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- Louis Agassiz as a Teacher - 1/8 -


LOUIS AGASSIZ.

ILLUSTRATIVE EXTRACTS ON HIS METHOD OF INSTRUCTION

WITH AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE

BY

LANE COOPER

PROFESSOR OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE IN CORNELL UNIVERSITY.

The beauty of his better self lives on In minds he touched with fire, in many an eye He trained to Truth's exact severity; 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.

--Lowell, Agassiz.

PREFACE

If it be asked why a teacher of English should be moved to issue this book on Agassiz, my reply might be: 'Read the Introductory Note'-for the answer is there. But doubtless the primary reason is that I have been taught, and I try to teach others, after a method in essence identical with that employed by the great naturalist. And I might go on to show in some detail that a doctoral investigation in the humanities, when the subject is well chosen, serves the same purpose in the education of a student of language and literature as the independent, intensive study of a living or a fossil animal, when prescribed by Agassiz to a beginner in natural science. But there is no need to elaborate the point. Of those who are likely to examine the book, some already know the underlying truth involved, others will grasp it when it is first presented to them (and for these my slight and pleasant labors are designed), and the rest will find a stumbling-block and foolishness--save for the entertainment to be had in the reading of biography.

I have naturally kept in mind the needs of my own students, past and present, yet I believe these pages may be useful to students of natural science as well as to those who concern themselves with the humanities. We live in an age of narrow specialization--at all events in America. Agassiz was a specialist, but not a 'narrow' one. His example should therefore be salutary to those persons, on the one hand, who think that a man can have general culture without knowing some one thing from the bottom up, and, on the other, to those who immerse themselves and their pupils blindly in special investigation, without thought of the _prima philosophia_ that gives life and meaning to all particular knowledge. There can be no doubt that science and scholarship in this country are suffering from a lack of sympathy and contact between the devotees of the several branches, and for want of definite efforts to bridge the gaps between various disciplines wherever this is possible. It may not often be possible until men of science generally again take up the study of Plato and Aristotle, or at least busy themselves, as did Agassiz, with some comprehensive modern philosopher like Schelling. But it should not be very hard for those who are engaged in the biological sciences and those who are given to literary pursuits to realize that they are alike interested in the manifestations of one and the same thing, the principle of life. In Agassiz himself the vitality of his studies and the vitality of the man are easily identified.

In conclusion I must thank the publishers, Houghton Mifflin Company, for the use of selections from the copyright books of Mrs. Agassiz and Professor Shaler; these and all other obligations are, I trust, indicated in the proper places by footnotes. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Professor Burt G. Wilder for his interest and help throughout.

LANE COOPER

CORNELL UNIVERSITY,

April 7, 1917.

CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTORY NOTE

II. AGASSIZ AT NEUCHATEL

III. AGASSIZ AT HARVARD

IV. HOW AGASSIZ TAUGHT PROFESSOR SHALER

V. HOW AGASSIZ TAUGHT PROFESSOR VERRILL

VI. HOW AGASSIZ TAUGHT PROFESSOR WILDER

VII. How AGASSIZ TAUGHT PROFESSOR SCUDDER

VIII. THE DEATH OF AGASSIZ--HIS PERSONALITY

IX. OBITER DICTA BY AGASSIZ

X. PASSAGES FOR COMPARISON WITH THE METHOD OF AGASSIZ

I

INTRODUCTORY NOTE

When the question was put to Agassiz, 'What do you regard as your greatest work?' he replied: 'I have taught men to observe.' And in the preamble to his will he described himself in three words as 'Louis Agassiz, Teacher.'

We have more than one reason to be interested in the form of instruction employed by so eminent a scientist as Agassiz. In the first place, it is much to be desired that those who concern themselves with pedagogy should give relatively less heed to the way in which subjects, abstractly considered, ought to be taught, and should pay more attention than I fear has been paid to the way in which great and successful teachers actually have taught their pupils. As in other fields of human endeavor, so in teaching: there is a portion of the art that cannot be taken over by one person from another, but there is a portion, and a larger one than at first sight may appear, that can be so taken over, and can be almost directly utilized. Nor is the possible utility of imitation diminished, but rather increased, when we contemplate the method of a teacher like Agassiz, whose mental operations had the simplicity of genius, and in whose habits of instruction the fundamentals of a right procedure become very obvious.

Yet there is a second main reason for our interest. Within recent years we have witnessed an extraordinary development in certain studies, which, though superficially different from those pursued by Agassiz, have an underlying bond of unity with them, but which are generally carried on without reference to principles governing the investigation of every organism and all organic life. I have in mind, particularly, the spread of literary and linguistic study in America during the last few decades, and the lack of a common standard of judgment among those who engage in such study. Most persons do not, in fact, discern the close, though not obvious, relation between investigation in biology or zoology and the observation and comparison of those organic forms which we call forms of literature and works of art. Yet the notion that a poem or a speech should possess the organic structure, as it were, of a living creature is basic in the thought of the great literary critics of all time. So Aristotle, a zoologist as well as a systematic student of literature, compares the essential structure of a tragedy to the form of an animal. And so Plato, in the _Phaedrus_, makes Socrates say: 'At any rate, you will allow that every discourse ought to be a living creature, having a body of its own, and a head and feet; there should be a middle, beginning, and end, adapted to one another and to the whole.' It would seem that to Plato an oration represents an organic idea in the mind of the human creator, the orator, just as a living animal represents a constructive idea in the mind of God. Now it happens that Agassiz, considered in his philosophical relations, was a Platonist, since he clearly believed that the forms of nature expressed the eternal ideas of a divine intelligence.

Accordingly, his method of teaching cannot fail to be illuminating to the teacher of literature--or to the teacher of language, either, since each language as a whole, and also the component parts of language, words, for instance, are living and growing forms, and must be studied as organisms. We have perhaps heard too much of 'laboratory' methods in the teaching of English and the like; but none of us has heard too much about the fundamental operations of observation and comparison in the study of living forms, or of the way in which great teachers have developed the original powers of the student. It is simply the fact that, reduced to the simplest terms, there is but a single method of investigating the objects of natural science and the productions of human genius. We study a poem, the work of man's art, in the same way that Agassiz made Shaler study a fish, the work of God's art; the object in either case is to discover the relation between form or structure and function or essential effect. It was no chance utterance of Agassiz when he said that a year or two of natural history, studied as he understood it, would give the best kind of training for any other sort of mental work.

The following passages will illustrate Agassiz's ideals and practice in teaching, the emphasis being laid upon his dealings with special students. A few biographical details are introduced in order to round out our conception of the personality of the teacher himself. Toward the close, certain of his opinions are given in his own words.

I would call special attention to an extract from Boeckh's _Encyclopadie_, and another from the _Symposium_ of Plato, on pp. 69-74, and to the similarity between the method of study there enjoined upon the student of the humanities, or indeed of all art and nature, and the method imposed by Agassiz upon the would-be entomologist who was compelled first of all to observe a fish. In


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