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Tropical Education
by [?]

If any one were to ask me (which is highly unlikely) ‘In what university would an intelligent young man do best to study?’ I think I should be very much inclined indeed to answer offhand, ‘In the Tropics.’

No doubt this advice sounds on first hearing just a trifle paradoxical; and no doubt, too, the proposed university has certain serious drawbacks (like many others) on the various grounds of health, expense, faith, and morals. Senior Proctors are unknown at Honolulu; Select Preachers don’t range as far as the West Coast. But it has always seemed to me, nevertheless, that certain elements of a liberal education are to be acquired tropically which can never be acquired in a temperate, still less in an arctic or antarctic academy. This is more especially true, I allow, in the particular cases of the biologist and the sociologist; but it is also true in a somewhat less degree of the mere common arts course, and the mere average seeker after liberal culture. Vast aspects of nature and human life exist which can never adequately be understood aright except in tropical countries; vivid side-lights are cast upon our own history and the history of our globe which can never adequately be appreciated except beneath the searching and all too garish rays of a tropical sun.

Whenever I meet a cultivated man who knows his Tropics–and more particularly one who has known his Tropics during the formative period of mental development, say from eighteen to thirty–I feel instinctively that he possesses certain keys of man and nature, certain clues to the problems of the world we live in, not possessed in anything like the same degree by the mere average annual output of Oxford or of Heidelberg. I feel that we talk like Freemasons together–we of the Higher Brotherhood who have worshipped the sun, praesentiorem deum, in his own nearer temples.

Let me begin by positing an extreme parallel. How obviously inadequate is the conception of life enjoyed by the ordinary Laplander or the most intelligent Fuegian! Suppose even he has attended the mission school of his native village, and become learned there in all the learning of the Egyptians, up to the extreme level of the sixth standard, yet how feeble must be his idea of the planet on which he moves! How much must his horizon be cabined, cribbed, confined by the frost and snow, the gloom and poverty, of the bare land around him! He lives in a dark cold world of scrubby vegetation and scant animal life: a world where human existence is necessarily preserved only by ceaseless labour and at severe odds; a world out of which all the noblest and most beautiful living creatures have been ruthlessly pressed; a world where nothing great has been or can be; a world doomed by its mere physical conditions to eternal poverty, discomfort, and squalor. For green fields he has snow and reindeer moss: for singing birds and flowers, the ptarmigan and the tundra. How can he ever form any fitting conception of the glory of life–of the means by which animal and vegetable organisms first grew and flourished? How can he frame to himself any reasonable picture of civilised society, or of the origin and development of human faculty and human organisation?

Somewhat the same, though of course in a highly mitigated degree, are the disadvantages under which the pure temperate education labours, when compared with the education unconsciously drunk in at every pore by an intelligent mind in tropical climates. And fully to understand this pregnant educational importance of the Tropics we must consider with ourselves how large a part tropical conditions have borne in the development of life in general, and of human life and society in particular.

The Tropics, we must carefully remember, are the norma of nature: the way things mostly are and always have been. They represent to us the common condition of the whole world during by far the greater part of its entire existence. Not only are they still in the strictest sense the biological head-quarters: they are also the standard or central type by which we must explain all the rest of nature, both in man and beast, in plant and animal.