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Education for Initiative and Originality


by Edward L. Thorndike - 1916

The above article by Professor Thorndike is the fifth of a series of addresses given before the staff of Teachers College with the aim of studying the basic principles which must underlie a system of education suited to the needs of a democratic society such as ours. An important topic discussed throughout the series is the nature of the state and the relation of the individual to it. Addresses in this series given previous to this and printed in the RECORD are: "Education for Citizenship" by Dean James E. Russell, March, 1916. "Organization in American Education" by Professor John Dewey, March, 1916. "Politics and Education" by Professor Charles A. Beard, May, 1916. "The State and Education" by Professor Samuel McCune Lindsay, September, 1916.


It is my office to report what recent psychology can suggest concerning training for self-reliance or independence, initiative and originality—"all from the standpoint of education in a democratic state and for the sake of efficient democratic citizenship."


Unfortunately a standard report, voicing settled doctrines of science, cannot be made. We are not agreed even concerning how far self-reliance, initiative and originality can be trained, or concerning the elementary qualities which constitute them, and their mode of operation. I can therefore only report probabilities as I see them.


We may best begin with some negatives. Self-reliance, initiative and originality are not little deities of the mind which act according to caprice. They are as truly determined by natural law as the fall of a stone or the rise of the tides.


They are not intelligent slaves which hasten to act when bidden. No child becomes independent merely by being told to think for himself, or original merely by being ordered not tp be a copy-cat. If every one of the half million teachers of our country should to-morrow, and every day thereafter for a decade, order, "Be more independent, self-reliant and original than you have been," these billions of commands would, in and of themselves, do nothing to attain their object. Other factors than the mere commands would decide whether an increase or a decrease in these virtues would result.


Nor will indiscriminate practice make them perfect. Self-reliance, initiative and originality (which we may call the active virtues of citizenship in contrast to obedience, docility, and conformity) are specialized in their development. Self-reliance in handicraft need not imply self-reliance in thought about politics or religion. Originality in mathematics or salesmanship is consistent with the most complete conformity to social customs. Extreme expectations of all-round improvement— formal discipline—in these active virtues are as fallacious as they are elsewhere. A boy will not be made independent in general by being led to choose his own method of solving each of a thousand problems in arithmetic, any more than he will be made a good observer in general by recording the cloudiness of the sky daily for a year. Some transfer there is, but not enough to excuse the absence of special training in the special fields where the virtue is required by life to act.


Further, these virtues, in the shape in which the community or nation requires them, could not be general, ubiquitous, unfailing tendencies. The nation does not wish its citizens to rely each on himself when to rely on a physician or public-health officer or financial expert or chemist is wiser. It is folly for more than a dozen men out of a million to try to think of anything original about Newton's laws or the Napierian system of logarithms. To cultivate a general, diffuse initiative would be to become a busy-body. For a man whose every thought was original we should have to go to our hospitals for the insane!


We have to cultivate these active virtues in such special lines as are important "for the sake of efficient democratic citizenship," and to guard them against misuse. We cannot simply demand them, nor give them indiscriminate exercise.


As I see it, the first and most important step toward so cultivating them is to treat them consistently as positive factors,—to think of independence, not as unreadiness to follow or obey or believe other men, but as a readiness and ability to contribute to good causes something more than is suggested by others,— to think of initiative, not as an unreadiness to wait or cooperate or be modest, but as a readiness and ability to move ahead, 'speed up,' lead and take promising risks, and as an attitude of expecting to create opportunities, take risks, and do ten dollars' worth of work for a dollar. Originality must not mean weakness in doing routine work in old ways, or any essential dislike of traditional knowledge or customs as such, or any paucity of fixed habits,—but strength in doing work that is new or doing it in new ways, an attitude of hoping to change knowledge or practice for the better, an organization of habits that causes their progressive modification.


This matter seems to me so important that I venture to illustrate it in the case of originality.


Once in so often some student who wishes to do work for the Doctor's degree in education writes about his ideas and adds that he knows they are original, because he has avoided reading anything on the topic! We never encourage such men to come to Teachers College.


