The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Study of Natural History as an Educational Discipline
by J. Arthur Thomson
[Sir John Arthur Thomson, 1861-1933, was a Scottish naturalist. When he wrote this article, he had just written his (first?) book "Parasitism: Organic and Social." Wikipedia]
". . . Arguments about the relative merits of quite different disciplines seem, for the most part, a waste of time. We need and wish all kinds, for the more complex the discipline, the more likelihood is there that the result will be a many-sided personality--a true citizen of the world. But where the conditions forbid any one of the many doors being opened--for education is largely giving keys into children's hands--then there is apt to be a blasting of some bud, a numbing of some initiative; and a morbid growth."
The title of this paper suggests a thesis with which most educationists and educated parents are quite sympathetic, though they differ widely in the length to which they allow their sympathy to carry them. They agree with the Sermon, but they have less enthusiasm for the offertory, i.e., in expending energy or making sacrifices in the line of their convictions.
We are, however, at length spared the trouble of arguing that it is well that children should know something of the plant-world and the animal-world round about them, since this desirability is conceded by all whose opinion is valuable. The difficulties that remain antagonistic to more and better education in Natural History are mainly due to the vested interests of other subjects--languages, literature, history, art, physical culture, etc.--subjects whose claims are so strong that little time or space is left for anything outside the limits of their satisfaction. Thus the question is no longer whether Natural History has claims, it is whether these claims justify giving a little less time and attention to something else, and whether parents will be satisfied to have some knowledge of and liking for Natural History atone for some deficiencies in Latin and music. On general psychological grounds, it seems doubtful whether the supposed deficiencies would exist, except where they should exist; but the possibility must be frankly allowed, and for practical purposes, the degree to which Natural History is taught must depend on the value which parents and teachers set upon it as an educational discipline. This is the subject of the present paper.
It is too late in the day to have much interest in the threadbare discussion as to the relative values of a scientific and a literary education. The only rational answer is that both are necessary, but that the proportions must vary relation to given ends and conditions. It is plain that to exclude any one kind of education is to leave part of our nature rudimentary.
We have a body, senses and intelligence--all to be educated--mouth, hands and feet; eyes and ears and brain.
To have well-defined unblurred sensations, to be able to form precise perceptions, to gain conceptions strong enough to influence our conduct for good, and, with it all, to conserve simple natural feelings of pleasure and pain--from delight in beautiful colour, to delight in noble thoughts and deeds--these are some of the obvious ideals of our education.
Thus, arguments about the relative merits of quite different disciplines seem, for the most part, a waste of time. We need and wish all kinds, for the more complex the discipline, the more likelihood is there that the result will be a many-sided personality--a true citizen of the world. But where the conditions forbid any one of the many doors being opened--for education is largely giving keys into children's hands--then there is apt to be a blasting of some bud, a numbing of some initiative; and a morbid growth. Remember that a rudimentary organ is apt to become a diseased organ. Health of mind, as of body, means a proportionate development of all normal functions. Let me speak for a moment of the consequences of a closed door. I can fancy some one saying, "you are absurdly nervous; the child will turn out all right, in spite of a score of your so-called closed doors; all roads lead to Rome; and does not the typical gentleman come from the classical and historical schools of Oxford and Cambridge?"
To which I answer that nature does indeed often prove itself stronger than either education or miseducation, but to suppose that our children are "all right" because they turn out a little better educated than ourselves, is surely to be easily satisfied. The problem is rather, how much better may they become, to what extent can we from our experience shorten their recapitulation of the racial history, and help them beyond our level, not so brilliant after all.
(2) 1 can fancy some one saying, "It does not really matter about a few closed doors; if our boy has really a taste in a certain direction it is sure to assert itself sooner or later." Here again there is the same truth, that nature is stronger than education or miseducation. But surely we must see the far-reaching evil influence that results when a child finds that what interests him most--say beasts or flowers--is either ignored or slurred at school, or it may be laughed at by those at home. It comes as a blow to his individuality--which it is the aim of education to develop--and it raises an opposition between his particular hobby and all the rest of what to him spells "lessons."
