Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/January 1891/Elementary Botany in General Education



AS I understand it, we may regard the study of botany as approachable from three points of view. We may speak of three ends to be attained: those of (1) elementary botany as a school-subject of general education; (2) advanced botany, as a subject of university or academic training, with a view to teaching and research; (3) special botany, for various purposes in after-life—e. g., those of foresters, planters, agriculturists, horticulturists, brewers, medical men, timber merchants, etc.

This is, of course, a merely aribitrary division for the argument, and not a philosophical classification of the subject-matter of the science of botany.

The next point is the scope of the teaching in each case. I should advocate that all children pass through the preliminary training embraced under No. 1 . Not only so, but I would urge the usefulness and importance of elementary botany in schools quite apart from its possible pursuit afterward.

It seems to me that the time is gone by when we need discuss the direct applicability of teaching in elementary schools; if school training is read to mean education in the true sense of the word, then there is no necessity for asking that a boy and girl should learn at school only those subjects of which they will make direct application as they grow older. Of course, this does not preclude our keeping in mind the relative utility of the various subjects to be taught, but it does—and emphatically—preclude our falling into the error of imagining that a school subject is of educational value only in proportion to its direct and foreseen utility in the application afterward. In other words, education and teaching may be, and often are, very different things.

Now, as I understand it, the nineteenth century has discovered—possibly rediscovered—the truth that you may impart a wondrous amount of information to a boy or girl without awakening those powers of observing and comparing that lie dormant in the minds of most healthy human beings, and especially when young; and that many a brilliant boy grows up without being able to draw correct inferences from the phenomena around him, and therefore less able than he should be to hold his own in the world he awakes in.

The peculiarity of the study of elementary botany, properly understood and pursued, lies especially in the interest it arouses in the child's mind, and the ease with which it may be taught, and I would insist and reinsist on the fact that it stimulates and cultivates just those powers of accurate observation and comparison, and careful conscientious recording of the results, which are so needed by us all; and which, be it understood, moreover, come so naturally to children who are not too much under the baneful influence of the mere instruction—the mere information—system.

What I wish to emphasize is that the educational value of this subject is no more to be measured merely by the number and kind of facts which the child remembers, than is the educational value of history to be measured by the dates learned, and the lists of kings and battles committed to memory. History, reading and writing, arithmetic, and other subjects, have an educational value, if properly taught, quite apart from their value as mere accomplishments, which may be granted; but children are naturally observers, and why this side of their hungry little natures should be starved at the expense of their usefulness in after-life has always been a mystery to me.

To those who allow this, and I am happy to see that their numbers are now many, it should hardly be necessary to point out that the elements of botany afford the cheapest, cleanest, and most easily attained means of cultivating in children the powers of observing and comparing direct from Nature, and of leading them to generalize accurately.

Of course, no advocacy is needed for good preliminary education in elementary botany in the case of those who are about to continue the pursuit of the subject as an academic study, or for a special purpose, as noted under the headings (2) and (3); but a few words may be devoted to pointing out the shocking waste of time and energy on the part of all concerned in the prevailing cases where students come up to a university, or other institution for higher education, insufficiently prepared for progressive study.

It is still true that boys and young men leave school without so much as a notion of the real meaning and aims of science; this applies no less to subjects like physics and chemistry, which are professedly much taught in schools now, than to subjects like natural history and botany, which, though avowedly in the curriculum of some good schools, are usually entirely ignored.

There is considerable discussion about the details, but many practical teachers regard such subjects as unfitted for school, because the boys and girls soon cease to be interested, and get lost in the masses of facts and hard names that beset their path; this, to my mind, simply shows where the whole system is wrong, and wrong because the tyrant empiricism still rules the prevailing methods of teaching in schools.

I shall go so far as to say that the only remedy for this state of things is for the teachers to lose that blind worship of facts, as facts, which dominates our school system. I am aware that this lays me open to very serious misconstructions, but I hope to make that all right in the sequel.

I would say to the teachers, therefore, Do not fall into the mistake of measuring a boy's progress by the amount of dogmatic information which he imbibes, and splutters forth upon his examination papers, but look to the quality of his understanding of the relations between relatively few and well-chosen facts; and again, pay less attention to the number of facts which a boy observes and of names he remembers, and more to the way in which he directly makes his observations, and intelligently describes them, even if untechnically.

This is, I firmly believe, the only cure for the malady under consideration—i. e., it is the prevention of it.

Children in schools are taught most subjects from printed books, and it is not my province to criticise the necessity of this as regards those subjects; but let a competent teacher try the experiment of making the children read directly from Nature, and he will soon see that the new exercises have a powerful effect. They will stumble, and they will even make stupid mistakes and mispronunciations; but do they not do so when they are reading—i. e., observing and comparing and interpreting—printed words in a book? Of course they do, and therefore the teacher must not be discouraged by their stumbling and misapprehending when first they have to look at and compare different leaves and flowers, and give forth the articulate sounds which correspond to the impressions created on their minds.

