Herbert Spencer – according to Kieran Egan

“Men dress their children’s minds as they do their bodies, in the prevailing fashion” ~ Herbert Spencer, 1928

Explaining Herbert Spencer’s influence on education over the last century, Kieran Egan writes:

“Although John Dewey’s educational ideas are widely known today, in many regards, they are built on the bases laid by Spencer, though Dewey harnessed them to quite different social and political agendas. […] Spencer’s formulations are important because nearly everyone involved in establishing the new state schools in the late nineteenth century read them.” (p.11)

Spencer’s name is so rarely mentioned in educational writings today that it is easy to forget how avidly his book was read and reread by pretty well everyone involved in making the new state schools. This was especially the case in the United States.” (p.12)

“Spencer is particularly interesting because his formulations were so influential at the crucial period when american public schools, and those of many Western countries, were being formed. And he wrapped these principles in the prestige of science, claiming them not as another set of philosophical speculations, […] but as scientific hypotheses.” (p.13)

Reading this chapter, I was surprised by how many of Spencer’s principles are ones I would myself currently argue for… I’m looking forward to reading Egan’s discussion of these further!

In a world changed by the ideas of Darwin and science more generally, Egan explains, “By the 1850s, […] many people accepted that some of the most widely held past beliefs about the world and about humankind’s place in it were radically mistaken. For this receptive audience, Spencer published Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical in 1860. Here he argued that education, too, had been radically mistaken in the past. Education, he wrote, had been most often conducted by forcing irrelevant information into the minds of reluctant children by methods that were patently barbarous; instead, he proposed, we should draw on new scientific principles to make the [-p.15] process efficient as well as pleasant for the child. In the past, education had dealt with subjects that held their place in the curriculum by dint of tradition and the affectations to an ornamental culture of a leisured class; instead, he argued, we should make the curriculum of direct relevance and utility to the lives our students would actually lead. In the past, schooling was centered on the knowledge written in texts or authorized by teachers, whereas instead the child’s own developing needs and expanding activities should be central to the curriculum and to teachers’ efforts.
Spencer aimed to show how learning and development, and the daily activities of the classroom, were parts of the same laws that shaped the stars above and the earth below. Those laws shaped the evolution of human beings from simple organisms long before , and those same laws shaped the development of each child from the earliest moments in life to adulthood. In essence, Spencer argued that the whole cosmos was subject to natural laws and that these laws were accessible to scientific scrutiny.
The greatest and most fundamental of these laws is that we live in a dramatic universe that is subject to constant change and that this change follows an invariable development from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous or, as he sometimes put it, from the simple to the complex. […] We can see the same laws operating in the cosmos at large, in the evolution of species, in the development of societies in history, and in the changes from the child’s to the adult’s mind. By observing how the cosmic principle of ‘simple to complex’ plays itself out with regard to human psychology and its development through life, we can devise a new approach to education. This is what Spencer offered.
Beginning with the natural process of the child’s development rather than with the knowledge one wants the child to learn, Spencer argued, creates a recognition that children are naturally inquiring, constructing, and active beings. So, the developing powers of children provide the basis for his educational philosophy.
Education, he believed, is concerned with the whole person, not just the intellectual part. We should be concerned primarily not to produce scholars in the old sense but rather with what a person most needs to know to be able to perform his or her duties in life most adequately. Spencer’s curriculum, then, would no longer follow fashions of culturally prestigious subjects, such as Latin and Greek and details of European political history: ‘The births, deaths, and marriages of kings, and other trivialities, are committed to memory, not because of any direct benefits that can possibly result from knowing them: but because society considers them a part of a good education – because the absence of such knowledge may bring the contempt of others. … Men dress their children’s minds as they do their bodies, in the prevailing fashion’ (1928, 2).
If we grant that there are observable regularities in children’s development, then, Spencer pointed out, ‘it follows inevitably that education cannot be rightly guided without knowledge of these laws’ (1928, 23). He felt that these laws were largely ignored in the educational practices of his time, and that, if only they were adhered to, the whole process of education could be made more efficient, effective, and pleasurable to the child and teacher. He emphasized how easily the child learns about ‘the objects and processes of the household, the streets, and the fields’ (24) and argued that the educator should observe such effortless learning and explore how it could be replicated by sensible teaching.
Spencer underlined the centrality for successful learning of direct experience.” (pp.14-16)

“Spencer made a central principle of his pedagogy that children’s understanding can expand only from things of which they have direct experience.” (p.17)

