Mental Training: How to Reform Education

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from Mental Training: A Remedy for Education by William George Jordan, published in 1923…

The aim of education should be to teach us HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think—to improve our minds so as to enable us to think for ourselves, rather than to load the memory with the thoughts of other people. Thousands of respected thinkers and educators have echoed the same thought. But because our current education system operates under the false theory of making knowledge of supreme and first importance, and the training of the mind a by-product (an expected secondary result), education fails in both phases.

Therefore, I would like to venture to suggest a new model, a new ideal, a new inspiration, which we shall call “Mental Training” to differentiate it from the old education. This new model has three cardinal points.

1) It makes the training of the mind itself, the first and supreme aim, giving as much knowledge as can be given in accompanying exercises, in conjunction with the training.

2) It prepares the individual for the seven lives we all must live: the physical life, the mental life, the moral and ethical life, the civic life, the social life, the aesthetic and emotional life, and the spiritual life.

3) It trains in accord with the spirit, methods and mental processes of genius, where revelation naturally occurs when the mind begins working at its best.

By suggesting genius as the model for education, I am not saying that this method’s goal is to create geniuses but merely to start students in the right way; to appeal to and stimulate their mind in accord with the mental laws the genius unconsciously obeys; and to develop the powers, faculties and qualities common to all people, and which genius alone shows in perfect flower.

The difference between Education and Mental Training are differences in attitude, spirit, aim, scope, and methods. We ask of education, “What knowledge does it give?” Of mental training, “What power, faculties and qualities does it develop?” Of education, “What does it teach?” Of mental training, “In what does it train?”

The curricula of the two show how far apart they stand in their purposes and ideals. When asked, “What are the subjects in its course of study?” Education says: reading, writing, arithmetic, history, language, geography and the others of its thirty or more subjects.

The same question asked of Mental Training would bring forth a different answer: trained senses, memories, observation, judgment, reasoning, clear-thinking, self-expression, language and conversation; training in accuracy, thoroughness, initiative, resourcefulness, responsibility, and concentration; exercises in physical training; training in character and ethics, in social civilities, courtesies and graces, in civic duties and responsibilities, in appreciation of the beautiful, in sentiment and emotions, in spiritual consciousness. This list is incomplete but it suggests the scope and the larger vision of the proposed model.

The curriculum of mental training would apply to the elementary school and the high school. There would be simply a continuous progressive, cumulative perfecting of the training in widening circles of application, and finer forms of expression and activity. The final aim of mental training is to teach thinking—exercising the individual not in what to think, but in how to think, making all parts of their mental machine work individually with greatest ease, smoothness, and rapidity, and in finest co-operation.

The system works with the student, training them in the how and why of every process, so that the mind and all its manifestations will be under each student’s own control. As the exercises become progressively harder, the student will be ready and eager for the next step—and thus the amount of real knowledge that can be grasped, absorbed, assimilated, and used will be marvelously increased.

Examinations and markings, as we know them today, would be banished from mental training. They are blighting in their influence; unfair; false as motives for study; and unethical in their impact on the mind of the student. As an evil, they are the logical first fruits of a false theory.

Max Muller describes the evil strongly, when he says, “All real joy in study seems to me to have been destroyed by examinations as now conducted. Students imagine that all their work has but one object: to enable them to pass examinations. Every book they have to read, even to the number of pages, is prescribed. No choice is allowed; no time is left to look either right or left. What is the result? The required number of pages is assigned under compulsion, therefore grudgingly, and after the examination is over what has been assigned is discarded like a heavy and useless burden. The only thing that remains is an intellectual nausea — a dislike of the food swallowed under compulsion.”

An examination is a permission to forget. The child and the older student lives under a constant fear of punishment or failure that stimulates nervousness and lack of attention, warping and wracking the mind. Sometime in the future, we shall realize that it is as barbarous an injustice to punish children by a bad mark for a forgotten lesson, as it would be to whip them for having the measles.

The child is not being punished for failure to study, but for a failure to learn. This, however, is not their fault. They may know ninety per cent of a lesson perfectly but be tripped up by the kind of questions asked, the arbitrary choice of questions included on the test, or they might suffer a momentary bout of nervous forgetfulness (which is perfectly natural).

Examinations make cramming mandatory, and this process has a most pernicious effect on mind and brain. Tests exercise only the rote memory, the weakest of all memories, especially among the highly intelligent and gifted. They blur the process of memory by paying no attention to the association of memories by principle, classification, and relation. They deaden the mind by putting a premium on acquiring words untranslated into ideas or clear concepts.

In mental training, with no examinations and marks, the child would attend school with joy and freedom, prepared to be led to a love of knowledge and wisdom for its own sake, and for the use they could make of it. The absence of formal examinations does not imply that no estimate would be made of the child‘s progress, for students would be under the constant watchful eye of the teacher, studying their progress and development as manifested in their daily activities.

