Chapter VI: Education as Conservative and Progressive - 2. Education as Recapitulation and Retrospection

A peculiar combination of the ideas of development and formation from without has given rise to the recapitulation theory of education, biological and cultural. The individual develops, but his proper development consists in repeating in orderly stages the past evolution of animal life and human history. The former recapitulation occurs physiologically; the latter should be made to occur by means of education. The alleged biological truth that the individual in his growth from the simple embryo to maturity repeats the history of the evolution of animal life in the progress of forms from the simplest to the most complex (or expressed technically, that ontogenesis parallels phylogenesis) does not concern us, save as it is supposed to afford scientific foundation for cultural recapitulation of the past. Cultural recapitulation says, first, that children at a certain age are in the mental and moral condition of savagery; their instincts are vagrant and predatory because their ancestors at one time lived such a life. Consequently (so it is concluded) the proper subject matter of their education at this time is the material—especially the literary material of myths, folk-tale, and song—produced by humanity in the analogous stage. Then the child passes on to something corresponding, say, to the pastoral stage, and so on till at the time when he is ready to take part in contemporary life, he arrives at the present epoch of culture.

In this detailed and consistent form, the theory, outside of a small school in Germany (followers of Herbart for the most part), has had little currency. But the idea which underlies it is that education is essentially retrospective; that it looks primarily to the past and especially to the literary products of the past, and that mind is adequately formed in the degree in which it is patterned upon the spiritual heritage of the past. This idea has had such immense influence upon higher instruction especially, that it is worth examination in its extreme formulation.

In the first place, its biological basis is fallacious. Embryonic growth of the human infant preserves, without doubt, some of the traits of lower forms of life. But in no respect is it a strict traversing of past stages. If there were any strict 'law' of repetition, evolutionary development would clearly not have taken place. Each new generation would simply have repeated its predecessors' existence. Development, in short, has taken place by the entrance of short-cuts and alterations in the prior scheme of growth. And this suggests that the aim of education is to facilitate such short-circuited growth. The great advantage of immaturity, educationally speaking, is that it enables us to emancipate the young from the need of dwelling in an outgrown past. The business of education is rather to liberate the young from reviving and retraversing the past than to lead them to a recapitulation of it. The social environment of the young is constituted by the presence and action of the habits of thinking and feeling of civilized men. To ignore the directive influence of this present environment upon the young is simply to abdicate the educational function. A biologist has said: "The history of development in different animals…offers to us…a series of ingenious, determined, varied but more or less unsuccessful efforts to escape from the necessity of recapitulating, and to substitute for the ancestral method a more direct method." Surely it would be foolish if education did not deliberately attempt to facilitate similar efforts in conscious experience so that they become increasingly successful.

The two factors of truth in the conception may easily be disentangled from association with the false context which perverts them. On the biological side we have simply the fact that any infant starts with precisely the assortment of impulsive activities with which he does start, they being blind, and many of them conflicting with one another, casual, sporadic, and unadapted to their immediate environment. The other point is that it is a part of wisdom to utilize the products of past history so far as they are of help for the future. Since they represent the results of prior experience, their value for future experience may, of course, be indefinitely great. Literatures produced in the past are, so far as men are now in possession and use of them, a part of the present environment of individuals; but there is an enormous difference between availing ourselves of them as present resources and taking them as standards and patterns in their retrospective character.

(1) The distortion of the first point usually comes about through misuse of the idea of heredity. It is assumed that heredity means that past life has somehow predetermined the main traits of an individual, and that they are so fixed that little serious change can be introduced into them. Thus taken, the influence of heredity is opposed to that of the environment, and the efficacy of the latter belittled. But for educational purposes heredity means neither more nor less than the original endowment of an individual. Education must take the being as he is; that a particular individual has just such and such an equipment of native activities is a basic fact. That they were produced in such and such a way, or that they are derived from one's ancestry, is not especially important for the educator, however it may be with the biologist, as compared with the fact that they now exist. Suppose one had to advise or direct a person regarding his inheritance of property. The fallacy of assuming that the fact it is an inheritance, predetermines its future use, is obvious. The advisor is concerned with making the best use of what is there—putting it at work under the most favorable conditions. Obviously he cannot utilize what is not there; neither can the educator. In this sense, heredity is a limit of education. Recognition of this fact prevents the waste of energy and the irritation that ensue from the too prevalent habit of trying to make by instruction something out of an individual which he is not naturally fitted to become. But the doctrine does not determine what use shall be made of the capacities which exist. And, except in the case of the imbecile, these original capacities are much more varied and potential, even in the case of the more stupid, than we as yet know properly how to utilize. Consequently, while a careful study of the native aptitudes and deficiencies of an individual is always a preliminary necessity, the subsequent and important step is to furnish an environment which will adequately function whatever activities are present.

The relation of heredity and environment is well expressed in the case of language. If a being had no vocal organs from which issue articulate sounds, if he had no auditory or other sense-receptors and no connections between the two sets of apparatus, it would be a sheer waste of time to try to teach him to converse. He is born short in that respect, and education must accept the limitation. But if he has this native equipment, its possession in no way guarantees that he will ever talk any language or what language he will talk. The environment in which his activities occur and by which they are carried into execution settles these things. If he lived in a dumb unsocial environment where men refused to talk to one another and used only that minimum of gestures without which they could not get along, vocal language would be as unachieved by him as if he had no vocal organs. If the sounds which he makes occur in a medium of persons speaking the Chinese language, the activities which make like sounds will be selected and coördinated. This illustration may be applied to the entire range of the educability of any individual. It places the heritage from the past in its right connection with the demands and opportunities of the present.

(2) The theory that the proper subject matter of instruction is found in the culture-products of past ages (either in general, or more specifically in the particular literatures which were produced in the culture epoch which is supposed to correspond with the stage of development of those taught) affords another instance of that divorce between the process and product of growth which has been criticized. To keep the process alive, to keep it alive in ways which make it easier to keep it alive in the future, is the function of educational subject matter. But an individual can live only in the present. The present is not just something which comes after the past; much less something produced by it. It is what life is in leaving the past behind it. The study of past products will not help us understand the present, because the present is not due to the products, but to the life of which they were the products. A knowledge of the past and its heritage is of great significance when it enters into the present, but not otherwise. And the mistake of making the records and remains of the past the main material of education is that it cuts the vital connection of present and past, and tends to make the past a rival of the present and the present a more or less futile imitation of the past. Under such circumstances, culture becomes an ornament and solace; a refuge and an asylum. Men escape from the crudities of the present to live in its imagined refinements, instead of using what the past offers as an agency for ripening these crudities.

The present, in short, generates the problems which lead us to search the past for suggestion, and which supplies meaning to what we find when we search. The past is the past precisely because it does not include what is characteristic in the present. The moving present includes the past on condition that it uses the past to direct its own movement. The past is a great resource for the imagination; it adds a new dimension to life, but on condition that it be seen as the past of the present, and not as another and disconnected world. The principle which makes little of the present act of living and operation of growing, the only thing always present, naturally looks to the past because the future goal which it sets up is remote and empty. But having turned its back upon the present, it has no way of returning to it laden with the spoils of the past. A mind that is adequately sensitive to the needs and occasions of the present actuality will have the liveliest of motives for interest in the background of the present, and will never have to hunt for a way back because it will never have lost connection.