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Full text of "Louis Agassiz, teacher"

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- [Reprinted, with slight change, from The Harvard Graduates' Magazine, June, 

1907.] 

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LOUIS AGASSIZ, TEACHER. 

The phrase adopted as the title of this article begins his simple Will. 
Agassiz was likewise an investigator, a director of research, and the 
founder of a great museum. He really was four men in one. Without 
detracting from the extent and value of the three other elements of his 
intense and composite American life, from his first course of lectures 
before the Lowell Institute in 1846 to the inauguration of the Anderson 
Summer School of Natural History at Penikese Island, July 8, 1873, 
and his address before the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, 
twelve days before his untimely death on Dec. 14, 1873, Agassiz was 
preeminently a teacher. He taught his assistants ; he taught the teach- 
ers in the public schools ; he taught college students ; he taught the pub- 
lic, and the common people heard him gladly. His unparalleled achieve- 
ments as an instructor are thus chronicled by his wife : 

" A teacher in the widest sense, he sought and found his pupils in 
every class. But in America for the first time did he come into contact 
with the general mass of the people on this common ground, and it influ- 
enced strongly his final resolve to remain in this country. Indeed the 
secret of his greatest power was to be found in the sympathetic, human 
side of his character. Out of his broad humanity grew the genial personal 
influence, by which he awakened the enthusiasm of his audiences for 
unwonted themes, inspired his students to disinterested services like his 
own, delighted children in the school-room, and won the cordial interest 
as well as the cooperation in the higher aims of science, of all classes, 
whether rich or poor." 

As a general statement the foregoing could not be improved. But the 
invitation to prepare this article contained a suggestion of particularity 
with which it is possible for me to comply. 1 The courses given by 
Agassiz on Zoology and Geology were attended by me during the three 
years (1859-62) of my pupilage with Jeffries Wyman, and the two 
years (1866-68) in which I was the assistant of Agassiz himself. Natu- 
rally, and also for special reasons, the deepest impression was made by 
the first and the last of these courses. With the former the charm of 

1 Not only have I preserved all the letters from Agassiz, the first dated Sept. 
4, 1866, and the last Nov. 25, 1873, but also my diaries in which are recorded all sig- 
nificant incidents and conversations from my first introduction in 1856 to the last 
interview, Sept. 5, 1878. 






604 Louis Agassiz, Teacher. [June, 

novelty intensified the great, indeed indescribable, charm of the speaker. 
No topic was to me so important as the general problem of animal life, 
and no expositor could compare with Agassiz. As an outlet for my 
enthusiasm each discourse was repeated, to the best of my ability, for the 
benefit of my companion, James Herbert Morse, '63, on the daily four- 
mile walk between Cambridge and our Brookline home. So sure was 
I that all the statements of Agassiz were correct and all his conclusions 
sound, that any doubts or criticisms upon the part of my acute and un- 
prejudiced friend shocked me as a reprehensible compound of heresy and 
Ihse-majeste. 

The last course that I heard from Agassiz in Cambridge began on Oct. 
23, 1867, and closed on Jan. 11, 1868. It was memorable for him and 
for me. At the outset he announced that some progress had been made 
in the University toward the adoption of an elective system for the stu- 
dents, and that he proposed to apply the principle to his own instruc- 
tion and should devote the entire course of 21 lectures to the Selachians 
(sharks and rays), a group in which he had been deeply interested for 
many years and upon which he was then preparing a volume. This lim- 
itation to a favorite topic inspired him to unusual energy and eloquence. 
My notes are quite full,, but I now wish the lectures had been reported 
verbatim. This course was signalized also by two special innovations, 
viz. : the exhibition of living fish and the free use of museum specimens. 
That, so far as possible, all biologic instruction should be objective was 
with Agassiz an educational dogma, and upon several notable occasions 
its validity had been demonstrated under very unfavorable conditions. 
Yet, during the five years of my attendance upon his lectures, they were 
seldom illustrated otherwise than by his ready and graphic 'blackboard 
drawings. The simple fact was that the intervals between his lectures 
were so crowded with multifarious, pressing, and never-ending demands 
upon his time and strength that he could seldom determine upon the 
precise subject long enough in advance for him, or any one else, to bring 
together the desirable specimens or even charts. The second lecture of 
the course already mentioned is characterized in my diary as " splendid," 
and as " for the first time illustrated with many specimens." At one of 
the later lectures, after speaking about 15 minutes, he invited his hearers 
to examine living salmon embryos under his direction at one table, and 
living shark embryos under mine at another. 

