Thursday, July 25, 2013

Literature and Science: Dead or Alive?

When I was growing up in school, science was a necessary evil. I had to get through the classes, get good grades, but left scientific pursuits to other "scientifically inclined," people. I remember the faintest flicker of an interest in certain aspects of science occurring on occasion, but the test or the move to the next unit would quickly snuff out the fragile flame. I can't recall the name of a single book I read in all those 16 years of  school.

Consequently, it is a bit amusing to me that I should be looking forward to finishing my latest book, Strange  Lives of Familiar Insects, by Edwin Way Teal. Having grown up in northern regions, my thoughts on those tiny creatures were practically nonexistent until we moved to Virginia and started farming. Oh, the flies! Oh  the potato beetles! Oh, the variety of these spiders, bugs, and insects that try to make their home right inside  ours! I have definitely become aware. I have even become curious about them enough to enjoy  The Grasshopper Book by Bronson, Luna by McClung, or Insects Do the Strangest Things as my children have read these young living science books. Then I read The Life of the Spider by Jean Henri Fabre and could not stop exclaiming over his incredible ability to use words to make pictures spring to life in my mind. I was  astonished that I should be awed by the wonders of spiders.

I had had this experience once before when, about ten years ago, I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. I found myself not just intrigued by her explorations, but almost grieving at the heartless way I had been obliviously ignoring nature all my life. I had actually been taking nature walks with my family since  embarking on a Charlotte Mason education, but realized I wasn't scratching the surface. Dillard, I told a friend, so exquisitely expressed what she observed that for the first time in my sightless life, I felt like I had truly seen, felt, and even smelled the experience of a nature walk as I would never have the privilege of doing otherwise. That is powerful writing.

Living books like these opened the gate into the wonders of nature to me. I suppose it was inevitable that my interest in natural history should be aroused after a lifetime of dormancy when I became a follower of  Charlotte Mason and began investigating the world outside with my children for nature study. Theoretically I understood that God reveals himself not just in the written Word, but in the world He has made, but not until I encouraged them to explore, did the truth of this become alive and wonderful to me. When we embarked on a CM method of education, would not have dream that it would eventually lead me not just out of my four walls, not just around the world through literature, but literally outside in the fragrance and feel of the actual world we take for granted, pay no attention to, ignore. This reminds me reading in Last Child in the Woods about a boy who said he didn't play outside (the norm for most children of our day) because "I don't like to get away from electric outlets." Thus, discovering nature along with my children has been a gift, a gift from my Heavenly Father I waited too long to unwrap.

So it has evolved that the books fueled the curiosity to venture outside, and the questions and perplexities  waiting out there have fueled the need to read more books. It gives me great delight to think of suggesting such books to others too. A Mom was in a couple of weeks ago wanting information about flies. I handed her Fabre's Life of the Fly, a rather thick volume, and she was daunted. "Oh, just try it," I urged, "I read his book on spiders and it was captivating." One week later she asked Emily to order her her own copy because she was enjoying it so much. Is this not a wonder, for busy Twenty-First Century moms to be discussing such reading material? To think that I, from reading Teal's insect book, should find myself musing on the life cycle of dragonflies, chinch bugs, and the preying mantis. Amazing thoughts of God they are indeed.

Though I will never be adept at capturing any of these small wondrous creatures to scrutinize under a magnifying lens, or have the privilege of looking through a microscope at the cells of plants, I can honestly say that the world of science has for the first time in my life become an exciting subject, one I was not  naturally drawn to at all. Still, I have spent a good deal of my summer leisure time discovering the riches in other areas of science literature too. Once more it is my children's education that prompted me again, in a quest for living science books for my up and coming high schooler. For instance, as a possible introduction to high school physics, I just finished reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, (William Kamkwamba, 2009) about an African teen who, through the economically and physically devastating ravages of a famine, and a burning interest in science, discovers a library book on windmills and sets about building one out of junk yard scraps to bring electricity to his village.

For biology, I plunged in to Microbe Hunters, which I assure you would never have remotely crossed my mind to read in the past, and have been thrilled with the discoveries in the world of microbiology. That is a nearly hundred-year-old book, and science has certainly progressed far beyond that primitive era, but the lesson I learned from that book is not to despise "old science." His lively, humorous, and passionate discussion of the men who risked their lives and fortunes to "save the world," and the way he weaves  together their various lives, as they truly were by One above, again draws my mind to the intricacies of creation and the joy of seeing God at work in the lives of men. I believe one of the reasons this book is still so living for us today, who daily live with wonders far more complex as a result of modern scientific knowledge, is that he was alive when these men were, spoke with some of them, was intensely interested  and involved in their work. Besides historical information, the inspiration of this book that energizes the reader is the realization that not many of these pioneers was particularly methodical, equipped, logical, or
necessarily outstanding academically. But creative, resolute, and courageous they were and our children need heroes like them.

They were certainly gifted by God and gifts to us today. "The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge," says the Scripture, and this "science awakening" in my mind has certainly increased my personal joy and amazement at the hand of God.

Thus has Charlotte Mason's method of education led me in paths I couldn't have foreseen, into new and exciting fields of life. I am humbled daily at my enormous ignorance and how small has been my world before nature study and living science literature. I would have missed this if my experience had remained focused on dry, facts-only textbooks instead of this colorful literature written by men and women thoroughly intrigued with the beauty of nature and insatiably eager to pursue its heights and depths.