Furthermore, it is easy to speak about opening closed doors afterwards, but this is mostly a fiction. Unless we are very well pleased with ourselves, we know that there are whole departments of human importance which we find it difficult to understand, or to become organically interested in, even when in after life this becomes our duty. This defect is in great part due to closed doors in our early education.
(3) Thirdly, though l do not wish to discuss a matter which requires stronger hands than mine, do we not sin in hiding from our children the key to that door behind which lies all the knowledge of sex and reproduction. There is a time for everything, and a time for that.
The old "Arabian Nights" story is true; it was the forbidden chamber which morbidly pre-occupied the mind. Now, questionings about these matters are beautifully answered by a study of flowers and animals, as gradually as one could wish. Yet the subject is always slurred, and when children ask, they are told--well--fibs. The results of both slurring and fibs are often seen later.
It goes without saying that this is part of home education, not of school education; and those who shirk it forget that, what is not taught by those who wish at least to be wise, may be learned by-and-by from those who are pleased enough to be foolish.
An Oxford scholar, learned in the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle, in the course of European history, in the growth of languages, and so on, is plainly an educated man cultured in thought and feeling; but if be has drawn his blinds down on the world around him, if his eyes have remained unopened to the flowers and birds, to the mountains and the sea, if he have only mildly pleasant sensations when these intrude upon his subjectivity, and neither accurate perceptions of them nor any conception of the story whose vivid words they are, then he is not a thoroughly educated man. In range he may be excelled by a little child, although in his department he may instruct the world.
Of course, I admit that he may be minutely observant of nature, and even conversant with scientific methods and results, but that is rather in spite of his education than in virtue of it. It is easy to cite Tennyson's accuracy of observation; it is as easy to remember how St. Bernard of Clairvaux rode all day by the Lake of Geneva, and then asked in the evening where the lake was!
On the other hand, a naturalist may be learned in the ways of animals and the growth of plants; he may see them through and through, without aid of any cryptoscope or Rontgen's rays, as though they were transparent; he may understand the ceaseless processes of their being; he may know whence they have come, and their part in the vibrating web of life. If so, he is an educated man. But if he know little of the history of mankind, little of the thoughts of the noblest, little of the dreams of the poets, little of the art of the skilful, then he is not a thoroughly educated man.
It is indeed improbable that many such exist, for there is likelihood that the lover of birds will be a lover of the poets too, that the historian of animal life will have some shrewd ideas as to the decline and fall of Rome, and that the biologist may be something of a moralist as well. We must give our minds the credit of preferring not to be miseducated.
Let me cite an instance to interrupt this platitudinarian talk. I knew a learned philological student--since dead--who did not know how many wings a butterfly bore, nor how many legs a frog had. I did not ask him, the remark was made--perhaps he was rather proud of it,--in the course of a walk, when we saw both butterflies and frogs. Let us reflect for a moment on this case.
Our first thought, perhaps, is that it does not matter much how many wings a butterfly has. Neither it does to us, except in so far as it convicts us of having eyes and seeing not.
Our second thought is that it is very easy to stump a man--especially a busy or pre-occupied man--with the very simplest things, as to whether the hour of four is marked on his watch by four strokes, or by a I and a V. Specialism and pre-occupation make us all stupid, perhaps stupidest when we are at our best. There is a record of a brilliant professor who, on his way to lecture, discovered mentally that he had left his watch at home, and went back for it after having consulted it to see that he had still time, without being late for the lecture. Before a mastering interest, huge masses of information fade completely from the mind, and we see nothing. We become so busy that we curb every initiative, except along specific lines--witness a clever student in the botanical laboratory who did not know the way to the rock garden, or another in University Hall, who, though well learned in history, had never seen Mons. Meg in the Castle above his head.
[Mons Meg is a large medieval "bombard" cannon. One is on display in the University Hall in Edinburgh. The image below is from the book Romantic Edinburgh by John Geddie, 1911.]
