Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/My Schools and Schoolmasters

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 26 January 1885  (1885) 
My Schools and Schoolmasters
By John Tyndall

MY SCHOOLS AND SCHOOLMASTERS.[1]
By Professor TYNDALL.

OUR lives are interwoven here below, frequently, indeed most frequently, without our knowing it. We are in great part molded by unconscious interaction. Thus, without intending it, the present representative of the Birkbeck family in Yorkshire has helped to shape my life. In 1856, or thereabout, Mr. John Birkbeck aided in founding on the slope of a Swiss mountain the Æggischhorn Hotel. The success of this experiment provoked in the neighboring commune a spirit of rivalry and imitation, and accordingly upon a bold bluff overlooking the Great Aletsch glacier was subsequently planted the Bel Alp Hotel. To the Bel Alp I went in my wanderings. Seeing it often, I liked it well, until at length the thought dawned upon me of building a permanent nest there. Before doing so, however, I imitated the birds, chose and was chosen by a mate who, like myself, loved the freedom of the mountains, and we built our nest together. From that nest I have come straight to the Birkbeck Institution, so that the following chain of connection stretches between Mr. John Birkbeck and me: Without him there would have been no Æggischhorn; without the Æggischhorn there would have been no Bel Alp; without Bel Alp there would have been no Tyndall's nest, and without that nest the person who now addresses you would undoubtedly be a different man from what he is. His bone would have been different bone; his flesh different flesh— nay, the very gray matter of his brain, which is said to be concerned in the production of thought, would have been different from what it now is. I wrote to Mr. Norris from the Alps asking him to choose between a purely scientific lecture and an address based on the experiences of my own life. He chose the latter. I do not, however, ask you to blame Mr. Norris, but to blame me, if a chapter from the personal history of a worker, instead of proving a stimulus and an aid, should seem to you flat, stale, and unprofitable.,. . Speaking of the opportune beneficence of Dr. Birkbeck's movement reminds me that, in the days of my youth, personally and directly, I derived profit from that movement. In 1 842 and thereabout it was my privilege to be a member of the Preston Mechanics' Institution—to attend its lectures and make use of its library. One experiment made in these lectures I have never forgotten—Surgeon Corless, I think it was, who lectured on respiration, explaining, among other things, the changes produced by the passage of air through the lungs. What went in as free oxygen came out bound up in carbonic acid. To prove this he took a flask of lime-water, and, by means of a glass tube dipped into it, forced his breath through the water. The carbonic acid from the lungs seized upon the dissolved lime, converting it into carbonate of lime, which, being practically insoluble, was precipitated. All this was predicted beforehand by the lecturer, but the delight with which I saw his prediction fulfilled, by the conversion of the limpid lime-water into a turbid mixture of chalk and water, remains with me, as a memory, to the present hour. The students of the Birkbeck Institution may therefore grant me the honor of ranking myself among them as a fellow-student of a former generation. At the invitation of an officer of the Royal Engineers, who afterward became one of my most esteemed and intimate friends, I quitted school in 1839 to join a division of the Ordinance Survey. The profession of a civil engineer having then great attractions for me, I joined the survey, intending, if possible, to make myself master of all its operations, as a first step toward becoming a civil engineer. Draughtsmen were the best paid, and I became a draughtsman. But I habitually made incursions into the domains of the calculator and computer, and thus learned all their art. In due time the desire to make myself master of field operations caused me to apply for permission to go to the field. The permission was granted by my excellent friend General George Wynne, who then, as Lieutenant Wynne, observed and did all he could to promote my desire for improvement. Before returning to the office I had mastered all the mysteries of ordinary field-work, and by a fortunate opportunity, and with the sound knowledge of elementary geometry and trigonometry which I had acquired before leaving school, was enabled successfully to make some trigonometrical observations, though there had been bets against me. The pay upon the Ordinance Survey was very small, but, having ulterior objects in view, I considered the instruction received as some set-off to the smallness of the pay. It might prevent some of you young Birkbeckians from considering your fate specially hard, or from being daunted, because from a very low level you have to climb a very steep hill, when I tell you that, on quitting the Ordinance Survey in 1843, my salary was a little under twenty shillings a week. I have often wondered since at the amount of genuine happiness which a young fellow, of regular habits, not caring for either pipe or mug, may extract even from pay like that. Then came a pause, and after it the mad time of the railway mania, when I was able to turn to account the knowledge I had gained upon the Ordinance Survey. In Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Durham, and Yorkshire, more especially in the last, I was in the thick of the fray. It was a time of terrible toil. The day's work in the field usually began and ended with the day's light, while frequently in the office, and more especially as the awful 30th of November—the latest date at which plans and sections of projected lines could be deposited at the Board of Trade—drew near, there was little difference between day and night, every hour of the twenty-four being absorbed in the work of preparation. Strong men were broken down by the strain and labor of that arduous time. Many pushed through, and are still among us in robust vigor; but some collapsed, while others retired with large fortunes, but with intellects so shattered that, instead of taking their places in the front rank of English statesmen, as their abilities entitled them to do, they sought rest for their brains in the quiet