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How To Study Natural History
by [?]

Note: Lecture delivered at Reading, 1846.

Ladies and gentlemen, I speak to you to-night as to persons assembled, somewhat, no doubt, for amusement, but still more for instruction. Institutions such as this were originally founded for the purpose of instruction; to supply to those who wish to educate themselves some of the advantages of a regular course of scholastic or scientific training, by means of classes and of lectures.

I myself prize classes far higher than I do lectures. From my own experience, a lecture is often a very dangerous method of teaching; it is apt to engender in the mind of men ungrounded conceit and sciolism, or the bad habit of knowing about subjects without really knowing the subject itself. A young man hears an interesting lecture, and carries away from it doubtless a great many new facts and results: but he really must not go home fancying himself a much wiser man; and why? Because he has only heard the lecturer’s side of the story. He has been forced to take the facts and the results on trust. He has not examined the facts for himself. He has had no share in the process by which the results were arrived at. In short, he has not gone into the real scientia, that is, the “knowing” of the matter. He has gained a certain quantity of second-hand information: but he has gained nothing in mental training, nothing in the great “art of learning,” the art of finding out things for himself, and of discerning truth from falsehood. Of course, where the lecture is a scientific one, illustrated by diagrams, this defect is not so extreme: but still the lecturer who shows you experiments, is forced to choose those which shall be startling and amusing, rather than important; he is seldom or never able, unless he is a man of at once the deepest science and the most extraordinary powers of amusing, to give you those experiments in the proper order which will unfold the subject to you step by step; and after all, an experiment is worth very little to you, unless you perform it yourself, ask questions about it, or vary it a little to solve difficulties which arise in your own mind.

Now mind–I do not say all this to make you give up attending lectures. Heaven forbid. They amuse, that is, they turn the mind off from business; they relax it, and as it were bathe and refresh it with new thoughts, after the day’s drudgery or the day’s commonplaces; they fill it with pleasant and healthful images for afterthought. Above all, they make one feel what a fair, wide, wonderful world one lives in; how much there is to be known, and how little one knows; and to the earnest man suggest future subjects of study. I only ask you not to expect from lectures what they can never give; but as to what they can give, I consider, I assure you, the lecturer’s vocation a most honourable one in the present day, even if we look on him as on a mere advertiser of nature’s wonders. As such I appear here to-night; not to teach you natural history; for that you can only teach yourselves: but to set before you the subject and its value, and if possible, allure some of you to the study of it.

I have said that lectures do not supply mental training; that only personal study can do that. The next question is, What study? And that is a question which I do not answer in a hurry, when I say, The study of natural history. It is not, certainly, a study which a young man entering on the business of self-education would be likely to take up. To him, naturally, man is the most important subject. His first wish is to know the human world; to know what men are, what they have thought, what they have done. And therefore, you find that poetry, history, politics, and philosophy are the matters which most attract the self-guided student. I do not blame him, but he seems to me to be beginning at the middle, rather than at the beginning. I fell into the same fault myself more than once, when I was younger, and meddled in matters too high for me, instead of refraining my soul, and keeping it low; so I can sympathise with others who do so. But I can assure them that they will find such lofty studies do them good only in proportion as they have first learnt the art of learning. Unless they have learnt to face facts manfully, to discriminate between them skilfully, to draw conclusions from them rigidly; unless they have learnt in all things to look, not for what they would like to be true, but for what is true, because God has done it, and it cannot be undone–then they will be in danger of taking up only the books which suit their own prejudices–and every one has his prejudices–and using them, not to correct their own notions, but to corroborate and pamper them; to confirm themselves in their first narrow guesses, instead of enlarging those guesses into certainty. The son of a Tory turn will read Tory books, the son of a Radical turn Radical books; and the green spectacles of party and prejudice will be deepened in hue as he reads on, instead of being thrown away for the clear white glass of truth, which will show him reason in all honest sides, and good in all honest men.