolent
task of putting words into their mouths. And, at the
same time, we may suggest to their critics that
they, too, have as yet failed to reach a clearness of state-
ment which would justify the throwing of stones at the
windows of their predecessors and present rulers. In a
word, what a lay mind like my own would like to do is to
reduce the two conflicting theories to the terms of a com-
mon point of view so that, face to face and on the same
footing, we may fairly determine to which of them belongs
the victory in the conflict which they are waging.

To begin, then, with illustrations, we are told that the
theory of mental training is a "gymnastic" theory of mind.
It is a notion drawn from analogy with the body. Just as
the arm may, by exercise, develop strength which may then
be used for many purposes, such as throwing a ball, wielding
a pen, holding a plow, so the mind and its various faculties
may, by proper training, be increased in power, which may
then be expended wherever demand may call. For example,
by exercising the memory in nonsense syllables or Latin
verse, one may improve the memorizing power in general;
by training the observation in the laboratory, one may so
develop the capacity for sense-discrimination that in every



7S MENTAL TRAINING A MYTH 119

field perception will be keener and more exact. In short,
as the mind has many faculties, each doing its own part
of the mental toil, each of these may be strengthened
through exercise, and by a proper course of study all of them
may be so developed that, to quote Chancellor MacCracken,
the student "will possess a better disciplined mind for
whatever work of life he may turn his attention to."

Now, against this theory, two lines of argument have
been advanced: the first theoretical, a matter of definition,
and the second experimental, a matter of fact. The argu-
ment from definition has challenged the description of the
mind contained in the theory of mental training as given
above. It has criticized the division of the mind into
faculties, and has shown that division to be absurd. Upon
that point there can be no further question, nor need there
be, so far as the notion of formal discipline is concerned.
It has also challenged the analogy between mind and body
implied in the notions of exercise, practise, gymnastic
training, and has raised the query whether the mind is
really the sort of thing that can be trained and practised.
This question we must keep before us as essential to the
controversy. On the side of fact, Professor William James,
whose hand has gone early and deep into most of the stir-
rings of the philosophical caldron during the last twenty-
five years, has here, too, had a leading part in the melting
down of conventional and uncritical dogma. Experi-
menting upon memory processes, he seemed to find little
improvement in grasp of one kind of material as a result
of memorizing another, and so he has stated the general
question, How far is it experimentally true that exercise in
one sort of mental activity gives facility and power in other
activities more or less closely akin to the first?

With regard to the question of fact much valuable ex-
perimentation has been carried on in the psychological
laboratories and the schools during the progress of the
discussion. The question being how far one activity of the
mind is influenced by the carrying on of other activities,



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the answers might a priori be expected to range anywhere
from the extreme view of formal discipline on the one hand
to the equally extreme statement of psychological atomism
on the other. According to the former, the mind may,
by the exercise of certain general powers, assume immediate
and complete command over great masses of concrete
functions. According to the latter, each activity of the
mind is so separate and independent that only by its own
exercise with all its distinctive peculiarities and limitations
can it be improved in efficiency and ease. The former
view has been so often made ridiculous by the overstate-
ment of its opponents that I think one may be pardoned
for retaliation when opportunity presents itself.

What will you say of a theory that the training of the
mind is so specific that each particular act gives facility
only for the performing again of that same act just as it
was before? Think of learning to drive a nail with a yellow
hammer, and then realize your helplessness if, in time of
need, you should borrow your neighbor's hammer and find
it painted red. Nay, further think of learning to use a
hammer at all if at each stroke the nail has gone further
into the wood, and the sun has gone lower in the sky, and
the temperature of your body has risen from the exercise,
and, in fact, everything on earth and under the earth has
changed so far as to give to each stroke a new particularity
all its own, and thus has cut it off from all possibility of
influence upon or influence from its fellows. No one, so far
as I know, maintains a theory such as this but, on the
other hand, no one, so far as I know, maintains a theory
of the exercise of the mind in general as giving immediate
control of every concrete situation in life. The truth lies
somewhere between the two, and just where it lies is matter
of fact to be determined by factual investigation so far as
may be.

The results of the experimental inquiries thus far made have
received their latest summarization in the papers of Pro-
fessors Angell, Pillsbury, and Judd. According to these



7S MENTAL TRAINING A MYTH 121

writers, one may say that in practically all the functions
open to statistical investigation the influence of practise in
one function upon certain others has been established to a
degree worthy of the attention of the student of education.
For example, with regard to that memory problem to which
Professor James first called attention, Professor Pillsbury
declares that the investigations seem to leave little doubt
that rote memory can be improved by practise, and that
the same is true of logical memory so far as can be de-
termined. Professor Judd, after an account of other in-
quiries, sums up the situation by the statement, "These
facts certainly justify the statement that mental functions
are interrelated and interdependent in the most manifold
ways. Sometimes the training of an attitude aids the
positive development of certain other attitudes. Some-
times, one function interferes with other functions. Above
all stands the fact that every new experience changes the
individual's capacity for new experiences." If these are
fair summaries of the results of the investigations, then I
think one may safely say that, as yet, the theory of formal
discipline is not experimentally disproven.

