Today, ice and snow -- mountains and learning. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Something just caught my
eye in John Tyndall's book, The Forms of
Water -- all about glaciers, snow, ice,
rivulets, clouds, hail and snow. The year was 1872.
Tyndall had just given the Christmas lectures at
London's Royal Institution and had now put them
into the form of a book for young readers.
Tyndall was the greatest experimental physicist of
the Victorian age. But these lectures derive from
his passion for walking (or rambling, as
he calls it) in the Alps. In them, he mixes two
great Victorian traditions -- the
travelogue and classical physics.
These lectures were the Royal Institution's gift to
an audience of young people at Christmas time. And
we read this in Tyndall's Preface:
... my theory of education agrees with that of
Emerson, according to which instruction is only
half the battle, what he calls provocation
being the other half.
To provoke, he tells us, is to bring out the latent
strength of boys and girls. (Tyndall's explicit
recognition of girls in a Victorian science class
is, in itself, wonderfully ahead of its time.)
But I'm drawn to that word provocation. It
is so easily lost in a world where good teaching
seems to begin and end with clarity and
understandability. The great joy of my
undistinguished career as a student was always that
rare moment when, faced with something complex and
incomprehensible, I suddenly broke through the wall
to find my own understanding.
Tyndall, now in his robust early fifties, is a
passionate mountaineer, and the mountain is his
metaphor. He takes us, we young readers, through
the craggy elements of nature that he loves so
well. It is a beautiful thing -- his subject
curving into the metaphor for the process of
learning it. At the end of the book, Tyndall closes
upon his own metaphor when he says,
Here, my friend, our labours close. It has been
a true pleasure to have you at my side so long. In
the sweat of our brows we have often reached the
heights where our work lay, but you have been
steadfast and industrious throughout, using ...
your own muscles instead of mine. ...
It is thus that I should like to teach you all
things; showing you the way to profitable exertion,
but leaving the exertion to you ...
In that, of course, he speaks to the reader of the
book as well as to the pupil sitting before him.
Question as you read, he's telling us. Be a
participant. Teachers who deny students any measure
of frustration, also deny them the full reach of
learning. Reduce learning to making multiple
choices, without finding out how to forge choices,
and learning will become impoverished, indeed.
The last words of Tyndall's focused ramble through
his beloved mountains reveal the camaraderie of
effort that marks successful education. He says:
Here then we part. And should we not meet
again, the memory of these days will still unite
us. Give me your hand. Good bye.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Tyndall, The Forms of Water in Clouds &
Rivers, Ice & Glaciers. New York: D.
Appleton and Company, 1877. (Originally published in
For more on John Tyndall, go to the Engines search
Search of the Engines site, and type in the
word: Tyndall. For more on the Christmas
lectures, see Episode