Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

What is called “nature study” at the primary end and “the natural sciences” at the university end of a school career forms a group of subjects which in matter and manner stand in conscious contrast with the humanities. The humanities are concerned with men, their affairs, ideas, expression; the study of nature is concerned with those conditions under which men live that are beyond human power to create–with the whole environment of life, in short, with the physical world. History is the center and frame of the humanities; cosmology, the architecture of the universe, is the center and frame of the study of nature. The two groups of studies are thus contrasting and complementary; one might well put it, that the study of nature and the sciences gives the staging and scenery, the study of the humanities gives the action of the drama of life. Neither is dispensable to a true enlightenment.

The great purpose of the study of nature is to give the setting of life. It must give a conception of the form of the heavens and of the movements of the stars, and of the sun and earth, and of the changing hours of the day and seasons of the year; and this we call astronomy. It must give a conception of the structure and formation of the earth on which we dwell, zone and clime, sea and continent; and this we call geology and geography. It must give an understanding of the forms of movement, molar and molecular, and of all the varied energies which appear to us as material things and phenomena; and this we call mechanical, physical, chemical science. It must also give an understanding of the development, variety, and activities of living beings, vegetal and animal; and this is biological science, with botany and zoology as its fundamental divisions, and many special branches–morphological, physiological, pathological–dealing with particular phases of the complex whole. Finally, the scientific study of nature includes the study of man himself as an animal and as a social being–for man, too, is a part of the furniture of creation; and here we have the anthropological and psychological sciences, the political, economic, and social sciences.

In the pursuit of studies chosen from so vast an array of subjects it is all too easy to become absorbed in the details of special mastery at a cost of the loss of an understanding of what the general objects of the study of nature should be. It is clear enough that the teaching of nature study and of the sciences can be intelligent only when these objects are understood by the teacher and made plain to the pupil. It becomes, therefore, the teacher’s first duty to keep their definition always in mind, as a kind of mental reservation guiding all instruction even if not explicit in it.

Classification of the Sciences

These objects of the study of nature are in general represented by the distinction between “theoretical” and “applied” science–and there is not a single field of science which has not these two forms. Theoretical science is that which undertakes no more than to answer the questions put by our natural human curiosity. “All men by nature desire to know,” is the first sentence in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and it expresses a truth of human nature which the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in Eden (for which, I imagine, none of us are profoundly sorry) is but another and allegorical expression. As put in a more modem form, science is first of all an investigation into truth–truth for its own sake, irrespective of all desires or preferences. This may be thrown into relation with the great fundamental fact that all theoretical science is interested in the discovery of law, and that the phrase “scientific law” has become for us the modern substitute for an ancient notion of fate or necessity. The laws of science–such as the great physical law of gravitation, or the great biological law of the evolution of life–are not at all “laws” in our human and legal sense of the word. Scientific laws are impartial statements of how natural forces operate, of how things act, whether these things be moving stars, blossoming plants, or fluctuating prices on the stock exchange. Political and moral laws are imperative statements of how men ought to act under given circumstances. We “obey” scientific law only in the sense that there is no possible deviation from it; we “obey” civil and moral law only in a sense which implies possible disobedience. Furthermore, the fundamental aim of knowledge of natural law is knowledge of truth; it answers to an appetite for knowing and understanding. The fundamental aim of civil law is attainment of the good; it answers to our hopes for the betterment of society.

The first gift of the study of nature is, then, respect– nay, reverence, for the truth, irrespective of its effect upon us. It is in this sense that the study of nature and of the sciences is a liberalizing study, and a proper part of a liberal education. Of course, in last analysis, we believe the effect to be the good of society. It is good just because it develops a special attitude of mind which we call the “scientific attitude,” and which is an attitude of impartiality and exactitude toward facts, and of an earnest desire to get at and understand all facts, and therefore of a love of truth in all things. And this attitude of fairness and truthfulness is of immense value to men in all their social relations. Who, for example, can imagine any attitude in a judge that would better serve justice than must a love of the truth? Or who can conceive a legislator better fitted for his task than by an ability to see facts and conditions impartially and impersonally? The “scientific attitude” is of so enormous an importance to society that the greatest educational effort is justified in securing its development in the greatest possible number of citizens; and it would be a negligent teacher of science, or of that “nature study” which leads up to science, who could ever forget that his first and paramount purpose must be the cultivation of the love of truth and the power to perceive it. This is the corner-stone value of science to society, and therefore in education.

What are called the “empirical method” and the “virtue of suspended judgment,” or “scientific caution,” are all but special phases of the scientific attitude, and all rest upon the fundamental fact of the love of truth. The empirical method means really nothing more than painstaking in the discovery of facts; suspended judgment means open-mindedness in the reading of facts, and a willingness to change one’s mind. These, also, as anyone must recognize, are social virtues of the greatest value in human society–where men are all too ready to suspect one another’s motives without due investigation. Indeed, one might say that just as the scientific love of truth is but a special cultivation of the virtue of honesty, so scientific caution is but a special cultivation of the virtue of generosity–and all that cultivates such virtues cannot but make for the good of society.

