Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/November 1891/Do We Teach Geology?



THE late Prof. Alexander Winchell, who did so much to popularize geology in this country, asked, "Shall we teach geology?" and our educational institutions have answered the question in the affirmative by expending liberal sums for the endowment of chairs in schools and colleges. The question now is, not shall we teach, but do we teach geology?

No modern science has been so vaguely understood and so indefinitely represented as that of geology. Our text-books, as a rule, are from fifteen to twenty years behind in the presentation of the vast results of the army of investigators in the field; and even among the working geologists there are wide differences in regard to fundamental definitions and theories. This great study, which has done so much for the advancement of knowledge and for industry, is still in a chaotic condition; and even its elementary definitions, as given in our text-books, are conflicting.

In the popular mind, in consequence of the mighty throes into which geological interpretation precipitated religious thought, the science is usually considered an irreligious inquiry into the history of the earth, or a useless study of curious fossils and pretty minerals To the practical investigator and student, however, geology has but one meaning, and that is, the science which treats of the structure of the earth and its changes.

A glance at the curricula of our universities will show that few of them teach the subject on this basis; they deal with the science either in the old-fashioned historical way, or devote their energies to some narrow branch—for example, paleontology, microscopic petrography, or economic mineralogy.

Geology can in many ways be compared with architecture inasmuch as it is a scientific art, requiring a knowledge of many special arts and sciences. The architect must have a knowledge of mensuration, carpentry, masonry, materials, chemistry, physics decoration, and other specialties pertaining to house-building. Likewise the geologist or student of earth-structure must have a knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, mineralogy, mensuration, and all the sciences which are useful in interpreting this structure. Although we would never mistake a house-painter for an architect, we are overwhelmed by paleontologists, microscopists, and theologians who assume the title of geologists, and teach their narrow specialties under the broader name. An ethnologist who studies primitive dwellings is not an architect, yet how many astronomical data concerning pre-nebular hypotheses and pre-geological speculations are taught as geology, as if to mystify the minds of students!

I well remember a young man who went from one of our great universities a few years ago with particular mention upon his diploma that he had attained special excellence in geology; in later years he found himself face to face with some of the greater problems of earth-structure, and slowly it dawned upon him that he had no conception of what the study really was. He knew the names of many fossils and minerals, could enumerate the historical sequence of the geologic time-epochs, but when required to report upon a new and strange region he found himself ignorant of the four necessary geologic rudiments—determination, definition, distribution, and delineation.

There is hardly a college in the land in which the study of the structure of the earth is not made subservient to the study of its history and composition, and in which the student does not learn to consider the extraordinary instead of the ordinary, by being taught to begin away back in Archæan time, and thence to trace the history of life-epochs. But the working geologist regards time-nomenclature as a secondary consideration, and the word Archæan means to him only a common dumping-ground for all older terrenes whose structure has not been differentiated.

Geology is not a science of the past, but a grand study of the present structure of the earth, its contour, composition, and readjustments. Geology has nothing to do with the origin or beginning of the globe—a field of inquiry purely astronomical—but takes the earth where astronomy leaves it, a completed mass of matter, and investigates its changes. Although Hutton a hundred years ago presented this thought in his saying that in the economy of Nature there is no trace of a beginning or evidence of an ending, still much of our geologic instruction is wasted on these subjects.

The cultural aspects of civilization are due to geologic structure, but in how many of our institutions are students taught to appreciate the topography or configuration of the earth's surface and its relation to structure, or to observe with inquiring eye the forms and contours of the landscape? The student usually learns the chemistry of certain nicely arranged hand specimens of hard rocks, and memorizes the names of leading fossils or the crystallography of minerals under the guise of economic geology. As a result, the study is supposed to be merely the study of hard rocks and curious fossils. Although the student knows these by sight, he can not trace a rock-sheet above the ground or below it, or see the great soft terrenes void of fossils and rocks which make up the larger area of our country, and can not appreciate the broader relations of structure to agriculture, hygiene, climate, and civili. Hence the great unfossiliferous terrenes are unknown; for example, the non-mountainous regions of the West and South, over which in places one may travel from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico without finding a fossil, a crystal, or a building-stone.

There is but one geological laboratory, and that is the great out-of-doors; and no student should learn a fossil or a mineral until he has first studied the landscape and is able to distinguish one stratum with its topographic form from another as strata, and not as fossil beds or chemical compounds. A field-glass and a quiet seat upon a commanding eminence, where the local surroundings can be studied, are worth to the beginner miles of traveling about with hammer and specimen-bag; and a thorough curiosity aroused as to why one hill is flat, another round, or one stream broad and sluggish while another is narrow and rapid, is more valuable than a cabinet of curios. An inquiry as to the origin of sediment in a river, whence it came, and what will become of it, will lead to a grander conception of earth-stripping and formation-making than the memorizing of all the specimens in a laboratory.

It is not my wish to discourage the study of paleontology or petrography, but is it not a serious error to teach these first and geology later? They are to geology as trigonometry is to mathematics, something that follows the fundamental arithmetic and algebra.

Some one has said that geology begins and ends with the rain-drop. If not literally true, the saying is worthy of consideration; and if the teacher begins with it, his students will soon be familiar with the grand facts of the erosion and distribution of earth-matter, and the origin of the rock-sheets that make the whole, and the life-history of our earth's great cycles can be read.

When we lay by our icthyosauriaus and useless crystals for advanced study, and teach the ordinary and not the extraordinary features of the earth, geology will be appreciated, and every farmer, every builder of homes, every drinker of water, will learn that upon a knowledge of its simple laws his success depends.

To the high-school student a knowledge of the structure of the earth is as important as chemistry or foreign languages; but, until some simple text-book is written dealing with the subject on these lines, it is not to be expected that geology will be generally taught.

The principal achievement recorded in Dr. Hugo Zoller's recent explorations in New Guinea consists in the ascent of the Finisterre Mountains to a height of 8,700 feet, and the discovery of a still loftier range inland, which appeared to be covered with snow. Comparative vocabularies are given of forty-four languages, most of which were collected by the author himself or under his supervision.