"Portrait of a Gentleman"

"If he only knew what his examiner was doing!
Portrait of a gentleman just opposite me.
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Huxley Archives

Scientific Education: Notes of an After-Dinner Speech (1869)

Collected Essays III

[111] [Mr. Thackeray, talking of after-dinner speeches, has lamented that "one never can recollect the fine things one thought of in the cab," in going to the place of entertainment. I am not aware that there are any "fine things" in the following pages, but such as there are stand to a speech which really did get itself spoken, at the hospitable table of the Liverpool Philomathic Society, more or less in the position of what "one thought of in the cab."]

The introduction of scientific training into the general education of the country is a topic upon which I could not have spoken, without some more or less apologetic introduction, a few years ago. But upon this, as upon other matters, public opinion has of late undergone a rapid modification. Committees of both Houses of the Legislature have agreed that something must be done in this direc[112]tion, and have even thrown out timid and faltering suggestions as to what should be done; while at the opposite pole of society, committees of working men have expressed their conviction that scientific training is the one thing needful for their advancement, whether as men, or as workmen. Only the other day, it was my duty to take part in the reception of a deputation of London working men, who desired to learn from Sir Roderick Murchison, the Director of the Royal School of Mines, whether the organisation of the Institution in Jermyn Street could be made available for the supply of that scientific instruction the need of which could not have been apprehended, or stated, more clearly than it was by them.

The heads of colleges in our great universities (who have not the reputation of being the most mobile of persons) have, in several cases, thought it well that, out of the great number of honours and rewards at their disposal, a few should hereafter be given to the cultivators of the physical sciences. Nay, I hear that some colleges have even gone so far as to appoint one, or, maybe, two special tutors for the purpose of putting the facts and principles of physical science before the undergraduate mind. And I say it with gratitude and great respect for those eminent persons, that the head masters of our public schools, Eton, Harrow, Winchester, have addressed themselves to the problem of introducing instruction in physical [113] science among the studies of those great educational bodies, with much honesty of purpose and enlightenment of understanding; and I live in hope that, before long, important changes in this direction will be carried into effect in those strongholds of ancient prescription. In fact, such changes have already been made, and physical science, even now, constitutes a recognised element of the school curriculum in Harrow and Rugby, whilst I understand that ample preparations for such studies are being made at Eton and elsewhere.

Looking at these facts, I might perhaps spare myself the trouble of giving any reasons for the introduction of physical science into elementary education; yet I cannot but think that it may be well if I place before you some considerations which, perhaps, have hardly received full attention.

At other times, and in other places, I have endeavoured to state the higher and more abstract arguments, by which the study of physical science may be shown to be indispensable to the complete training of the human mind; but I do not wish it to be supposed that, because I happen to be devoted to more or less abstract and "unpractical" pursuits, I am insensible to the weight which ought to be attached to that which has been said to be the English conception of Paradise–namely, "getting on." I look upon it, that "getting on" is a very important matter indeed. I do not mean [114] merely for the sake of the coarse and tangible results of success, but because humanity is so constituted that a vast number of us would never be impelled to those stretches of exertion which make us wiser and more capable men, if it were not for the absolute necessity of putting on our faculties all the strain they will bear, for the purpose of "getting on" in the most practical sense.

Now the value of a knowledge of physical science as a means of getting on is indubitable. There are hardly any of our trades, except the merely huckstering ones, in which some knowledge of science may not be directly profitable to the pursuer of that occupation. As industry attains higher stages of its development, as its processes become more complicated and refined, and competition more keen, the sciences are dragged in, one by one, to take their share in the fray; and he who can best avail himself of their help is the man who will come out uppermost in that struggle for existence, which goes on as fiercely beneath the smooth surface of modern society, as among the wild inhabitants of the woods.

