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Photograph of young African American students gardening at a rural school.
Photo from "Nature Study and Gardening for Rural Schools," Tuskegee Bulletin, no. 18,pg: 6.

George Washington Carver and Nature Study

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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)

Photograph of George Washington Carver from the waist up
George Washington Carver, half-length portrait, facing right, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1906. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

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 of a number of African American men in women in hats and coats on a warm day in a field with a single tree in the background
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)

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.


Comments (4)

  1. Having worked at the Agassiz Museum at Harvard and read some of Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz’s first lessons in natural history, I was delighted to see this interesting post. Readers might also want to peruse Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in America,1890-1930 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010), by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt. The book has a 32-page bibliography.

  2. Learned of GW Carver is grade school. Amazing science , amazing!…

  3. Ever since I was in grade school ( early 50’s) I became fascinated by George Washington Carver.He was one of my two heroes–the other was Marian Anderson. And I’m not of black heritage. I was a little white girl in Texas! A couple years ago I got to visit the National Memorial to him in Diamond Grove, MO. It was a very moving experience for me to have walked in areas where he had. I would love to read his original papers on discoveries of paint pigments. In my searching I have not been able to find anything. Can you direct me? Thank you!
    I think he should be more highly honored/recognized for starting the “gardens at schools” movement!!

  4. As a very young man (age 7) I wanted to have a flower garden. My mother told me to go to the library (just down the street) and research some books on planting. GWC book was there among other botanists. As I remember it was the fact that people actually wrote books about planting seeds and things that spurred me on to plant seeds and learn about growing plants for pleasure and reward. I think that learning about the life cycle of plants is at the core of creation and all children should get a taste of life through propagation.

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