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 through the entrance of shortcuts 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. Pieces of literature 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.