Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/December 1896/Natural History in the Primary Schools of France
By FANNY BIGNON.
DURING the last few years instruction in our primary schools has been undergoing an interesting evolution. The authorities have broken away from superannuated traditions, and have arranged courses of a wholly new character. There are no more long analyses, endless conjugations, and dictations of catchwords. While language, according to the tyrant of words and syllables, may be a loser by this change, I wish to show that science, and especially natural history, is a gainer.
The natural sciences have indeed had a place in the primary schools, and, in order to get his certificate of graduation, a child of eleven years was obliged to make a compilation on some such subject as the following:
1. Breathing. What happens to the air in the lungs? A part of this air combines with the heat of the blood. Results. (This topic was given at Brest in 1893.)
2. Digestion. Absorption of foods. Stomachic digestion. Intestinal digestion. (Hérault, 1893.)
3. What is an insect? Transformations of insects. (Haute-Garonne, 1894.)
4. A flower. Its composition. The role of pollen. Describe the ovary. (Hérault, 1893.)
5. The characteristics of lime. Its function in the soil. Means used to furnish lime to soils which lack it. (Meuse, 1893.)
From these examples it will be seen that all branches of natural history are touched upon, but physiology is treated more fully. We will not stop to criticise the method of putting the questions, and possibly some of the inaccuracies of statement may be laid to typographical errors. They are taken from a work by Messrs. Barreau and Bouchet, the former a supervisor at Paris, the latter a college principal.
But let us consider the methods used to give to our children the extensive knowledge which is expected of them. They listen to lessons which the teacher imbibes ordinarily from a text-book designed for the special purpose of preparing candidates for the graduating examinations. In this new kind of Bible from which the teacher refreshes himself each day, physiology, zoölogy, botany, and geology are methodically arranged by layers or slices, of which a dose of four layers (irrespective of the thickness of the layer) must be absorbed per month. The scholar has a text-book which is a résumé of the teacher's, filled with indigestible prose, crowded with scientific terms, where classification follows classification. After learning so many Greek and Latin derivatives, will there be time to observe the dentition of an animal, to analyze a flower, or compare stones? No; the natural history collections of our schools remain under lock and key; the teachers forget to use them, and the scholars to look at them. But the text-book must be learned. Does the teacher make his own drawings? Usually he contents himself with the more or less exact illustrations of the text-book. How could he possibly find time for drawing, when in one lesson he must describe the whole human skeleton and define rachitis, caries, aukylosis, dislocations, fractures, and sprains, and in another give pell-mell the characteristics of the Chenopodiaceœ, Polygonaceœ, Euphorbiaceœ, Urticaceœ, Laurineœ, Juglandaceœ, Cupuliferœ, Salicineœ, Betulaceœ, and Plataneœ!
Picture to yourself an audience of youthful Parisians who, for the most part, have never seen hemp except in cloth, or oak except in a chair or table, a prey to this discriminating instruction! Some of them go to sleep or lose themselves in reveries where natural history has no part; others refresh themselves with candy under their desk tops. And this is the best thing they could do. Just as insects, when placed in a deadly atmosphere, resist asphyxia by closing their stigmata and ceasing to breathe, so our children escape the harmful effects of our instruction by closing their eyes and ears. The result is threefold: On leaving the primary school they know nothing about natural history, but sometimes think they know considerable; secondly, this ill-directed study not only has not developed their habits of observation and their judgment, but has accustomed them to speak inaccurately and carelessly of things of which they have no knowledge; and, thirdly, most of these little savants hold science in great contempt.
Is this what the reformers in education expect? We do not believe it, and we think that they may rightly hope for something better if the instruction be given by the only method which is in harmony with the subject: that of observation and experimentation. Collections must be made not only of curiosities but of common things; there must be a garden where the seed may grow and the flowers bloom; and there must be a collection of the common stones and rocks.
The teacher should prepare for his lesson by observation of the specimens which he is to show; the children should examine, describe, compare, and classify. They should not consider in one lesson all the apetalous families, but should learn to know the gilliflower, the violet, the blossom of the oak, all which they may gather for themselves. They may perhaps be ignorant of diseases of the bone and the operations they require, but they will know the furnishings of a cat's mouth and the peculiarities of the rabbit's, and what distinguishes them both from ours. At the end of the year they will have a very small burden of natural history, but they will have acquired good habits of mind, their intellectual faculties will be developed, and, what is even more important, they will love science and will have a taste for learning. The habit of observation will be exercised out of school hours, and even after they have graduated they will experience an increased pleasure in their walks which will react upon their physical and moral health.—Translated from the Bulletin de la Société Zoologique de France, tome 20.