Clifton Hodge and the Challenges of Urban Nature Study

After several leading members of his faculty were lured to the University of Chicago by Clark University’s new president, William Rainey Harper, Hall invited Clifton Hodge, a recent Ph.D. graduate of Johns Hopkins and former fellow at Clark in biology and psychology, to return as assistant professor in 1892. Hall encouraged Hodge to emphasize science teaching and to contribute to Hall’s new journal, Pedagogical Seminary, which was published at Clark. Hodge wrote a series of essays entitled “Foundations of Nature Study” and regularly reviewed nature study literature for the educational publication. Hodge was explicitly critical of some textbooks being produced, but he also argued that the topic should be offered because elementary-aged children were at a crucial stage for learning from nature. Putting his research and experience to use, in 1903 he published the textbook Nature Study and Life, which would reportedly sell a million copies. The volume had numerous pictures and line drawings and specific ideas about appropriate projects for the classroom, as well as for neighborhoods. Following Hall’s lead, Hodge concentrated on the challenges facing teachers in heavily industrial cities like Worcester. He believed that urban industrial society could come to terms with the organic world in which it was actually situated through a carefully conceived approach to nature study. One project, for example, had children become familiar with just one city block in Worcester. Pupils mapped the block, filled in houses and outbuildings, then identified trees and shrubs, and completed the project by noting nests of birds. They also observed and recorded information about which shrubs attracted particular birds by providing shelter and edible fruits. In another class, they built bird houses and feeders and watched the changing density of the bird population over subsequent years. Hodge, who had evident conservationist leanings, pointed out the importance of counting for the bird census and the growth of knowledge about valuable wildlife. He argued that the personal engagement meant the children would “hardly be induced to molest a bird’s nest” in the future.

A children's flower show in a Worchester, Massachusetts, classroom. From Clifton Hodge's Nature Study and Life. Author's own collection.

A children's flower show in a Worchester, Massachusetts, classroom. From Clifton Hodge's Nature Study and Life. Author's own collection.

Hodge did not have the advantage of a campus practice school like his colleagues at Chicago and Columbia, but he worked closely with Mary C. Henry, principal of Upsala Street School in Worcester, to test his ideas in her teachers’ classrooms. From the outset, his definition of nature study had a frequently quoted theme of human practicality, or, as he put it, “Learning those things in nature that are most worth knowing to the end of doing those things that make life worth living.” Undoubtedly it was the engaging yet simple suggestions that made his text popular; it was typically placed high on summer institute reading lists on nature study. Community leaders took notice, too. The president of the Worcester Natural History Society encouraged his members to support the programs in nature study, noting that this new curriculum “created an opportunity to be helpful” to teachers by providing specimens and information.

Hodge, as we shall later see, brought a different and sometimes contentious point of view on nature study and never seemed to enjoy the collegiality of most nature study advocates. Perhaps because he was in a struggling industrial town with a significant immigrant population, he embraced the urban, even industrial possibilities offered by nature study alongside the agricultural. He certainly thought that much teaching would be more effective if the lessons were practical. He anticipated that his “confrères” in the movement might call him “farmer” or “granger”’ or “degraded utilitarian” but nonetheless argued that the purpose of nature study was to learn how to control the forces of nature for the highest human happiness and the best human good.

One of his most publicized projects involved Worcester school children working to solve the problem of mosquitoes, recently shown to carry the endemic disease of malaria. Under the guidance of teacher Edna Thayer, elementary and grammar school students reviewed the life history of the mosquito, collected larvae from local stagnant water and then watched the life cycle unfold in their classroom. They also learned by experiment that oil on the surface of the water, whether in glass containers or in the stagnant pools along nearby Beaver Creek, would destroy the potential pests. As Hodge pointed out, as the children learned, so did their parents, with the result that the community subsequently sponsored a drainage project to eliminate the swamps with their mosquito larvae and thus resolved the disease problem at its source. Hodge argued that the wider public attention was important:

I am inclined to think that the main reason why for the past year we have not heard one word about nature study being a “fad” or a “waste of time” is to be found in these simple mosquito lessons. And why should not the children of every community grapple with such problems? Why should they not be encouraged to utilize every possible condition which may instill the sense of mutual cooperation and brotherhood and thus grow strong in the principles of intelligent citizenship?

Hodge’s rhetorical questions made clear that for many advocates nature study was as much about civic and individual enhancement as it was about the natural sciences; but knowing how to do systematic scientific inquiry was essential.

