Wednesday, February 8, 2012

William George Jordan: Education versus Mental Training

William George Jordan, was a strong advocate of changing the focus of education. In an article entitled “What’s the Matter with Education”, published in the March 1923 issue of The Forum, he argues that “there is not one single power, faculty, process or quality of the mind that is trained and developed by our present system of education. Our powers are not merely untrained—they are positively mistrained.” He continues “the theory of education, not as we get it from the ideals of educators but as it is evidenced in every detail of the system as it actually exists today, can be given in a single sentence: Education believes that by forcing a certain amount of knowledge, principally by means of textbooks, into the minds of children, that somehow in the divine mystery of mental processes this knowledge will not only be retained, but the mind of the individual will be exercised, trained and developed.” He advocated for a system whose “final aim … is to teach thinking, exercising the individual not in what to think, but in how to think … .

Jordan began lecturing on his philosophy of education at least as early as Feb 1890 as per the following note that appeared in the Feb 8th, 1890  issue of The Critic:

“A series of ten Lenten [definition: suggesting Lent, as in austerity, frugality, or rigorousness; meager] on the simplicity of the mind and its workings is announced by Mr. William George Jordan, editor of Current Literature.”

During July of 1891 he visited with a newspaper writer in Chicago and discussed his thoughts on education. A summary of this discussion was published in the Sunday, July 26, 1891 issue of the Chicago Inter-Ocean. The following is a short excerpt from this two and a half column article.

“In explaining this theory Mr. Jordan says that the present system of education is a failure, because it does not strengthen the mind and develop the individuality. He adds: ‘The common school system of to-day gives the child but an accumulation of facts. For years it feeds the minds of the child with learning that the mind is not trained to digest.’”

On September 15th of 1891 the Chicago Inter-Ocean ran an article that said Mr. Jordan would be coming to Chicago in October to lecture on education and mental training. Two weeks later (Sept 24th) the same paper ran a story that said because of the significant interest in his educational theories Jordan would be resigning from his post as managing editor of Current Literature to relocate to Chicago. As a parting note Current Literature included the following in its Nov 1891 issue: 

“Mr. William George Jordan, associate editor of this magazine from its inception almost, has resigned his editorial position and gone to Chicago to establish there, through lectures and classes in Analysis and Analogy, his system of Mental Training. Chicago has taken most kindly to the new idea of a gymnasium for the mind, and given Mr. Jordan the most substantial sort of support in the way of promised classes and lecture patronage in the development of his plan. Discussing Mr. Jordan's determination to locate in Chicago the Inter-Ocean says: “It is an assured fact that mental training will be the rage here this winter. Unlike most fads, it has a solid basis and will live as a system. Never before has the mind been presented in all its workings with the clearness, the simplicity, and the practical treatment it will receive in these lectures.” Mr. Jordan is a young man—but twenty-seven—a graduate of the College of the City of New York, a student and a scholar, a clever writer, an editor of taste and judgment, and, in his special line of educational thought, possessed of the widest sort of ability. While regretting his loss to Current Literature, we congratulate him on his emancipation from the drudgery and the general thanklessness of editorial work, and heartily commend him to the Western people in the restful assurance that, be his proposition ‘fad or philosophy,’ its demonstrator is thoroughly in earnest as to its usefulness, and honest as to its practical worth.”

The evening of October 20th found Jordan at the monthly dinner of the The Forty Club where he was one of several speakers, including well-known humorist Bill Nye, who provided light-hearted entertainment.

By November he had arranged with two society groups to hold classes for their members and was planning more public lectures for later in the the “season” (see The Chicago Inter-Ocean, Nov 9, 1891). He initially held a series of 10 lectures with the following titles:

  1. The Indescribable and Analysis
  2. Genius, Education and Habit
  3. Simplicity and Uniformity of Nature
  4. Memory and the Simplicity of Mind
  5. Reading, Observation, and Conversation
  6. Paradox: A Study in Polarity
  7. Inequality in Nature and Life
  8. Character—How best to Study It
  9. Trifles in Life and Mind
  10. Reserve Power in Nature and Life

Although, these lectures garnered some critical acclaim he was drawn back to the publishing word in 1894 and once again became the managing editor of Current Literature. From there he joined The Ladies Home Journal as managing editor and subsequently was asked to be the editor of The Saturday Evening Post after it was purchased by Curtis Publishing. He went on to write, in what my opinion are, five of the all-time best self-help/motivation books (see Books by William George Jordan). While he was involved in political, civic and business organizations, and had his own publishing company, his endeavors were always centered on improving the lives of others.

