What Knowledge is of Most Worth? (Notas de estudio 31.7.20)

What Knowledge is of Most Worth?

Source: Herbert Spencer, ch. 1 in Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical (A. L. Curt Company, Publishers, 1891) 5-93.


  • The ornamental
  • The useful
  • Intrinsic value of knowledge
  • Standard of relative values
  • Curriculum
  • Measure of value
  • Live completely
  • Rational order of subordination
  • ‘Rational’
  • Education for direct self-preservation
  • Education for indirect self-preservation
  • Education for parenthood
  • Education for citizenship
  • Aesthetics Education
  • A due proportion
  • Intrinsic worth
  • Quasi-intrinsic or conventional worth
  • Value as knowledge
  • Value as discipline
  • ‘Nature’
  • ‘laws of’
  • ‘general truths’
  • Order of knowledge
  • Rational basis of,
  • Science of Society
  • ‘Science’
  • Students of social science
  • General principles of social action
  • ‘Rational knowledge’
  • ‘Empirical knowledge’
  • The opening mind of childhood
  • Psychology
  • Spontaneous education
  • Concrete and abstract
  • Dogmatic teaching
  • Rational teaching
  • Passive recipient of other’s ideas
  • Active inquirer or self-instructor
  • Unorganizable facts
  • Organizable facts
  • Natural history of society
  • The consensus among men
  • Descriptive Sociology
  • Laws of life
  • Fine Arts
  • Efflorescence of civilized life
  • Organized knowledge
  • Science as poetic
  • Poetry
  • Knowledge for guidance
  • Knowledge for discipline
  • Intellectual discipline
  • Moral discipline
  • Discipline of Science
  • Religious
  • Religious culture
  • Irreligious
  • Religious aspect of Science
  • Science of life
  • Dénouement

Inventory of Questions

  • Why do people prefer the ornamental over the useful?
  • What is the motivation for people to seek to work to have effect on others?
  • What is the standard of relative values by which we should evaluate different kinds of knowledge?
  • What is a proper curriculum?
  • What is the relative worth of different kinds of knowledge?
  • What should we really learn in our limited lifetime?
  • What knowledge is of most worth
  • How do we decide among the conflicting claims of various subjects on our attention?
  • What is our measure of value?
  • How to live?
  • What is the right ruling of conduct in all directions under all circumstances?
  • How to live completely?
  • What is the function education has to discharge?
  • What are the leading kinds of activity for human life?
    • How do we rank them?
  • What would be a rational order of subordination?
  • What is ‘rational’?
  • How do we divide the different kinds of education?
    •  What are the great divisions of human activity?
  • What is an ideal education?
  • What exactly is the distinction between knowledge and discipline?
  • How does Nature takes care of direct self-preservation?
    • And how traditional parenting even thwarts the work Nature does?
  • Why is physiology important?
  • What are the real-life consequences of people’s ignorance of physiology?
  • What is common people’s attitude towards the sciences?
  • What kind of knowledge do people actually use in their lives?
  • On what does efficiency in the production, preparation, and distribution of commodities depend?
  • On what does current industry depends?
  • Why is mathematics important?
  • Why is physics important?
  • On what knowledge does the fate of a nation depends?
  • Why is Chemistry important?
  • Why is biology important?
  • What kinds of knowledge do people use in their social affairs?
  • Why is the distinction between rational and empirical knowledge is important?
  • What has been the role of scientific knowledge in human progress?
  • How has that knowledge been passed on through the generations?
  • What would be the fate of civilization if we were to keep on with our current educational system?
  • How is the knowledge that teachers and parents do actually teach?
  • And what are the methods by which they do so?
  • Why is psychology important?
  • What are the laws for the evolution of intelligence?
  • What is the right way of admistering knowledge?
  • And what is the right order for admistering knowledge?
  • What is the relationship between the concrete and the abstract?
  • And what implications does that have for education?
  • And what are the consequences of the ways in which the concrete and the abstract are administered to the student?
  • What are the laws that the development of children in mind and body rigorously obeys?
  • And why is it important to know them?
  • What is the education needed for the functions of the citizen?
  • Why is it important to be serious about the teaching of history?
  • What are the components of a good education in history?
  • What is the key to valuable historical knowledge?
  • What are the prerequisites for understanding sociology?
  • What are the laws we need to understand that will allow us to understand social phenomena?
  • What is the actual value of the arts?
  • What are the prerequisites for having Art in society?
  • What is the relationship between Art and Science?
  • Is Art possible without Science?
  • What is necessary for great Art?
  • What is the role of the different artforms in human life? Their real value?
  • How does Science open up the realm to the poetic?
  • What is the proper preparation for Art?
  • What is the proper relationship between teaching for guidance and for discipline?
  • What is the distinction between Guidance and discipline? And why is it important?
  • Why is it that the education of most value for guidance, must at the same time be the education of most value for discipline?
  • Why is the learning of Science superior to the learning of Language?
  • What does moral discipline consists of?
  • What is true religion?
  • What is the religious aspect of science?
  • What is the relationship between science and religion?
  • What knowledge is of most worth?
  • What is the best preparation for all the orders of human activity?