But in addition to the bearing of science on ordinary practical life, let me direct your attention to its immense influence on several of the professions. I ask any one who has adopted the calling of an engineer, how much time he lost when he left school, because he had to devote himself to pursuits which were absolutely novel and strange, [115] and of which he had not obtained the remotest conception from his instructors? He had to familiarise himself with ideas of the course and powers of Nature, to which his attention had never been directed during his school life, and to learn, for the first time, that a world of facts lies outside and beyond the world of words. I appeal to those who know what engineering is, to say how far I am right in respect to that profession; but with regard to another, of no less importance, I shall venture to speak of my own knowledge. There is no one of us who may not at any moment be thrown, bound hand and foot by physical incapacity, into the hands of a medical practitioner. The chances of life and death for all and each of us may, at any moment, depend on the skill with which that practitioner is able to make out what is wrong in our bodily frames, and on his ability to apply the proper remedy to the defect.

The necessities of modern life are such, and the class from which the medical profession is chiefly recruited is so situated, that few medical men can hope to spend more than three or four, or it may be five, years in the pursuit of those studies which are immediately germane to physic. How is that all too brief period spent at present? I speak as an old examiner, having served some eleven or twelve years in that capacity in the University of London, and therefore having a practical acquaintance with the subject; but I might fortify myself by the [116] authority of the President of the College of Surgeons, Mr. Quain, whom I heard the other day in an admirable address (the Hunterian Oration) deal fully and wisely with this very topic.1

A young man commencing the study of medicine is at once required to endeavour to make an acquaintance with a number of sciences, such as Physics, as Chemistry, as Botany, as Physiology, which are absolutely and entirely strange to him, however excellent his so-called education at school may have been. Not only is he devoid of all apprehension of scientific conceptions, not only does he fail to attach any meaning to the words "mat[117]ter," "force," or "law" in their scientific senses, but, worse still, he has no notion of what it is to come into contact with Nature, or to lay his mind alongside of a physical fact, and try to conquer it, in the way our great naval hero told his captains to master their enemies. His whole mind has been given to books, and I am hardly exaggerating if I say that they are more real to him than Nature. He imagines that all knowledge can be got out of books, and rests upon the authority of some master or other; nor does he entertain any misgiving that the method of learning which led to proficiency in the rules of grammar will suffice to lead him to a mastery of the laws of Nature. The youngster, thus unprepared for serious study, is turned loose among his medical studies, with the result, in nine cases out of ten, that the first year of his curriculum is spent in learning how to learn. Indeed, he is lucky if, at the end of the first year, by the exertions of his teachers and his own industry, he has acquired even that art of arts. After which there remain not more than three, or perhaps four, years for the profitable study of such vast sciences as Anatomy, Physiology, Therapeutics, Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics, and the like, upon his knowledge or ignorance of which it depends whether the practitioner shall diminish, or increase, the bills of mortality. Now what is it but the preposterous condition of ordinary school education which prevents a young man of seventeen, destined for the [118] practice of medicine, from being fully prepared for the study of Nature; and from coming to the medical school, equipped with that preliminary knowledge of the principles of Physics, of Chemistry and of Biology, upon which he has now to waste one of the precious years, every moment of which ought to be given to those studies which bear directly upon the knowledge of his profession?

There is another profession, to the members of which, I think, a certain preliminary knowledge of physical science might be quite as valuable as to the medical man. The practitioner of medicine sets before himself the noble object of taking care of man's bodily welfare; but the members of this other profession undertake to "minister to minds diseased," and, so far as may be, to diminish sin and soften sorrow. Like the medical profession, the clerical, of which I now speak, rests its power to heal upon its knowledge of the order of the universe–upon certain theories of man's relation to that which lies outside him. It is not my business to express any opinion about these theories. I merely wish to point out that, like all other theories, they are professedly based upon matters of fact. Thus the clerical profession has to deal with the facts of Nature from a certain point of view; and hence it comes into contact with that of the man of science, who has to treat the same facts from another point of view. You know how [119] often that contact is to be described as collision, or violent friction; and how great the heat, how little the light, which commonly results from it.

In the interests of fair play, to say nothing of those of mankind, I ask, Why do not the clergy as a body acquire, as a part of their preliminary education, some such tincture of physical science as will put them in a position to understand the difficulties in the way of accepting their theories, which are forced upon the mind of every thoughtful and intelligent man, who has taken the trouble to instruct himself in the elements of natural knowledge?

