Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/November 1878/Correspondence



To the Editor Of the Popular Science Monthly.

THE following communication, signed Charles A. Duvoisin, and published in a French journal, will no doubt be welcome to your readers, especially such of them as take an interest in the scientific education of the young.B.

Is it not strange that teachers of natural history, in most countries, have utterly overlooked the very effective practical scientific instruction which the pupils of Latin and commercial schools receive already at a very early age? I refer to the excursions which German teachers of science make every week, into the environs of the cities where the above-mentioned institutions are located, with their classes, and to the encouragement given to the pupils to make collections of interesting natural objects. There is a regular system followed in this respect, and I declare that its results are in every way excellent. Let me give here an account of what I saw in the city of Rostock, the largest city in the grand-duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and an import sea-port on the shores of the Baltic. That city has a Latin school, or, as they call it in Germany, a gymnasium, whose seven classes are visited by three hundred pupils, in round numbers, and a commercial school (Realschule), with an equally numerous attendance. In the fifth class of the gymnasium the boys, who, on an average, are eleven years old, are taught the rudiments of entomology. Why entomology? Because the teacher goes out with them every afternoon and hunts, in the woods and fields of the environs, beetles, bugs, and butterflies. Every pupil has with him a small bottle, filled with alcohol, into which he drops the insects he catches, and a butterfly-catcher, the victims of which are confined in a tin-box fastened to the pupil's leather belt. The teacher instructs the boys where to look for beetles, and he not only gives them the Latin names of those they find, but describes to them their peculiarities, calls attention to their beauties, and tells his hearers whether they are rare or very common. When one of the boys is told that he has found a very rare specimen, he feels as happy and proud as a king. I accompanied the little fellows one Saturday afternoon on one of these excursions. It was a pleasant July day, sunny, but by no means sultry. The environs of the city consist of oak-forests and extensive meadows. The roads were rather sandy. All the boys were on the alert for those wonderful beetles, the cicindela. They were hard to catch, but about twenty of them were bagged, or rather bottled up. To my amazement I found that these eleven-year-old boys were able not only to give the names of every species of cicindela, but also to point out their distinctive marks. For four hours we roamed over meadows and wooded hills. Everywhere new specimens were hunted for in their hiding-places, and secured. At last the boys were tired. They sat down on the mossy ground of a pine grove, partook of the sandwiches they had brought with them, and sang a stirring song. And then ensued a strange sort of fair. The boys began to trade off a cicindela for a scarabæus, etc. "What are they doing this for?" I said to the teacher. "To complete their entomological cabinets," he replied. "What?" I asked. "Have these little fellows regular collections of entomological specimens?" "Have they?" laughed the teacher. "There is not one of them but has his cabinet, and in not a few of them the entomological fauna of this part of Germany is very creditably represented." I could not help thinking that all this was most excellent and praiseworthy. The excursions are splendid for the health of the pupils. They learn in them practically what many students of colleges can acquire only by the hardest of toil, and even then imperfectly, and the collections of beetles and butterflies at home keep the boys out of a great deal of mischief. In the fourth class of the gymnasium they teach zoölogy and mineralogy. I was assured that the largest menageries visited the city, and that the pupils of the gymnasium were among their most frequent and intelligent visitors. Nearly all of them had mineralogical cabinets, and I was astonished to find not a few of the latter filled with the most valuable and scientifically arranged specimens. Botany is the special study of the third class of the gymnasium. The system of excursions for the collection of flowers and plants is most religiously pursued, and the consequence is that all the pupils have herbaria well stocked and well classified. In the two highest classes of the gymnasium the remaining divisions of science are taught. Not a few of the pupils have excellent physical cabinets, and some of them have even chemical laboratories which many a professional chemist would not despise.

Now, is not all this truly admirable and worthy of imitation? Is it a wonder that we find among the Germans so many scientific specialists, so many laymen taking the liveliest and most intelligent interest in scientific researches, so many journals devoted to popular science? What do we have in France instead of all this? Only a few dry scientific lessons a week, which repel rather than interest most of the pupils of our lyceums. Those who achieve eminence in science afterward have to learn their rudiments in natural history at the colleges, and then to possess not only a natural proclivity, but also special gifts for that kind of study. England is in this respect still worse off than we. The best proof of this is to be found in the fact that, whenever that country sends out a scientific expedition, most of the branches of research have to be intrusted to German savants.May our government, which I know to be animated with the earnest desire of perfecting our system of instruction in our lyceums, turn no deaf ear to my humble voice. Let us learn from our powerful neighbors in Germany. They appreciate the value of early practical and theoretical instruction in natural science. True, they have not so brilliant a galaxy of scientists as we have in Paris; but the knowledge which their youngest pupils possess in natural history far surpasses that acquired in our lyceums.