*All emphases in the following citations are mine

To prepare us for complete living is the function which education has to discharge; and the only rational mode of judging of any educational course is, to judge in what degree it discharges such function.” (Page 16)

“Not only ought we to cease from the mere unthinking adoption of the current fashion in education, which has no better warrant than any other fashion; but we must also rise above that rude, empirical style of judging displayed by those more intelligent people who do bestow some care in overseeing the cultivation of their children’s minds. It must not suffice simply to think that such or such information will be useful in after life, or that this kind of knowledge is of more practical value than that; but we must seek out some process of estimating their respective values, so that as far as possible we may positively know which are most deserving of attention.” (Page 17).

“Our first step must obviously be to classify, in the order of their importance, the leading of activity which constitute human life. They may be naturally arranged into: — 1. Those activities which directly minister to self-preservation; 2. Those activities which, by securing the necessaries of life, indirectly minister to self-preservation; 3. Those activities which have for their end the rearing and discipline of offspring ; 4. Those activities which are involved in the maintenance of proper, social and political relations; 5. Those miscellaneous activities which make up the leisure part of life, devoted to the gratification of the tastes and feelings.” (Pages 17-18)

“And on what does efficiency in the production, preparation, and distribution of commodities depend? It depends on the use of methods fitted to the respective natures of these commodities; it depends on an adequate knowledge of their physical, chemical, or vital properties, as the case may be; that is, it depends on Science. This order of knowledge, which is in great part ignored in our school courses, in the order of knowledge underlying the right performance of all those processes by which civilized life is made possible.” (Page 32).

“That which our school courses leave almost entirely out, we thus find to he that which most nearly concerns the business of life. All our industries would cease, were it not for that information which soon begin to acquire as they best may after their education is said to be finished. And were it not for this information, that has been from age to age accumulated and spread by unofficial means, these industries would never have existed. Had there been no teaching but such as is given in our public schools, England would now be it was in feudal times.” (Pages 43-44)

“And then the culture of the intellect—is not this, too, mismanaged in a similar manner? Grant that the phenomena of intelligence conform to laws; grant that the evolution of intelligence in a child also conforms to laws; and it follows inevitably that, education can be rightly guided only by a knowledge of these laws. To suppose that you can properly regulate this forming and accumulating ideas, without understanding the nature of the process, is absurd. How widely, then, must teaching as is, differ from teaching as it should be; when hardly any parents, and but few teachers, know anything about psychology. As might be expected, the system is grievously at fault, alike in matter and in manner. While the right class of facts is withheld, the wrong class us forcibly administered in the wrong way and in the wrong order.” (Pages 50-51)

