Books are spawned with the fecundity of Egyptian frogs

It can be interesting to see how views of education have changed since the late 19th century.  The journal Educational Weekly, published from 1877–1881, opens a window onto teaching methodology of the era. One article, from the April 7, 1881 issue, offers some interesting thoughts from Dr. A. R. Benton, including the following snippets:

“The pettiness of pedantic specialism” is the bane of teaching and the death of all inspiration and contagious enthusiasm.

There is much in a liberal education that cannot be learned well and orderly from books alone.

… the teacher should be a trusty guide through the mazes of hypothesis and speculation, moderating the intoxication begotten of new and surprising glimpses of knowledge, and conducting, as a faithful Mentor, the learner through all difficulties, into the safe moorage of truth, verified by experiment or established by a sound philosophy.

My favorite quotation is:

In former times, the living teacher was a necessity, because of the scarcity and costliness of books. In the present, books are spawned with the fecundity of Egyptian frogs, sometimes as disgusting and pernicious, making the function of the teacher no less important and vastly more varied and complex.

The complete essay follows:

METHODS IN EDUCATION

We take the following on methods from a lecture on “Liberal Education,” delivered before the Indiana College Association, by Dr. A. R. Benton, of Butler University :

In liberal education method is no inconsiderable factor. The pressing question among college instructors of our time is not so much what to teach as how to teach. The practice of our best teachers is much below the inculcations of the best thinkers on education. It is an infelicity of our work, that it is hard to realize even our own ideal. A change of studies, for which the New Education clamors, to the exclusion of those which have been approved by the suffrages of educators, is no remedy for bad methods. The gerundgrinder, as the teacher of ancient languages is facetiously called, is not a whit less faulty in method, than he who teaches the English language, or one who drones through a text-book of hard, technical names, with a bewildering cumulation of insignificant and uninteresting details. “The pettiness of pedantic specialism” is the bane of teaching and the death of all inspiration and contagious enthusiasm. This defect is not peculiar to our times. Two hundred years ago John Locke wrote, in the spirit of sharp criticism, words that have an amazing fitness and pertinence in our day. Says he, “If any one among us has a felicity or purity more than ordinary in his mother tongue, it is owing to chance or genius, or anything, rather than to his education or any care of his teacher.” I have no wish to stay the hand of any educational reformer who wishes to hew to pieces this modem Agag of false method in teaching. But let this avenging zeal be impartial, and according to knowledge. If the abuse of method is hoary with age, let it claim some of the privileges of honorable age ; but smite with the hammer of the iconoclast every false image set up for homage in the name of the new education. If I may be allowed a certain freedom of utterance, and without offence, I opine that the chief defect in method is personal. The reliance which modern method places on the machinery and appliances of instruction is quite disproportioned to their merit. The personality of the teacher is retired, the method stands in the foreground. It is one thing for a teacher to master the machinery of method; it is quite another to master that for which all method exists—the mind and heart of the student, and the approaches to them. It occurs to me that the chief word in the method of liberal education is inspiration. From the time of Socrates to that of Dr. Arnold of Rugby this has been the “primum mobile.” A learned Englishman, in the Contemporary Review for March, 1878, has pertinently inquired, “In what does the gift of teaching consist ? Assuredly not in the possession of a large body of solid learning. It consists infinitely more in the power of sympathy, the ability to place oneself in the exact position of the learner, to see things as he sees them, and to feel difficulties as he feels them, and to be able to present the solution precisely in the form that will open the understanding of the pupil, and enable him in gathering the new piece of knowledge to comprehend its nature and value.” This method stands out in sharp contrast with what may be called the impersonal method. This latter sends the student out to browse in the field of knowledge, and from time to time examines his intellectual growth, and marks it on the intellectual scale with scrupulous exactness and pretentious significance. The student is left largely to himself, to organize painfully, and to correlate imperfectly the various facts and principles of his research into such unity as science or philosophy demands. Or, forgetting that “the subtilty of nature is forever beyond the subtilty of man,” impersonal teaching often requires some marvelous feat of memory in which an infinity of detail, dry as the clown’s “remainder biscuit after a voyage,” is made the test of knowledge and culture. There is much in a liberal education that cannot be learned well and orderly from books alone. Many subjects need the vivifying, directing mind of the teacher. This needs to be active, comprehensive and judicial. The personal element must so handle both the matter and manner of teaching as to compel confidence. In the matter, the teacher should be a trusty guide through the mazes of hypothesis and speculation, moderating the intoxication begotten of new and surprising glimpses of knowledge, and conducting, as a faithful Mentor, the learner through all difficulties, into the safe moorage of truth, verified by experiment or established by a sound philosophy. Such a one will discard the speculating, romancing style of teaching, which catches at half truths, having, perhaps, a nebulous grandeur, exciting wonder, rather than imparting exact information. This question of the matter, which shall enter into liberal education, has been distinctly raised in Germany in the well known controversy between Professors Virchow and Haeckel. In the highest reaches of thought belonging to history, ethics and biology, and kindred subjects, the personal power, and, in some sense, the authoritative and discriminating judgment of the living teacher is indispensable. In former times, the living teacher was a necessity, because of the scarcity and costliness of books. In the present, books are spawned with the fecundity of Egyptian frogs, sometimes as disgusting and pernicious, making the function of the teacher no less important and vastly more varied and complex. The instinct of every well constituted mind impels the learner to reconcile contrarieties and to explain paradoxes, so as to reduce all his knowledge to a seemingly consistent and concordant system. The mind strives to organize its knowledge, so that it may be scientific in fact, as well as in form. In this respect the office of a wise, comprehensive, judicious instructor is of great moment.

With books, as with companions, it is of more consequence to know which to avoid than which to choose.