Traditional education, as Spencer put it, is primarily concerned with making ‘the pupil a mere passive recipient of other’s ideas, and not in the least leading him to be an active inquirer or self-instructor’ (1928, 25). […] ‘The rise of an appetite for any kind of information,’ Spencer argued, ‘implies that the unfolding mind has become fit to assimilate it, and needs it for the purposes of growth’ (1928, 51). As we feed the body with the best and most appropriate foods at different stages of life so that it grows to its fullest potential, then so with the mind, we must provide the best food to further its fullest growth. We must constantly, as Spencer said, conform to the natural process of mental evolution. We develop in a certain sequence, and we require a certain kind of knowledge at each stage, ‘ and it is for us to ascertain this sequence and supply this knowledge’ (53).
Spencer laid out seven principles for intellectual education. The first is that ‘we should proceed from the simple to the complex.'” (p.17)

The second principle is that the ‘development of the mind, as all other development, is an advance from the indefinite to the definite’ (1928, 59). Spencer believed that from original chaos order gradually emerged – an idea he carried over to the child’s mind in his belief that children’s cognition is initially indefinite, chaotic, and vague and gradually becomes more definite, ordered, and clear.
Spencer’s third principle is that ‘our lessons ought to start from the concrete and end in the abstract’ (1928, 60). This he considered crucial for all teaching, especially in the early years.” (p.18)

Fourth, the ‘education of the child must accord both in mode and arrangement with the education of mankind, considered historically’ (1928, 60). Spencer believed that the child’s experience was like that of our distant ancestors faced by the phenomena of the world around them and trying to comprehend them. Over the ages of active struggle with the material features of their lives, of speculation and experiment, human beings have gradually reached our current understanding. The mind of the young child similarly faces the puzzling phenomena of the world, and children follow a similar route by similar procedures in coming to a modern understanding.” (p.18)

Fifth, ‘in each branch of instruction we should proceed from the empirical to the rational’ (1928, 61). We cannot organize knowledge meaningfully until we have first made it our own and understood it in our own way. ‘Every study, therefore, should have a purely experimental introduction’ (62). So science begins with experiments in the everyday world around the child, geography begins with the immediate environment the child lives in, history begins with the events that impinge on the child’s life, and so on. It is the practical, meaningful world of the everyday life of the child, in which can be found the originating material for our explorations out toward complex, organized knowledge.
The sixth principle is that ‘in education the process of self-development should be encouraged to the uttermost. Children should be led to make their own investigations, and to draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible’ (1928, 62).” (p.19)

The seventh and final principle he posed as a question: ‘Does [learning] create a pleasurable excitement in the pupils?’ (1928, 63). He continued: ‘Even when, as considered theoretically, the proposed [-p.20] course seems the best, yet if it produces no interest, or less interest than some other course, we should relinquish it; for a child’s intellectual instincts are more trustworthy than our reasonings’ (63).
The plan for education, then, is, as Spencer put it, ‘to guide the intellect to the appropriate food’ (1928, 68). But the teacher must be every aware that the child’s instinctive tastes are the ultimate determiners of what is appropriate food for them; it is children’s questions, their interests, and their constructive, inquiring intelligence that are the sole adequate engine of educational progress.
‘Progress,’ of course, captures something essential about Spencer’s educational beliefs. No wonder that the educational movement to incorporate his principles most fully was called ‘progressivism’ in the United States. Spencer’s book came along with a set of further ideas that gave those who took them to heart a great feeling of optimism.” (pp.19-20)

(The use of the ‘educating/feeding the mind’ metaphor here is interesting, too….)

“…the ideas commonly labeled ‘social Darwinism‘ might be better called ‘social Spencerism,’ as many have suggested. ‘The [-p.24] survival of the fittest’ was originally Spencer’s term, even though Darwin did later use it in a limited way. Spencer extended the idea of the survival of the fittest from natural selection to pretty well everything in sight. When he applied it to society and to economic systems he argued for what British prime minister Edward Heath called ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’ – that is, the exploitation of the poor, weak, and defenseless by the rich and powerful for the latter’s private profit.” (pp.23-24)

“With Spencer, what we have is a set of ideas that by the end of the nineteenth century were either shown to be wrong or were outmoded, eccentric, and confused. To invoke his name in support of particular educational practices, […] was to raise too many hackles and to inspire opposition [due to the limitations of his methods, his racism and arguments against the provision of education to the poor, etc.]. And yet, although nearly all of Spencer’s scientific and social ideas are now considered museum pieces, the principles for education that he derived from them have become the taken-for-granted folk wisdom of education today and profoundly shape current practice. I […] argue that we should put Spencer’s educational principles in the museum, too, and show their fundamental flaw that persists within progressivism.” (p.34)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Kieran Egan (2002) Getting it Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. Yale University Press: New Haven and London


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Understanding Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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