The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Rise and Aims of Modern Botany, Part III.

by Professor Patrick Geddes
Volume 4, 1893/94, p. 897-903

[Sir Patrick Geddes, 1854-1932, was a Scottish biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and pioneering town planner. He is best known for his innovative thinking in the fields of urban planning and sociology. He and his wife Anna had three children who were 6, 3, and not yet born when this was written.]

(Continued from page 832.)

It is now becoming easy to make the same abstraction in learning to study tissues and cells: first isolating, we observe and classify, we compare and unify, and finally verify by watching the facts of development. Each new plane of study is then easier, the principle being in all cases the same--our grasp of it becomes increasingly distinct and habitual; nay, the very acquirement of facts and details become easier, for each deepening category throws light upon all the rest. We never so fully, for instance, see the unity of our classification of all organic species, which is the result of our first plane of study, until we have seen each developing from the simple unit of mass protoplasm, to which we come on the deeper plane of cell below.

Here, then, is the whole logical secret of all this varied literature, which becomes henceforth a convenience, not an incubus; not a crushing and unintelligible burden of cram, the Juggernaut which is at present probably ruining more minds than did ever human misarrangement in this world before--but a bunch of magic keys to a glorious museum of nature, through which we may roam for ever, yet enriching our intellectual life at every step. At this stage of study, you no longer need your books, save for reference; you are your own books: you write them as you need them. Linnaeus, with his classification, is not one dead incubus of cram; or Jussieu with comparative anatomy, his natural orders only a new mystery added; or Schleiden with his cell another; or Darwin on his way to become a fourth; but the characteristic thought of each has entered into you, has become part of yourself--of your powers, your possibilities; each principle is a new stop added to your complex organ--a fresh possibility for that intellectual music which is what we call scientific thought. The plain principle, then, is that Linnaeus is not dead, nor Jussieu, nor Darwin, but that each student is henceforth his own Linnaeus when he observes and describes his flower; his own Jussieu when he works out its place in the natural system; his own Darwin when he can decipher the story of its life and evolution. All these and more. Contrariwise, a parrot only, if he has got up these things from books and lecture notes, without understanding their principle.

Here, then, is the goal of our biological education, not memory knowledge, but power; intellectual muscle, not fat, in Professor Huxley's famous phrase. I might go on to point out how those who, with patient stupidity, are content to cram the facts of one subject without really understanding them, are simply all the more sickened and stupefied by doing the same for another; whereas he who has learned one subject with real intelligence is thereby helped often half-way through the next. This is peculiarly true of Botany and Zoology; and it is, I think, one of the most hopeful features of our new school here, that my zoological colleague and I are of like mind, realising the essential unity of our two subjects, and are thus hopeful of bringing their teaching more fully into harmony than has yet been the case. But it is time to leave this part of the subject, if you grasp clearly that there are not only two, but three results--

(1) That when you can handle the literature of Biology intelligently, you are in a position rapidly to master its main results, botanical and zoological, at will;
(2) when you can apply the same principles upon which your authors worked to the actual phenomena they worked upon, you are henceforth practically independent of their books altogether, save for reference; while
(3) you have become so far a scientific man, and may apply this scientific power (of systematised analysis and synthesis) in such fresh ways as you will. Not only Botany, but many cognate fields are open to you--you are so far educated; and henceforth you may carve out fresh kingdoms with the same intellectual sword. We hear much in these days of sorely-needed academic reform, of abandoning our old curriculums of education based on the idea of general knowledge, and settling down to specialisms. And so far, well: our old culture has broken down, is totally inadequate, and through this phase of keen and detailed specialism we must pass; we must not only know something about everything, but also everything about something. But what I have been trying to show is that while henceforth every man should pass through the training of a specialist, no man need shrivel into a specialist pure and simple--a mere slave of the intellectual division of labour: and we see that Botany gives us a vivid instance of how we may hope to specialise within a science, and yet come out of it suppled as logicians, steeped in the humanities, trained for the wider work of life-medicine, education, what you will. But for this, we need to see that we not only enter the storehouses of fact, but seek and keep the keys; we need, indeed, access to the fullest information, but still more power of using it; we have not to learn dogmas, but to seize the clues and share the experience of past thinkers--to remember, in fact (what I take to be the secret of education), that the gift of Prometheus was not a dead weight of coals, but fire. Permit me, in conclusion, a final word as to the plan of teaching of the present course.

The popular idea of the botanist is too much that of a mild, yet somewhat mischievous, creature, who finds his chief amusement in picking flowers to pieces, as the sparrow is doing with the crocuses just now, and with no visible result but a mess. His remaining occupation is supposed to be that of gentle exercise on Saturday afternoons; and his skill is measured by the number of times on which he stops at every fresh plant in a joyfully excited manner, exactly like a new breed of pointer, loudly ejaculating, in the most unmistakeably canine Latin as he scratches it up, what people henceforth learnedly call its name.

His academic existence is mainly supposed to depend upon his historic connection with medicine through Materia Medica, which has endured through the conservatism of the medical guilds. His use, if any, is thought largely recreative; he is apt to be considered a kind of academic nursemaid, who takes the hard-worked students out for an airing; at best, he teaches observation perhaps (I have really been told all these things). But the idea that he is an intellectual combatant, like the representatives of the old cultures, the mathematician and the scholar, seems absurd. I have tried to show that this is by no means true, that there is no reason why the student of Botany should not become an intellectual athlete with the one, and a humanist with the other. And as our work continues, we shall find that the largest intellectual impulse and battle of the age comes from, or at least centers round, the towering figure of Darwin, whom we reckon far more as botanist than zoologist; and we shall see what really first-rate work has been and is being done by botanists both on the Continent and at home. Now, the secret of successful learning and teaching is to endeavour to take individual and some collective part in that.

