Physics at the University of London *

    Abstract

    II.

    TURNING then first of all to the Regulations for Matriculation in the University of London, we find that the knowledge of Physics that is required is specified under four heads: namely, Mechanics; Hydrostatics, Hydraulics, and Pneumatics; Optics; and Heat, which last, until quite recently, was included in the examination in Chemistry; and the whole is accompanied by a general qualifying note to the effect that "the questions in Natural Philosophy will be of a strictly elementary character.“The particulars, which are given under each of the above general heads, read as if they might have been copied, as they stand, from the table of contents of an elementary treatise on Natural Philosophy published about a hundred years ago. I have examined them often and carefully, and have never found a tittle of internal evidence to show that they were drawn up within the present century; and yet we know that they are the work of a University, not yet forty years old, which owes its very existence to the demand for educational progress, and began its career-without indeed the wealth or the prestige of its older compeers - but also without the trammels of tradition and ecclesiasticism, which render it so difficult for them to advance with the times. It is not a sufficient defence of the antiquated character of these Regulations to say that the very nature of the examination to which they refer would make the introduction of new discoveries entirely out of place, and that, in point of fact, the fundamental doctrines relating to the subjects in question were, as fully established a hundred years ago as they are now. This is so nearly true (except in the case of Heat), that it would not be worth while to dispute it; but my objection is not to the want of novelty in the subjects enumerated, but to the want of perception, which the manner of the enumeration indicates, of the possibility of progress or improvement in the ways of teaching long-known truths. Instead of giving prominence to general principles in such a way as to suggest to teachers the use of easy and comprehensive methods, these Regulations cut up the subjects to which they relate into a number of detached propositions, of greater or less generality, which teachers and students, who accept these Regulations as their guide, generally treat as independent units of knowledge each of which is to be put into a separate hole of the memory. It would be wearisome, but not difficult, to illustrate my meaning by particular examples; the substance of it is that this examination does not encourage good teaching of the elementary parts of Physics, but induces candidates to trust to memory almost to the total exclusion of any attempt at thinking. My opinions on this subject have not been formed a priori, but have been forced upon me by reading examination papers and by trying to teach in what I believed to be the best way. It is in general nearly hopeless to try to get students, who have the fear of the London Matriculation Examination before their eyes, to make any,serious attempt to understand the principles of Mechanics; but they often show a lamentable willingness to learn statements of them by heart, and when they go up for examination they know a great deal and understand next to nothing. They know that in a lever of the first kind, whose weight is neglected, the power is to the weight as the weight's arm to the power's arm; that when a heavy body falls from rest, the spaces described in successive seconds are as the natural series of odd numbers; and they are ready at the shortest notice to write down the formula for calculating the specific gravity of a solid body heavier than water; but it is only in the rarest possible cases that they can be got to reproduce the reasoning by which these results are connected with general physical principles. The industry displayed in acquiring separate ragments of information about Physics is often extremely creditable; but it is impossible not to regret that the same method should be employed in learning what is called Science, as in learning the dates of accession of the Kings of England.

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    Physics at the University of London * . Nature 10, 525–527 (1874). https://doi.org/10.1038/010525a0

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