But the philologists' ignorance was due not to a momentary forgetfulness, nor to the remoteness of the butterfly and frog from his keener interests, but to an entire absence of perceptual education. He was brought up in the country, he studied in a small University town, in the fields around which the butterflies flit in hundreds, he had learned to think, but not to see. He had seen many butterflies, yet he had never really seen one. He had been content with a vague sensation of a flying patch of colour. He was an educated philologist, but not a thoroughly educated man.
And the important fact, which contains the moral, is that in healthy children the perceptions are usually keenly accurate even in detail, until the faculty is nipped, as it usually is, in the bud.
The claims of Natural History as an educational discipline seem to be especially the following:--
First, it responds to an organic interest. I simply don't believe in the existence of healthy children who have not a natural interest in living things. But if you begin early, you can obscure this interest, smother it, and kill it before the child is five years old. After that the teacher of Natural History in the school seeks to re-awaken an interest which has been already snubbed. How cruel this is to child and to teacher, is plain to the unprejudiced mind. "You should get some frogs' spawn this month," says the teacher, "and see the pollywogs turn into froglings." "Come away from the pond, you naughty girl, soiling your new frock," says someone else. "After froggies already, you little new woman," sneers someone else, and the blasting of buds is perhaps accomplished. To let the child see that its parents ignore, can I say despise, or laugh at what the teacher was enthusiastic over, and what the pupil really enjoyed, is fine education, isn't it?
The second claim on behalf of the Natural History discipline is that it tends to educate many faculties at once,
(1) of careful
observation, for there can be no progress nor satisfaction apart from
some power of psychography, ie, of registering impressions so that
recognition is easy;
Allow me to give the first illustration which occurs to me of each of these points.
(1) As to observation. I have seen a child of four name flowers which a student who had passed his first Professional in Botany, failed to recognise. Now there is little value in giving names to things, and they are soon forgotten, but the naming does indicate a power of recognising--a perceptual precision which most healthy children have strongly.
Many would agree with what a Professor of Zoology wrote the other day--"It is, perhaps, not an exaggeration to say that the average junior or senior student in a college possesses less inclination and ability to notice and compare than a child of from five to ten years of age."
I fear that the early power of observation--which I should describe as a sensory alertness and receptivity--is bound to be in great part lost. It remains in those who are, to use Prof. Geddes's phrase, predominantly eye-minded rather than ear-trained.
What one has most hope for is replacing the early sensory receptivity by a new kind of observational power, which looks rather than pictures, which depends for its acuteness on a previous preparedness, on what one might perhaps call intellectual tendrils seeking something to fasten on to.
(2) The Culture of aesthetic emotion, or delight in beautiful things, botany and natural history are unrivalled disciplines. I may recall the case which Ruskin mentions of the servant-girl who excused her non-demolition of the spider's web, because it was so pretty. Or again, I find in one of my grandfather's books a story of an enthusiastic lover of gardening, who left a fine nettle growing in his greenhouse, saying in excuse, "it grew up sae bonnily, puir thing, that I could not think to pu' it." We often find the same feeling among country-folk, who say of cut flowers "Ah, but the're bonniest grown." In scores of little ways we can foster this delight in and reverence for beautiful things, without going to any extreme of high falutin' sentimentality. The antithesis is easily found, for instance, in ourselves when we carelessly decapitate plants with our walking stick . . . and from ourselves down to the rascals who set fire to cats or beat horses to death.
I suppose most teachers will allow that some part of the conventional discipline, say in history and literature, has its bearing on the culture of feeling--on morals rather than on intelligence. And though I cannot develop the subject, I wish to point out that the study of Natural History is important in this connection; for animal life is full of situations which evoke admiration and sympathy. The ways of these little people in fur and feathers are often like a prototype, often like a caricature of our own. "Uncle Remus's Talks" are notable illustrations of what I mean to suggest, though Brer Rabbit was not, of course, a model of all the virtues.
(3) In regard to inquisitiveness as to causes. It is surely our unanimous verdict that children can ask us more questions in a forenoon than we can answer in a week, if ever. And few questions are more puzzling than those they ask about living things. On the one hand, we must recognise that a succession of "Don't knows" must be monotonous and disheartening; on the other hand, we must be prepared to confess ignorance, or to say, "This is too difficult just now, it will, perhaps, be plainer by and by."