lives of country gentlemen. In my own modest sphere I well remember the refreshment I occasionally derived from five minutes' sleep on a deal table, with "Babbage and Callet's Logarithms" under my head for a pillow. On a certain day, under grave penalties, certain levels had to be finished, and this particular day was one of agony to me. The atmosphere seemed filled with mocking demons, laughing at the vanity of my efforts to get the work done. My leveling staves were snapped, and my theodolite was overthrown by the storm. When things are at their worst a kind of anger often takes the place of fear. It was so in the present instance: I pushed doggedly on, and just at nightfall, when barely able to read the figures on my leveling-staff, I planted my last "bench-mark" on a tombstone in Haworth churchyard. Close at hand was the vicarage of Mr. Brontë, where the genius was nursed which soon afterward burst forth and astonished the world. It was a time of mad unrest—of downright monomania. In private residences and public halls, in London reception-rooms, in hotels and the stables of hotels, among gypsies and costermongers, nothing was spoken of but the state of the share-market, the prospects of projected lines, the good fortune of the ostler or pot-boy who by a lucky stroke of business had cleared ten thousand pounds. High and low, rich and poor, joined in the reckless game. During ray professional connection with railways I endured three weeks' misery. It was not defeated ambition; it was not a rejected suit; it was not the hardship endured in either office or field; but it was the possession of certain shares purchased in one of the lines then afloat. The share list of the day proved the winding-sheet of my peace of mind. I was haunted by the Stock Exchange. I became at last so savage with myself that I went to my brokers and put away, without gain or loss, the shares as an accursed thing. When railway work slackened I accepted, in 18-47, a post as a master in Queenwood College, Hampshire—an establishment which is still conducted with success by a worthy principal. There I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Franklin, who had charge of the chemical laboratory. Queenwood College had been the Harmony Hall of the Socialists, which, under the auspices of the philanthropist Robert Owen, was built to inaugurate the millennium. The letters "C of M," Commencement of Millennium, were actually inserted in flint in the brick-work of the house. Schemes like Harmony Hall look admirable upon paper; but, inasmuch as they are formed with reference to an ideal humanity, they go to pieces when brought into collision with the real one. At Queenwood, I learned, by practical experience, that two factors went to the formation of a teacher. In regard to knowledge he must, of course, be master of his work. But knowledge is not all. There may be knowledge without power—the ability to inform, without the ability to stimulate. Both go together in the true teacher. A power of character must underlie and enforce the work of the intellect. There are men who can so rouse and energize their pupils— so call forth their strength and the pleasure of its exercise—as to make the hardest work agreeable. Without this power it is questionable whether the teacher can ever really enjoy his vocation—with it I do not know a higher, nobler, more blessed calling than that of the man who, scorning the "cramming" so prevalent in our day, converts the knowledge he imparts into a lever, to lift, exercise, and strengthen the growing minds committed to his care. At the time here referred to I had emerged from some years of hard labor the fortunate possessor of two or three hundred pounds. By selling my services in the dearest market during the railway madness the sum might, without dishonor, have been made a larger one; but I respected ties which existed prior to the time when offers became lavish and temptation strong. I did not put my money in a napkin, but cherished the design of spending it in study at a German university. I had heard of German science, while Carlyle's references to German philosophy and literature caused me to regard them as a kind cf revelation from the gods. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1848, Frankland and I started for the land of universities, as Germany is often called. They are sown broadcast over the country, and can justly claim to be the source of an important portion of Germany's present greatness. A portion, but not all. The thews and sinews of German men were not given by German universities. The steady fortitude and valiant laboriousness which have fought against, and triumphed over, the gravest natural disadvantages, are not the result of university culture. But the strength and endurance which belong to the German, as a gift of race, needed enlightenment to direct it; and this was given by the universities. Into these establishments was poured that sturdy power which in other fields had made the wastes of Nature fruitful, and the strong and earnest character had thus superimposed upon it the informed and disciplined mind. It is the coalescence of these two factors that has made Germany great; it is the combination of these elements which must prevent England from becoming small. We bless God for our able journalists, our orderly Parliament, and our free press; but we bless him still more for "the hardy English root" from which these good things have sprung. We need muscle as well as brains—character and resolution as well as expertness of intellect. Lacking the former, though possessing the latter, we have the bright foam of the wave without its rock-shaking momentum. Our place of study was the town of Marburg, in Hesse-Cassel, and a very picturesque town Marburg is. It clambers pleasantly up the hill-sides, and falls as pleasantly toward the Lahn. On a May day, when the orchards are in blossom, and the chestnuts clothed with their heavy foliage, Marburg is truly lovely. My study was warmed by a large stove. At first I missed the gleam and sparkle from flame and ember, but I soon became accustomed to the obscure heat. At six in the morning a small milch-brod and a cup of tea were brought to me. The dinner-hour was one, and for the first year or so I dined at an hotel. In those days living was cheap in Marburg. Dinner consisted of several courses, roast and boiled, and finished up with sweets and dessert. The cost was a