“With that common limited idea of education which confines it to knowledge gained from books, parents thrust primers into the hands of their little ones years too soon, to their great injury. Not recognizing the truth that the function of books is supplementary—that they form an indirect means to knowledge when direct means fail—a means of seeing through other men what you cannot see yourself; they are eager to give second-hand facts in place of first-hand facts. Not perceiving the enormous value of that spontaneous education which goes on in early years—not perceiving that a child’s restless observation, instead of being ignored or checked, should be diligently administered to and made as accurate and complete as possible; they insist on occupying its eyes and thoughts with things that are, for the time being, incomprehensible and repugnant. Possessed by a superstition which worships the symbols of knowledge instead of the knowledge itself, they do not see that only when his acquaintance with the objects and processes of the household, the streets, and the fields, is becoming tolerably exhaustive—only then should a child be introduced to the new sources of information which books supply: and this, not only because immediate cognition is of far greater value than mediate cognition; but also, because the words contained in books can be rightly interpreted into ideas, only in proportion to the antecedent experience of things….Intellectual progress is of necessity from the concrete to the abstract.” (51-52)

“Intellectual progress is of necessity from the concrete to the abstract. But regardless of this, highly abstract subjects, such as grammar, which should come quite late, are begun quite early. Political geography, dead and uninteresting to a child, and which should be an appendage of sociological studies, is commenced betimes; while physical geography, comprehensible and comparatively attractive to a child, is in great part passed over. Nearly every subject dealt with is arranged in abnormal order: definitions, and rules, and principles being put first, instead of being disclosed, as they are in the order of nature, through study of cases. And then pervading the whole, is the vicious system of rote learninga system of sacrificing the spirit to the letter. See the results. What with perceptions unnaturally dulled by early thwarting, and a coerced attention to bookswhat with the mental confusion produced by teaching subjects before they can be understood, and in each of them giving generalizationswhat with making the pupil a mere passive recipient of other’s ideas, and not in the least leading him to be an active inquirer or self-instructor–and what with taxing the faculties to excess, there are very few minds that become as efficient as they might be.” (Pages 52-53)

“But now mark, that even supposing an adequate stock of this truly valuable historical knowledge has been acquired, it is of comparatively little use without the key. And the key is to be found only in Science. Without an acquaintance with the general truths of biology and rational interpretation of social phenomena is impossible. (Page 62)

“And if not even the most elementary truths of sociology can be reached until some knowledge is obtained of how men generally think, feel, and act under given circumstances; then it is manifest that there can be nothing like a wide comprehension of sociology, unless through a competent knowledge of man in an his faculties, bodily and mental. Considered the matter in the abstract and this conclusion is self evident. Thus:—Society is made up of individuals; all that is done in society is done by the combined actions of individuals; and therefore, in individual actions only can be found the solutions of social phenomena. But the actions of individuals dependent the laws of the natures; and their actions cannot be understood until this laws are understood.” (Page 63).

“Or, to state the conclusions still more simply :all social phenomena are phenomena of life-are the most complex manifestations of lifeare ultimately dependent on the laws of lifeand can be understood only when the laws of life are understood.” (Page 63)

“Unexpected as the assertion may be, it is nevertheless true, that the highest Art of every kind is based upon Science—that without there can be neither perfect production nor full appreciation.” (Page 68)

“And now let us not overlook the further great fact that not only does science underlie sculpture, painting, music, poetry, but that science is itself poetic…. But it is not true that the facts of science are unpoetical: or that the cultivation of science is necessarily unfriendly to the exercise of imagination or the love of the beautiful. On the contrary science opens up realms of poetry where to the unscientific all is a blank. Those engaged in scientific research constantly show us that they realize not less vividly, but more vividly, than others, the poetry of their subjects Whoever will dip into Hugh Miller’s works on geology, or read Mr. Lewes’s “Seaside Studies,” will perceive that science excites poetry rather than extinguishes it. And whoever will contemplate the life of Goethe will see that the poet and the man of science can co-exist in equal activity. Is it not, indeed, an absurd and almost a sacrilegious belief that the more a man studies Nature the less he reveres it?” (Pages 76-77)

“The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.” (Page 77)

“Sad, indeed, is it to see how men occupy themselves with trivialities’, and are indifferent to the grandest phenomenacare not to understand the architecture of the Heavens, but are deeply interested in some contemptible controversy about the intrigues of Mary Queen of Scotsare learnedly critical over a Greek ode, and pass by without a glance that grand epic written by the finger of God upon the strata of the Earth!(Page 78)