(4) As to actual reasoning out of things. I have often known young girls at Charlotte Square Institution solve problems before which the medical student stood dumb. Not, of course, that the student had not more complex. cerebral coordinations or more developed intelligence, but rather because he had lost the power or habit of approaching a problem freshly and independently. I often feel that the kingdom of science, like the kingdom of heaven, is opener to the child than to the man! "Father would help," as Max O'Rell's boy said in excuse for his bad exercise.
(5) As to application of science to exercise life, we must recognise that the subjects of study in Natural History have in a high degree this fascination and value, that they are never closed. Each is capable of endless development and application. Just because they deal with life, the facts of Natural History are like seeds in the mind.
But I must try to say something of my own experience in teaching young folks Natural History. I cannot do so with much confidence. I am still learning what is certainly no easy art. How difficult it is we know from our experience, which various facts corroborate. Thus how few really good books there are on Natural History. I don't mean primers, for these should be written by an educational genius, or not at all, but books which presuppose that this stage has been passed. How few books there are like Kingsley's Water-Babies; Miss Buckley's Life and her Children, and Winners in Life's Race; Prof. Lloyd Morgan's Animal Sketches; Kipling's Jungle Books.
(To be continued.)
"The Study of Natural History as an Educational Discipline" Part II - by J. Arthur Thomson
So far as I know, I have three main maxims, which it is needless to say I do not always observe. They may be expressed in three words, objective, Socratic, and vital.
(1) Objective. Let there in the name of education be something to see, an intact living thing, best of all; a specimen; a bit of a specimen; a picture; a diagram; anything--but let there be something to show and see.
One remembers the legend of the botanical teacher who embraced the nettle in his first excursion, and was thus impressed with the distinction between theory and practice. And it is very common to find a student describing a beast or plant most carefully, and yet failing to recognise it when shown to him. Professor Lloyd Morgan tells of the child educated on picture books only, where size-relations are rarely observed, who identified a shrew with its snout as a tapir. All this memory-science, all this celebrating only in presence of print, all this getting up things instead of seeing them is a curse.
(2) Socratic. It is certainly a mistake to tell children too much. Let them have the joy of discovering things for themselves. There is a medium between merely baffling them and making them parrots. Often they may puzzle you more by their answers than you them by your questions; and in a dignified way, let them feel that questions asked by them are of great value. In short, don't treat them as Strasbourg geese: they are not that. [Strasbourg geese are fattened for making the delicacy 'foie gras."]
(3) Vital. By this word I mean that in the teaching of Natural History there should always be an atmosphere of livingness. The specimen, the picture, the diagram, must be made as far as possible instinct with life, with life similar to ours, as far as it goes.
According to the legend, a lady brought the great botanist a flower and asked him to name it for her. He said that he did not know it, but he would press it, and sit upon it for a few hours, and then, perhaps, it would be recognisable! Of course this is a libel; but it may serve to adorn the moral that Natural History is pre-eminently a study of living things.
The word vitality which I have used may also indicate that not only must the subect under attention be or become, as far as possible, living, but the treatment of it must be sympathetically vital.
If the teacher of botany does not feel that the plant is a living creature--growing, feeding, breathing, digesting, moving, feeling, struggling--then he has missed the gist of his business. The teacher, whether parent or school-teacher, has the difficult task of holding the balance between precision and accuracy on the one hand, and giving due encouragement to activity and originality on the other hand. Of course the teacher's own statements should be as clear and accurate as possible; if he or she cannot get clear about a question, then it is not for children: to give a false simplicity to facts is an educational sin, to teach what must be afterwards unlearned is another. Yet to avoid these sins is extraordinarily difficult; for instance, in speaking of the mental side of animal activities. It is most desirable to make every animal in its way like a little "Brer Rabbit," and not like an automatic machine; but one may with the best intentions carry this to an extreme of falseness. At the same time, though the teacher must stand firm on the foundation of accuracy, he most not expect too much of the children. There must be continual compromise, else he will discourage initiative and choke originality. He must wink at some mistakes as natural to the child's way of looking at things; and try to make up for it by insisting on precision at a more appropriate time.
