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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/The Early Study of Plants

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 27‎ | October 1885

THE EARLY STUDY OF PLANTS.
By ELIZA A. YOUMANS.

IN the interesting articles, in previous numbers of "The Popular Science Monthly," entitled "An Experiment in Primary Education," by Dr. Mary Putnam-Jacobi, she makes courteous reference to my "First Book of Botany," while dissenting from certain points of its method. The objections, I think, indicate a partial misunderstanding of this method, and, as some of them have been made before and as I have just reissued the plan of study as a volume of "Descriptive Botany," in which the matters criticised remain unchanged, it seems desirable that the erroneous impressions should be corrected. This is the more needful, because of the weight of Mrs. Jacobi's authority in what may be called human science, and because her objections, though briefly stated, come as results of fresh study tested by careful and prolonged experiment. The chief points she makes are contained in the following passage, which is quoted from pages 618 and 619 of the September "Monthly":

"I suppose that most persons seriously interested in education are acquainted with Miss Youmans's admirable little 'First Lessons in Botany,' and the plea she makes for this science as a typical means of training the observing powers of children. According to her plan, the first object studied is the leaf—and the pupil is brought at once, not only to draw the leaf, but to fill out a schedule of description of it. Much may be said in favor of this method, which proceeds from the simple to the complex form, but it is by no means the only possible one; the writing part of the scheme is, moreover, impossible for a child who has not yet learned how to write. There is another method which consists in seizing at once upon the most striking aspect of the subject, and which shall make the most vivid impression upon the imagination. For this purpose the leaf is the least useful, the flower the most. The earliest botanical classifications are based upon the corolla, and, in accordance with a principle already enunciated, a child may often best approach a science through the series of ideas that attended its genesis. The conditions are different for an adult, who requires to get the latest results; the child's mind is always remote from these, but often singularly near to the conceptions entertained by the first observers. Again, it is unnatural to enter upon the beautiful world of plants by the study of forms and outlines—which is much better pursued when abstracted from all other circumstances, as in models of pure mathematical figures. But with plants comes a new idea—that of life, of change, of evolution. It is fitting that this tremendous idea make a profound impression on the child's mind; and this impression may be best secured by watching the continuous growth of a plant from the seed. The study of life is a study of events, of dynamics, of catastrophes. The earliest observation perceives the extraordinary influence of the surrounding medium upon the destinies of the living organism. It is not difficult to surround these destinies with such a halo of imagination as shall impress on the mind a sense of the mystery, sanctity—I may acid, the necessary calamities of life—before it has become absorbed in the consideration of living personalities."

The first statement here made contains an error, which, though apparently trivial, involves a serious misunderstanding of the plan of study adopted in my book. Mrs. Jacobi says that, according to the method, "the first object studied is the leaf, and the pupil is brought at once, not only to draw the leaf," etc. This is a mistake. I have not included drawing as a part of the exercise in the study of leaves, have purposely avoided it, and have always insisted that it is a waste of time and a hindrance to the object I had in view. Instead of facilitating, it impedes the work of observation. The aim is, by the observation of real objects, to form the habit of intelligent discrimination, and such a habit can only be formed by numerous and ideated and continued mental exercises, which, with the young beginner, should be as simple and uncomplicated as possible. The method is one of self-instruction, in which the pupil is put upon a search to find out things for himself, and he has to inspect a great number of objects to identify, compare, and describe their special characters. Plants were chosen because of the almost endless detail of varying structure which their parts present, and which can only be made familiar by the examination, comparison, and contrast of a great many of them. This forbids the delay entailed by the drawing of specimens, and to insist upon the practice would defeat the method. The pupil could not draw one specimen in a hundred of those with which it is necessary that he should become familiar.