Some time ago I attended a large meeting of the clergy, for the purpose of delivering an address which I had been invited to give. I spoke of some of the most elementary facts in physical science, and of the manner in which they directly contradict certain of the ordinary teachings of the clergy. The result was, that, after I had finished, one section of the assembled ecclesiastics attacked me with all the intemperance of pious zeal, for stating facts and conclusions which no competent judge doubts; while, after the first speakers had subsided, amidst the cheers of the great majority of their colleagues, the more rational minority rose to tell me that I had taken wholly superfluous pains, that they already knew all about what I had told them, and perfectly agreed with me. A hard-headed friend of mine, who was present, put the not un[120]natural question, "Then why don't you say so in your pulpits?" to which inquiry I heard no reply.

In fact the clergy are at present divisible into three sections: an immense body who are ignorant and speak out; a small proportion who know and are silent; and a minute minority who know and speak according to their knowledge. By the clergy, I mean especially the Protestant clergy. Our great antagonist–I speak as a man of science–the Roman Catholic Church, the one great spiritual organisation which is able to resist, and must, as a matter of life and death, resist, the progress of science and modern civilisation, manages her affairs much better.

It was my fortune some time ago to pay a visit to one of the most important of the institutions in which the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church in these islands are trained; and it seemed to me that the difference between these men and the comfortable champions of Anglicanism and of Dissent, was comparable to the difference between our gallant Volunteers and the trained veterans of Napoleon's Old Guard.

The Catholic priest is trained to know his business, and do it effectually. The professors of the college in question, learned, zealous, and determined men, permitted me to speak frankly with them. We talked like outposts of opposed armies during a truce–as friendly enemies; and [121] when I ventured to point out the difficulties their students would have to encounter from scientific thought, they replied: "Our Church has lasted many ages, and has passed safely through many storms. The present is but a new gust of the old tempest, and we do not turn out our young men less fitted to weather it, than they have been, in former times, to cope with the difficulties of those times. The heresies of the day are explained to them by their professors of philosophy and science, and they are taught how those heresies are to be met."

I heartily respect an organisation which faces its enemies in this way; and I wish that all ecclesiastical organisations were in as effective a condition. I think it would be better, not only for them, but for us. The army of liberal thought is, at present, in very loose order; and many a spirited free-thinker makes use of his freedom mainly to vent nonsense. We should be the better for a vigorous and watchful enemy to hammer us into cohesion and discipline; and I, for one, lament that the bench of Bishops cannot show a man of the calibre of Butler of the "Analogy," who, if he were alive, would make short work of much of the current a priori "infidelity."

I hope you will consider that the arguments I have now stated, even if there were no better ones, constitute a sufficient apology for urging the introduction of science into schools. [122] The next question to which I have to address myself is, What sciences ought to be thus taught? And this is one of the most important of questions, because my side (I am afraid I am a terribly candid friend) sometimes spoils its cause by going in for too much. There are other forms of culture beside physical science; and I should be profoundly sorry to see the fact forgotten, or even to observe a tendency to starve, or cripple, literary, or æsthetic, culture for the sake of science. Such a narrow view of the nature of education has nothing to do with my firm conviction that a complete and thorough scientific culture ought to be introduced into all schools. By this, however, I do not mean that every schoolboy should be taught everything in science. That would be a very absurd thing to conceive, and a very mischievous thing to attempt. What I mean is, that no boy nor girl should leave school without possessing a grasp of the general character of science, and without having been disciplined, more or less, in the methods of all sciences; so that, when turned into the world to make their own way, they shall be prepared to face scientific problems, not by knowing at once the conditions of every problem, or by being able at once to solve it; but by being familiar with the general current of scientific thought, and by being able to apply the methods of science in the proper way, when they have acquainted themselves with the conditions of the special problem.

[123] That is what I understand by scientific education. To furnish a boy with such an education, it is by no means necessary that he should devote his whole school existence to physical science: in fact, no one would lament so one-sided a proceeding more than I. Nay more, it is not necessary for him to give up more than a moderate share of his time to such studies, if they be properly selected and arranged, and if he be trained in them in a fitting manner.