There is an old story of a student who brought to Cuvier a new discovery in human anatomy. The prince of anatomists smiled, asked the student if he had ever dissected an insect, and on receiving an answer in the negative, bade him good-morning. But the student was wise as well as the master; he dissected the insect, returned to his discovery a wise man, and found out something after all. I remember, too, with gratitude how Professor Geddes some ten years ago set me a botanical problem--still unsolved--at which I worked through a summer session and got almost no results, except the conviction that science is not an easy affair.
But while such snubbing is all very well for the adult student, it must be done very gently to the child. It should be done, of course, else education will be slipshod, but it should be done gently.
While these three words--objective, Socratic and vital--seem to me to sum up the chief virtues of the teacher of Natural History, there are other desirabilities.
(a) Big words, be they ever so comforting, are a snare. The seed-box of a plant is a simpler term than ovary, and, at least, as accurate; bony is better than osseous. When we find a medical student describing elephants as having "deciduous tails," we are warned to restraint when speaking to children.
(b) Again, it seems very desirable to keep the teaching in harmony with the march of the seasons. In spring we naturally think of buds and seedlings, tadpoles and lambs; not so naturally in mid-winter.
(c) We should avoiding treating anything as common or unclean. Everything is wonderful. Remember Walt Whitman's lines:
"A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
It may be an exaggeration that the true botanist sees a tropical forest in every square foot of meadow, but Meredith is right:--
"You of every well that springs,
(d) A more common-place remark is this: Let the teacher ask himself how much he remembers of that course of chemistry or astronomy he attended a dozen years ago, and has since left undeveloped. The answer for most of us is, as far as particulars go, almost nothing. No small part of our pursuit of knowledge is an ingenious changing of one suite of brain-furniture for another--a process of gradual replacement. Let the teacher remember, then, that most of his pupils will soon forget almost all he has told them. What remains then? Not nothing; but some general ideas, a way of looking at things, some vivid incidents, a feeling for nature. This, I think, leads one to try, on the one hand, to effect occasional flashes and surprises which impress, and, on the other hand, to secure those general ideas which last.
I wish to answer a few objections against laying greater emphasis on Natural History in education.
I do not consider lack of time an objection; in the first place, because no great demand upon time need be made, and, in the second place, because the time-table is not a sacred thing, being merely an adjustment between three factors, all happily modifiable--(1) the number of minutes per day during which pupils can profitably interest themselves in various branches; (2) the demands of the parents; (3) the ideals of the teacher. The question of time, space and expense are difficulties, but not objections.
The conservative objection, which may be exaggerated into obscurantism, is that only a smattering, a veneer, a pretence of science can be given in, say, forty lessons per annum. The medical student gets fifty. The truth underlying this has been tediously perpetrated in the proverb, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," to which I should add the postscript that rudimentary faculties and unopened doors--in short, an unnatural ignorance--may be even more dangerous. The fallacy of the objection is that of forgetting the relativity of all education. We are not discussing the education of the botanist or zoologist--for him or her the programme is quite different--we are thinking of children, most of whom will never be, in any strict sense, students of science. The amateur is not be snubbed, except when he forgets his amateurishness; on the contrary, he is to be cultivated. Even if we happen to be specialists in something, we surely wish to be amateurs in many things.
The prejudice against amateurishness is partly due to an idiosyncrasy of human nature with which we are all familiar: it is this, that the more complex a subject is, the more ready are many to air their opinions about it. Psychology is just beginning to become an exact science; it is as much behind biology as biology is behind physics. Similarly, sociology is so incipient that many still deny that there is any such science, yet a man who would never venture to be dogmatic as to an inference in physics will enter glibly into a theological argument in a railway carriage. Politics is a subject much more complex than biology, yet many are as confident in their political conventions as they are hesitating in their biological conclusions. Thus we find that educational, psychological, anthropological and other complex studies are just those to which the amateur is fondest of taking exercise, mistaking his emotional convictions for intellectual ones, and rushing into speech or print with a dogmatism which disgusts, and an impetuosity which amuses. But to condemn the amateur because of this human frailty is, if not unjust, certainly unprofitable.
