Skip to Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map

Aberdeen’s 1755 Plan of Education

Juan Gomez writes …

One of the topics we have covered in this blog is education. I have commented on David Fordyce’s ideas, and Gerhard Wiesenfeldt contributed to the blog with two very interesting posts on Speculative and Experimental Philosophy in Universities (Post-Cartesianism and Eclecticism). In this post I want to expand on this topic and tell you about Alexander Gerard‘s Plan of Education.

As we have mentioned throughout various posts in this blog, one of the features of those allied with experimental philosophy was their disdain for the scholastic school of thought and the rejection of mere speculation. This led the regents and teachers in Colleges and Universities to revolt against the scholastic teaching system and promote a change in the way education was structured. In Aberdeen, the first stages of this project of reformation started with the teachings of George Turnbull and Colin MacLaurin in the 1720’s, but we had to wait until the 1750’s for the reform of the curriculum. It was written by Alexander Gerard and published in 1755. It gives us a good overview of what the members of the faculty found wrong with the scholastic mode of thinking and the central role experimental philosophy (and the experimental method) should take in the colleges and universities.

Gerard begins by explaining why the faculty members at Marischal college have decided to reform the method of education. The method used in most European universities, Gerard tells us, was that of the Peripatetic Philosophy ‘espoused by the Scholastics’. This is his description:

    The chief business of that Philosophy, was, to express opinions in hard and unintelligible terms; the student needed a dictionary or nomenclature of the technical words and authorized distinctions; experiment was quite neglected, science was to be reasoned out from general principles, either taken for granted, or deduced by comparison of general ideas, or founded on very narrow and inadequate observation: Ontology, which explained these terms and distinctions, and laid down these principles, was therefore introduced immediately after logic. By these two, the student was sufficiently prepared for the verbal, or at best, ideal inquiries of the other parts.

Fortunately, the state of philosophy had changed:

    [Philosophy] is become an image, not of human phantasies and conceits, but of the reality of nature, and truth of things. The only basis of Philosophy is now acknowledged to be an accurate and extensive history of nature, exhibiting an exact view of the various Phenomena for which Philosophy is to account, and on which it is to found its reasonings.

This change in Philosophy posed a problem for a system that was based on Scholastic methods. If philosophy is founded on facts and observation, from which we then derive the terms or notions, the system of education was flawed by teaching first the notions and principles without any experience of the facts they refer to. The teachers at Marischal proposed to restructure the order in which the different subjects were taught. Instead of starting with Logic and Ontology, the students “after being instructed in languages and classical learning, be made acquainted with the Elements of History, Natural and Civil, of Geography and Chronology, accompanied with the Elements of Mathematics; that they should then proceed to Natural Philosophy, and, last of all, to Morals, Politics, Logic and Metaphysics.” This new curriculum was much better suited for the pursuit of knowledge and the aims and methods of the new philosophy.

Most of the pamphlet is an attack on the scholastic system that justifies the decision of the Masters of the college to leave the teaching of Logic to the final year. There are constant references made to the importance of facts, experiments, and observations as the sole foundation of knowledge. Any sort of purely speculative way of thinking was not to be included in education. But the promoters of this reform were not claiming that logic and metaphysics were of no use at all; what we need to understand is that they are entirely dependent on all the other sciences, and if they are to contribute in our search for knowledge, then they must come after all the other sciences. The attack of the promoters of the methods of the experimental philosophy was not against speculative subjects themselves, but against the scholastic methods of education that considered speculation to be more important than our knowledge of the natural world.

Comments are closed.