Nature, not books
A group of children sit under the spreading branches of a tree, which drops its leaves in the verdant meadow all around them. They raise their arms imploringly to the skies, stretching towards their standing teacher, who, upon closer inspection, holds a bird, perched on her fist. All eyes are trained, riveted, on the creature. What are they doing?
This striking, nostalgic, and evocative image adorns the cover of Sally Gregory Kohlstedt’s new book; it is well chosen, as it encapsulates many of the central arguments of her work. In Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890–1930, readers discover that the children and their teacher are participating in a nature study activity: the group is outside, rather than being in a classroom (perhaps the out-of-focus building in the distance); no books are in sight; and, crucially, an actual natural object is the focus of the lesson. Kohlstedt’s book highlights the central importance of these types of educational practices in training a generation of American children in how to study, enjoy, and manage their surrounding environment. By detailing how particular schools and teachers brought nature into the classroom, showing how such an approach was thought to transcend older modes of book learning, illuminating the close links between university and school educational programmes and personnel, and revealing the societal and civic skills entrained through such study, Kohlstedt has produced a welcome addition to the history of science education.
Indeed, that history of science education has been strangely neglected in the cultural histories of various disciplines, institutions, and publications that have been produced over recent years. There are remarkably few academic works that explore the educational choices made by particular establishments and nations, especially in relation to elementary schooling and learning, children’s first encounters with the sciences. David Layton’s Science for All: The Origins of the School Science Curriculum in England and Wales, for instance, is now several decades old. Historians of education themselves are re-emphasising the materialities of childhood and of learning, focusing on bodies and architecture: the classroom culture of chalk and chairs. In part, such studies have been inspired by the work done by historians and historical geographers of science and medicine on practices and places. Kohlstedt’s book, then, is a timely reminder of the potential these two fields have for interconnecting research, and a spur to further study.
The chapters of Teaching Children Science focus on diverse places and publications, and individuals’ work, lives, and friendships, to build up a variegated picture of how nature study was taught across the United States across these years. We meet characters such as Anna Botsford Comstock and John Henry Comstock, visit school gardens and greenhouses, flower shows and field clubs, and we learn how nature study was supposed to work. Firstly, seasonal and local objects were chosen as the subjects for lessons and (it was stressed) should be physically present in the classroom. A range of activities was then engaged in as children were encouraged to learn about the object in a variety of ways, employing several senses: children drew the object, dissected the object, observed the object grow, talked about the object, or compared the object with others either similar or dissimilar. The emphasis was on embodied interaction, on first-hand instruction through activities and impressions, rather than second-hand book knowledge. Children, it was argued, should learn directly from nature herself. Several key themes emerge from the chapters’ linked case studies; for instance, the actual and imagined contrast between nature and the city across the United States; notions of civic science and responsibility for the surrounding environment; lauding the importance of direct and close access to the natural world; the development of education and science education degrees in the United States, and the connections between universities, schools, and museums in an influential network of key individuals; highlighting sensory education and group learning; and the important role of women as teachers, and nature study as a source of female professional careers.
Nonetheless, and as the author admits, in practice nature study was a widely varying category, with little attempt to standardise these lessons into one regulated educational system; a lack of regulation that arguably was to lead to its supplanting by ‘elementary science’ in schools by the second quarter of the twentieth century. Rather, its importance inhered in its brand name, standing for Louis Agassiz’s central maxim that Kohlstedt regularly references in her work: that children should learn from ‘nature, not books’. Branding this bundle of activities as nature study served several purposes for its proponents: it played up its connections to the natural world, emphasised its broad range and difference from science, and evoked moral and spiritual values. It also differentiated the lessons from previous modes of education (dating from the eighteenth century onwards and particularly that of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi) that had advocated and relied on sensory impressions, objects, and taking the child into the natural world. Of course, participants did not escape from books to nature completely. As, for example, the vast numbers of nature study books and dedicated periodicals such as Nature-Study Review attest, this was a publishing category as much as an educational one. It was, perhaps, in its publications and institutional structures (for instance, the appended lists of American nature study society officers and of nature study supervisors in schools and museums), rather than in its practices that the diversity of nature study was most united.
The legacy of nature study teaching, Kohlstedt argues in an afterword, is epitomised and embodied in the life of ecologist and nature writer Rachel Carson. Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century, she learnt directly from the natural world at home and school, and, for the author, her later enthusiasms, interests, and expertise demonstrate ‘the ideal outcome’ (p. 234) of this type of education. Though the nature study brand might have disappeared, its legacy is also apparent whenever its unacknowledged (or unwitting) descendants make their way into current classrooms, from woodland walks to museum trips and community gardens, and even kindergarten ‘show and tell’: many of its practices have become central to education in the natural sciences. Whether seen as a precursor of the environmental movement, then, or a successor to Pestalozzi, Teaching Children Science makes an admirable case for the important role of hands-on nature study in America at the turn of the twentieth century, and beyond, and will be of interest to a wide range of historians of science and education.