Are we, in our recoil from "a veneer of culture," "a varnish of polite education," "an aping of science and scholarship," to fold our hands before a closed door? It is too absurd. Must we have an observatory to know something about the stars? Was not a new star surely as good as a new species, found by a man in this city with a shilling star-atlas and a half-guinea opera glass? As far as I can understand it, this objection to short courses, little books, amateur studies, and the hour-a-week of Natural History in schools is a relic of obscurantism, a dog-in-the-manger-ish selfishness, a superior bigotry of illumination, a non-educational desire to keep certain intellectual preserves safe from intrusion. It is the result of forgetting the truism that education is relative to given ends, the result of a misconception of what education should be for the average. Neither we nor our children wish to master the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," we wish an increased power of appreciation, we wish keys to open doors, and as there are very many doors, we do not wish to lock ourselves in behind any. Yet we are to forbear, let we become superficial, or veneered, or varnished. It is too absurd! We know that we cannot appreciate all the accumlated treasures behind each door,--we never dreamed of such a thing; but we wish as much life and joy and usefulness as possible, and we decline to be shut out from any subject because the expert is afraid lest we forget that we are not altogether such a one as himself!
While refusing to believe that the fairy tales of science, or the treasures of poetic fancy, or the beauty of literary style, or the thoughts of the great thinkers in the past, should remain as the experts' pleasance, where all profane persons are roughly told to keep off the grass, we must recgnise that we should know our Burns before Horace, our Shakespeare and Milton before Aeschylus and Sophocles; and, further, that there are subjects of great difficulty which cannot be readily understanded either of the people or of children. To discuss the origin of variations before a popular audience would probably be unprofitable, unless one wished to effect a clearance. And there is much to be said for the plan of Tolstoi's peasant school, where the scholars were at liberty to decamp whenever their interest slackened. Yet surely it is a simple matter, though it may not be a popular method, to state clearly "This subject is very difficult, it is still under discussion by the experts, we had better leave it alone just now." While I believe that every truth is clear, I equally believe that almost everyone, whether child or adult, will respect the teacher and the science more if the confession be made that certain problems are not yet at that stage of truth which admits of clearness.
The objection which seems to me most important is this--Natural History is as yet, for the most part, in the position of being taken somewhat easily, more as a relaxation than as a serious subject. This is very insulting to Natural History, but it has this advantage--that in teaching children about plants and animals, one is, perhaps, freer and more spontaneous than if one were dealing with more routine subjects. The very word "subject" suggests a limitation, something cut and dried. Is it advisable, then, to press the question of education in Natural History, with the risk of its losing the charm which it usually possesses?
Grammar badly taught is a very dreadful thing, but it can hardly be said to have any far-reaching evil effects; but Natural History badly taught means spoiling the child's outlook upon nature.
From a teacher in Edinburgh Board School, himself an Oxford graduate, I heard of the following object lesson on a sponge to one of the large--often far too large--junior classes. I quote the case with my apology to the actual teacher, and with my profound sympathy. A sponge was present, and that was well; for object lessons without objects are not unknown. It was shown dry, and then it was placed in water; and that was not only well, but, as things go, excellent. The sponge swelled up, as sponges will do, and then the pupils were told that the sponge was ab-sor-bent. The word was written on the board; the pupils repeated, as they only can repeat, syllable by syllable--ab-sor-bent, ab-sor-bent. This was hideous. Next they were told that it was po-rous, po-rous. I believe they refrained from saying that it was spongy. But was there no hint, I said, of the interesting life of the creature? "Life of the sponge!" he said, in an amazed sort of way; and then we both laughed. The point is that instead of life-lore, the pupils were getting verbiage. I can quite well understand and condone it; but if this is the millstone which modern education is going to hang around the young life, then the less of Natural History in schools the better. But it cannot be so.
Perhaps I may give some more detailed illustration of two courses, one for children under 13 or so, another for children over 13.