The idea that the parts of plants must be drawn has been the stumbling-block of teachers in using my books from the outset. It is a mode of evading out-of-door work, the collection of multitudes of plants, and their direct and constant observation and comparison. Mere book science is now condemned, at least nominally, even in the schools; but in place of it we have what is no better, blackboard-science and teacher's talk. My books were made simply for the learner's immediate use as a guide in the direct study of plants, and they have not the slightest value when used in any other way. Yet some teachers have set children to copy their illustrations-with chalk upon the blackboard, while others have themselves copied them for their classes, the books being withheld from the pupils. One eminent superintendent of education gravely assured me that my "First Book of Botany" was a book for teachers and not for pupils; and, in exemplification of this idea, I know an instance of a large school for which one hundred copies were purchased, but in which the contents of the book were doled out by the teacher from the blackboard to a room full of pupils, while ninety-nine copies of the purchased volume remained unopened in the cellar! The most inveterate obstacle to the method is the pervasiveness of the teacher with her drawing, oral instruction, and other school-room processes. They make impossible that training in self-instruction which it was the prime object of the book to secure.

 

In the plan of the book, leaves were chosen to begin study with, in order to make the first steps easy and effective. Of all the organs of plants, leaves are the simplest and most varied in structure, and are most readily obtained throughout the longest period of the year. With these we are able to begin early the work of self-education, which may be continued along a course of inquiry and discovery that increases in difficulty as by exercise the mind increases in ability. Mrs. Jacobi objects to this. She says, "For the purposes of the beginner the leaf is the least useful, the flower the most." She thinks it better "to seize at once the most striking aspect of the subject, and make the most vivid impression upon the imagination"—adding that "the earliest classifications were based upon the corolla, and a person may often best approach a science through the series of ideas that attended its genesis." Is it the flower or is it only the corolla that Mrs. Jacobi thinks most useful? If the latter, I can only say that, while the corolla is the simplest element of the flower, it is less simple than the leaf, compared with which its forms are few, and not readily classifiable by beginners. If she means the entire flower, we are met by the fact that all its other parts are complex, and often so small as to require the use of a glass in studying their forms. It frequently happens that much strength of judgment is needed in fixing their boundaries and interpreting the appearances they present. Yet, if we are to begin with the flower, it is this complex portion of the plant that Mrs. Jacobi would offer first for the uncultivated attention of the child. The flower was early used in artificial classification, and it is true that the education of the individual must have a general correspondence with the evolution of the race, but this principle can have only a very partial application in primary education, and in this instance its application violates an important law of mental development. It is a fundamental principle of mental growth that the relatively simple and easy shall come before and lead on to the relatively complex and difficult, and to contravene this law is certainly bad education. Nor can I see how the showiness of flowers can in any degree compensate for this total inversion of mental processes. The sensuous interest in flowers is trivial in comparison with the deeper intellectual interest of the child, when discovering for himself the features of plants, and the resemblances of various parts by which relations and affinities are determined. I have found in a long experience with children that the curiosity, the pleasure, and even the excitement that come from a connected course of observations upon simple leaves are all-sufficient as a stimulus to continued effort, and the concurrent testimony of able teachers who have practiced the method abundantly justifies my own results.

This objection, that I begin with leaves in the study of plants, has been often made before. Of course, there may be various points of approach to the subject; but I had to adopt one, and I chose that which is unquestionably most favorable for beginning the work of self-instruction. None of the objections that I have seen have any force against the proved advantage of the plan pursued.

 

In further criticism of the method Mrs. Jacobi says, "Again, it is unnatural to enter upon the beautiful world of plants by the study of forms and outlines—which is much better pursued when abstracted from all other circumstances, as in models of pure mathematical figures." I am at a loss to understand this. Does Mrs. Jacobi regard me as attempting to teach geometry by the forms and outlines of leaves? I certainly have made no other use of forms and outlines than results from the inevitable relations of the mind to its environment. Forms and outlines are properties by which objects are known. The properties of bodies revealed to us through sensation are used by the child in the study of plants in exactly the same way that they are earlier used in the study of household and all familiar objects. The only difference is that, in descriptive botany, these observations are made with more precision, have a logical unity, and a conscious purpose. I am the more puzzled to understand in what the unnaturalness of the study of forms and outlines of leaves consists, because Mrs. Jacobi tells us (p. 472) that, "before the child has a clearly intellectual life on any other subjects, it attains a very definite power to distinguish the square, the oval, the spiral." If this be true, how can the study of forms of any objects be considered unnatural? If, as she relates, a child may describe bits of cake as squares and cubes, "make pentagons and octagons with knife and fork," characterize onions as "oblates," without being unnatural, why does she become so when she describes leaves as round, oval, oblong, etc., as the case may be?