Like those of Wyman, the courses given by Agassiz were Senior elec- 
tives. I never heard of any examination upon them ; nor is it easy to 
imagine Agassiz as preparing a syllabus or formulating or correcting an 
examination-paper. His personality and the invariable attendance of 
teachers and other adults precluded the necessity of disciplinary mea- 



1907. J Louis Agassiz, Teacher. 605 

sures. But his attitude toward, student misconduct was clearly shown in 
an incident recorded by me elsewhere. 1 The method pursued by Agassiz 
with his laboratory students has been described by Scudder. 2 Although 
I was to prepare specimens at his personal expense, a somewhat similar 
test was applied. He placed before me a dozen young " acanths " (dog- 
fish sharks) telling me to find out what I could about them. After three 
days he gave me other specimens, saying, " When you go back to the 
little sharks you will know more about them than if you kept on with 
them now ; " meaning, I suppose, that I should then have gained a better 
perspective. 

Although, as I recall upon several occasions, Agassiz could express 
his views delightfully and impressively to a single auditor, his eminently 
social nature and his lifelong habit rendered it easier for him to address 
a group of interested listeners. The following incident does not seem 
to have been recorded in my diary, but it is distinctly remembered. 
During the publication of the " Journey in Brazil," a French translation 
was made by M. Felix Vogeli. With this the publishers desired to incor- 
porate a chapter giving the latest views of Agassiz upon Classification 
and Evolution. In vain was he besought to write it. He hated writing, 
and was too busy. At last, in desperation, M. Vogeli came to the Museum 
with Mrs. Agassiz, and together they persuaded the Professor to dictate 
the required matter in the form of a lecture. For this, however, an 
audience was indispensable. The exigency was explained to the Museum 
staff ; we assembled in the lecture-room and the discourse began. To the 
dismay of some of us it proved to be in French, but we tried to look as 
if we comprehended it all. 

Agassiz handled all specimens with greatest care and naturally had 
little patience with clumsiness ; the following incident illustrates both his 
kindly spirit and his self-restraint. At one of the lectures he had handed 
down for inspection a very rare and costly fossil, from the coal measures 
I think ; including the matrix, it had about the size and shape of the palm of 
the hand. He cautioned us not to drop it. When it had reached about the 
middle of the audience a crash was heard. The precious thing had been 
dropped by a new and somewhat uncouth assistant whom we will call Dr. 
X. He hastily gathered up the pieces and rushed out of the room. For 
a few seconds Agassiz stood as if himself petrified ; then, without even 
an "Excuse me," he vanished by the same door. Presently he returned, 
flushed, gazing ruefully at the fragments in his hand, covered with muci- 
lage or liquid glue. After a pause, during which those who knew him 

1 " Agassiz at Penikese," American Naturalist, March, 1898, p. 194. 

2 Every Saturday, vol. 1 6, pp. 369-370. Reproduced in Marcou's Life, Letters and 
Works of Agassiz, vol. 2, p. 94. 



606 Louis Agassiz, Teacher. [June. 

not awaited an explosive denunciation of gmieherie, Agassiz said quietly, 
" In Natural History it is not enough to know how to study specimens ; 
it is also necessary to know how to handle them," and then proceeded 
with his lecture. 

His helpful attitude toward prospective teachers was exhibited in the 
following incidents. After my appointment to Cornell University in 
October, 1867, he arranged for me to give a course of six " University 
Lectures," and warned me to prepare for them carefully because he 
should give me a " raking down." He attended them all (at what in- 
terruption of his own work I realize better now) and discussed them and 
my methods very frankly with me. Omitting the commendations, the 
following comments may be useful to other professorial tyros : 1. The 
main question or thesis should be stated clearly and concisely at the out- 
set, without compelling the hearer to perform all the mental operations 
that have led the speaker to his own standpoint. 2, In dealing with the 
history of a subject the value of each successive contribution should be 
estimated in the light of the knowledge at the period, not of that at the 
present time. 

The following educational aphorisms were uttered upon various occa- 
sions, and some have been published already. They should be known 
wherever science is taught. " It is much more important for a naturalist 
to understand the structure of a few animals than to command the whole 
field of scientific nomenclature." " Methods may determine the result." 
" The only true scientific system must be one in which the thought, the 
intellectual structure, rises out of and is based upon facts." " He is lost, as 
an observer, who believes that he can, with impunity, affirm that for which 
he can adduce no evidence." "There should be a little museum in every 
school-room." "A physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle." 
" A laboratory of natural history is a sanctuary ; sooner than there would 
I tolerate improprieties in a church." " Study Nature, not books." 
" Have the courage to say, I do not know." 

The fast-diminishing number of them that enjoyed the priceless privi- 
lege of gaining instruction direct from Agassiz need not be reminded of 
the obligation implied in the memorial lines of James Russell Lowell : 

" He was a Teacher ; why be grieved for him 
Whose living word still stimulates the air ? 
In endless file shall loving scholars come, 
The glow of his transmitted touch to share." 

Burt G. Wilder, s '62, m '66. 
Cornell University. 



Cjauloi'd z= 

PAM PHLET BINDER 

^^^ Syracuse, N. Y. 
^^^ Stockton, Calif. 



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