By Mr. Thomas Steenson
To an outside observer, a Natural History walk at The Heights may seem to fall quite short of the academic rigors of science. Yet it is not without reason that former Lower-School Head Joe McCleary called Natural History in some ways, the most important class that we teach the boys in the lower school. Following the wisdom of our Heights forefathers, I’d like to suggest three ways in which our Natural History instruction gives our boys a strong introduction to the world of Science.
Science involves observation
In its foundations, science requires one to look, in a careful and unbiased manner, to the phenomena around us. Physics, with all of its formulae and rules, is finally, the study of motion – and motion is all around us, experienced, seen, felt. Even atomic theory, giving us knowledge of elemental forces and strata, seemingly on the opposite side of the spectrum from observation – even it owes its beginnings to truths deduced from observed experiment.
Our Natural History classes offer myriad lessons in observation. I recall the springtime when my boys were making observations on the Carpenter Bees as they (the bees, not the boys) returned to make havoc once again on our log cabin.
“Write down what you see,” I told them. “Look, wait, and watch. Give me five observations on what the bees are doing. Don’t write it in your journal unless you see it with your own eyes.”
The bees were bouncing along the cabin’s wooden wall. We see them going in, and leaving from, a sort of knothole. I inspected one boy’s journal. “The bees are going into their nest and making honey.” An eyebrow raises involuntarily as I ask: “Did you see them make the honey?” It turns out the student cannot yet peer through walls, and finds that what he thought he observed, he imagined instead. Still, though the particular journal entry was less than perfect, the real lesson learned had to do with the beginning of the study of nature: Observation, true observation, is fundamental.
Wisdom begins with wonder
I remember, fondly, the experience my fifth-graders had in discovering rocks. On a nature walk, I happened across a shiny, black rock that was unlike most of the other stones I had seen underfoot. Taking it to Mr. Dolan, my class received two important insights – the name of the thing, and an intriguing property it had.
“That’s anthracite coal,” he said. “You can tell because it is so light.” Sure enough, as I passed the stone around, and the boys felt it in hand, they were amazed to feel first-hand its relatively light density.
What was recess like after that? A Fifth-grader or two standing in the middle of a soccer game, bending over and peering, oblivious to the sport . . . searching for anthracite. With that sense of wonder, with that spark of interest (coal-fired, as it were), my boys ended up learning a lot more than any classroom lecture I could have given on rocks.
Natural History teaches Philosophy
Although the study of nature may seem to be a quaint pastime, an old-fashioned means of investigation before man developed modern technologies, in reality there are higher-level truths that depend on one’s understanding of nature.
For example, more than one of St. Thomas’ proofs for God’s existence are summaries of arguments found in Aristotle’s Physics. Key premises in these proofs are notions about the way the physical world is structured – notions learned from the study of nature. When I teach St. Thomas’ proofs to seniors in the History of Western Thought, I find the 18-year-old Heights student may not know the natural world as well as his 11-year-old brother in the Valley.
Nature acts for an end; even non-intelligent beings act for the sake of some good. Although my Western Thought scholars need reminders of the particular ways that trees, insects, and birds fulfill this dictum, fifth-graders will have first-hand knowledge.
I recall working through the reason that most leaf-bearing trees lose their leaves in the winter: Without shedding their leafy appendages, they would keep too much weight in a snowfall or ice storm, and suffer great losses. The conifers, on the other hand, have much more flexible branches, and needles which will stay relatively clear of frozen precipitation. Hence, they shed not.
Ah, but someone brings up the holly tree (which is conveniently located on campus, and therefore it is no accident to be brought into the discussion.) Doesn’t the holly keep its leaves year-round? A trip to the very tree in the middle of a rainfall, and the boys come to see its particular ordering towards its own good. The holly can retain its leaves, since they have a groove down the center, channeling the water to semi-prickled edges (ordered to gathering water in drops, which then fall of their collected weight, instead of pooling.) Further, the top of the leaves has a wax-like coating, discouraging the external retention of precipitation.
For the lower-school Natural History student, the fact that nature acts for an end is not just a premise to be memorized for a test. Rather, it is a fact of their everyday experience.
The philosophical saying is worth repeating: there is nothing in the mind which is not first in the senses. Following this, there is wisdom in beginning one’s scientific study of nature by looking at, listening to, and touching nature. Whether it is in the forming of universal concepts from a gathering of particular experiences, or in the learning of nature as an internal principle of motion, our lower-school students are given a good beginning to the study of science in Natural History.
— Thomas Steenson teaches fifth grade, and the History of Western Thought at The Heights School. He taught Natural History in the valley for years.