Thus it is that while theoretical science does not aim directly at the good of society, indirectly it is of immense significance in the securing of the general good. “Applied science,” on the other hand, is the direct use of scientific truths for the social good. “Applied science” means merely that knowledge acquired in the theoretical spirit is used in the securing of desirable ends. A most obvious science of this sort is medicine, which has its theoretical aspect (as when the physician speaks of his patient as a “case”), but which is and is felt by most persons to be cultivated primarily for the healing of the sick. Not less obviously useful are engineering and agricultural science, in each case representing the application of facts discovered in the theoretical spirit to the needs and enterprises of men. In truth there is no science that has not its form of application; even the astronomer’s knowledge of stars measurelessly remote from earth is practically important in the observations by means of which he regulates and synchronizes all the clocks that strike together, telling the hours of work and the hours of rest throughout the civilized world. Nay, the applications of science are so many and important that they are rather a menace to the teacher’s and the student’s understanding, than a help to it; and one of the serious problems which educators face at this hour is the quite inevitable tendency of all minds to emphasize the value of applied science to the clouding of their consciousness of the prior and greater importance of theoretical science. For unless the cultivation of the “scientific attitude” be maintained in its purity, by the cultivation of theoretical science, the whole structure of scientific knowledge will inevitably degenerate into a series of specialized crafts or trades: the mechanic, the inventor, and the virtuoso will take the place of the investigator, and scientific discovery will be at an end. There is profound significance in the fact that in this present tremendous war the methods which the government of the United States is making most use of have been contrived for it, not by specialist scientists of the great manufacturing plants, but by the theoretical scientists of our universities; and when the history of the war is written no single class of men in the nation will be found to have done, I will not say more, but so much for the common cause, as have the trained university men.

In so fully sketching the importance of the study of nature in education, I have allowed myself little space for a consideration of the method. But little space is needed if the fundamental fact be grasped that the teacher’s first and constant task must be the cultivation of the virtues of the scientific attitude.

As in the case of history, where a time-form is the elementary necessity, so in the case of nature study my own view is that a space-form is the elementary necessity. The first book I can remember being fascinated by (before I could read) was a little yellow-backed geography having for frontispiece a crude diagram of our solar system–sun, moon and earth–Jupiter with his satellites, Saturn with his rings. That gave me a space-form for my knowledge of nature–which has, I trust, grown with the years; and I cannot imagine a better introduction. Nowadays teachers begin the study of geography with the schoolyard and town, and then go on to county, state, nation, and globe–like a sort of induction; and I do not quarrel with the method except when it is used alone. But just as in the study of history, we should begin not only with the near story of the United States but also with the remote one of ancient history and the Biblical time-form, so in the study of nature we should unite with attention turned to the near environment an attention directed to the world as a whole. By and large, I believe the most valuable single piece of apparatus a school can own is a good globe (or even a poor one). As the Greeks wisely saw, the circle and the sphere are the simplest of spatial ideas, and the beginning infant is already endowed with an understanding that will enable him to grasp the notion that he lives upon a revolving ball, and that all celestial bodies move in gracious curves.

In the advance, on through geography and elementary astronomy to the story of the earth’s formation and the classification of plant and animal life, the grades will have performed their necessary introduction to the more detailed work undertaken by the high school and college. Certainly, it should not be until the high school is reached that any emphasis should be laid upon method–or the word itself used. Children look outwardly and wonderingly at a vastly interesting world, and it could be only crime to call their attention to themselves–for the study of method is but a form of introspection. Nor should method ever (short of a post-graduate college) be made more important than the matter; there is an immense lot to be learned in the study of nature, and there need be but one rule in its inculcation, and that is that it be taught sanely. My notion of sanity in nature study I have, I trust, made clear; it must be the constant and conscious preservation of a mind single upon the truth, seeking ever to conform to the good scientific rule of parsimony (not to use hypotheses beyond necessity) and to give, if naught else, a true comprehension to the meaning of law as applied to the world of nature’s phenomena.

There is, of course, also a humanistic phase to the study of science, and this is the study of the history of science, which is today rapidly coming forward as a university branch. Indeed, a most interesting theory of a “new humanism” based primarily upon the history of science is advocated by George Sarton, in a recent number of Scientia, in which the author would replace the “old humanism” almost wholly by a study of scientific progress. This, it is needless for me to say, is going beyond reason. But I do believe, and have long believed, that the study of the history of science is one of the most valuable of the means open to a liberal training in the schools; and were I the organizer of college curricula, I should place it in the first year of college work, encouraging students to enter into the specialized and limited work of the laboratory courses only after they had made such a survey of the growth and meaning of the study of nature, in the history of mankind, as should serve to keep clear before them the great ends which this study should follow and the great benefits which it may bring to the state and to the ennoblement of human nature.