It is my lot to read many manuscripts on psychology and education. The commonest mistake which they reveal is the painful elaboration by a man, through long years, of some intellectual result which he should have acquired in ten hours in the course of the routine work of keeping up with what has been done in his field.


It is my privilege to know a fair number of original thinkers and workers in science, medicine, the ministry, law, and business. Such men are extraordinarily competent in routine work and extraordinarily strong in mere knowledge. The most original children of my acquaintance are so not by any denial of the claims of mere lesson-learning and skill-acquiring in traditional ways. On the contrary, they could beat the pedants and hacks of equal age at their own games. Occasionally they, and like minds of older age, become justly skeptical of the past, and impatient of methods adapted to dull minds, but they never have the hopeless skepticism of the fool who does not care enough about the past even to learn its contributions.


During the past month I have been studying the ratings of sixty electrical engineers employed by the Westinghouse Company and rated by the company's officers for originality and seventeen other qualities, such as thoroughness, knowledge, industry at routine tasks, and the like. Far from there being any antagonism between originality and industry at routine tasks, or between originality and common sense, or between originality and system, there is a positive correlation, and one as close as that between industry and enthusiasm or that between thoroughness and system.


The truly independent thinker does not make less use of other men's ideas than the servile thinker, but more. The expert man of science or law or business has a thousand masters while the servile mind has but a few. The truly independent thinker does not put less faith in his masters than the servile mind. He puts more faith in them, but he chooses the right ones to put his faith in. The servile mind has faiths that seem strong only because he never questions them. His faith in Jones' liver pills or the divine right of kings is really at the mercy of any new quack or Napoleon. In fact, a good definition of intellectual independence is "reasoned dependence."


The truly initiating mind does not imitate less, but more. It imitates more men, in more fields, in a greater variety of conditions. But here again it is reasoned imitation; and out of multifarious reasoned imitating, comes, to him who has the capacity, the insight to discern, and the zeal to take, the profitable risk, the hopeful leap in the dark, the courageous step upward where no foothold may be found.


Nothing, then, need be lost for American independence, initiative and originality by greater emphasis on obedience to the right masters, imitation of the right models, and learning of the right facts in our schools. If it is necessary for our future as a nation that our present laissez faire and individualism give way to deliberate learning to do the nation's work, obey the nation's creed and live as the nation decrees, there need not be any loss in the useful self-reliance, enterprise and inventiveness of our people.


Only two conditions must be fulfilled. First, the masters, models, facts, creeds and ideals must be right, in the sense of being impartially chosen in the light of pure reason as the best for the nation's welfare. Second, each man and woman, boy and girl, must be taught, so far as he can learn it, that he, as well as the highest of his rulers, is free to do what he can to change ideas, customs, masters, models, creeds and ideals—for the better, and that not the highest of the highest is free to change them otherwise.


Let us turn this somewhat abstract analysis into terms of practice. I dare to affirm that if we had a national system of education, with all private schools rigidly supervised by the state, and if the educational obligations were fixed by central authority for every future citizen, there need not be one iota less of worthy independence, initiative and originality in our population, if this central despotism was constituted by enlightened reason acting for the nation's good. Permit me to add that I do not believe in such a central organization within ten or perhaps a hundred years. If I had believed in it, Professor Dewey's address in this series would have converted me. Still less, however, do I believe that such a form of organization would necessarily weaken the active virtues which are our topic, or that if it did weaken them, it would do so by its success in inculcating obedience, fidelity, accuracy, knowledge and skill. Effective independence, initiative and originality are not the negations of dependence, imitation, and fixed habits, but are their continued organization upon a new and higher level.


Assuming that it is folly merely to demand, and wasteful to give indiscriminate, miscellaneous practice, and that we do not need to rob useful obedience, imitativeness or conformity to pay independence, initiative and originality, and would probably make no gain for the latter if we did so, what shall be done to cultivate these active virtues?


The general answer is, "provide those situations which by the nature of homo sapiens call the active virtues into play; and make their exercise satisfying to the individual. Induce these tendencies to act; and reward their action." In schools, the prolongation of school life, the provision of work with things as well as with words, the use of humane and significant projects, and the encouragement of specialization have been valuable factors in replacing submissive and passive by energetic and active thinking. For they have given boys and girls more chances to be mentally independent and aggressive in useful ways. The introduction of the physical sciences and the learning of history, literature and languages in something more or less approximating-the scientific spirit, have been valuable. For one article of the creed of the man of science has been to reward intellectual enterprise.


