The experiments in clear support of this doctrine, however - that you train merely what you train - are few; most experiments contradict it. Improvement in judging the area of certain figures, as was just said, does not bring equal improvement in judging other figures. But the judgment of these other figures is not left untouched. On the contrary, it receives marked benefit. And while neatness in classroom may remain within narrow limits, it can easily be made to pass these limits. If the children in writing their arithmetic lesson, for example, are urged to neatness as of universal value, their papers in geography also will be neater, even though this other subject may not be named in the urging. Or, again, if a person practice with the right hand the tossing and catching of balls, keeping two in the air at once, until he has attained a high degree of skill, will the effect of the practice be confined to the right hand? No; it will appear also in the left; it may be as though fully two thirds of the practice had in some way been transferred to the hand that has not been practiced at all. And in many other directions of research, transfer of training is found. The cultivation of the mind is thus not at all like that of land, where the ploughing of one field does not affect the soil beyond the fence. Effects here do not stay confined, but spread.
It will hardly be possible to follow the attempted explanation of this spread; it can hardly be explained away. Nor need the teacher feel dismayed because the improvement in one study - let us say physics - is not transferred entire to all other forms of acquisition; that some of the good is lost in transit. Even a spread of small amount, as Thorndike has said, may be important; the effort would be well repaid if practice in justness of conduct in school were to bring even the slightest increase in justice of conduct in all other relations of life; or if his accuracy in work at school make him even a little more accurate in all ways when he has left school.
Instead, then, of proving that you train what you train, the psychological experiments which have so troubled the waters of education prove that normally you train what you do not train. Indeed, these experiments seem to have been seized upon by men convinced already and beating about for evidence, rather than by men unbiased and glad to go wherever the evidence might lead.
But the question just considered, Whether the benefits of training can be transferred to regions that have not been the immediate place of the training? is intimately connected with another. Indeed, we shall find this other but an aspect of the problem of transfer. But to it we must attend if we would judge aright the position of the partisans of "contents."
Is it then true, as some maintain, that our mental powers are stubbornly particular and never general in their character? Is it, for example, absurd to think that there can be a habit of punctuality, in accordance with which the child, and later the man, may practice promptness in keeping all manner of appointments? Or must we think that such a habit must be mere promptness at school, and promptness in no wider kind of conduct? Taken rigorously such a contention would seem to mean that there could be no punctuality for school in general, but only for the particular school, for the particular room in the school, for - but one must not press too far.
From some assertions that are heard one might think that a mental function is something good for little more than a single narrow situation, like the special bow that can be used only upon presentation at court. Let us, to test the truth of this, take almost an extreme case.
Even so particular a response, so particular a habit, as that of answering the telephone is far less particular than it seems; it is run through and through with generality. It is called forth in many different situations; varied, too, is the action called forth. What you respond to is never quite the same: now it is a loud ring near by, and now a tinkle in the distance; now it is the clear note of a bell, now it is the whirr of a "buzzer." And your response is never the same: you arise, take a few steps and stand at the instrument; or again, you remain seated and bring the instrument to you; you speak with deference, you speak with impatience, you speak with a martyr's resignation. Never quite the same signal, never quite the same movements of the body, never the same words spoken, never in the same tone, never to the same purpose.
If one cannot but see the breadth and openness in even so restricted a habit as this, how much more general are the significant forms of action which the schools can rightly have at heart. The child who is inclined to "give up" at the least difficulty has a habit which applies to many and most varied situations. And if, instead, he can be turned about, can be made to assume a fighting attitude toward what is hard to do, he has been brought to attain what is applicable in ten thousand times and places. The attitude of credulity, of helpless acceptance of whatever is stoutly asserted, is almost universal in little children. Nor is it a trait which is called forth only in some few and special situations; but rather upon all those infinitely varied occasions when persons meet and speak. And in its stead there can be the habit which means that one will hesitate, will weigh and test, will look to the evidence for all important statements. Likewise the child's impulse to look first and foremost to his own particular self - to be vain, to be selfish, to sulk - this is a general form of action which displays itself in endless variety of detail and place. And no less general is the change from all this, so that he begins to see the interest of others and to let this be a constant check upon his self-seeking, a spur to action that is generous.
These habits of mind, and a host like them, are perhaps less wide than the memory-in-general or the reason-in-general of the older education. The question whether the only appropriate term for them is "particular" or "general" would have delighted the professors of old Padua or Bologna. For us the important thing is to see their immense range of use, in all manner of situations and by all manner of men, whether they be day-laborers or diplomatists.
Considered with care, then, we can heartily accept neither the description in which the mind is made to be a composite of a few great faculties, nor that in which the mind appears as an endless array of distinct functions. We have discerned something of what is wrong in these accounts.