pound a month, or about eightpence per dinner. I usually limited myself to one course, using even that in moderation, being already convinced that eating too much was quite as sinful, and almost as ruinous, as drinking too much. By attending to such things I was able to work without weariness for sixteen hours a day. My going to Germany had been opposed by some of my friends as Quixotic, and my life there might, perhaps, be not unfairly thus described. I did not work for money; I was not even spurred by "the last infirmity of noble minds." I had been reading Fichte, and Emerson, and Carlyle, and had been infected by the spirit of these great men. Let no one persuade you that they were not great men. The Alpha and Omega of their teaching was loyalty to duty. Higher knowledge and greater strength were within reach of the man who unflinchingly enacted his best insight. It was a noble doctrine, though it might sometimes have inspired exhausting disciplines and unrealizable hopes. At all events, it held me to my work, and, in the long cold mornings of the German winter, defended by a Schlafrock lined with catskin, I usually felt a freshness and strength—a joy in mere living and working, derived from perfect health—which was something different from the malady of self-righteousness. I concentrated my chief attention upon mathematics, physics, and chemistry. To the illustrious chemist Bunsen I am specially indebted. He was a man of fine presence, tall, handsome, courteous, and without a trace of affectation or pedantry. He merged himself in his subject; his exposition was lucid, and his language pure; he spoke with the clear Hanoverian accent which is so pleasant to English ears. He was every inch a gentleman. After some experience of my own, I still look back on Bunsen as the nearest approach to my ideal of a university teacher. Professor Stegmann gave me the subject of my dissertation when I took my degree. Its title in English was, "On a Screw Surface with Inclined Generatrix, and on the Conditions of Equilibrium on such Surfaces." I resolved that if I could not, without the slightest aid, accomplish the work from beginning to end, it should not be accomplished at all. Wandering among the pinewoods, and pondering the subject, I became more and more master of it; and when my dissertation was handed in to the Philosophical Faculty it did not contain a thought that was not my own. Continuing to work strenuously but happily till the autumn of 1850, I then came to England. But I soon returned to Germany. To those Marburg days I look back with warm affection, both in regard to nature and to man. To Berlin I went in the beginning of 1851. Magnus, Dove, Mitscherlich, Heinrich and Gustav Rose, Ehrenberg, Riess, Du Bois-Reymond, and Clausius were the scientific stars of the university at that time. From all these eminent men I received every mark of kindness, and formed with some of them enduring friendships. Helmholtz was at this time in Königsberg. He had written his renowned essay on the "Conservation of Energy." In his own house I had the honor of an interview with Humboldt. He rallied me on having contracted the habit of smoking in Germany, his knowledge on this head being derived from my little paper on a water-jet, where the noise produced by the rupture of a film between the wet lips of a smoker is referred to. He gave me various messages to Faraday, declaring his belief that he (Faraday) had referred the annual and diurnal variation of the declination of the magnetic needle to their true cause—the variation of the magnetic condition of the oxygen of the atmosphere. I was interested to learn from Humboldt himself that, though so large a portion of his life had been spent in France, he never published a French essay without having it first revised by a Frenchman. In those days I not unfrequently found it necessary to subject myself to a process which I called depolarization. My brain, intent on its subjects, used to acquire a set, resembling the rigid polarity of a steel magnet. It lost the pliancy needful for free conversation, and to recover this I used to walk occasionally to Charlottenburg or elsewhere. From my experiences at that time I derived the notion that hard thinking and fleet talking do not run together. Far from seeing in this address a display of egotism, you will, I believe, accept it as a fragment of the life of a brother who has felt the scars of the battle in which many of you are now engaged. Duty has been mentioned as my motive force. In Germany one heard this word much more frequently than the word glory. The philosophers of Germany were men of the loftiest moral tone. In fact, they were preachers of religion as much as expounders of philosophy. It would to a certain extent be true to say that from them the land takes its moral color; but it should be added that the German philosophers were themselves products of the German soil, probably deriving the basis of their moral qualities from a period anterior to their philosophy. I asked two Prussian officers whom I met in the summer of 1871, at Pontresina, how the German troops behaved when going into battle—did they cheer and encourage each other? The reply I received was: "Never in our experience has the cry, 'Wir müssen siegen'—we must conquer—been heard from German soldiers; but in a hundred instances we have heard them resolutely exclaim, 'Wir müssen unser Pflicht thun'—we must do our duty." It was a sense of duty rather than love of glory that strengthened those men and filled them with an invincible heroism. We in England have always liked the iron ring of the word "duty." It was Nelson's talisman at Trafalgar. It was the guiding star of Wellington. When in his days of freshness and of freedom our laureate wrote his immortal ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington, portions of which both he and others might well take to heart at the present moment, he poured into the praise of duty the full strength of his English brain:

"Not once or twice in our rough island story

The path of duty was the way to glory:
He that walks it, only thirsting
For the right, and learns to deaden
Love of self, before his journey closes
He shall find the stubborn thistle bursting
Into glossy purples which outredden
All voluptuous garden roses."

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  1. An address delivered at the Birkbeck Institution, Wednesday, October 22, 1884.