The recent movements to dignify manual and executive work in the schools, providing for the boys and girls who can manage things and men whether they can or cannot manage ideas, seem likely to be very valuable by giving a chance for useful exercise of the active virtues by pupils whose only wise act of initiative with respect to abstract linguistic and mathematical pursuits would be to drop them! Also teachers are more likely to discern and reward useful enterprise in making things or running errands than in methods of study in the abstract fields.


Still more important, probably, is the indirect rewarding of these virtues in the young by rewarding them in the world at large. We are just beginning to learn to honor our prophets or initiating classes instead of stoning them, and to pay for originality at least a small fraction of what we pay for conformity. To learn it fully and practice it will mean an enormous addition to the useful initiative and originality of our country. So long as we pay a physician $50,000 a year for following the old routine and pay nothing to the man of equal general ability for discovering a far better treatment, can we expect our medical students to try to be usefully original? The Nobel prizes since their inception have received less public attention (as measured by newspaper space) than a single prizefight. The public still pays more money to be fooled by quack advertisements and poisoned by quack drugs than it pays for the bureau of commerce and labor, schools of commerce, and all our public health service,—probably five times as much.


I recently asked one of our most successful story-writers why he chose that career. He replied, "On thinking it over I decided that there were two things that human beings had enjoyed most since the world began—eating and drinking, and listening to lies. Having absolutely no talents as a restaurant keeper, I had my try at telling them lies." If we would only reduce the alcohol in our physical, and the lies in our intellectual, dietaries, and spend the savings in rewarding the men who use initiative and originality for the common good! To give able men and women a chance to be enterprising and reward their useful enterprises, is the surest way to cultivate the active virtues.


So in schools also we have only to give boys and girls chances to be self-reliant and inventive in matters where it is useful for them to be so and to reward their successful efforts.


The response a pupil makes to any situation is caused in large measure by his attitude or mind-set. The same intellect may absorb, or absorb and criticize, or absorb, criticize and seek to amend, a doctrine, according as it happens to be born in the fourteenth, eighteenth or twentieth century, or to attend a theological school, law school; or research institution to-day. The mere attitude of expecting to do more than one is required to do, to see more than one is shown, to try more experiments than one has seen tried, in and of itself increases the independence and aggressiveness of one's action and thought in the situation or field in question. The school teaches pupils to be self-reliant and inventive by teaching them to take independent and aggressive attitudes when and where they should.


If these principles are sound, the technique of teaching these active virtues has to reckon with two main problems. First, for any given pupil at any given stage, what shall he accept more or less blindly and what shall he prove to himself? When shall he follow and when shall he go ahead by himself? Where shall he be ruled by outside pressure and where by reasoned conviction? Second, how may he be led by the laws of his own nature, to think and act wisely for himself in those cases where he should do so? There is here obviously room for infinite ingenuity, experiment and improvement. Present practice is chaotic, but hopefully open-minded and experimental.


My comments also will be chaotic, in the form of a few questions and suggestions, first about the selection of occasions for active rather than passive behavior.


Is not our present selection of occasions for the exercise of the active virtues rather indiscriminate, at times leading to improper vainglory and at times to unnecessary discouragement or sluggishness? Probably many of you have been amused in kindergartens at hearing the five-year-olds urged to independent judgment on matters of difficult fact and taste; and then later seeing them make no attempt to put on then- own coats and rubbers. The high school pupil is expected to solve difficult originals in geometry, but not to keep any account of how he studies or of which methods of study serve him best.


Do we not permit or even encourage young and old to decide for themselves in many cases where they should decide whom to ask to decide for them, or should contribute facts and reasons to aid the expert in his decision, or should learn the expert's general decision and modify it to suit their special needs? On the other hand are they not often left to follow conventional customs or blind faiths where a rational decision is really well within their powers?