I conceive the proper course to be somewhat as follows. To begin with, let every child be instructed in those general views of the phænomena of Nature for which we have no exact English name. The nearest approximation to a name for what I mean, which we possess, is "physical geography." The Germans have a better, "Erdkunde" ("earth knowledge" or "geology" in its etymological sense), that is to say, a general knowledge of the earth, and what is on it, in it, and about it. If any one who has had experience of the ways of young children will call to mind their questions, he will find that so far as they can be put into any scientific category, they come under this head of "Erdkunde." The child asks, "What is the moon, and why does it shine?" "What is this water, and where does it run?" "What is the wind?" "What makes this waves [sic] in the sea?" "Where does this animal live, and what is the use of that plant?" And [124] if not snubbed and stunted by being told not to ask foolish questions, there is no limit to the intellectual craving of a young child; nor any bounds to the slow, but solid, accretion of knowledge and development of the thinking faculty in this way. To all such questions, answers which are necessarily incomplete, though true as far as they go, may be given by any teacher whose ideas represent real knowledge and not mere book learning; and a panoramic view of Nature, accompanied by a strong infusion of the scientific habit of mind, may thus be placed within the reach of every child of nine or ten.

After this preliminary opening of the eyes to the great spectacle of the daily progress of Nature, as the reasoning faculties of the child grow, and he becomes familiar with the use of the tools of knowledge–reading, writing, and elementary mathematics–he should pass on to what is, in the more strict sense, physical science. Now there are two kinds of physical science: the one regards form and the relation of forms to one another; the other deals with causes and effects. In many of what we term sciences, these two kinds are mixed up together; but systematic botany is a pure example of the former kind, and physics of the latter kind, of science. Every educational advantage which training in physical science can give is obtainable from the proper study of these two; and I should be contented, [125] for the present, if they, added to our "Erdkunde," furnished the whole of the scientific curriculum of school. Indeed, I conceive it would be one of the greatest boons which could be conferred upon England, if henceforward every child in the country were instructed in the general knowledge of the things about it, in the elements of physics, and of botany. But I should be still better pleased if there could be added somewhat of chemistry, and an elementary acquaintance with human physiology.

So far as school education is concerned, I want to go no further just now; and I believe that such instruction would make an excellent introduction to that preparatory scientific training which, as I have indicated, is so essential for the successful pursuit of our most important professions But this modicum of instruction must be so given as to ensure real knowledge and practical discipline. If scientific education is to be dealt with as mere bookwork, it will be better not to attempt it, but to stick to the Latin Grammar which makes no pretence to be anything but bookwork.

If the great benefits of scientific training are sought, it is essential that such training should be real: that is to say, that the mind of the scholar should be brought into direct relation with fact, that he should not merely be told a thing, but made to see by the use of his own intellect and [126] ability that the thing is so and no otherwise. The great peculiarity of scientific training, that in virtue of which it cannot be replaced by any other discipline whatsoever, is this bringing of the mind directly into contact with fact, and practising the intellect in the completest form of induction; that is to say, in drawing conclusions from particular facts made known by immediate observation of Nature.

The other studies which enter into ordinary education do not discipline the mind in this way. Mathematical training is almost purely deductive. The mathematician starts with a few simple propositions, the proof of which is so obvious that they are called self-evident, and the rest of his work consists of subtle deductions from them. The teaching of languages, at any rate as ordinarily practised, is of the same general nature,–authority and tradition furnish the data, and the mental operations of the scholar are deductive.

Again: if history be the subject of study, the facts are still taken upon the evidence of tradition and authority. You cannot make a boy see the battle of Thermopylæ for himself, or know, of his own knowledge, that Cromwell once ruled England. There is no getting into direct contact with natural fact by this road; there is no dispensing with authority, but rather a resting upon it.

In all these respects, science differs from other educational discipline, and prepares the scholar for [127] common life. What have we to do in every-day life? Most of the business which demands our attention is matter of fact, which needs, in the first place, to be accurately observed or apprehended; in the second, to be interpreted by inductive and deductive reasonings, which are altogether similar in their nature to those employed in science. In the one case, as in the other, whatever is taken for granted is so taken at one's own peril; fact and reason are the ultimate arbiters, and patience and honesty are the great helpers out of difficulty.