In the field of definition the first task of those who take
the new point of view is that of formulating a principle
other than that of formal discipline in which the facts thus
far established shall be properly recognized. Almost with-
out exception this has been accomplished by some variation
of the formula of Professor Thorndike, "The answer which
I shall try to defend is that a change in one function alters
any other only in so far as the two functions have as factors
identical elements." But if one ask for the precise meaning
of this term "identical" or "common elements," it must be
said frankly that at this point little sdems to have been
accomplished. Professor Thorndike tells us that he means
by identical elements "mental processes which have the
same cell action in the brain as their physical correlate."
But this definition can hardly be of immediate service to
the student of education, and apart from this attempt at



122 THE LIBERAL COLLEGE

definition we are given only lists of common elements such
as methods, habits of attention, ideals, attitudes of will,
and the like, all of which are significant, but no one of which
gives us an answer to the question, "What do we mean by
the 'common element'?" as employed in the theory in
question. The simple fact is that at this point the new
theory has not yet reached the stage of clear formulation;
it is still in process of development. In short, while psycho-
logical experiment and theory have established as a good
tentative hypothesis this notion of the common element,
experiment has not yet proceeded far enough to carry it
beyond the hypothetical stage, nor has the formulation been
made so clear and definite as to furnish a secure basis for
attack on other theories which have some measure of
scientific respectability.

In this situation, it is the primary purpose of this paper
to urge that, in our search for the "common element," we
turn from the field of psychology into that of another em-
pirical science which deals with consciousness, I mean
the science of logic. And, in justification of this procedure,
may I suggest that it was from the point of view of logic,
and not of psychology, that the doctrine of formal discipline
was first stated and maintained? The very term, formal
discipline, gives evidence of its origin, indicating a point of
view far removed from that of the psychologist, and it may
be that the theory first formulated by logic still retains a
significance from the standpoint of that science. At any
rate, I venture to offer as a subject for this evening's dis-
cussion the following thesis: "For the empirical science of
logic the term form, as applied to our intellectual processes,
indicates a common element, or a series of common ele-
ments, in those processes, which makes the theory of formal
discipline at least intelligible and apparently tenable as a
doctrine of intellectual training." In other words, formal
training is discipline in certain discoverable forms of in-
tellectual activity. It does not imply the bad psychology
of the faculties; it does imply the thoroughly sound and



7S MENTAL TRAINING A MYTH 123

respectable distinction of form and content which is made
by the logician.

Now, I know that thus to flaunt logic in the face of the
psychologist and his disciples is, in these days, to invite
ridicule and gentle intolerance from one's adversaries.
Year after year I have the pleasure of seeing a definition
of the philosophical sciences frame itself in the minds of
an elementary class as they acquire familiarity with current
literature of the type represented by Professor Karl Pearson.
And the definition is this: "Originally all knowledge was
a confused mass of popular and uncritical opinions; from
this mass there have emerged separate fragments which
have reached clearness of expression and accuracy of method;
these are the sciences; that which is still left of the original
chaos is philosophy." Such a definition coming from un-
critical minds is thoroughly typical of a great amount of
the superficial thinking of the time. My impression is that
it has found a foothold even within the field of education,
for even here I have seen the term philosophical applied to
a method as a term of reproach for lack of scientific accuracy.
But it is the secondary thesis of this paper to insist that for
the student of education the philosophical sciences, es-
pecially those of logic, ethics, and esthetics, are essential.
With a brave heart, therefore, as the advocate of a cause,
I venture to ask you to seek in the field of logic those com-
mon elements of intellectual process which the logician
calls its forms.

The distinction between form and content on which the
science of logic rests is not an easy one to express. Since
the doctrine of formal discipline was first stated the con-
cept of form has been shaped and reshaped by many a
generation of thinkers, and as this has been done, logic has
gone through transformations quite as radical as that of
psychology from its earlier to its later stage. Even now
the presuppositions of the science are being questioned and
tested by the school of Pragmatists, and the end of that
controversy is not yet. But meanwhile, the distinction of



124 THE LIBERAL COLLEGE

form and content seems to me to remain as an essential
concept which through long examination has been brought
to a relatively high degree of definiteness and usefulness.

The distinction is that of material to be arranged (the con-
tent) and the way in which it is arranged (the form). This
does not mean, of course, that first we have material which
has no form, no arrangement, and thereupon we take it
and put it into relationships. It means, rather, that in
every actual object of experience we can and must for
purposes of description separate in thought the two ele-
ments of the content and the form. Thus if I place these
pieces of paper in an ordered arrangement and number
them i, 2, 3, 4, 5, then the papers are for me a certain
content, a material, while the numerical order is the form
in which I now place them. Or, again, if a man who is
building a boat takes wood and nails, paint and pitch,
these are for him the materials, the content, to be used;
while, on the other hand, the fitting and joining of the parts,
the designing, the building, the finishing, all these are
processes of giving to the material a form, that structure
and model after which the builder of the boat must seek.
Or, again, if I examine a tree I find not only leaf and branch
and trunk, each with its own constituent parts, but each
of these stands in definite relations to all the others; and,
further, as the process of growth goes on, not only is there
addition of new material and casting off" of old, but there
are also those transformations of inner and external re-
lationship which are the form, the very manner of its living.