But perhaps Mrs. Jacobi means that "it is unnatural to enter upon the beautiful world of plants by the study of forms and outlines," because the most beautiful and attractive parts should receive attention first. This might accord with the dictates of aesthetic feeling, but there is no reason why it should be regarded as especially the natural way. The truth is, this point has been settled by the history of botanical method. The flower, the most conspicuous and beautiful part, was for a long time taken alone as the basis of a classification which depended upon the number and mode of arrangement of its essential organs, to the neglect of the remaining plant-characters; but that is now recognized as the artificial system. Afterward the flower was deposed from its supremacy, and all the characters of plants, of which forms and outlines are leading ones, were taken into account in grouping them, and this is named the natural system. I should rather say that to make a fanciful idea predominant in a method of study is unnatural, while the truly natural method is that which conforms to the requirements of the mind and the progress of the science to he studied, and which will therefore lead to the best acquaintance with the truth of nature.

 

Again, after objecting to the early study of plants in their most simplified forms by children, Mrs. Jacobi says: "But with plants comes a new idea—that of life, of change, of evolution. It is fitting that these tremendous ideas make a profound impression on the child's mind; and this impression may be best secured by watching the continuous growth of a plant from the seed." I confess to having read this passage with no little surprise. It may be well at times to strike out from the beaten track, and take independent views, but some things are, nevertheless, established. Mrs. Jacobi here ignores the latest progress in the methods of botanical study for minds of all grades. The plan of beginning the study of the vegetable kingdom by inquiries concerning life-processes is now discredited and abandoned by the best botanical authors and teachers. It is the old method of studying physiological botany before descriptive botany, or the inner mysteries of plant organization before the external characters and relations of plant-structures by which they are known and classified. In his botanical text-book, published more than forty years ago, Professor Gray began with the idea of life and growth, but, in the series of botanical text-books he is now preparing, the first volume is devoted to the study of the external aspects of plants. He recognizes that this should come first, saying, "It will furnish the needful preparation to those who proceed to the study of vegetable physiology and anatomy." The reasons for adopting this order are conclusive, but they are strongest in the case of beginners; and yet Mrs. Jacobi adopts the old plan condemned by experience, in the case of a child five years old. If there is any truth in mental science, or any value in the experience of practical teachers, there is in childhood a special intellectual fitness for acquiring a knowledge of the external characters of organisms, and an unfitness for grasping and comprehending the obscure and difficult operations of life as manifested by these organisms. Nor can the reason which Mrs. Jacobi offers for the course taken be for a moment accepted as sound. She would introduce a little child to the study of plants through the grand gateway of evolution, to impress it at the start with the tremendous conception of unfolding life. It is proper, and I have recommended it in my little book for beginners, to make the germination of seeds an experimental exercise in observation; and this is as far as the juvenile capacity can go. It is neither fitting nor possible that tremendous ideas should make a profound impression upon a child's mind. It has no capability either to appreciate or to receive them. Savages are incapable of wonder; they do not know enough to wonder. Said Professor Grove, in his address before the British Association at Nottingham, "If the primitive inhabitants of Britain could emerge and behold the wonderful triumphs of art and science in our civilization, it is doubtful if they would know enough to be astonished." And so with children. We may teach them to say of the stars, "How I wonder what you are!" but they do not wonder in the least. Only minds highly cultivated and widely informed are capable of appreciating the tremendous idea of evolution so as to be deeply impressed by it. We are not to suppose, because the young readily acquire terms and phrases, and seem in a way to understand them, that they are therefore in possession of their real and full meanings. There are stages in the process of assimilating ideas which the pupil reaches one after another in the slow course of mental unfolding. Before the period of its formal education, in the natural development of mind, the child never leaps forward into the complex and difficult, but insensibly grows into greater and greater strength through its spontaneous interest in simple things. This is the safest course to follow, because we are here on the solid ground of Nature's own method.