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No. 1870:
Tyndall as Teacher

Today, ice and snow -- mountains and learning. 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.

Something just caught my eye in John Tyndall's book, The Forms of Water -- all about glaciers, snow, ice, rivulets, clouds, hail and snow. The year was 1872. Tyndall had just given the Christmas lectures at London's Royal Institution and had now put them into the form of a book for young readers.


Tyndall was the greatest experimental physicist of the Victorian age. But these lectures derive from his passion for walking (or rambling, as he calls it) in the Alps. In them, he mixes two great Victorian traditions -- the travelogue and classical physics.

These lectures were the Royal Institution's gift to an audience of young people at Christmas time. And we read this in Tyndall's Preface:

... my theory of education agrees with that of Emerson, according to which instruction is only half the battle, what he calls provocation being the other half.

To provoke, he tells us, is to bring out the latent strength of boys and girls. (Tyndall's explicit recognition of girls in a Victorian science class is, in itself, wonderfully ahead of its time.)

But I'm drawn to that word provocation. It is so easily lost in a world where good teaching seems to begin and end with clarity and understandability. The great joy of my undistinguished career as a student was always that rare moment when, faced with something complex and incomprehensible, I suddenly broke through the wall to find my own understanding.

Tyndall, now in his robust early fifties, is a passionate mountaineer, and the mountain is his metaphor. He takes us, we young readers, through the craggy elements of nature that he loves so well. It is a beautiful thing -- his subject curving into the metaphor for the process of learning it. At the end of the book, Tyndall closes upon his own metaphor when he says,

Here, my friend, our labours close. It has been a true pleasure to have you at my side so long. In the sweat of our brows we have often reached the heights where our work lay, but you have been steadfast and industrious throughout, using ... your own muscles instead of mine. ...

It is thus that I should like to teach you all things; showing you the way to profitable exertion, but leaving the exertion to you ...

In that, of course, he speaks to the reader of the book as well as to the pupil sitting before him. Question as you read, he's telling us. Be a participant. Teachers who deny students any measure of frustration, also deny them the full reach of learning. Reduce learning to making multiple choices, without finding out how to forge choices, and learning will become impoverished, indeed.

The last words of Tyndall's focused ramble through his beloved mountains reveal the camaraderie of effort that marks successful education. He says:

Here then we part. And should we not meet again, the memory of these days will still unite us. Give me your hand. Good bye.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. Tyndall, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1877. (Originally published in 1872.)

For more on John Tyndall, go to the Engines search function: Full-Text Search of the Engines site, and type in the word: Tyndall. For more on the Christmas lectures, see Episode 1760.



from The Forms of Water.