Supposed Mental Faculties and Their Training

The mind is commonly thought to consist of a number of 'Faculties'-such as memory, observation, perception, reasoning, will, judgment, and so on, pretty much the same as those described by the phrenologists who feel the 'bumps' on a man's head and describe his capacities according to the chart of the skull which they have mapped out. It is supposed that a man has a good (or bad) memory in general, and that the exercise of the memory, say on history dates or Latin verbs, will strengthen the memory as a whole; and that a training in the observation of wild flowers will sharpen the whole 'faculty of observation' whatever is to be observed; or again that mathematics, since it exercises the 'faculty of reasoning', equally improves reasoning about politics, social problems, and religion.

This view as to mental faculties is still widely held by most educated people who have not studied Psychology, and it still has a harmful influence on education in some ways. Let us consider this 'popular' psychology carefully, discussing in this chapter the supposed intellectual 'Faculties'.

An example of error in popular views about the mind appears in the idea of a faculty of observation. One often hears it said that we should train the observation of our pupils; and it is imagined that by training them to observe certain things we are training them to observe anything and everything. A method of instruction used in the Army, in which a man had to observe quickly and remember a score of various objects in a tray, seems to have been based on this idea.

One of my students once gave a lesson on Botany in the presence of an inspector of schools. After the lesson, the inspector said to her: 'Yes: that was an interesting lesson, but what I want to know is, are you training the pupil's powers of observation? would they, for example, be able to tell you the colour of the tie I was wearing?' The inspector overlooked the fact that the more the pupils had concentrated their attention on the lesson, the less would they be likely to notice the colour of his tie; and that the more interested they were in the flowers studied, the less would they be likely to attend to him or his personal appearance. (I should like to add that this incident occurred a good many years ago. Inspectors are better informed nowadays on psychological matters.)

Observation, in fact, depends on interest and knowledge. If three friends travel abroad, one an architect, another a botanist, and the third a stockbroker travelling with them only to take a 'cure' abroad, and interested only in his health and moneymaking, then the architect is likely to notice the style of houses and other buildings more than his friends do, because he is specially interested in them. The botanist will observe especially the flowers and trees of the country more than his friends; and he will actually see more details because he knows what to look for. Observation is guided by knowledge, and prompted by interest. We have, however, no reason to suppose that the botanist, trained in such observation, or the architect, keenly observant of the buildings, will be more observant than the stockbroker of the faces of the foreign people they meet, or the dress of the women. Indeed, they are more likely to have their attention diverted by the objects of their special interests. So training in the careful observation of the varied endings of Latin words, or of the changes in chemical substances in experiments, will have no effect on the observation of pictures or the movements of the stars.

These popular ideas about the mind and its faculties sometimes have the element of truth in them which makes it all the harder for the psychologist to eliminate their exaggeration. For example, as to observation: a careful training in observing plants under the microscope includes a training in method, in the value of the precise description of what is actually seen (and not merely what one thinks should be there), and so on: and a student with such experience will gain something from it if he turns to a similar study, e.g. zoology or geology, especially when he also uses the microscope. Here we see that the adoption of an ideal of truth and exactitude in such work or a training in a method of procedure in one kind of work, may result in its application in a similar kind of work though it does not always do so.

(From Psychology and its Bearing on Education, by C. W. Valentine.)