Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/Sketch of David Starr Jordan
|SKETCH OF DAVID STARR JORDAN.|
DAVID STARR JORDAN was born in 1851, at Gainesville, New York. His father was a farmer who devoted far more attention to the elder poets than to the Rural New-Yorker. His mother is characterized by strength of will, depth of feeling, and pithiness of speech. Goethe tells us that he owed to his father his stature and his seriousness, and to his mother his happy disposition and his delight in story-telling. In Jordan's case this order was reversed. From the mother he seems to have inherited his executive power, and from the father his literary instinct. He grew up a very unusual farm product a shy, observant lad, much given to lonely excursions with a copy of Gray's Botany in one pocket and Longfellow's poems in the other. He early exhibited his instinct for classification by attempting a catalogue raisonné of the Assyrian kings, but as his teacher could supply him with data for but two categories, viz., the good and the bad, his labors were not very fruitful. Owing to his distaste for the severe manual labor generally expected of boys on a farm, young Jordan was considered lazy by the neighbors, and doubtless some of them blamed his parents for allowing him to loiter and dream his time away.
Not that he was idle. He attended first the village school, and afterward, no secondary school for boys being accessible, was admitted to the academy for young ladies in the neighboring town of Warsaw. He learned French and Latin; he made a catalogue of the plants of his native county; he read a good deal of history, and grew intimate with the best American and English poets. But he was the victim of no rigorous system of academic routine. He came to his studies, as a boy comes to a well-spread table, with a healthy appetite. A stranger to "cram," his mind assimilated its own, rejected what was not food, and was never
converted from a natural organ into a machine for gerund grinding.
At a time when most of our teaching is little better than organized interference, the attitude of Jordan's parents is instructive. It is told of Darwin that, when one of his friends expressed surprise at the way he allowed his boys to run at loose ends, his reply was: "I dare not interfere; Nature can manage them better than I can." This recalls Wordsworth's abiding faith
"that there are powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness."
It would be wrong to assume that this attitude toward education is purely negative. In a very positive sense it may be said of young Jordan, as of the good Lord Clifford, that
Such an education might, or might not, be a good one for a bookkeeper, a forge master, or a minister; for a naturalist it was ideal. One of its outward results was that when, in 1869, the youth of eighteen entered the first freshman class at the Cornell University, he was found to be a learned authority on such diverse subjects as hoof-rot in sheep and the flora of Genesee and Wyoming Counties. His career as a teacher had already begun at the Warsaw Academy. In his junior year at Cornell he was appointed an instructor in botany. In his senior year he became President of the Natural History Society, which then counted among its members several men of unusual activity and ability, whose names are now not unknown in the scientific world. At least two of these gentlemen have made their grateful recognition of his high example and bracing personality a matter of record.
In 1872 he was graduated with the degree of M. S., being the only man who ever received the Master's degree from Cornell upon completion of an undergraduate course. Perhaps it is worth remarking that he shares with Mr. Andrew D. White alone the distinction of an honorary degree from the same university. Immediately after graduation he was appointed to the professorship of Natural History at Lombard University, Galesburg, Illinois. Here he began that systematic study of the fishes of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes which he continued with so much success during the many years of his residence in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Throughout these years all his summer vacations were spent in scientific excursions fruitful of result. Passing over some minor positions which he held but for a short time, it is important to note that he was enrolled as a student at Penikese under Louis Agassiz, who was not slow to observe the remarkable powers of the young naturalist. In 1874 Jordan returned to Penikese as lecturer in marine botany. In the following year he became Professor of Biology at Butler University, near Indianapolis; in 1879, Professor of Zoölogy at the Indiana University; and in 1885, president of the same institution. This last position he held until 1891, when he was selected as the first President of the Leland Stanford Junior University.
In 1880 Jordan was appointed "Special Agent of the United States Census Bureau" for the investigation of the marine industries of the Pacific coast. In this capacity, with the assistance of Prof. Charles K. Gilbert, Jordan made the first comprehensive survey ever undertaken of the fishes, both fresh-water and marine, of our Occidental seaboard. The records of the scientific discoveries made in the course of this survey are scattered through many bulletins of the United States Fish Commission, while the chief economic results are recorded in the section of the Tenth Census Report devoted to fisheries.
Of Jordan's hundreds of published works, great and small, but a few of the most important can be enumerated here. The most bulky of them, A Synopsis of the Fishes of North America, is a book of nearly twelve hundred pages, the authorship of which is shared with Prof. Gilbert. The Manual of the Vertebrate Animals of the Northern United States (A. C. McClurg & Co.) has grown through several successive editions from a small pocket volume to a stout octavo of nearly four hundred pages. It is an extremely useful work, and attempts to give such guidance with respect to the classification of vertebrate animals as a botanical key gives with respect to our flora. In his Science Sketches (A. C. McClurg & Co., 1887) are collected several papers and addresses of a popular character. Noteworthy among them are The Story of a Salmon (first published in this magazine). The Story of a Stone (first published in St. Nicholas), Darwin, and The Ascent of the Matterhorn. Some of these sketches are marked by a union of sound knowledge, with a whimsical humor and delicate fancy which is sufficiently rare among men, whether scientific or literary, and which goes far to convince readers that Jordan might have attained a place in literature perhaps as distinguished as his place in science.
