Herbert Spencer 1820 1903 The Spokesman of the Modern Scientific School

By Dr. E. E. Ayres

The father and grandfather of Herbert Spencer were teachers. From early youth, therefore, Herbert was surrounded by the best literary and intellectual traditions; but, owing to his delicate health, he did not receive the usual academic training. His early education was, in a general way, supervised by his father, but he was left largely to himself. Nor did he ever enter the university. He was a self-educated man.

His health was always so wretched that he was forced to exercise the utmost care to systematize his studies and physical exercises and to avoid every kind of excess. He thus managed to live to a great age and to make himself one of the most eminent of all the thinkers and writers of the 19th century.

The quantity of work he achieved, as shown in his numerous published volumes, is nothing less than marvelous. For a few years in youth he served as a civil engineer, and then as a teacher, but most of his life was devoted to literary work.

He sent his remarkable contributions to many magazines and reviews. He was the first great thinker to attempt the unification of all knowledge under the concept of evolution. This principle he applied to biology, psychology, ethics, politics and sociology. His undertaking was monumental and his achievement astonishing.

Spencer’s Educational Principles

Spencer’s Treatise on Education, published in 1860, is perhaps the most lucid, practical, sensible and useful of all the books written by educational reformers. Many of the ideas found in this book had been given to the world by earlier writers, but were never so well expressed. His second chapter contains an admirable summary of the main principles of all the great educational reformers from Comenius to the present day.

Spencer’s book has had an enormous influence in all civilized countries. It represents the nineteenth century enthusiasm for scientific study. It has been said that the scientific spirit of the times was crystallized in Spencer.

  1. The first question to be answered by the teacher has to do with purpose of education. It is mere decoration, or is it something more practical and more important? As savages decorate themselves before they think of the utility of dress, so Spencer thinks we have hitherto thought of education as a mere ornament, whereas we are now to discover a more important reason for our training. Spencer, perhaps unjustly, has been styled a “utilitarian.” His own statement, however, as to the practical purpose of education is not so narrow as the word “utilitarian” would suggest. This purpose is “to prepare for complete living.” Those studies are of value which tend to discharge that function. “Complete living,” as he defines it, includes physical, social and aesthetic activities; and scientific training is essential to the highest aesthetic activity. He fells of blunders made by great painters for the want of science, and declares that “science opens up realms of poetry where to the unscientific all is blank.”
  2. The second question is of a correct pedagogy refers to method. Having decided that a subject is worthy of study, and that it will fit us for a larger life, it becomes necessary to ask how that subject should be taught. Here also he applies his evolutionary principles:
    1. The teacher must advance by degrees from the simple to the complex. “The mind likes what it knows,” and the so-called “beginner” really knows more than he is supposed to know. To discover precisely what it is that seems simple and clear to the pupil is the first necessity in good teaching.
    2. Self-development must by all means be encourages. The student must become a “discoverer.” He will lose his power of thinking if he is forced to accept merely what the teacher brings to him. He must find out things for himself.
    3. The right method will always be productive of interest. To find just the right method for the individual pupil is always the test of the teacher. “Nature has made the healthful exercise of both body and mind pleasurable.”

These are some of the most important of Spencer’s teachings as to method. For the teacher of music several questions arise:

  • Does he think of his art as something ornamental, a mere accomplishment, or is it a means to the more “complete living?”
  • Does music supply a real human need?
  • Does the teacher try to look at his art in that light?

Another question for the teacher is that of the possibility of making his pupil a “discoverer” in music. May not the pupil be given the task of finding for himself the beautiful and interesting passages in the great masters? Should he not be encouraged to express and to defend his own ideas about these matters?

Quotations from Spencer

  • “It would be utterly contrary to the beautiful economy of nature if one kind of culture were needed for the gaining of information, and another were needed for mental gymnastic.”
  • “To prepare us for complete living is the function which education has to discharge, and the only rational mode of judging of an educational course is to judge in what degree it discharges such function.”
  • “Experience is daily showing with greater clearness that there is always a method to be found productive of interest – even of delight – and it ever turns out that this is the method proved by all other tests to be the right one.”
  • “It has repeatedly occurred that those who have been stupefied by the ordinary school drill – by its abstract formulas, its wearisome tasks, its cramming – have suddenly had their intellects roused by thus ceasing to make them passive recipients, and inducing them to become active discoverers. The discouragement caused by bad teaching having been diminished by a little sympathy, and sufficient perseverance excited to achieve a first success, there arises a revolution of feeling affecting the whole nature. They no longer find themselves incompetent; they too can do something. And gradually, as success follows success, the incubus of despair disappears, and they attack the difficulties of their studies with a courage insuring conquest.”