We have seen that, in our day and manner of life, independence consists in choosing whom to follow rather than in following one's own devices. Is not special training in judging the qualities of leaders worthy of a place in democratic education? By our theory we must not teach future citizens to follow hereditary kings or lords, or a military or priestly caste, or a landlord class. But human beings will follow and should. Who should be followed in a democracy? I see no answer but ''the impartial expert." Men and women who best know the facts in a given field and who judge the facts most impersonally seem the safest to trust. If a dozen able boys were set to studying business from sixteen to twenty-five in the same spirit and by the same methods allow used in studying science and engineering, being taught to think of personal profit no more and no less than the scientist is taught to think of it, I would rather trust them to control railroads, insurance companies, and the like than trust any state legislature in our land. In a nation of a hundred million people ninety-nine per cent of the power must be given to one per cent of the people. Cannot boys and girls of the high school age be taught that the essentials for leadership are expertness and impartiality? At least, they can be taught that glorious apparel, self-esteem, prodigality, physical prowess, the "glad hand" and a silver tongue, before which man's original nature bows, are not symptoms of fitness to lead in the twentieth century. They can also be cured of the unfortunate pretense that one person is as good as another in politics, personal and public hygiene, or business management.


Do we allow sufficiently for individual differences, setting tasks for the active virtues that are within the individual's powers?


The fact that only a small fraction of a school class usually succeeds with tasks demanding initiative and self-direction seems to me to bear witness to their too great difficulty. Indeed, it seems to be tacitly assumed by many of those interested in encouraging self-reliance and aggressive thought, that not more than a quarter of the pupil's own shots will be hits. The common assumption is that in the active virtues it is the attempt rather than its success that counts. Is it not often considered entirely permissible for three out of four children in the class to make preposterous suggestions so long as the answer comes from somewhere in the class rather than from the teacher? Yet there is no rational justification for teaching pupils to fail in original thinking any more than in routine. It is true that a pupil may well make a hundred failures as a means to eventual success, if the failures are instructive, but our toleration of failure outright seems a sign of improper selection of the tasks.


Do we sufficiently realize that provision by routine for all matters which do not actually demand thought may be made one of the greatest aids to self-reliance, independence and originality in those matters which do demand thought?


It would obviously be idiotic for the man who has to decide important questions of scientific truth, or legal evidence, or business policy to decide on each occasion what he shall eat, what clothes he shall wear, or whether he shall walk or ride. Ten minutes a month should establish the necessary routines. So in school also a certain economy of initiative is desirable. A boy's originality as a writer is not checked by being given once for all a routine for the size of margin, place of heading, and the like. As we noted earlier, the dynamic opposite of originality is not efficiency in routine, but stupidity; the dynamic opposite of efficient routine is not genius, but disorder.


Finally, will it not clear the whole argument somewhat if, in our thinking about education, we replace the word "self-reliance" by reliance on facts, "self-direction" by rational direction, "initiative" by readiness and ability to begin to think and experiment, "independence" by readiness to carry thought or experiment on to its just conclusions despite traditions and custom and lack of company; and if we add to the company of these active virtues an impersonal, objective habit that scorns hopes and fears and neglects self-interest, cherishing only the naked facts of life and the zeal to control them for the common good?


Are not the active virtues of citizens in a democratic state in sum and substance the ability and readiness to think and act impersonally, each man as nature has given him capacity, and in the field where his thought and action will do the most good?


If the state is itself rational—a sincere effort to work out the best possible harmony of the conflicting wants of its members— it can command obedience, and prescribe useful habits for its citizens in school and out, with, so far as can be seen, a net increase in the power of independent thought and action. For it is the magic of reason—of impersonal thought,—as of nothing else in the world, to be an essential necessary harmony. Fixed habits, chosen by reason, promote it. Obedience to laws devised by reason is a training in reasonableness, not slavery. Whatever wounds reason inflicts, reason itself can heal.


The life of reason will prevail in the nation (within the limits set by human capacity), just as fast and far as we really wish it to prevail.


