Professor Huxley on Geography

Saturday Review April 1869

[549] The chief obstacle to any great and sudden change in the course of instruction given in our schools lies quite as much in the conscious ignorance of the teacher as in his aversion to the change itself. No really able man ventures to teach what he does not know; moreover, he does not like to teach what he has not himself been taught, and so learnt how to teach. To this well-founded reluctance, quite as much as to any conservative tendencies, we attribute the slowness of the progress that the more modern studies have made. A master knows that he is capable of teaching Greek and Latin; he only knows Greek and Latin, but he has in his own school-boy days seen how they are taught; he knows that he has at his command a number of recognised text-books, and he feels sure that, though he may make a failure with those of his pupils whom nature has not fitted for a classical education, still he can year by year turn out a certain number of scholars who will possess a real and accurate knowledge of what they have studied; and who will be able to keep alive in his school a clear sense of the difference between sound knowledge and shallow pretence. He may be well aware that the classics, after all, are but one branch of learning, and that not all boys are naturally fitted to study them; and that there are other great branches of learning which it is a shame, even to the greatest classical scholar living, to be altogether’ ignorant of. But at the same time, with that deep sense of the value of sound learning and accurate teaching, which is induced by close knowledge, with that dislike of teachers who are ready teach before they have learned, he may (and perhaps not unwisely) think he would do better by going on in the old rut, and teaching that alone which he can teach well. In our great schools, however, many masters have thought it better to face the difficulty, and though knowing themselves to be but learners, and though perfectly aware that they are pursuing but a tentative process, have tried, whilst learning themselves, at the same time to teach their pupils. Classes have accordingly been formed in the more modern studies, and the physical sciences are being taught with more or less success, and to a greater or less extent, in many or the public schools. Nevertheless, all teachers really worthy of the name must be painfully aware of the inefficiency of all instruction that is not, in the first place, based on sound knowledge, and, in the second place, is not imparted on a good method. A man may have great knowledge, but little power of imparting it. The classics have been taught so long that unquestionably a method of teaching them has been unconsciously worked out, and there is a more or less imperfect art of teaching them, even if there is not a science. But this is not the case with the physical sciences. Till lately they can scarcely be said to have been taught at all; and though there are not a few men who have a profound knowledge of them, and some who also know how to impart this knowledge to others, yet, while the former class is but limited in numbers, the latter class might almost be counted on one’s fingers. Everywhere, however, throughout the country a demand is being made for instruction in these sciences, and instruction is accordingly being supplied. But it is easy to see that men who have not themselves thoroughly mastered the subject, who have been their own teachers, and who have not therefore learnt the best method of teaching, cannot be expected to do justice to their subject. Had a similar state of affairs happened in France, had a desire sprung up for instruction in some new subject, a trained body of teachers could have been easily supplied. The Minister of Education would have directed the Head of the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris to provide at once a capable professor, and to give to the study as many hours a week as was necessary. The students would at first have learnt the subject itself, and then would have learnt how to teach it, and in two or three years there would be coming forth, a constant stream of men, not only knowing their subject thoroughly, but also capable of teaching it. In England, unfortunately, we have no such institution–at any rate no such institution adapted to any schools above the lowest. If a Head-master requires some new subject to be taught, he does not know where to go to look for a competent man, and often finds himself compelled to ask some one of his masters who shows some inclination for the subject to get it up as quickly as he can, and to teach it on the best method he can devise. An attempt, however, is being made to remedy to some extent this evil, and to supply on the one hand to the pupil the knowledge he requires, and on the other hand to the master, if not the knowledge of the subject, yet at all events the knowledge how best to impart it. We watch this attempt with great interest, as it may lead to a more rapid spread of sound knowledge of the physical sciences than we could have hoped for.

The managers of the London Institution in Finsbury Circus have, much to their credit, resolved to do what they, can to provide sound elementary instruction in the physical sciences at such a price that it will be within the reach of all but the lowest schools. Professor Huxley, on Monday, April 12 began the first course of lectures. He is to deliver twelve lectures on Physical Geography; the charge for the whole course is but five shillings. The course is adapted for the young, though at the first lecture half the audience was composed of adults. Professor Huxley told them that he should disregard them altogether, as he came to lecture to schoolboys and schoolgirls. Now we regard these lectures as doubly important. In the first place, the pupils of the schools in and round London have an opportunity of studying a subject which is in itself, most interesting, but which is generally most vilely taught, under the guidance of a man who is singularly capable of teaching it with clearness and interest. In the next place, the masters of all the schools within fifty miles round can–if they will only make the requisite effort and sacrifice of their time, both of which will be amply repaid–learn how to teach. Both boys and masters who were present at Professor Huxley’s lecture must have opened their eyes and ears in amazement to find how interesting a subject of instruction geography may be made. The boys at all events, must have been astonished beyond measure to find that every word of the first lecture was easy to be understood. The usual elementary text-books of geography, as we all know from sad experience, begin by explaining, or attempting to explain, what is altogether unknown and unfamiliar, and perhaps arrive at last at what is known and familiar. If a child ever learns to point out his native town on a map, or the course of some river he knows, it is in all probability months after be has had to point out the Tropic of Capricorn or the Antarctic Circle. Before he has in any way had brought home to his mind what distance is, or been made to realize how it is that an inch of the map stands for some fifty miles of land or sea, he is told that "at the equator, the earth’s circumference is 24,899 miles, and its diameter 7,925; but, owing to the compression towards the poles, the length of the polar diameter of the sphere is about 26 miles less than that at the equator. " (Geography for the use of Beginners. By William Hughes, F.R.G.S., p. 2.) While he would with difficulty make out a plan of the very room in which he is receiving his lesson, and would be unable to calculate the number of square feet its floor covers, he has to learn by heart that "the superficial extent of Europe, including its islands, is 3,700,000 square miles." While be could not tell in what direction by the compass he had been walking when he went to the pastrycook’s, he is supposed to be capable of understanding that the Feejee Islands are in longitude 178.20 East and latitude 17.0 South, and that Greenwich is on the first meridian. When he begins by studying the separate continents or countries, he has to learn all the facts that can be crammed into him about one before he knows even the outline of the other; he reads that "the Black Sea is connected by the Strait of Yenikale with the Sea of Azov at its North-eastern extremity" before he has even been shown Asia or Africa; and he learns that "the principal towns of Meath are Navan, Kells, and Trim." before be so much as hears of Paris or New York. In fact, every man must feel conscious that, till be began to travel and consult Bradshaw, he had not the least real conception of geography. The first mountain tour a young fellow makes with his map of the district and his pocket-compass must teach him more real geography than he had learnt at all the schools he had attended. We do not feel sure that a schoolmaster could now and then employ his boys’ time better than by giving them a county map and a compass, and sending them out to find their way to some spot ten or twelve miles distant, where, of course, he should be found awaiting them with a good dinner. If the district were celebrated for its beer or its cheese, he would no doubt make them try both, and so give them a second lesson in practical geography, by a somewhat minute study of the natural products of the country. This latter lesson would be not a whit 1ess useful, and would remain much longer imprinted on the memory, than any number of pages of the Geography Book learnt off by heart.

