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   Chapter 1 ON THE RECIPROCAL INFLUENCE OF SCIENCE AND EDUCATION.

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes By Charles Babbage Characters: 6096

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


That the state of knowledge in any country will exert a directive influence on the general system of instruction adopted in it, is a principle too obvious to require investigation. And it is equally certain that the tastes and pursuits of our manhood will bear on them the traces of the earlier impressions of our education. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that some portion of the neglect of science in England, may be attributed to the system of education we pursue. A young man passes from our public schools to the universities, ignorant almost of the elements of every branch of useful knowledge; and at these latter establishments, formed originally for instructing those who are intended for the clerical profession, classical and mathematical pursuits are nearly the sole objects proposed to the student's ambition.

Much has been done at one of our universities during the last fifteen years, to improve the system of study; and I am confident that there is no one connected with that body, who will not do me the justice to believe that, whatever suggestions I may venture to offer, are prompted by the warmest feelings for the honour and the increasing prosperity of its institutions. The ties which connect me with Cambridge are indeed of no ordinary kind.

Taking it then for granted that our system of academical education ought to be adapted to nearly the whole of the aristocracy of the country, I am inclined to believe that whilst the modifications I should propose would not be great innovations on the spirit of our institutions, they would contribute materially to that important object.

It will be readily admitted, that a degree conferred by an university, ought to be a pledge to the public that he who holds it possesses a certain quantity of knowledge. The progress of society has rendered knowledge far more various in its kinds than it used to be; and to meet this variety in the tastes and inclinations of those who come to us for instruction, we have, besides the regular lectures to which all must attend, other sources of information from whence the students may acquire sound and varied knowledge in the numerous lectures on chemistry, geology, botany, history, &c. It is at present a matter of option with the student, which, and how many of these courses he shall attend, and such it should still remain. All that it would be necessary to add would be, that previously to taking his degree, each person should be examined by those Professors, whose lectures he had attended. The pupils should then be arranged in two classes, according to their merits, and the names included in these classes should be printed. I would then propose that no young man, except his name was found amongst the "List of Honours," should be allowed to take his degree, unless he had been placed in the first class of some one at least of the courses given by the professors. But it should still be imperative upon the student to possess such mathematical knowledge as we usually require. If he had attained the first

rank in several of these examinations, it is obvious that we should run no hazard in a little relaxing: the strictness of his mathematical trial.

If it should be thought preferable, the sciences might be grouped, and the following subjects be taken together:-

Modern History.

Laws of England.

Civil Law.

Political Economy.

Applications of Science to Arts and Manufactures.

Chemistry.

Mineralogy.

Geology.

Zoology, including Physiology and Comparative Anatomy.

Botany, including Vegetable Physiology and Anatomy.

One of the great advantages of such a system would be, that no young person would have an excuse for not studying, by stating, as is most frequently done, that the only pursuits followed at Cambridge, classics and mathematics, are not adapted either to his taste, or to the wants of his after life. His friends and relatives would then reasonably expect every student to have acquired distinction in SOME pursuit. If it should be feared that this plan would lead to too great a diversity of pursuits in the same individual, a limitation might be placed upon the number of examinations into which the same person might be permitted to enter. It might also be desirable not to restrict the whole of these examinations to the third year, but to allow the student to enter on some portion of them in the first or second year, if he should prefer it.

By such an arrangement, which would scarcely interfere seriously with our other examinations, we should, I think, be enabled effectually to keep pace with the wants of society, and retaining fully our power and our right to direct the studies of those who are intended for the church, as well as of those who aspire to the various offices connected with our academical institutions; we should, at the same time, open a field of honourable ambition to multitudes, who, from the exclusive nature of our present studies, leave us with but a very limited addition to their stock of knowledge.

Much more might be said on a subject so important to the interests of the country, as well as of our university, but my wish is merely to open it for our own consideration and discussion. We have already done so much for the improvement of our system of instruction, that public opinion will not reproach us for any unwillingness to alter. It is our first duty to be well satisfied that we can improve: such alterations ought only to be the result of a most mature consideration, and of a free interchange of sentiments on the subject, in order that we may condense upon the question the accumulated judgment of many minds.

It is in some measure to be attributed to the defects of our system of education, that scientific knowledge scarcely exists amongst the higher classes of society. The discussions in the Houses of Lords or of Commons, which arise on the occurrence of any subjects connected with science, sufficiently prove this fact, which, if I had consulted the extremely limited nature of my personal experience, I should, perhaps, have doubted.

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