Louis Agassiz's Aspirations

Below: Photograph - of the toppled statue of Louis Agassiz - at one time America's most famous scientist - which fell 50 feet from its pedestal on the Stanford University Zoology Building during the 1906 earthquake and embedded itself headfirst in the pavement.

Louis Agassiz was a man who had many aspirations during his lifetime. One of his aspirations was nothing less than the complete transformation of how American society as a whole related to, taught about, and studied nature. To this end, Agassiz aimed to introduce his method of nature study into the curricula of the American school system. From the time of his arrival in this country, Agassiz had worked to establish a strong connection with the teachers of the State of Massachusetts; attending and lecturing to the Teachers' Institutes, visiting the teacher training schools, then referred to as “normal schools,” and associating himself actively, as much as he possibly could, with the interests of public education. (34) As a charismatic, well-respected Harvard professor, he was frequently invited to speak to the general public. Agassiz took advantage of such opportunities to popularize the study of nature in America. In addition to giving countless public presentations, he opened his lectures at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology to schoolteachers, encouraging women as well as men to attend. (35)

As poignantly described by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt,

"Louis Agassiz lectured to anyone who would listen—from the educated elite at the Lowell Institute, to the young women attending his wife Elizabeth Agassiz’s girls’ school in Cambridge, and to audiences in major cities interested with idea of building public natural history museums. His vision for engaging learners in studying the natural world influenced both his formal and informal students, many of whom in the years to come, would work to introduce Agassiz’s method of instruction of natural history to the public schools through the training of schoolteachers." (36)

In the article titled Agassiz at Penikese (The Popular Science Monthly, April, 1892), David Starr Jordan aptly describes the educational effort that was taken up next by Louis Agassiz, as yet another attempt to introduce nature study into the curriculum of American schools.

"Notwithstanding the great usefulness of the museum and the broad influence of its teachers, Agassiz was not fully satisfied. The audience he reached was still too small. Throughout the country the great body of teachers of science went on in the old mechanical way. On these he was able to exert no influence. The boys and girls still kept up the humdrum recitations from worthless text-books. They got their lessons from the book, recited them from memory, and no more came into contact with Nature than they would if no animals or plants or rocks existed on this side of the planet Jupiter. It was to remedy this state of things that Agassiz conceived, in 1872, the idea of a scientific " camp-meeting," where the workers and the teachers might meet together — a summer school of observation where the teachers should be trained to see Nature for themselves and teach others how to see it." (37)


(35) Ibid.

(36) Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. (2005). Nature, Not Books: Scientists and the Origins of the Nature-Study Movement in the 1890s. Isis. 96 (3) 324-352.