But how shall we do this? We have seen how science arises from, and is continually stimulated by, contact with actual life; and in continuing this contact lies the secret of its progress. The success, nay the very existence, of an industrial city lies in its people making what is wanted in actual life--not whatever happens to come into their head, which would, indeed, probably be nothing at all. It is the very same with science; it, too, must think out what is wanted in actual life--by which, however, I do not in the least mean that it is its business to grind corn for the Philistines. What I do mean is, that a man must enter a science as he enters an occupation; must look at himself with a new pride as so far henceforth sharing in that actual movement of the world--industrial or scientific. The soldier feels this fully, and that is what makes him not only physically, but morally, so much of a man; the industrialist is feeling it more and more; but it is the perpetual ruin of universities and colleges, of fellowships and learning--indeed, of the student class generally--that they continually seek to cram their pockets with knowledge-scraps for themselves, in old times for private enjoyment, but now-a-days that they may seem doubly fatter for prize-winning in the coarse scales of the examination room. Whereas the true student, as he existed, at any rate, in old times, will again, nay, does now, albeit in sad minority (of seven thousand, let us hope) seeks not prizes for crushing himself under an overload of facts on an examination day, but discipline for his whole life. And this not simply to get on, as he is always being advised, to have his mind whetted into a "knife to hack at the world with," to survive against his unwiser fellows, who docilely take up their bushel of facts and neglect the pinch of understanding. The only true discipline is as a recruit with others in a service higher than that of War or even Industry--that of Education, which, alike in its old scholarly and new naturalist sense, means the Service and Ascent of Man.

Our struggling scientific movement, then, has need of you, and work for you in it. Students are only too docile about taking notes of all their teachers say; but they go home and try to drill alone; and, considering such an education, it is no doubt a wonderful proof of human vitality how much they still make of it. I propose framing for your reference, however, a few examples from my pathological collection of examination papers, by way of showing what a man thus tends to come to.

The old orthodox lecture system, by which a man inaccurately scribbles down stereotyped notes to dictation, learns them by rote, and sees and thinks nothing, we will not even stop to critcise. As an historic survival it is, of course, of interest--a course or college of this kind being simply and accurately a survival of the days before printing, absolutely in the same way as the Royal Company of Archers is of the days before gunpowder, and of similar efficiency compared with modern appliances. Hence, largely, the low state of our Scottish Universities.

A traditional phase is now becoming more common: good old-fashioned dictation first; then a few of you may see something afterwards in the laboratory, if you happen to have time and means for this.

The scientific plan of education I take to be--see all you can, and as much as possible first, and try to think it clear. At first you need to follow in the track of an expert--that is, a logician familiarised by long handling with the particular order of phenomena and kind of detail, and who is therefore able to fill up the deficiencies of your own experience embodied in the literature of the science; next, try to keep pace with him; next, to do so for yourself, but all the time be in mental activity. To form ideas you must express them--must have to communicate them to others. I look forward to teaching you best, therefore, by asking you as much as possible to teach others; to work in pairs or parties, preparing the demonstrations of special details for all the other members of the class, and having your work thus tested constantly by the true pass or pluck standard--that of usefulness, or none.

I defined the student of Biology a few moments ago as an awakening spectator at the great drama of evolution, and it is not only my task, but also yours, to help to awaken our fellows to consciousness, interest, intelligence. The floral pageant is once more commencing for us its circle of the year; and our work is thus regulated by no small artificial syllabus, but with particular directness, like the astronomer's, but the very clock and calendar of nature. This well begun, you will feel year by year more fully that fascination which Botany had for Linnaeus or for Gilbert White, for Thoreau or Richard Jefferies.

You will help me, I hope also, to make a botanic garden, and the plans for this need no little study and contrivance; then, too, I would fain enlist you in the task of making smaller type botanic gardens for schools, in which each may sow his seed or plant his tree--so that the fresh Renaissance of Botany, which is so happily in progress, may be not only deepened, but assured and spread; until at length its marvelous, but almost overworked educational possibilities are no less fully developed than generally applied. It is worth considering in many ways this fact--that the botanist from whom Darwin received the scientific impulse of his life was also, so far as I am aware, the sole man of science of his day who thought it worth his while to teach his subject in his village school. I take this correspondence between [John Stevens] Henslow's supreme service to science and his other apparently small service to popular education to be not only individually rational, but socially profound; and so leave it as a final instance of that interpretation of botanical history in terms of general progress which I have been attempting to elucidate.

Every scientific teacher knows how he learns by teaching, and how he teaches his best pupils best by setting them to work, some as demonstrators, to help and teach fresh beginners, others in making preparations for the museum type collection, and the like. And instead of each scribbling hasty manuscript notes of my lectures, I shall ask you collectively to help me towards making a single series of elaborate yet lucid summaries, dealing with all the essential matters we have time to treat of; this central mass of notes to remain the property of the School for common reference, yet perhaps largely copied thereafter by some of the methods now so convenient. Instead of note-taking, we have, as it were, to attempt map-making for the science; nay, picture-making, thought-model-building, as we saw before.

And though we cannot in one season, nor for that matter in many, fully cover the ground of the science, we may thus take our part in what are two of the greatest movements of this age--Botany and Education; perhaps also the most closely cognate, although few discern it, for the one is the science of life, and the other the art of its development. We shall, in short, learn together something more of how to bring alike science into our life, and life into our science.

Proofread by LNL, May 2021