George Washington Carver and Nature Study

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute, circa 1906. Photograph by Francis Benjamin Johnson. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute, circa 1906. Photograph by Francis Benjamin Johnson. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Today’s post is guest authored by Michelle Cadoree Bradley, a science reference specialist in the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress. She is also the author of the blog post, “Stumbled Upon in the Stacks, or the Chimp in my Office.”

…a very large part of the child’s education must be gotten outside of the four walls designated as class room.  …the most effective and lasting education is the one that makes the pupil handle, discuss and familiarize himself with the real things about him… (Carver, George W in “Nature Study and Garden for Rural Schools“, Bulletin of the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station , no. 18., p. 3)

George Washington Carver is very well known as a botanist and inventor who developed new uses for the peanut and sweet potato.  As an educator of his time, Carver also saw the value in early elementary science education.  His promotion of nature study in schools echo the nature study movement which began in the late 1800s and reached its zenith of popularity from the 1890s to 1920s.

In the 1870s the noted Harvard University zoologist Louis Agassiz created the Anderson School of Natural History, which set out to teach natural history from the direct observation of natural phenomena.  Nature study took this idea and aimed it at the elementary level.  Colleges in the U.S. designed new nature study programs that focused on instructional classes for rural schools. One such program was developed at Cornell; designed and taught by Anna Botsford Comstock and Liberty Hyde Bailey.

Liberty Hyde Bailey wrote that the “Nature Study Idea” will not only teach science but for a child will

open the child’s mind to his natural existence, develop his sense of responsibility and of self-dependence, train him to respect the resources of the earth, teach him the obligations of citizenship, interest him sympathetically in the occupations of men, quicken his relations to human life in general, and touch his imagination with the spiritual forces of the world (The Nature-Study Idea; an Interpretation of the New School-Movement to Put the Young into Relation and Sympathy with Nature , 1909, 3rd rev. ed., pg. 11)

Image from G. W. Carver's  "The Value of Nature Study and Children's Gardens," The Cornell Countryman, v. 4, May 1907, p. 250

Image from G. W. Carver’s “The Value of Nature Study and Children’s Gardens,” The Cornell Countryman, v. 4, May 1907, p. 250

Through this method, nature study would use the schools to reach the farms as well. George Washington Carver used such publications as Progressive Nature Studies (Tuskegee, 1897) to instruct teachers on how to engage in nature studies in the classroom.

He later followed with articles published in the  Farmers’ Leaflets  and the Bulletin of the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station to convey these ideals and ideas directly to the farmer.

Let …  all the methods of nature study be brought down to the every-day life and language of the masses.  Let us become familiar with the commonest thing about us, of which two-thirds of the people are surprisingly ignorant.  The highest attainments in agriculture can be reached only when we clearly understand the mutual relationship between the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms, and how utterly impossible it is for one to exist in a highly organized state without the other ( Carver, George W. The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South, in Farmers’ Leaflet, no. 7, April 1902)

He also promoted school (children’s) gardens suggesting that

There is probably no agent more productive of interest than children’s gardens, which embody almost if not quite every phase of practical rural nature study.  If properly presented new revelations and discoveries will constantly be unfolding before the pupil, increasing his enthusiasm and gradually enlarging his educational horizon.  (Carver, George W.  in “The Value of Nature Study and Children’s Gardens,” The Cornell Countryman, v. 4, May 1907, p. 249-250)

Photo from “Nature Study and Gardening for Rural Schools,” Tuskegee Bulletin, no. 18,pg: 6.

The following will help you discover more about the nature study movement and George Washington Carver’s role using primary resources and research guides:

See the following for general information about the nature study movement:

For information on the history of school gardens watch the curatorial Webcast (also available as YouTube video) with Constance Carter, Science Reference Section Head, Library of Congress. An extensive bibliography on school gardens can be found here. See also School Gardening in the Early 1900s through Today LibGuide from University of Michigan.


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