But if scientific training is to yield its most eminent results, it must, I repeat, be made practical. That is to say, in explaining to a child the general phænomena of Nature, you must, as far as possible, give reality to your teaching by object-lessons; in teaching him botany, he must handle the plants and dissect the flowers for himself; in teaching him physics and chemistry, you must not be solicitous to fill him with information, but you must be careful that what he learns he knows of his own knowledge. Don't be satisfied with telling him that a magnet attracts iron. Let him see that it does; let him feel the pull of the one upon the other for himself. And, especially, tell him that it is his duty to doubt until he is compelled, by the absolute authority of Nature, to believe that which is written in books. Pursue this discipline carefully and conscientiously, and you may make sure that, however scanty may be the measure of [128] information which you have poured into the boy's mind, you have created an intellectual habit of priceless value in practical life.

One is constantly asked, When should this scientific education be commenced? I should say with the dawn of intelligence. As I have already said, a child seeks for information about matters of physical science as soon as it begins to talk. The first teaching it wants is an object-lesson of one sort or another; and as soon as it is fit for systematic instruction of any kind, it is fit for a modicum of science.

People talk of the difficulty of teaching young children such matters, and in the same breath insist upon their learning their Catechism, which contains propositions far harder to comprehend than anything in the educational course I have proposed. Again: I am incessantly told that we, who advocate the introduction of science in schools, make no allowance for the stupidity of the average boy or girl; but, in my belief, that stupidity, in nine cases out of ten, "fit, non nascitur," and is developed by a long process of parental and pedagogic repression of the natural intellectual appetites, accompanied by a persistent attempt to create artificial ones for food which is not only tasteless, but essentially indigestible.

Those who urge the difficulty of instructing young people in science are apt to forget another very important condition of success–important in [129] all kinds of teaching, but most essential, I am disposed to think, when the scholars are very young. This condition is, that the teacher should himself really and practically know his subject. If he does, he will be able to speak of it in the easy language, and with the completeness of conviction, with which he talks of any ordinary every-day matter. If he does not, he will be afraid to wander beyond the limits of the technical phraseology which he has got up; and a dead dogmatism, which oppresses, or raises opposition, will take the place of the lively confidence, born of personal conviction, which cheers and encourages the eminently sympathetic mind of childhood.

I have already hinted that such scientific training as we seek for may be given without making any extravagant claim upon the time now devoted to education. We ask only for "a most favoured nation" clause in our treaty with the schoolmaster; we demand no more than that science shall have as much time given to it as any other single subject–say four hours a week in each class of an ordinary school.

For the present, I think men of science would be well content with such an arrangement as this; but speaking for myself, I do not pretend to believe that such an arrangement can be, or will be, permanent. In these times the educational tree seems to me to have its roots in the air, its leaves and flowers in the ground; and, I confess, I should [130] very much like to turn it upside down, so that its roots might be solidly embedded among the facts of Nature, and draw thence a sound nutriment for the foliage and fruit of literature and of art. No educational system can have a claim to permanence, unless it recognises the truth that education has two great ends to which everything else must be subordinated. The one of these is to increase knowledge; the other is to develop the love of right and the hatred of wrong.

With wisdom and uprightness a nation can make its way worthily, and beauty will follow in the footsteps of the two, even if she be not specially invited; while there is perhaps no sight in the whole world more saddening and revolting than is offered by men sunk in ignorance of everything but what other men have written; seemingly devoid of moral belief or guidance; but with the sense of beauty so keen, and the power of expression so cultivated, that their sensual caterwauling may be almost mistaken for the music of the spheres.

At present, education is almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of the power of expression, and of the sense of literary beauty. The matter of having anything to say, beyond a hash of other people's opinions, or of possessing any criterion of beauty, so that we may distinguish between the Godlike and the devilish, is left aside as of no moment. I think I do not err in saying that if science were made a foundation of education, [131] instead of being, at most, stuck on as cornice to the edifice, this state of things could not exist.

