Faculty Theory and Mental Discipline

A Brief Overview
Last updated 1-18-2024


    Faculty Psychology, a point of view that conceived of the human mind as consisting of separate powers or faculties, was, perhaps, the most widely accepted concept of learning during much of the 19th century. Formulated by Christian von Wolff in 1734 and later Franz Gall (who is best know for his belief in the localization of mental functions) as well as Thomas Reid, this doctrine viewed the mind as a separate entity from the physical body. The most popular form of this theory held that the mind consisted of three separate powers: the will, the emotions, and the intellect (Rippa, 1971).

    According to this model, the mind (and particularly the intellect) was considered somewhat analogous to a muscle, and the role of education was to exercise and strengthen the intellect to the point where it could control the will and emotions. The corresponding educational model, called "mental discipline," held that the best way to strengthen the minds of younger students was through tedious drill and repetition of what we might now call the basic skills in order to cultivate the memory. For older students, the curriculum focused on the study of abstract subjects such as classical philosophy, literature, and languages, as well as advanced mathematics. As Rippa (1971) noted, "A mind so sharpened and so stored with knowledge was believed ready for any calling; indeed, it was considered 'trained' and equipped for life. Thus... transfer of training resulted from sharpening the 'faculties' or powers of the mind, instead of from the specific benefits derived from a particular subject or method of study" (208). 

   In the late 19th century, new viewpoints, particularly that of the American psychologist William James, began to challenge faculty psychology (Thayer, 1965), and two highly publicized studies conducted by James' student Edward Thorndike discredited the concepts of mental discipline and transfer of training (Rippa, 1971). Though the methodology of these studies may have been questionable (Rosenblatt, 1967), their results were, never the less, widely accepted. Thus, faculty psychology slowly fell out of favor and was replaced by Thorndike's Connectionism. However, the vestiges of faculty psychology remain, even today, in the form of persistent beliefs that abstract and esoteric subjects are of value simply because they "sharpen the mind." 


Rippa, S. Alexander (1971). Education in a Free Society, (2nd. Edition). New York: David McKay Company.

Rosenblatt, Paul C. (1967). "An Evaluation of Thorndike's Classic Studies of Formal Discipline." Psychology in the Schools, IV, 130-134.

Thayer, V. T. (1965). Formative Ideas in American Education. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company.

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