Now, it is in this sense of the term that the student of
logic examining our mental activities attempts a classi-
fication of their formal elements, their similarities of pro-
cedure. His purpose is to arrange them in a diverging
series leading from the most fundamental and universal
down through its subforms, and the sub-forms of these,
which step by step become less extensive in their scope,
until we approach as near as we may to the particular modes
of concrete thinking, with all their peculiarities and unique-



IS MENT4L TRAINING A MTTH 125

nesses. The results of this attempt are to be found in those
lists of categories which from Aristotle down have held a
central place among the achievements of the logicians. It
is not my purpose at this time to suggest a list of the cate-
gories, but I should like to mention two or three of them
for the sake of giving point to the thesis that formal dis-
cipline is the practise of the mind in certain forms or methods
of thinking which are "common elements" in wide ranges of
our experience.

The most fundamental of the categories is that which
has long been expressed as the Law of Contradiction, but is
now usually stated in terms of system, coherence, organiza-
tion. It is a generalization of the observed fact that the
mind, wherever and however it thinks, is always striving
after order, is seeking to make systematic a content which
has been thus far relatively chaotic and incoherent. It is
a statement of the fact that you and I, as our daily life
goes on, are thinking multitudes of thoughts which, upon
examination, turn out to be contradictory of each other,
and which, therefore, must be so modified that they may
dwell together in the same thought-system. It is an
expression of the principle that our various judgments and
descriptions of the world are so related and interrelated
that no one of them can be regarded as finally true until
it has been shown to be consistent with every other judg-
ment of fact made by the same mind about the same world.
From this point of view, then, the one fundamental form
of mental activity, the one "common element" in all mental
procedure is the making of judgments consistent with one
another, the constructing of a system of judgments within
which each of them may find a proper place. In a word,
it is the eradication of inconsistency, the establishing of
order.

An excellent illustration of this demand for formal unity
was furnished me in my own experience during the past
summer. Sitting day by day looking across Long Island
Sound from a point on the Connecticut shore, I had in some



126 THE LIBERAL COLLEGE

way or other gotten the notion that my gaze was directed
toward the north; from this it followed as a matter of direct
inference that Providence lay on my right hand and New
York on my left. It is true that the notion also required
the revision of certain other ideas about the rising of the
sun and the going down of the same, but I have not, as a
matter of fact, had much interest in the rising of the sun,
nor, so far as points of the compass are concerned, in its
setting either. And so these obvious difficulties failed to
bring my imagination into line with the descriptions which
I can remember as given in my old school geography.
When, however, it became necessary for me to start for
Providence, other considerations appeared. Going to the
station as I did, facing away from the water, I fully intended
to take a train toward the left, but fortunately, station-
master and brakemen intervened and quite contrary to
my own imagining I was led and carried to the city and the
college of my search. But not even here were my troubles
ended, for during the four different journeys which I have
taken along the line during the summer I have spent hours,
I am sure, in trying to determine as a matter of imagination,
on which side of the line the station house at New London
lies, whether on your right or your left hand as you approach
it from New Haven. The shock of finding it where it ought
not to be gives one a feeling of turned-roundness that no
one, I think, would willingly encounter. It is the shock
of the failure of one's thinking. It means that one has not
succeeded in bringing one's mental content into order.
The judgment "the station will appear on the left" and
the perceptual experience "there it is on the right" are
left facing each other in such flat and blank contradiction
that one feels either that he is a fool, or that, with Alice,
he has wandered through the looking-glass to the region
where the laws of logic no longer apply.

If now it be asked what are some of the sub-forms, the
less fundamental modes of relating contents which the
mind employs, it should be noted that one of them has been



7S MENTAL TRAINING A MYTH 127

already given the form of space of position, direction,
and distance. The space relations do not apply to all the
objects of our experience, nor do they exhaust all the re-
lationships of those objects to which they do apply, but
they are none the less among the most significant of the
methods which the mind uses in its work. Other forms
whose importance for our thinking are equally obvious are
the establishing of causal relationships, which may be
carried on throughout the entire field of natural phenomena,
the category of likeness and difference which finds expres-
sion wherever the activities of comparison and discrimination
appear. Somewhat different in type are the activities of
representation in terms of written and spoken language,
including the language of number upon which our sciences
depend for complexity and breadth of view, as well as for
accuracy of statement. These activities of comparing
and discriminating, of establishing causal and spatial
relations, of representing our sensuous content in the various
symbolisms of language, all these are typical instances of
the mind's activity as it constructs and systematizes its
world. As such, each of them gives us a certain common
element of "form," which will be found in wide ranges of
mental activity; each of them may be developed and
trained as a distinctive mode of thinking. If now we may
state the doctrine of formal discipline in the terms which we
have tried to define, it would run somewhat as follows:
It is one of the tasks of education to so train the mind
that it may do well the work of thinking. In order to


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Online LibraryAlexander MeiklejohnThe liberal college → online text (page 10 of 13)