Professor Huxley has as yet only given two lectures, so we do not feel sure whether in his course this somewhat practical geography will be included. At all events he began with what is familiar to his youthful audience and kept to what was familiar; he began his course of lectures with the River Thames and on London Bridge and not with the terrestrial globe and "the imaginary lines supposed to be drawn upon the surface of the earth." He made quite clear what a map really is–and did with the geography books, on the one hand, assume that a child could grasp at once the full meaning of a map, and so requires no explanation as to how a piece of painted paper can in any way stand for a vast country, or, on the other band, give as explanation that that which is no explanation at all. What is a boy the wiser for being told "that a map represents on a flat surface the whole or any portion of a globe" Professor Huxley observed that his map of the Thames was but a picture of that view which would be seen by any one who mounted in a balloon sufficiently high to see the river in its whole course. He afterwards cleared away that second great confusion which attends all geography, and from which, we [550] will undertake to say, numbers of people even when grown up never free themselves. How many are there who think that the North of a country must, in the nature of things, be at the top of a map, and the South at the bottom: and that the world rises therefore towards the north and falls away towards the south. How many are there who think that there is a real West and a real East, and that a man in the United States, for instance is in this West not merely relatively to Europe, but absolutely. Professor Huxley was evidently well aware of the confusion existing in most people’s minds about the real points of the compass and the points marked on the map, and was not content with saying that "the top of a map is towards the North, the bottom South, the right-hand East, and the left-hand West," but first made his audience understand (what we will undertake to say numbers of not ill-educated people do not clearly understand) what is meant by North, South, East, and West, and then observed how it is only by general that maps are drawn in one particular way, with the North at the top and the South at the bottom. We cannot but think that some geographer would do good service if he were to publish a map of the world with all this reversed. No doubt if we say hanging on a wall Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope at the top, and Greenland and the North Cape at the bottom, we should feel as if the world were something worse than out of joint, and should experience much the same uncomfortable sensation as would come upon us if se saw the picture of a house hung upside down.

Having made clear what a map is, Professor Huxley led his audience to reflect on the great river pictured in the map, why it exists, and where the water comes from that flows along it. The source is said to be at Thames Head, but the sources are countless, and are all round the basin of the Thames, in the springs that rise at the edge of the hills that enclose it. The springs led him to consider the rain, snow, and hail–clear enough for a child to understand, and interesting enough for a man to listen to. At last, he passed into almost eloquence as he showed how the sea supplies the air with the vapour of water, how the vapour of water passes into rain, how the rain supplies the springs, and the springs the river, and how the river in its turn supplies the sea. "The source of the Thames comes from nowhere; it turns round in a circle." He might have remembered, however, that a thousand years before the Thames was heard of, this truth had been known, and that the Preacher had said "All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; onto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again."

In his second lecture Professor Huxley still kept to the Thames and the Thames basin, explaining the terms basin, plain, valley, watershed, &c. It was towards the close of the lecture, however, when he got into the geology of the district, that he really warmed up as he handled the gravel and the lump of chalk that he had lying as specimens on the table before him. Even the lump of London clay was treated with a kind of respect that we can scarcely share in. The action of running water was shown to have been what had rounded the pebbles, chipped off the sand, and ground down the stones into mud. Nothing that was said was perhaps new. The arrangement of the subject was, however, new and surprisingly fresh. He said nothing that was not interesting and nothing that was not intelligible. His language was as clear as the Thames water doubtless one day will be, and at times his audience must have felt that a certain quiet humour and eloquence may be found even in a lecture on Geography. We can only hope that every great school may send at least one master to attend the course, and that thus a sound and rational method of teaching one branch of the physical sciences may generally prevail. In the name of Isaak Walton and Charles Lamb we must, however, before we conclude, protest against the confusion of Professor Huxley’s admirable map of the Thames basin between the Lea River and the New River. The Lea River does not end in the New River, nor does it enter London at Islington.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University