For the juniors I should propose to keep close to common things, the frog before the crocodile; to teach mainly by objects and stories; to avoid too great directness or systematisation of instruction; to try to follow the seasons, though never so rigidly that the naturalness of this method is stiffened into a system; to avoid abstractions except by delicate suggestion; to refrain as much as possible from analysis, cutting up, or tearing up to pieces; to keep the teaching close to life, e.g., by reference to useful animals, domestic animals, animal products; and to try to get the children to help in collecting and the like.
Making and mastering a simple collection--a bookshelf museum, an aquarium, a garden if possible--will help in educating the habits of open eyedness, accuracy of vision, order and neatness. At each stage one should insist on some thoroughness and precision, else the teaching and learning both become slovenly; but not on too much, unless with picked pupils, else the pleasure becomes a task. Observation of some living animals--especially at work--e.g., ants and bees, silkworms and birds, will help to foster sympathetic interest in living creatures. Observation of some cases of growth, e.g., seedlings, gnats, tadpoles, may serve to convey first conceptions of development.
Attention to a few common fossils may suggest the idea of history. Much should be made of very beautiful things, such as shells and feathers, yet never so as to suggest that any natural thing is ugly. A collection of horn, bone, ivory, skin, fur, feathers, carmine, coral, chalk, and so on is sure to be found interesting, and will stimulate the inquistive impulse. For older pupils, there should be more extensive radius of observation, and a more intense study of the familiar. The common and often despised identification of plants is a most valuable exercise in precision, and it may readily rise to some practical and quite impedantic familiarity with the principles of classification. The constant use of a simple genealogical tree--so far as that is possible--of animals and plants will soon form itself into a mental photograph of a really valuable sort, though, of course, to the end of the chapter, some of the pupils will insist that bats are birds and whales fishes.
It is now time to study more precisely the functions of the animal body--which should be treated gently at first. Here the teacher should repeat some of the beautifully simple experiments of animal and vegetable physiology. Some of these should, I think, be shown to quite young children; they are amusing and incite inquiry. It should surely go without saying that any experiment involving pain is absolutely mis-educational, though such have been indulged in in some American schools. At the same time there should be no excessive sentimentality, no blinking at obvious facts, no suggestion that the cabbage squeals when you pull it up. But nothing should be done to lessen reverence for life.
It is time to see more deeply into the structure of animals and plants, to see into their insides, to compare the bird's skeleton with the cat's, to use the microscope a little. Here great care and delicacy seem to me necessary. The specimens should be beautifully done, and it is easy to keep to things which do not make the child feel that an animal--a beautiful life--has been killed in order to show something. The seashore will supply most beautifully cleaned skeletons; even the remnants of the dinner table may be scientifically transfigured. A larger museum should be made, with fossils beside the modern creatures. The aqaria should be extended; and in a boys' school there should always be a small collection of a happy living animals most scrupulously attended to. In a town like this, there should be no difficulty in organising museum-walks and shore-walks. The children should help to mount specimens, everything imperfect being now rejected.
Throughout, the pupils should be induced to interrelate their different studies, to use their hand-skill in mounting specimens and making models, their drawing powers in making an illustrated catalogue, their geography in relation to the distribution of animals, their chemistry and physics in relation to physiology, their French and German to look up and spell out foreign books, their English style to write descriptions, and so on ad infinitum. Active function the means; all-round development the end; these are two of our educational ideals.
I should weary you beyond endurance if I went into further detail. I only meant to indicate that the days are past when the teacher even of Natural History could proceed in any happy-go-lucky fashion, relying upon his good intentions; even for parents that method or absence of method is becoming obsolete, as indeed the existence of this Union testifies. The educational programme must be thought out in relation to such psychological facts as we know.
The conclusion of my argument is that lessons in Natural History--which mean lessons in the beautiful, the marvellous, the dramatic; lessons as to growth and progress, as to industry and struggle, as to loving and living, will, if taught by one who knows up to the limit of his or her teaching, and is unafraid to confess ignorance, who has a healthy reverence for both the known and the unknown, cannot but be an educational discipline of high value. But this value will be greatly enhanced when the teacher is one who has himself or herself, and can communicate to the pupils, a love "exceeding a simple love of things that glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck." [from the poem "Melampus" by George Meredith.]
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2017
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