“The education of most value for guidance, must at the same time be the education of most value for discipline.” (Page 80)

“Not only, however, for intellectual discipline is science the best; but also for moral discipline. The learning of languages tends, if anything, further to increase the already undue respect for authority. Such and such are the meanings of these words, says the teacher or the dictionary. So and so is the rule in this case, says the grammar. By the pupil these dicta are received as unquestionable. His constant attitude of mind is that of submission to dogmatic teaching. And a necessary result is a tendency to accept without inquiry whatever is established. Quite opposite is the attitude of mind generated by the cultivation of science. By science, constant appeal is made to individual reason. Its truths are not accepted upon authority alone; but all are at liberty to test themnay, in many cases, the pupil is required to think out his own conclusions. Every step in a scientific investigation is submitted to his judgment. He is not asked to admit it without seeing it to be true. And the trust in his own powers thus produced, is further increased by the constancy with which Nature justifies his conclusions when they are correctly drawn. From all which there flows that independence which is a most valuable element in character. (Page 84-85)

“Lastly we have to assert—and the assertion will, we doubt not, cause extreme surprise—that the discipline of science is superior to that of our ordinary education, because of the religious culture that it gives. Of course we do not here use the words scientific and religious in their ordinary limited acceptations. But in their widest and highest acceptations. Doubtless, to the superstitions that pass under the name of religion, is antagonistic; but not to the essential religion which these superstitions merely hide. Doubtless, too, in much of the science that is cur.. rent, there is a pervading spirit of irreligion; but not in. that true science which has passed beyond the superficial into the profound. (Page 85-86).

“True science and true religion,” says Professor Huxley at the close of a recent course of lectures, “are twin-sisters, and the separation of either from the other is sure to prove the death of both. Science prospers exactly in proportion as it is religious; and religion flourishes in exact proportion to the scientific depth and firmness of its basis. The great deeds of philosophers have been less the fruit of their intellect than of the direction of that intellect by an eminently religious tone of mind. Truth has yielded herself rather to their patience, their love, their heartedness, and their self-denial, than to their logical acumen.” (Page 86)

“So far from science being irreligious, as many think, it is the neglect of science that is irreligious —it is the refusal to study the surrounding creation that is irreligious.” (Page 86)

“Devotion to science is a tacit worship—a tacit recognition of worth in the things studied; and by implication in their Cause. It is not a mere liphomage, but a homage expressed in actions—not a respect, but a respect proved by the sacrifice of time, thought, and labor.” (Page 87)

“Nor is it thus only that true science is essentially religious. It is religious, too, inasmuch as it generates a profound respect for, and an implicit faith in, those uniform laws which underlie all things. By accumulated experiences the man of science acquires a thorough belief in the unchanging relations of phenomena—in the invariable connection of cause and consequence—in the necessity of good or evil results.” (Pages 87-88)

“Instead of the and punishments of traditional belief, which men vaguely hope they may gain, or escape, spite of their disobedience; he finds that there are rewards and punishments in the ordained constitution of things, and that the evil results of disobedience are inevitable.” (Page 88)

“He sees that the laws to which we must submit are not only inexorable but beneficent. He sees that in virtue of these laws, the process of things is ever toward a greater perfection and a higher happiness. Hence he is led constantly to insist on these laws, and is indignant when men disregard them. And thus does he, by asserting the eternal principles of and the necessity of to them, prove himself intrinsically religious.” (Page 88)

“To all which add the further religious aspect of science, that it alone can give us true conceptions of ourselves and our relation to the mysteries of existence.” (Page 88)

“Thus to the question with which we set out—What knowledge is of most worth?the uniform reply isScience.” (Page 89)

“Equally at present, and in the remotest future, must it be of incalculable importance for the regulation of their conduct, that men should understand the science of life, physical, mental, and social; and that they should understand all other science as a key to the science of life.” (Page 91)

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