William George Jordan maintained a interest in educational reform throughout the remainder of his life. In 1907 he published a second edition of Mental Training: A Remedy for “Education.”  By then he had updated his lectures to consist of the following:

  1. Analysis: The Revealer of Law
  2. Genius, Education, and Habit
  3. Memory and the Simplicity of Mind
  4. The Senses and their Training
  5. Observation and Reading
  6. Conversation: Its Laws and its Powers
  7. Paradox: A Study in Polarity
  8. Simplicity and Uniformity of Nature
  9. Individuality
  10. Character: How Best to Study It.
  11. Trifles in Life and Mind
  12. Reserve Power in Nature and Mind

As far as I can tell his last written remarks on education were published in 1923 by The Forum in a four part series of articles; What’s the Matter with Education, Educating for Seven Lives, Modeling Education on Genius, and Mental Training: a Remedy for Education. Jordan, aspired to write a book that thoroughly covered his thoughts on this subject but he never had the time to do it. I suspect that each time he lectured on the topic he learned more and thus he was never able to encapsulate his ideas as they kept expanding. These final four articles are probably the best representation of his views.

He concludes the series with the following statement:

“In closing this series of articles two questions are of supreme importance: ‘Is preparing and training the individual for the seven lives he must live [physical, mental, moral, social, civic, emotional, spiritual] a sufficiently broad, practical conception of what education should accomplish?’ ‘Is there a possible higher ideal or a more basic foundation for such training than making genius the revelation and the model for true education?’ If the answer of the thinking public be one of approval, then the co-operation of educators can transform this vision of what might be into an actuality, this dream into a reality.”

As you review his thoughts you may find, as I did, that many of his critiques of the education system of his day and his proposed solutions are applicable in today’s world. Below are some of my favorite quotes from William George Jordan on education / mental training:

  • “From a few laws or facts eternal, have come billions of facts historical. The aims of my system of mental training is to train the mind to see law, the fact eternal, in the fact historical.”
    —“Analysis and Analogy: William G. Jordan Explains the Simplicity of the Mind’s Workings”, The Chicago Inter-Ocean, Jul 26, 1891
  • “The failure of education is not limited to America; it extends over the whole civilized world. The most vital problem before humanity today is a true system of education, for it is only as we train individuals and peoples to think, to use their minds and all their other powers to their highest efficiency that we shall find any adequate solution of our other problems, mental, moral, social, political, economic and industrial. We are failing miserably to solve them today because we have not been able to bring the trained minds of a trained people to bear upon them. We have been relying on the trained minds of a few leaders to carry and control the mass.
    —“What’s the Matter with Education”, The Forum, Mar 1923
  • “We have ever assumed that if we cut out the cramming, secured a higher grade of teachers, divorced it from politics, lengthened or shortened the course, changed the method of teaching this or that study, by introducing new studies or curtailing old ones, by some patching, tinkering or modifying, we could make the machine run beautifully. We have had countless wise and sane educational suggestions, excellent in themselves, yet they have failed to produce expected results. It has been as hopeless as trying to graft a living shoot on an artificial plant.”
    —“What’s the Matter with Education”, The Forum, Mar 1923
  • “Suppose a gardener were to take a plot of ground, and, without turning up the soil, preparing it or fertilizing it or doing anything to put it in good condition he were to plant it with seed of all kinds, covering every inch of the plot. Suppose that he then said: ‘This process will of itself enrich the soil and will produce beautiful flowers,’ we should think he had suddenly lost his reason. Because he did not first care for the soil and prepare it for the seed we would know that because of his wrong method he would accomplish neither of his claims, he would neither enrich the soil nor produce fine flowers, the soil would be unimproved and the plants poor, stunted, scrawny failures. Such a theory is not a whit more senseless and imbecile than the theory of our educational system.”
    —“What’s the Matter with Education”, The Forum, Mar 1923
  • “We decry forced feeding in our prisons, why do we tolerate it in our schools? What would we think of setting a child at a table and forcing him under fear of punishment to ‘eat everything on its plate’ for four or five hours of continuous feeding a day, day after day for years? It would seem inhuman cruelty. Nature would revolt. Society and the law would suppress it. It would in reality however be no worse than the enforced mental feeding of our schools. Children are today over-fed and under-nourished. They may grow mentally fat but not mentally strong.”
    —“What’s the Matter with Education”, The Forum, Mar 1923
  • “Man is not put into the world as a finished product, of a predetermined limitation of capacity and development. He is not branded or stamped like a jug with its limit, as ‘one-gallon’ or ‘five-gallon.’ There are no men thus predetermined as ‘one-talent’ men or ‘two-talent” or ‘five-talent.’ If man wishes to thus limit himself it is he who does it, not Nature. We know the potentialities of no child that was ever born. We arrogate much to our own ignorance when we thus seek to fix individual limits.”
    —“Educating for Seven Lives”, The Forum, Apr 1923
  • “A child under two years of age had been given by Dr. Gates a six months’ training in the discrimination of temperature and touch differences. The child later died of scarlet fever and in the brain areas of these senses were found over twenty-four times the number of large and fully developed cells, as compared with small, immature and mere beginnings of cells. He further says: ‘I have trained four generations of guinea-pigs in the extraordinary use of the visual faculty and their offspring of the fifth generation were born with a greater number of well-developed cells in the seeing areas of the cortex than other guinea-pigs not thus trained.’”
    —“Educating for Seven Lives”, The Forum, Apr 1923
  • “We need men and women trained to think, not merely to think they think.
    —“Modeling Education on Genius”, The Forum, May 1923
  • “Education fails with the average human being; it fails even more with the exceptional. The geniuses and the men of talent or of signal ability, have a strength of mind, a fineness and an individuality that refuses to be pressed, like soft pulp, into an artificial mould. A whole book could be written on the great ones who were failures, dolts, dunces, or rebels at school. Among them may be mentioned: Milton, Wordsworth, Hawthorne, Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, Newton, Dryden, Byron, Thackeray, Heine, Balzac, Keats, Shelley, Napoleon, Lowell, Wellington, Longfellow, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Scott, James Fennimore Cooper, Henry Ward Beecher, Bacon, Locke, Hobbes, Gray, Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, Gibbon, George Bernard Shaw, Stevenson and a host of others.”
    —“Modeling Education on Genius”, The Forum, May 1923
  • “Genius, like the average man, has two creators—his God and himself. The second creator develops and perfects what the first has begun.”
    —“Modeling Education on Genius”, The Forum, May 1923
  • “What holds back most of us from fuller development is our resignation to ourselves as we are, our belief that because we do not possess a certain power that we cannot acquire it. We are under the spell of the old belief that we are born into the world with fixed limited powers with a limitation as to possibility. The biggest, finest, sanest view of life and science prove this to be false.”
    —“Modeling Education on Genius”, The Forum, May 1923

As an interesting footnote to this post, The New York Times ran a brief article in its June 17, 1907 issue regarding a debate that was held between a Dr. Hervey and Mr. Jordan regarding the value of college training. You can guess which side Jordan took.

Below are links to articles and publications related to William George Jordan and “Mental Training or “Education” most of which I used as sources for this post. The last four articles, published as a series in The Forum, were his final written thoughts on education (he died in 1928 at the age of 64). I’ve combined these into a single document entitled, “Education: Problems and Possibilities”.

Note, I will update this post from time to time as I incorporate more information from the research I have gathered. So if you have an interest please check back from time to time.

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