Anna Comstock: Author, Illustrator, Educator

John Comstock’s wife, Anna Botsford Comstock, often traveled with him on lecture tours in the countryside in the late 1880s, speaking to farm women and families. The chestnut-haired former school teacher spoke with polished confidence as she used familiar examples to discuss the importance of both schools and country life. She also worked closely with her husband as a highly skilled illustrator, editor, and coauthor of A Manual for the Study of Insects, a book that quickly became the standard reference. Although beyond the capacities of elementary teachers, the college text enhanced the reputation of John Comstock as its senior author. The partners collaborated on any number of projects and Anna typically wrote about “our” laboratory and “our” books. The couple shared an enthusiasm for education, and in 1891 Anna Comstock ran a successful summer school field laboratory where students studied “Nature under the most favorable opportunities, when we can see her face to face, not merely books and preserved specimens.” She herself had experienced the isolation of teaching in a small rural school, and she was eager to help others who had a more limited education. A contemporary noted that a casual acquaintance with botany, geology, natural philosophy and chemistry merely allowed teachers to introduce such subjects “incidentally, as a means of culture and for the purpose of keeping up interest, enthusiasm, assisting in governing, and with the hope that some good seeds may be sown which will find proper soil and [stimulate] a future Agassiz or Linnaeus.” For Comstock and her colleagues, science was too important to be left to happenstance.

As the depression of the 1890s deepened into the Panic of 1893 in upstate New York and throughout the country, the state legislature appointed a Committee for the Promotion of Agriculture. Anna Comstock was made a member of that committee, which was instructed to address the “abandoned farm” problem as entire families left to look for work in larger cities. Comstock, who had a bachelor’s degree in zoology and was familiar with work at Oswego Normal School, thought the nature study curriculum could be adapted to rural schools. In 1894 the legislature appropriated additional funds for farm extension work at Cornell that specifically mentioned the phrase “nature study,” and by 1896 it had allotted $18,000 a year for the work. The Cornell team had a mandate to create a program specifically for the small and often isolated country schools of New York, led by Anna Comstock and her colleague, Liberty Hyde Bailey.

Anna Comstock. Credit to come.

Anna Comstock. Credit to come.

In 1894 Anna Comstock developed a course of nature study for the Westchester County school district. Because, as a woman, she was not at first a regular member of the Cornell faculty, she partnered initially with James Rice and later with Isaac P. Roberts in the School of Agriculture. When Liberty Hyde Bailey became administrator for the nature study program, Anna Comstock received a full-time appointment as instructor. This was a bittersweet event because Comstock was initially appointed as an assistant professor but the Board of Regents overturned her appointment. She remained an instructor until finally promoted to full professor in 1913. Their balance of leadership skills would prove extraordinarily productive, each bringing strengths of oratory, authorship, and administration as they coordinated a rapidly growing curriculum and became visible advocates for nature study throughout the state and beyond.

Anna Comstock was born an only child in a cabin in Cattaraugus County and thus empathized with the circumstances of rural families. She conversed easily with local teachers and was familiar with the object-lesson approach that had made Oswego Normal School nationally known. A student colleague of John Comstock, Henry Straight, had taught at Oswego briefly before taking his position at Cook County Normal School. Later the Comstocks became acquainted with Charles B. Scott, who in 1895 left the public schools of St. Paul, Minnesota, for Oswego Normal School, where he transformed its object-lesson orientation toward nature study. Scott, who taught nature study to about fifty teachers each year and oversaw the public school program for nearly five hundred pupils in Oswego, became chair of a committee of the state teachers association that sought to introduce “real” nature study and offset the “tendency to be satisfied with mere book work and cramming for examination.”

For Anna Comstock, an emphasis on using natural specimens as a basis of study was an appropriate pedagogical strategy for children, and her approach reflected the popular field excursions that John Comstock took with his college and summer school students. Anna’s technique was a pragmatic variant on the child-centered philosophy of the progressive educators at the University of Chicago, since both started with the practical intention of using the presumed innate curiosity of children. Nature study in both theory and practice emphasized visual and other sense experiences, and Anna Comstock made those connections quite explicit. For her, the poetic and aesthetic qualities of the environment complemented the practical and familiar outlook toward nature that she and the teachers would promote.