In advocating the introduction of physical science as a leading element in education, I by no means refer only to the higher schools. On the contrary, I believe that such a change is even more imperatively called for in those primary schools, in which the children of the poor are expected to turn to the best account the little time they can devote to the acquisition of knowledge. A great step in this direction has already been made by the establishment of science-classes under the Department of Science and Art,–a measure which came into existence unnoticed, but which will, I believe, turn out to be of more importance to the welfare of the people than many political changes over which the noise of battle has rent the air.

Under the regulations to which I refer, a schoolmaster can set up a class in one or more branches of science; his pupils will be examined, and the State will pay him, at a certain rate, for all who succeed in passing. I have acted as an examiner under this system from the beginning of its establishment, and this year I expect to have not fewer than a couple of thousand sets of answers to questions in Physiology, mainly from young people of the artisan class, who have been taught in the schools which are now scattered all over great Britain and Ireland. Some of my colleagues, who have to deal with subjects such as [132] Geometry, for which the present teaching power is better organised, I understand are likely to have three or four times as many papers. So far as my own subjects are concerned, I can undertake to say that a great deal of the teaching, the results of which are before me in these examinations, is very sound and good; and I think it is in the power of the examiners, not only to keep up the present standard, but to cause an almost unlimited improvement. Now what does this mean? It means that by holding out a very moderate inducement, the masters of primary schools in many parts of the country have been led to convert them into little foci of scientific instruction; and that they and their pupils have contrived to find, or to make, time enough to carry out this object with a very considerable degree of efficiency. That efficiency will, I doubt not, be very much increased as the system becomes known and perfected, even with the very limited leisure left to masters and teachers on week-days. And this leads me to ask, Why should scientific teaching be limited to week-days?

Ecclesiastically-minded persons are in the habit of calling things they do not like by very hard names, and I should not wonder if they brand the proposition I am about to make as blasphemous, and worse. But, not minding this, I venture to ask, Would there really be anything wrong in using part of Sunday for the purpose of instructing [133] those who have no other leisure, in a knowledge of the phænomena of Nature, and of man's relation to Nature?

I should like to see a scientific Sunday-school in every parish, not for the purpose of superseding any existing means of teaching the people the things that are for their good, but side by side with them. I cannot but think that there is room for all of us to work in helping to bridge over the great abyss of ignorance which lies at our feet.

And if any of the ecclesiastical persons to whom I have referred, object that they find it derogatory to the honour of the God whom they worship, to awaken the minds of the young to the infinite wonder and majesty of the works which they proclaim His, and to teach them those laws which must needs be His laws, and therefore of all things needful for man to know–I can only recommend them to be let blood and put on low diet. There must be something very wrong going on in the instrument of logic if it turns out such conclusions from such premises.

1 "Mr. Quain's words (Medical Times and Gazette, February 20) are–"A few words as to our special Medical course of instruction and the influence upon it of such changes in the elementary schools as I have mentioned. The student now enters at once upon several sciences–physics, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, botany, pharmacy, therapeutics–all these, the facts and the language and the laws of each, to be mastered in eighteen months. Up to the beginning of the Medical course many have learned little. We cannot claim anything better than the Examiner of the University of London and the Cambridge Lecturer have reported for their Universities. Supposing that at school young people had acquired some exact elementary knowledge in physics, chemistry, and a branch of natural history–say botany–with the physiology connected with it they would then have gained necessary knowledge, with some practice in inductive reasoning. The whole studies are processes of observation and induction–the best discipline of the mind for the purposes of life–for our purposes not less than any. 'By such study (says Dr. Whewell) of one or more departments of inductive science the mind may escape from the thraldom of mere words.' By that plan the burden of the early Medical course would be much lightened, and more time devoted to practical studies, including Sir Thomas Watson's 'final and supreme stage' of the knowledge of Medicine."

Preface and Table of Contents to Volume III, Science & Education, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

Next article: Science and Culture [1880], pages 134-159.

Previous article: A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It [1868], pages 76-110.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden