The controversy is thus in brief before us, each side with its different account of the mind. "Believe the psychologist," cries a recent writer to the schoolmen. And this encourages one to examine these two descriptions, and judge them by our present scientific knowledge. It may well be that neither can be accepted; that in their place there must be a picture of the mind markedly different from either and with a far richer promise for education. Even in opposing these rival accounts a truer outline of the mind will, I believe, appear.
Surely the mind is ill-described by most believers in mental discipline. In so far as our remembering is explained by a faculty of memory, and our reasoning by a faculty of reason, we are offered mere words in the place of causes. But along with explanations that do not explain are clear errors. The mind is divided into great powers - like sight, hearing, memory, imagination, reason - each of which is supposed to be almost simple and uniform throughout. And this we know is false. Memory is not a simple thing, but involves many kinds of acts, several of which are no more important for remembering than for seeing, imagining, or reasoning. Again, if by reason we mean syllogizing, it is not one of our principal powers; and if we mean by it the ability to think and act reasonably, this comes only from a fine conspiring of almost every power we have.
Moreover, the believers in mental discipline too often fix their interest upon the powers by which we know, our intellectual faculties, and treat like a stepmother those great powers by which we take delight and are moved to passion and make resolve and act. Not only do large matters thus suffer neglect, but in consequence the very spring and strength of our intellectual powers themselves are ill-understood. The sources of judgment are not seen nor the conditions of its success. A certain deftness of bare intellect is overvalued, to the misprising of the deep forces that drive and direct the intellect, as well as of something more nearly external, the definite and detailed knowledge of the objects with which intelligence must deal.
The defects of this account of mind are thus greater than many even of its critics seem to know. But some of the defects are caught and well denounced by those who hold the mind but as a receptacle to be given "contents." They rightly see the mind helpless even were it deft and strong, they see its lack of actual knowledge. They see also that the mind is of immeasurably more varied powers than are nominated in the short list of faculties in which the old schoolmaster was taught to believe.
But with these rugged virtues why not take the whole doctrine of "contents" to our hearts?
First and perhaps least important, its watchword confirms the ignorant in their ignorance. We are only too ready to regard the child's mind as a vessel into which knowledge is to be poured, and the new doctrine would appear to give to this crude notion a scientific seal. So far as the child's training is viewed as mental contents, the mind itself is viewed as a receptacle, a container. And a container is both inert and indifferent. A tool-chest takes no active part to receive its tools, and a sharp chisel is to it no better than a rusty broken one. Merely glance at the metaphor and its absurdity is revealed depth on depth. Those who believe in mental contents would cry out with one voice that they did not mean that.
For if there is anything upon which psychologists are agreed, it is that the mind is active; not indifferent but selective, forever choosing and rejecting. Even its humblest experiences, the colors and sounds by which the world is known, are not "given" us, but are the mind's unique and mysterious response to external stimulation. Hue and tone, as we directly experience them, the students of physics and psychology are agreed, do not exist in the external world. They are our reaction; and with them we create for ourselves a strange counterpart of the reality without. And for one object awakening enough interest to be noticed, ten have vainly assailed our eyes and ears and been ignored. These acts of notice and selection do not seem acts, being without effort, without strain of will. But action is not always marked by effort: a child at play is as active as a child at some deadening task.
If the things we see and hear enter the mind hardly as into a passive receptacle, more clearly is this true of our recollections, our imaginings, our conclusions reasoned out. Unless we actively reconstruct the past and recognize it as past, we do not remember. The child can possess no imaginings or judgments save what he has himself imagined or judged. Nor can he create them once, and forever after "contain" them; each time that they are before him they must be created afresh - on the instant, usually, and with no slightest hint that power has gone into their remaking. As well call the ever-new movements of some graceful dancer the "contents" of her body as use this name for the marvelous expressions of the mind.
And still more clearly is this dead image broken by the will. In his purpose the boy proclaims himself no mere recipient, but a doer; not clay, but the potter. He takes his place among the infant deities, imposing his ideas upon brute substance until in some measure it is made into the likeness of his mind.
But we waste time upon this unhappy watchword of the party. Not until we find a tool-chest that helps to fashion and use the tools it holds, a tool-chest that is also both machinist and carpenter - not until then will this image do more than darken counsel.
Turning now from metaphor to plain statement, let us ask whether it be true that practice keeps its place, that you train only what you train. It would be of startling, and, to some, almost disheartening, importance if the child's improvement in a foreign language - French or Latin, let us say - had no effect upon his command of the English language, or upon his interest in European history.