Today, education in the outback. 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.
Edward Youmans was born on a New York farm in 1821. (In
those days almost all Americans were from farms.) Youmans was precocious. He
finished only elementary school, but then systematically educated himself. He
was drawn both to the classics and to science; and he taught for a while in a
He was 30 when his first book was published -- a terse, clear Classbook of
Chemistry that ultimately sold 144,000 copies. By then, he was also educating
his 13-year-old brother William who went on to England to finish his studies with
Edward became a popular lecturer and writer and brother William became an important
American science editor. Both served education and their importance becomes clearer
when we remember that mid-19th century America was educated more by our production
of cheap books, than by schools. Both brothers understood self-education and both
worked hand-in-glove with the Appleton publishing house -- a great provider of fine
affordable text material.
I'd known of Edward Youmans, but I hadn't tumbled to his importance until I found a
dusty edition of his 1867 book, The Culture Demanded by Modern Life. He wrote an
introductory essay on "Mental Discipline in Education," then gathered a gold-plated
A-list of mostly-European luminaries. They all stress the need for disciplined
learning in their new industrial age.
British scientist Huxley writes that,
"to a clear eye the smallest fact is a window through which the Infinite may be seen."
And he warns would-be teachers, "What you would teach, you must first know." That seems
plain enough but it's easy to forget.
My personal hero, the profoundly literate British physicist John Tyndall, writes
"... as a land of gas and furnaces, of steam and electricity ... I ask you whether [we have] not a right to expect from [our] institutions a culture [embracing] something more than declension and conjugation."
And Tyndall's mentor Michael Faraday, writing on the education of one's judgment says,
"The world little knows how many ... thoughts [passing] through the mind of a scientific investigator have been crushed in silence ... by his own severe criticism."
They all see science as a mental rigor that'll make sense of their new technological world.
But more is going on here. Youmans has tapped into the dynamic of the interaction of the
old world with the new. While America looks toward Europe for knowledge, these Europeans
respond to the energy and dynamism of our people.
We feel a subtle undercurrent. Europe's advice is actually feeding upon its American audience,
and it's really directed at her own graying institutions. So much of the book's good advice
was already exemplified in America. Our self-taught intellect had embraced wood, steel, and
steam; and was now closing upon its established cousins with locomotive energy and speed.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Culture Demanded by Modern Life. (ed. E. L. Youmans) (New York: D. Appleton and Company,
1897) This edition is an unedited reprint of the original 1867 book.
For more on Edward Livingston Youmans and William Jay Youmans see articles in the
National Cyclopaedia of American Biography.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.