In order to lay a firm foundation for our psychologizing, let us examine into the nature of interest and see what it really is. It has been defined as: "the recognition of a thing which has been vitally connected with experience before—a thing recognized as old"; "impulse to attend"; "interest naturally arouses tendencies to act"; "the root idea of the term seems to be that of being engaged, engrossed, or entirely taken up with some activity because of its recognized worth"; "interest marks the annihilation of the distance between the person and the materials and results of his action; it is the sign of their organic union."
In addition to the characteristics just mentioned should be noted the pleasurableness that usually attends any activity in which we are "interested." A growing feeling of pleasure is the sign which notifies us that we are growing interested in a subject. And it is such an aid in the performance of work that we should seek earnestly to acquire it in connection with any work we have to do.
The persons who make the complaint at the head of this chapter notice that they take interest easily in certain things: a Jack London story, a dish of ice cream, a foot-ball game. And they take interest in them so spontaneously and effortlessly that they think these interests must be born within them.
When we examine carefully the interests of man, and trace their sources, we see that the above view is fallacious. We acquire most of our interests in the course of our experience. Professor James asserts: "An adult man's interests are almost every one of them intensely artificial; they have been slowly built up. The objects of professional interest are most of them in their original nature, repulsive; but by their connection with such natively exciting objects as one's personal fortune, one's social responsibilities and especially by the force of inveterate habit, they grow to be the only things for which in middle life a man profoundly cares."
Since interests are largely products of experience, then, it follows that if we wish to have an interest in a given subject, we must consciously and purposefully develop it. There is wide choice open to us. We may develop interest in early Victorian literature, prize-fight promoting, social theory, lignitic rocks, history of Siam, the collection of scarabs, mediaeval history.
We should not be deceived by the glibness of the above statements into assuming that the development of interest is an easy matter. It requires adherence to certain definite psychological laws which we may call the laws of interest. The first may be stated as follows: In order to develop interest in a subject, secure information about it. The force of this law will be apparent as soon as we analyze one of our already-developed interests. Let us take one that is quite common—the interest which a typical young girl takes in a movie star. Her interest in him comes largely from what she has been able to learn about him; the names of the productions in which he has appeared, his age, the color of his automobile, his favorite novel. Her interest may be said actually to consist, at least in part, of these facts. The astute press agent knows the force of this law, and at well-timed intervals he lets slip through bits of information about the star, which fan the interest of the fair devotee to a still whiter heat.
The relation of information to interest is still further illustrated by the case of the typical university professor or scientist. He is interested in certain objects of research—infusoria, electrons, plant ecology,—because he knows so much about them. His interest may be said to consist partly of the body of knowledge that he possesses. He was not always interested in the specific, obscure field, but by saturating himself in facts about it, he has developed an interest in it amounting to passionate absorption, which manifests itself in "absent-mindedness" of such profundity as to make him often an object of wonder and ridicule.
Let us demonstrate the application of the law again showing how interest may be developed in a specific college subject. Let us choose one that is generally regarded as so "difficult" and "abstract" that not many people are interested in it—philology, the study of language as a science. Let us imagine that we are trying to interest a student of law in this. As a first step we shall select some legal term and show what philology can tell about it. A term frequently encountered in law is indenture—a certain form of contract. Philological researches have uncovered an interesting history regarding this word. It seems that in olden days when two persons made an agreement they wrote it on two pieces of paper, then notched the edges so that when placed together, the notches on the edge of one paper would just match those of the other. This protected both parties against substitution of a fraudulent contract at time of fulfillment.
Still earlier in man's development, before he could write, it was customary to record such agreements by breaking a stick in two pieces and leaving the jagged ends to be fitted together at time of fulfillment. Sometimes a bone was used this way. Because its critical feature was the saw-toothed edge, this kind of contract was called indenture (derived from the root dent—tooth, the same one from which we derive our word dentist).
The formal, legal-looking document which we today call an indenture gives us no hint of its humble origin, but the word when analyzed by the technique of philology tells the whole story, and throws much light upon the legal practices of our forbears. Having discovered one such valuable fact in philology, the student of law may be led to investigate the science still further and find many more. As a result still he will become interested in philology.
By this illustration we have demonstrated the first psychological law of interest, and also its corollary which is: State the new in terms of the old. For we not only gave our lawyer new information culled from philological sources; we also introduced our fact in terms of an old fact which was already "interesting" to the lawyer. This is recognized as such an important principle in education that it has become embodied in a maxim: Proceed from the known to the unknown.
A classic example of good educational practice in this connection is the way in which Francis W. Parker, a progressive educator of a former generation, taught geography. When he desired to show how water running over hard rocky soil produced a Niagara, he took his class down to the creek behind the school house, built a dam and allowed the water to flow over it. When he wished to show how water flowing over soft ground resulted in a deltoid Nile, he took the class to a low, flat portion of the creek bed and pointed out the effect. The creek bed constituted an old familiar element in the children's experience. Niagara and the Nile described in terms of it were intelligible.
Naturally in modern educational practice it is not always possible to have miniature waterfalls and river bottoms at hand, still it is possible to follow this principle. When, in studying Mediaeval History, you read a description of the guilds, do not regard them as distant, cold, inert institutions devoid of significance in your life. Rather, think of them in terms of things you already know: modern Labor Unions, technical schools, in so far as the comparison holds good. Then trace their industrial descendants down to the present time. By thus thinking about the guilds, hitherto distant and uninteresting, you will begin to see them suffused with meaning, alight with significance, a real part of yourself. In short, you will have achieved interest.
There is still another psychological law of interest: In order to develop interest in a subject, exert activity toward it. We see the force of this law when we observe a man in the process of developing an interest in golf. At the start he may have no interest in it whatever; he may even deride it. Yielding to the importunities of his friends, however, he takes his stick in hand and samples the game. Then he begins to relent; admits that perhaps there may be something interesting about the game after all. As he practises with greater frequency he begins to develop a warmer and still warmer interest until finally he thinks of little else; neglecting social and professional obligations and boring his friends ad nauseum with recitals of golfing incidents. The methods by which the new-fledged golfer develops an interest in golf will apply with equal effectiveness in the case of a student. In trying to become interested in Mediaeval History, keep actively engaged in it. Read book after book dealing with the subject. Apply it to your studies in Political Economy, English, and American History. Choose sub-topics in Mediaeval History as the subjects for themes in English composition courses. Try to help some other student in the class. Take part in class discussions and talk informally with the instructor outside of the classroom. Use your ingenuity to devise methods of keeping active toward the subject. Presently you will discover that the subject no longer appears cold and forbidding; but that it glows warm with virility; that it has become interesting.
It will readily be noticed that the two laws of interest here set forth are closely interrelated. One can hardly seek information about a subject without exerting activity toward it; conversely, one cannot maintain activity on behalf of a subject without at the same time acquiring information about it. These two easily-remembered and easily-applied rules of study will go far toward solving some of the most trying conditions of student life. Memorize them, apply them, and you will find yourself in possession of a power which will stay with you long after you quit college walls; one which you may apply with profit in many different situations of life.
We have shown in this chapter the fallacy of the assumption that a student cannot become genuinely interested in a subject which at first seems uninteresting.
We have shown that he may develop interest in any subject if he but employs the proper psychological methods. That he must obey the two-fold law—secure information about the subject (stating the new in terms of the old) and exert activity toward it. That when he has thus lighted the flame of interest, he will find his entire intellectual life illuminated, glowing with purpose, resplendent with success.
In concluding this discussion we should note the wide difference between the quality of study which is done with interest and that done without it. Under the latter condition the student is a slave, a drudge; under the former, a god, a creator. Touched by the galvanic spark he sees new significance in every page, in every line. As his vision enlarges, he perceives new relations between his study and his future aims, indeed, between his study and the progress of the universe. And he goes to his educational tasks not as a prisoner weighted down by ball and chain, but as an eager prospector infatuated by the lust for gold. Encouraged by the continual stores of new things he uncovers, intoxicated by the ozone of mental activity, he delves continually deeper until finally he emerges rich with knowledge and full of power—the intellectual power that signifies mastery over a subject.