The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 37. Alexander Bain

Alexander Bain’s Education as a science (1879) contains little which justifies its title. Much more is made of “the three great functions of the intellect in the ultimate analysis—Discrimination, Agreement, Retentiveness,” than of the subject proper; while education, as an art, bulks as considerably as anything else in the book. These two parts lack cohesion. The purely psychological discussion meanders interminably, twin rocks called pleasure and pain, otherwise reward and punishment, standing up in mid-stream and everywhere visible, recalling the parental Calvinism, with its ever-present alternatives, heaven and hell. Perhaps the same grim creed accounts for Bain’s opinion that “the quintessence of play” is “the zest of the malevolent feeling”; Montaigne and Locke knew better. The chapters on the sequence of studies and of the intellectual powers are more to the point, yet, still, there is an exasperating diffuseness, and much which appears to be merely an apologia for “hearing lessons” and for the established usage generally. The “education values” of different studies are stated as they train intelligence or impart useful information; but they are not equated, and the results do not affect the consideration of a “renovated curriculum” in science, the humanities and the mother-tongue. Bain was singularly unfortunate in forecasting the trend of practice. He regarded manual instruction and bodily regimen generally as outside the school’s province, thought laboratories unnecessary and hesitated about admitting history; but he devotes much attention to the now universally discredited “object-lesson.”

The duties of Bain’s chair of logic at Aberdeen included the teaching of English, work which brought him into the line of the Scottish school already mentioned. Archbishop Whately’s treatise, Rhetoric (1828), a contribution to the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, had presented its subject as a branch of logic, namely argumentative composition. Bain used the term rhetoric to cover all kinds of literary composition, and, like other members of the school, tried to form a psychological groundwork for its principles. While he was more successful in this respect than his predecessors, the connection between his prescriptions and the underlying laws of mental process is not always evident; but, in the absence of a well-founded psychology of aesthetic, this is not surprising. The sharp line between composition and literature drawn in Bain’s latest work on rhetoric (On teaching English, 1887) reduces the teacher to a narrow specialist and deprives the study of letters of its highest educational office.