In the long run a nation, unless subject to severe external compulsion, does get as good government as it deserves, as good education as it really wishes, and as good thinking and action as it will tolerate. Nobody forces the United States to pay a million dollars a year to Miss Mary Pickford and Mr. Charley Chaplin. We do it because we wish to. We could have paid a million a year to Joseph Henry, the prune mover in modern electrical inventions and to Louis Pasteur, the beginner of preventive medicine, if we had chosen. It is our own fault if John L. Sullivan, the prize fighter of Boston, had a fame far outreaching Horace Mann's. Within the limits set by the capacity of the human species, we can have just as efficient citizenship in this democracy as we really crave.


It seems probable that in the decade to come the leaders of American education will strive deliberately to adapt school work more fully to the job of making our national government safe against attack from without. The clamor for military drill in schools, for example, measures a popular feeling which educational leaders should use to secure support for really valuable training in both active and passive national virtues.


Here is, it seems to me, a wonderful opportunity for you to use whatever independence, initiative, and originality you have. Is the nation with the strongest army and navy least likely to go to war? Have the successes of Germany in the present war been due to junkerdom and the slavery of military conscription or to the social and industrial reforms which have made the German workmen happy and competent? Are all wars really about money in the first instance? Are the manly virtues prostituted to the childish notion that it is profitable for one nation to make money at the expense of another? Is it true that the rank and file of a nation always suffer from a war, but on the average are as well off from losing as from winning? What does each nation, as a nation, really want? If some omniscient trustee for all the nations of the world could list the actual cravings of all his wards, what would they be and which of them would conflict, and what would be the effect of this, that and the other possible war upon their realization? Do we as a nation really want to exclude a man from citizenship because he is of Japanese birth, or to trade with any nation to its disadvantage, or to drive a sharp bargain in a treaty, or to stand in the world's limelight as a boss of the world's affairs? What do we really want? What ought we to want? Just what are the dangers to our country from without? What are the dangers from weakness, conflict and corruption within?


Would it not be worth while for us to find out the answers to these and similar questions as a means to planning our campaign to use the schools to preserve the nation and to make the nation worth preserving? Should we not keep on going to school to the economists, historians and men of affairs, as we have been doing in these conferences, and by absorbing, imitating and following, organize our minds to creative work toward a sound national educational policy?


As a profession, we have in the past been content to leave questions of concrete national ideals in action to publicists, contenting ourselves with generalities of philosophy and ethics or detailed issues of school management and teaching. Most of you probably still believe that a board of representative men,—lawyers, business men, manufacturers, and the like, should determine educational policy.


Whichever should be the case, I am convinced that just as soon as we develop men who are justly recognized as educational experts, policies as well as their execution will be left largely to them. The world is learning rapidly that when a man of ability has studied a topic scientifically and makes his judgments about that topic in the impartial, impersonal fashion of the expert, it is wise to put on him every responsibility in that limited field that he will take. Control by public opinion and legislation is giving way to control by expert administrative boards at an increasing rate. If any five of our graduates were in the minds of the country as qualified in education as say, Doctors Welch and Flexner are in medicine, I believe they could become a national commission with power to regulate schools within ten years. It might not be for the nation's advantage that they should thus become educational dictators, responsible only to their consciences and professional ideals, but it certainly will be for the nation's advantage when five hundred men and women are qualified as experts for such work. What greater stimulus to learning and industry, initiative and originality, could there be than the work of finding and training them? Teachers College must do its part in discovering and developing "educational leadership that shall concern itself not merely with the mechanics of school-keeping, but also shall rise to the heights of patriotic statesmanship.''


NOTE—The above article by Professor Thorndike is the fifth of a series of addresses given before the staff of Teachers College with the aim of studying the basic principles which must underlie a system of education suited to the needs of a democratic society such as ours. An important topic discussed throughout the series is the nature of the state and the relation of the individual to it.


Addresses in this series given previous to this and printed in the RECOBD are:

"Education for Citizenship" by Dean James E. Russell, March, 1916.

"Organization in American Education" by Professor John Dewey, March, 1916.

"Politics and Education" by Professor Charles A. Beard, May, 1916.

"The State and Education" by Professor Samuel McCune Lindsay, September, 1916.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 17 Number 5, 1916, p. 405-416
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 6284, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 12:19:17 AM

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