What always strikes even a casual observer in Jordan is that he seldom does things as other men do them. If it can not always be said that his way is the best, his unfailing success attests that it is anyhow the best for him. In bearing, phrase, turn of wit, and simplicity of life, he is unique, and that without the slightest affectation of originality. This was true of him as a student. He was probably the best man of his time at college, yet lie was rarely seen to study. He paid his expenses in one way and another by his own labor, yet he was a man of leisure. Despite his carelessness with respect to his personal appearance, and despite his whimsical address, his spiritual qualities marked him out as a man of fine breeding.
As a teacher, Jordan makes the impression of weight, sincerity, and simplicity. He rests down confidently upon the subject and makes that speak. He has the instinct attributed by Matthew Arnold to Wordsworth: he lets Nature speak through him "with her own bare, sheer, penetrating power." Students say he is the simplest of lecturers. Others may seem more profound because less lucid. Perhaps Jordan does not see everything—he does not wish to see everything—it is enough for him to see what is vital. Those who have time may dwell, if they will, in the skirts and suburbs of things; Jordan strikes for the center. He has the sense of an Indian for direction, and may be relied upon to bring his followers out of the woods as promptly as any guide who could be mentioned.
As an administrator, Jordan is a man of distinguished performance and splendid promise. In the course of six years he raised the State University of Indiana from a condition of obscurity and ineffectiveness to its present position in the front rank of Western colleges. This he did in the face of very great obstacles, of which, perhaps, the remoteness of the seat of the university and the parsimony of the State were the most formidable. His success was largely due to his policy of surrounding himself with a Faculty of young, energetic, progressive men, and of keeping the university in touch with society at large. As President of Stanford University he has to confront still greater difficulties, but he has the enormous advantages of far greater resources and of a vastly widened field of action. Jordan is singularly fitted for the multiform duties and perplexities of his present position. Physically and mentally he is a massive man, as imperturbable as a mountain. He eats heartily, sleeps soundly, and turns off his work promptly, almost imperceptibly. Labors which break down ordinary men he takes as easily as a game of baseball, in which he delights; grinding disappointments seem to affect him little more than does the defeat of the Faculty team by the Freshmen. He is incapable of being interrupted; he will answer your questions and dispatch your business while finishing the identification and description of a new species of fish. He is impervious to the bore, not because he is thick-skinned, but because he does not stop long enough to let the bore insert his sting. His mind seems to be organized on the co-operative principle, so that he can carry on several lines of work simultaneously. It is, however, absurd to use the word "work" of the productive energy of a man who does everything with the unconscious ease of a child at play. The only thing that really worries him is a full-dress dinner, with its dissipating accompaniments of smoking, drinking, and speech-making. He is so thoroughly imbued with the conviction that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points that he is incapable of the circuitous treatment of a subject essential to the after-dinner speech. Like all penetrating minds, he is intolerant of verbiage, and has never been known to be guilty of a lapse into "fine writing."
Jordan is still in his prime, his vigor of mind and body unimpaired, and it is reasonable to hope that his main life work is still before him. But even should his career be cut short at any time, its influence would survive. The nature of this influence may be partially inferred from his published utterances on educational subjects; but only those who have been associated with him, either as fellow-teachers or as students, can be aware of its pervasive power. To scores of teachers and to hundreds of earnest students, Jordan has been something like a spiritual emancipator. It was delightful to see him, at the University of Weissnichtwo, confronting hide-bound pedants with the simple nature of things. He went quietly about his business; he did not strive nor cry, much less scold; but somehow tradition, system, dialectic, curriculum—everything in short that had hitherto passed unquestioned in that place—softly faded like the ghost when it begins to scent the morning air. Cautiously, after much debate, some changes were made; the timid hied to cover; but the sky did not fall. Once it became understood that change was possible in matters academic without greater harm than that of converting impotent philippics into whining jeremiads, things moved very rapidly. The great discovery was made that the laws of Nature operate in college as well as elsewhere. It was suggested that the way to educate a man is to set him at work; that the way to get him to work is to interest him; that the way to interest him is to vitalize his task by relating it to some sort of reality. Teachers were amazed to find that students work better when they are led than when they are driven. The abounding ingenuity of American youth, which had hitherto been exhausted in cheating at examinations, victimizing professors and freshmen, evading duty, eluding detection, and framing perennial excuses, found ample scope in fascinating experiments leading up to some scientific result. Without losing their natural vivacity boys became men, bringing to the serious work proper to men the spring and hopefulness of youth. College pranks ceased, but by no means college sports. Academic rules and regulations became dead-letter, not because of their frequent infringement, but because no need longer remained for their enforcement. It came to be seen that a university community where every man is absorbed in his work may be made practically self-governing. Such a body of students has channels for the excretion of the idle and the vicious.
As may be surmised, the effect upon the instructor of such a series of reforms as those here glanced at was profound. The college scout was converted into the university professor. In case he proved recalcitrant to this high calling, he was permitted to "seek some other field of usefulness." In case he turned out worthy, his life acquired the value and dignity of high purpose, even when the practical work of organizing an educational experiment gave him little time for scientific or literary production. Upon the indebtedness of such men at several seats of learning to President Jordan, this is not the time to dilate. Suffice it to say that at Stanford University, where of course his influence is at its height, he has drawn a large number of diverse and energetic personalities into abiding harmony touching matters that pertain to educational salvation. Jordan's favorite quotation is the saying of Ulrich von Hutten, "Die Lufi der Freiheit weht" ("Freedom is in the air"). This free air is to us the breath of life.