May I suggest that the subject of science does not have to be deadly dull and dreary. As parents and teachers, it is worth reconsidering the methods and attitudes we have as those high school diplomas loom not far ahead. Charlotte Mason didn't believe nature study was just for little children, nor was science a goal to be hurtled. Rather, the living education she proclaims, living ideas and living books, carries our children into all realms of knowledge: knowledge of God, knowledge of man, and knowledge of the universe. Her words below, I will make bold to suggest, are more relevant today than they were in her time.

"But there is a region of apparent sterility in our intellectual life. Science says of literature, "I'll none of it," and science is the preoccupation of our age. Whatever we study must be divested to the bone, and the principle of life goes with the flesh we strip away: history expires in the process, poetry cannot come to birth, religion faints; we sit down to the dry bones of science and say, Here is knowledge, all the knowledge there is to know. "I think that is very wonderful," a little girl wrote in an examination paper after trying to explain why a leaf is green. That little girl had found the principle––admiration, wonder––which makes science vital, and without wonder her highest value is, not spiritual, but utilitarian. A man might as well collect matchboxes, like those charming people in one of Anatole France's novels, as search for diatoma, unless the wonder of the world be ever fresh before his eyes. In the eighteenth century science was alive, quick with emotion, and therefore it found expression in literature. Still, a Lister, a Pasteur, moves us, and we feel that in one department of science, anyway, men stirred by the passion of humanity ... are doing monumental work.

"But for the most part science as she is taught leaves us cold; the utility of scientific discoveries does not appeal to the best that is in us, though it makes a pretty urgent and general appeal to our lower avidities. But the fault is not in science––that mode of revelation which is granted to our generation, may we reverently say?––but in our presentation of it by means of facts and figures and demonstrations that mean no more to the general audience than the point demonstrated, never showing the wonder and magnificent reach of the law unfolded...

"Coleridge has revealed the innermost secret, whether of science or literature: speaking on the genesis of an idea, he says, "When the idea of Nature (presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature herself)," etc. The man who would write for us about the true inwardness of wireless telegraphy, say, how truly it was a discovery, a revealing of that which was there and had been there all along, might make our hearts burn within us. No doubt there are many scientific men who are also men of letters, and some  scientific books as inspiring as great poems––but science is waiting for its literature; and, though we cannot live in shameful ignorance and must get what we can out of the sources open to us, science as it is too commonly taught tends to leave us crude in thought and hard and narrow in judgment." 
(Philosophy of Education, pp. 317-318)

I ask you, honestly, do we not see this crudity of thought and narrowness in judgment today - in the news, in our classrooms, in our current science literature? More pointedly, is our science study resulting in wonder, in admiration, in humility, in short, leading us to worship and serve the wonderful Maker of all things?

For the joy of reading,



  1. I'm a seventh generation Virginian, and never knew life without insects until a cousin who's been out west for decades came back for a visit and complained bitterly about them.

    Glad to hear the recommendation of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I'm putting together a list of books about Virginia and Virginians for my daughter and I was going to include it, but have not read it myself yet. ;)

    1. Sara,

      Virginia offers more opportunity for year round outdoor study, so I am thankful even for the bugs. We mark the seasons by them now. Emily read the early chapter in Tinker Creek about a water bug sucking the life out of a frog before Annie's eyes, which, oddly, became our selection to read to company that summer; it was simultaneously
      revolting and fascinating. To think God made such wonders to be performed for our instruction!


  2. I admit, coming from England to Virginia makes for scary bugs! They are so BIG and then there are the poisonous spiders and the strange NOISES :) My husband, whose family have been here in VA for hundreds of years, is always amused by people who come here from elsewhere- because we've never seen a lightning bug or heard a cicada ;) He has friends who have come from the South and the North as well as from the West, who all say VA has more bugs than anywhere else LOL.
    I have (in my 14 years as a resident) long since learned to enjoy bugs (thank goodness for CM and nature study). That doesn't mean I will touch them! I will read about them, and I grab my camera to photograph them- and the kids are fascinated (DD-9 thinks crickets are 'cute').
    My only peeve, when it comes to living books for science, is that at the High School level they are practically non-existent for BIOLOGY. I mean... I can find them for nature study, but for a lot of the other aspects of biology it is hard!

    1. Rachel,

      Your dilemma about high school science literature is why I have spent so much time this summer cram reading modern books. Not being a very savvy science gal, I don't feel terribly confident recommending nor do I claim to be on top of all that might be out there. However, that said, if I had read some of the books I am reading now, I might have
      entertained more science study in college.

      One hope I have is that a few children in our living libraries have expressed the desire to study science and write in that field when they are older. This gives hope. Most of the "creation science" mimics the current format which is so uninspiring to the imagination, computer-generated images, unexciting and unimaginative prose, so we
      need these children who are growing up with good literature to turn that around some day.

      I can only read so much, but should perhaps give some recommendations in a future post for high school reading. Continue with more in depth nature study and in depth investigation, in the meantime, and your botany reading. I believe the Teale book on insects would be good for high school, as well as the others I have mentioned in this post. I will try to put some further suggestions out there soon.


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