In education, we hear and read much about the questions the teacher should put to the child, but little or nothing of the questions that the child should be inspired to put to the teacher. There is little time to develop the latter questions in our present system. Yet they represent the child‘s instinctive effort to orient themselves, to get their bearings in a new world, to feed their mind and satisfy their mental hunger, to find out that which the mind wants to know.

The first questions of a child are queries including “Who?” and “What?” (which wisely involve identity). Then the questions soon evolve into “Why?”, “How?”, “Which?”, “When?” and “Where?” (first the thing itself, then its qualities, its relations, its method, process or reason, its time, its location, and its individuality). These queries are but the outward expression of inward analysis. A Darwin, a Huxley, a Spencer, or a Newton uses the same words when interviewing Nature.

Mental training (modeling its method on the mind of the child and that of genius) has reverence for these questions. It substitutes for textbooks and recitation, the free air of question, discussion, conversation and exchange of thought. The child‘s questions are vitally significant as a means of self-expression and as evidencing not only their hunger for knowledge but the slant of the child‘s thoughts: his or her aptitudes, tastes, reasoning, imagination, tendencies, and understanding.

The first duty of mental training is to seek to put children into harmony with their environment. This means not only answering their questions but stimulating, directing, and intensifying them, and giving them knowledge—first of the immediate world around them, and in this process beginning the training of their mind and all its powers, faculties, and qualities.

While the basic principles of mental training would be identical and unchanging the world over, and be as true and applicable in Thailand or Peru as in America, the knowledge to be given would differ. The child in Bangkok would have different surroundings, scenery, phases of nature, animal and plant life and manners and customs from those of a child living in Lima. Similar differences (though less in degree) would exist between a child’s life and environment in the Tennessee Mountains versus New York City.

The basic knowledge would differ, but in all instances the natural curiosity would be equally nursed and stimulated in mental training, instead of being starved and deadened, as it is now in education. Today we take children hungering to understand what they see and hear in their little world, and place them in the artificial bookish atmosphere of the schoolroom. There we shunt their interest off from the thousand things they want to know and seek to divert this interest to what is dull, dry, disassociated from their natural life and activities.

Text-books would have no part in mental-training, at least not in its early stages. Substituted for them would be the living voice of the teacher. There would be greater appeal to the ear than is made currently in education. It requires greater mental quickness to grasp and retain what is spoken than what is printed—for as print is permanent, it can be referred to at will.

There is a stronger appeal to the emotion and imagination in the spoken word than in the written or printed. Language, too, has its first message to the ear. The emphasis on the appeal to the ear does not mean that the training of the eye is neglected, but it is merely given its true place.

In education, with its program of a fixed amount of knowledge to be given in a fixed period of time, every moment is scheduled: thirty minutes four times a week for this study; forty-five minutes twice a week for another, and so on for other studies. The more we reduce education to a mechanism, the easier it is to handle as an organization, but such mechanizing and standardizing kills its very soul.

Mental training cannot be so mechanized. Its aim is not a certain amount of knowledge, fixed and pre-determined, but to give each child or older student all the mental power he or she individually seems capable of developing, with whatever knowledge can be acquired in connection with the process, and stimulating such a love of knowledge that the individual will be able to acquire for themselves as much additional knowledge as they may later desire. The new model therefore would resent the pressure of an exacting time table.

Education in her zeal to furnish knowledge, forces it so constantly and continuously, and in such large doses, into minds uninterested and untrained to assimilate it, that the result is a mental dyspepsia that injures the mind instead of strengthening it—straining it instead of training it. Education‘s ideal of culture is a little of everything. However, the ideal of mental training is intensity, a smaller field, more thoroughly cared for and nourished. Each exercise must be completely mastered before the next is undertaken.

A semblance of power or knowledge is nothing. Its actuality is everything. Education spreads over infinite detail. Mental training concentrates on thorough knowledge of fundamentals in any subject (guiding threads, principles and laws and essentials)—outlines so perfectly mastered that all later knowledge fits into a prepared scheme where it is tested, seen in proper relation, and properly evaluated.

In mental training everything is done to secure the child‘s active, zealous co-operation. Because genius works best and develops its highest powers in what it loves, children are led, not forced, to love and desire their school life. This does not mean that everything is made easy for them, their mental food predigested for them, and bitter doses of knowledge all sugar-coated and capsuled. The opposite is the true statement: students are given tasks that call forth their mental powers at their strongest; they are made intensely conscious of the specific object of every exercise, the how and why of process and what benefit they should expect from it.

The aim of mental training is to inspire rather than merely inform; to stir the hidden energies; to awaken love and desire; to quicken the imagination; to thrill students with the glory of individual possibility; to give them seeing eyes for the wonders and beauties of life and listening ears for its great message; to fill their minds with the glowing sense of power, self-reliance, and self-dominion; to exercise them in initiative and responsibility; to awaken the creative impulse; to show each student their true relationship to themselves and to the world; to train them to think for themselves; and to think the best, know the best, feel the best, do the best, and live the best.

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