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In the earlier part of the present century, the higher textbooks used in English education were of a purely literary character, conveying little practical information. The aim in the lower books was, in general, merely the communication of the faculties of English reading and spelling, by easy stages, in lessons somewhat too childish. In the higher books, while the compilers had in view the cultivation of taste and proper moral and religious sentiments, the leading object was elocution. Their articles consisted, accordingly, of passages of pulpit and forensic oratory; of sentimental or romantic incidents, of the finer passages of our poetry; the only proper knowledge they afforded consisted in extracts from travels and histories, and a few facts in natural history. These “Collections” and “Beauties” answered their leading purpose well; but, except in verbal explanation, they afforded little scope for the intellectual exercise of the pupil, beyond what he derived from his own appreciation of their literature, critical examination being seldom attempted. About thirty years ago the want of practical knowledge in natural phenomena in the vehicles of youthful education began to be deeply felt. An impulse had been given to catechetical examination by a great expansion of “Bible training,” and by the systems of Bell, Lancaster, and other educationists ; new models of text-books, therefore, became imperatively necessary. Books were accordingly constructed, containing lessons in the elementary facts of natural philosophy, chemistry, &c. The cateche
tical principle began to expand extensively and rapidly, especially in the department of grammar, and the derivation of our language. The etymological speculations of Horne Tooke and Dr. Hunter descended into our elementary schools. A species of “Revival” in education took place; and the “ Intellectual System,” with etymology and the facts of science as its engines, took the lead in the mixed schools of Scotland. The old text-books of grammar and of English reading disappeared, and their authors lamented a progress to which they were not friendly, because they were its victims. This wholesome movement was productive, however, of some evil results. Education, in the hands of junior and imperfectly educated teachers, was converted into a mere cramming of individual and disjointed facts, and of large useless words with formidable syllables. A lesson was anatomized, like a dead subject, through many of its individual muscles, nerves, and organs, while its form-its “idea”-its contained bulk of knowledge, sentiment, narrative, or picture, was disregarded in attention to its atomic parts. There was frequently, moreover, no order or congruity in the examination ; into a lesson, about the domestic animals, perhaps, were drawn various straggling facts in mechanics, or geometry, or chemistry, and words of all languages, up to Greek and Hebrew. This state of things has since been greatly remedied by the elevation which has taken place in the qualifications of junior teachers; and the experience of twenty years has rendered catechetical examination more rational, and instructors more capable of estimating the relative value and amount of their attainments. The text-books that sprung from this improvement in educational practice are all excellent in aim and in the selection of their facts, though the latter are often too isolated. They present more or less outlines of or statements in several sciences, passages in natural history, lessons on the useful arts, religious lessons, and poetry. But in these books the elegant literature of the old text-books had in a great measure disappeared; and the useful has in some degree superseded the beautiful. Much of the information, moreover, which some of these works contain, progress and circumstances have now rendered obsolete. The aim of the present Compilation is to exhibit Science and History in their most recent shapes, and to attempt to infuse into what may be termed the “knowledge department” of modern text-books, a more literary character, by the selection of passages either detailing or illustrating the facts of science and natural history, from writers whose modes of discussing their subjects, and whose style are adapted at once to expand the intellect, and to cultivate the taste. An attempt has been made to bring forward science less in a technological and systematic shape, and more in a suggestive and pictorial aspect.
The translations of foreign works, as those of Heeren, Humboldt, and Schlegel, in which knowledge is exhibited in this latter aspect, seemed to the Compiler, in literary excellence, fully to support the character of the original works,—the style of whose discussion coincided so conveniently with the Compiler's object, of introducing science rather in allusive statements and suggestive pictures, ministering to the faculties of the heart and imagination, than in the connected systematic formula which act chiefly on the memory and the intellect. It is true that Humboldt's Kosmos abounds in technical terms of various sciences; but if the mode of their occurrence in his sentences be examined, they will be found to have no connexion with any difficulty in the apprehension of the statements and thoughts advanced; and, as words, their formidable external appearance vanishes before the touchstone of etymology. It is hoped, therefore, that the occasional occurrence of these learned terms will be no bar either to the pleasure or the improvement of the youthful reader, and that a slight assistance from the skill of an intelligent and painstaking teacher, will remove every small obstacle from the pupil's path. The distinct separation, moreover, of the departments of the book will enable the teacher to commence the Readings at any point which seems best adapted to the standing and advancement of his class.
The Compiler's - Readings,” in the first and second gene