Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/July 1872/Literary Notices


Botany for Beginners. By Maxwell T. Masters, M. D., F. R. S., late Lecturer on Botany at St. George's Hospital. London: Bradbury & Evans.

In form, typographical execution, and illustrations, this is a beautiful book; in its scientific statements it is a sound and trustworthy book; but, for the purposes indicated in its title, it is a worthless book. Dr. Masters knows much about plants, but of the minds of children he seems to know nothing. How long will it take these educational book-makers to find out that there are two factors in the case, a subject to be presented and a mental organism to be affected, and that the latter, instead of being of small account comparatively, is in reality the first and principal thing? Botany, like the other sciences, can be so presented as to stupefy the mind instead of awakening it. Book-science and scientific books, as generally used in schools, are as often baneful as beneficial; they are merely new resources for loading down the memory with verbal acquisitions. The overshadowing influence, in education, of language which is learned entirely from books, and is mainly an exercise of pure memory upon arbitrary signs and empirical rules, has so determined the habits of education that the sciences have been forced into the same method of acquisition, and the absurd practice still prevails of acquiring them by memorizing the contents of books. Even in botany, where the objects treated of are everywhere—overhead, underfoot, by the way-side, in the gardens, fields, yards, and even in the house, soliciting the attention and kindling the admiration continually—we have still the preposterous habit of studying the subject by committing book-lessons in the school-room. To begin botany in this way with children is worse than an absurdity, it is an educational crime. It violates the law of the mind, by making them learn in a forced and unnatural way that which should be acquired in an attractive and natural way; and, by inducing indifference or actual repulsion, it defeats rather than promotes the true objects of education.

Nor is the case at all helped where the author begins with a general injunction to study the objects themselves, and then leaves the pupil to make his own way without guidance, or, in attempting to guide him, puts him on a false track. This is the sin of Dr. Masters. He puts the beginner at the most complex work of botany the first thing. It is the old story of commencing to pick flowers to pieces, "to ascertain of what parts they are constituted, their number, their shape, in what manner they are pieced together, whether they are separate or joined together, what is their relative size and position in regard to one another, and so forth." The object is to reach classification at the earliest moment, so that the child can begin to name flowers and show off his botanical accomplishments. Although professedly writing for beginners, Dr. Masters tacitly assumes them to be adults, and capable of grasping at first the generalized results of the science. That he begins with the simplest flowers is but little mitigation of his bad method. To attack the most complex part of plant-structure at the outset, using microscopes and making dissections, however possible it may be for matured minds, is neither possible for children, nor is it the true order in which the science should be considered. There is a wide range of observation of the simpler parts of plants which are open to easy inspection, and it is to these that the beginner's attention should first be directed. The earliest thing to be done is to cultivate the art and the habit of observation, and then the pupil will pass naturally to the comparison of these simpler characters, and thus advance imperceptibly to the higher complexities of form and structure. This course is equally necessitated by the order of unfolding of the child's faculties, and by the order of facts in the science itself.

Science Primers. "Chemistry," by Prof. Roscoe. "Physics," by Prof. Balfour Stewart. D. Appleton & Co.

In these little volumes the authors have tried very hard to adapt the treatment of their respective subjects to the juvenile capacity, and with very fair success. We think them by no means perfect, but they are probably better than any thing else of the kind that can be got. They were prepared for the English schools, and are the result of the recent commendable effort to infuse more of the scientific element into general primary instruction. The Rev. W. Tuckwell, an able advocate of this reform, thus speaks of them in Nature:

These little books illustrate an imperfectly-accepted truth, that systematic elementary teaching is a late and not an early product of educational energy. The best head-masters of our schools have discovered the fallacy latent in our ancient belief that the ablest men are required to teach the oldest boys, and have, in one or two famous cases, acted on their discovery. It is easy for a young man fresh from university honors to pour his knowledge into minds which have been well prepared, and which approach more or less to the level of his own; but to teach a class of little boys, to realize their difficulties and to appreciate their ignorance, to understand the perplexity which oppresses them in the presence of statements long since axiomatic to ourselves, require a mature and versatile intelligence, a mind which can communicate childish knowledge as readily and as joyously as it solves recondite problems; a combination of rare gifts with long and conscientious training.

And thus it is that the zeal for scientific teaching and the gathered scientific experience of the last fifteen years have only issued now in the books which form the subject of our notice. Scientific class-books hitherto have been either too difficult or too easy. They have been unavailable for beginners without the intervention of a practical teacher; or, in their effort to be popular and simple, they have abdicated half their value as instruments of educational discipline. In these books both extremes are avoided. Every stage of their teaching is based upon experiment; no law is enunciated till it has been proved. From first to last the student finds himself in immediate contact with Nature. His empirical knowledge of external things is systematized; simple every-day phenomena reveal to him their principles and rationale; he walks forth with a new eye to discern the meaning and the beauty of familiar sights and sounds, and with a mind upon the stretch for fresh discoveries. And, on the other hand, no previous training is essential to the teacher who adopts them as his guide. Any man, ignorant even of the first principles of chemistry and physics, yet fairly dexterous and intelligent, who will patiently master the books, and try each experiment for himself, is in a position to transmit their contents successfully and clearly. The officer may lecture to the soldiers of his regiment, the clergyman to the artisans of his parish, the national school-master to the children of his school. Managers of schools, deterred as yet from including science in their course through lack of teachers and of text-books, will find their difficulty removed. ... We tender them our hearty thanks for work which marks a stage in the advance of scientific education. Its lingering progress hitherto has been owing to. the want, not of zealous champions, but of united action. The labors of its advocates are now beginning to converge. The leaders of science and the leaders of education are drawing close together—on the one side eager to impart, on the other ready to receive, ad vice and guidance. By the publication of these books the most serious of the obstacles which have kept them separate is removed.