Every weary teacher knows what a blessing is variety in the studies of the class, and it passes my comprehension why advantage is not taken of the splendid opportunity offered by the study of elementary observational botany.

We now come to the important subject of method. How should botany be taught?

Elementary botany in schools should be confined to lessons in observation and comparison of plants, and the greatest possible care should be taken that books are not allowed to replace the natural objects themselves. Indeed, I would go so far as to advise that books be used only as an aid to the teacher, were it not that a judiciously written text-book might be employed later on by even young children as a sort of reading-book.

The chief aids should be the parts of living plants themselves, however, and, in spite of the outcry that may be expected from pedantic town teachers, I must insist that every school might be easily provided all the year round with materials for study. I even venture to think that these materials might be collected by the children themselves; at any rate, there should be no difficulty about this in the country.

I will illustrate these remarks by a few examples. The teaching of elementary botany to children should commence with the observation of external form, and might well be initiated by a comparative study of the shapes of leaves, the peculiarities of insertion, their appendages, and so on.

The point never to be lost sight of is that if you teach a child to discriminate, with the plants in hand and, from observation only, between such objects as the simple, heart-shaped, opposite, ex-stipulate stalked leaves of a lilac, and the compound, pinnate, alternate, stipulate leaves of a rose, you lay the foundations of a power for obtaining knowledge which is in no way to be measured merely by the amount or kind of information imparted. It does not matter whether the child learns the trivial facts mentioned above, or not, but it is of the highest importance that the child be taught how to obtain knowledge by such direct observation and comparison; and the beauty of it all is that, as is well known, the child will retain most of such information as mere matter of course.

For the main purpose in hand, therefore, it may be contended that any objects would do.

This is no doubt true in one sense, but it should not be forgotten that (1) the mental exercise on the part of the child is best exerted on natural objects, to say nothing of the admitted advantages of familiarizing him with Nature; and (2) the parts of plants are so varied, so beautiful, and so common, that he need never lack materials for his simple and pleasant work. Moreover, the parts of plants are clean, light, and easily handled—practical advantages which recommend themselves.

I feel convinced that, if the teachers were not opposed to it, the subject would ere now have been more widely taught; and I shall therefore say a few words in anticipation of difficulties. It has been suggested that materials would be scarce in winter. Not at all. Let the children be familiarized with the observation and comparison of the peculiarities of a sprig of holly as contrasted with one of ivy; or let them be shown how different are the buds and leafless shoots of the beech from those of the oak or the horse-chestnut. Show them how to observe the bud-scales, how to infer the leaf-arrangement from the scars, how to notice the color, roughness, markings, etc., of the periderm. Or give them introductory notions as to the nature of a hyacinth bulb as contrasted with the potato tuber, confining their attention to points which they can make out by observation. Every nut or orange or apple that the child eats might be made interesting if teachers would dare step over the traces of convention, and introduce such ostensibly dangerous articles into classwork—and why not? The doctrine of rewards and punishments is applied more crudely than this in most children's schools!

Be this as it may, there is no lack of material, at any season, for children to observe and compare, plant in hand, the peculiarities of shape, color, insertion, markings, etc., of the leaves, stems, roots, and other parts. The difficulties are supposed to increase when the flower is reached; this is not necessarily the case in the hands of a sympathetic teacher, unless the choice of flowers is very unfortunate and limited.

There is one danger to be avoided here, however. Young children should not be troubled with the difficulties of theoretical morphology; they should be made familiar with the more obvious roots, stems, leaves, tendrils, thorns, flowers, bulbs, tubers, etc., as such, and comparatively, and not forced to concern themselves with such ideas as that the flower is a modified shoot, the bulb a bud, the tendril a leaf or branch, etc., until they have learned simply to observe and compare accurately. Later on, of course, the step must be taken of rousing their minds to the necessity of drawing further conclusions from their comparative observations in addition to recording and classifying them; but, if the teacher is really capable of teaching, it will be found that the children begin to suggest these conclusions themselves, and, this stage once reached, the success of the method is insured.

Glimpses of the meanings of adaptations of structure to function soon follow, but they should be obvious and simple at first, and the mistake should not be made of entangling a child in a discussion as to more remote meanings. It should never be forgotten, in fact, that the first steps consist in learning to observe accurately and to record faithfully, comparative exercise being used in addition, both as a check and as a stimulus to the judgment.

  1. From a discussion at the Leeds Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, reported at length in Nature for October 23, 1890.