From her base at Cornell, she encouraged teachers and parents using the pamphlet series, Home Nature-Study Course, which guided individual correspondence students through various topics by soliciting their outdoor observations. Assignments were intense for both students and teacher, and those who completed ten lessons earned a certificate. Comstock’s goal was to train teachers to be observant in a systematic way and then pass their techniques along to their students. The assignments in “Bird Study” not only required physical descriptions of birds but also pointed readers to their behavior, asking readers to note, for example, that the hen and rooster express “at least ten different mental conditions or emotions with perfect distinctiveness” by voice. She further argued that these were behaviors learned from adult fowl, commenting tartly that there should be “a society for the prevention of incubation, or the establishment of asylums for idiot ducklings hatched in them.”

Comstock’s work had an aesthetic sensibility not much visible in the earlier nature study textbooks by Jackman, Lange, and others. She had studied wood engraving for six months at Cooper Union and became a member of the Society of American Wood Engravers to help illustrate her husband’s manual of insects, Introduction to Entomology. Anna made many of its over six hundred illustrations. As nature study became a more established curriculum, John published his less-technical Insect Life: An Introduction to Nature Study in 1897; also illustrated by Anna, it sold well and demonstrated the market for such specialized books. Anna’s own insect book, Ways of the Six-Footed, did especially well with elementary nature study teachers. With chapters organized by habitat, such as ponds, meadows, and forests, this book also typifies the observant instructor’s familiar writing style. Highly productive, she wrote well-illustrated school leaflets, but there she often used photographs rather than the more time-consuming woodcuts her husband preferred for his scientific publications. Her friends in biology also contributed to the pamphlet series, among them Susanna Phelps Gage, wife of another Cornell professor, Simon Gage. Phelps Gage’s leaflet, “The True Story of the Little Red-spot,” concerned a vermillion-spotted newt. Nature study became quite literally a cottage industry in Ithaca, engaging others with artistic talent, including bird illustrator Louis Agassiz Fuertes. An undergraduate, Effie, recalled that the classes by John and Anna Comstock “changed my life completely.” Having studied art for two years, she developed a technique to hand-color lantern slides, an incredibly complex task in terms of precision and projected color. She worked with a watercolor company to find the right translucence, and the product allowed lecturers across the country to show colored slides. Themes of nature’s aesthetic, knowledge acquisition, and practical advice were seamlessly interwoven into the leaflets, study guides, and textbooks alongside ideas about democracy and civic life.

Expanding on the instructional materials she had written in the previous decade, in 1911 Anna Comstock produced her Handbook of Nature Study. When the New York State Department of Agriculture declined to publish the eight-hundred-page manuscript, Anna turned to the Comstock Publishing Company, which her husband and his colleague Simon Gage had started in 1893 to control the quality of their own publications and to reissue updated versions regularly. The publishing enterprise grew to fill a neighboring cottage along the Fall Creek Gorge. Although John Comstock was skeptical about the costs involved in producing Anna’s large manuscript, the book proved instantly successful, eventually going through more than twenty editions and translation into eight languages; it remains in print today.

Her essays typically started with something familiar and close at hand—a dandelion, a grasshopper, or a smooth stone—and she then encouraged her reader to think about its relationship to others of its own kind and to the complex environment in which it had been found. Her straightforward commentary, which reflected on both the elegant simplicity and yet the diversity of nature, combined with an acute artistic sensibility made her distinctive among the nature study theorists. Accolades for her teaching qualities started early and persisted as students responded to Comstock’s humor and humaneness while acknowledging her high intellectual expectations of them. When Anna was recognized as one of twelve outstanding women in the United States in the 1920s, a former student reflected on her teacher’s approach:

It’s because she never selected some special line and stuck just with that. She stands back of it all—the study of animal, plant, insect life. She could be a specialist in any one of those branches, but she’s taught us and inspired us with the subject as a whole—kept it all related . . . She has made the subject human as no other real scientist has done. I guess it’s that and the genius she has for helping others to understand and find out things for themselves.

This exceptional teacher took her growing national reputation in stride and never lost sight of the pupils and teachers who relied on her efforts. Thus she recommended to Bailey that they send postcards to five thousand rural teachers with the hope of getting perhaps five hundred of them into correspondence with her, using the Cornell materials.

Cornell agricultural faculty members concentrated on increasing farm production, but the Cornell nature study program emphasized the wider countryside, including meadows, streams, and forests. Comstock encouraged children to bring small animals, such as turtles from a local creek, to their classes, but urged students to return the specimens to their same habitat rather than letting them “loose to scatter bewildered and helpless over a strong earth.” The ecological sensibility in her writing meshed well with the conservation movement gaining strength at the turn of the century. It also attested to her personal environmental perspective, far from what she and others labeled the “specie hunter” outlook.

(Excerpted from Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, © 2009 by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt. You can pre-order this book from the University of Chicago Press.)