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How Nature Skipped School

A 1920s textbook reveals how nature once was a standard feature in the classroom.

At some point in our modern method of teaching, nature slipped out of the classroom. Apparently, the subject wasn’t important anymore. This exodus of nature happened years ago, very gradually, like leaves falling from a tree. You might not have noticed it.

Why did nature leave school? Times simply changed. We all changed. People left the country for the city and ceased to be familiar with the natural world we left behind. It was an inevitable consequence of modern life. Eventually, the books we studied in school followed us indoors.

I am a patron of old books nobody reads anymore. Old books teach the best kind of history. Tucked between lines are passing references to once-familiar and common truths. Old books reveal who we were, what mattered to people, and what everybody was supposed to know.

When it comes to school books, I like to compare the lessons my great-grandparents studied with lessons in modern education. Among my old book collection I have a 1920 copy of the “Junior English Book” once owned by a certain Helen Sawokin of Wadsworth, Illinois. I never knew Miss Sawokin, whose pencil marks note her studious effort, but I see she once earned a gold star for her English skills. “I’m a star in English,” she doodled with childhood pride next to her gold prize.

Sawokin also must have known nature quite well because the English book she studied in the ‘20s is filled with a rich trove of outdoor references, far more than the expected drills and lessons in spelling and grammar. In fact, the “Junior English Book” is absolutely filled with references to nature.

“I have fished that brook twenty times and always have had good luck,” Exercise 9 quizzes the student. It’s one of the common references to life outdoors for boys and girls learning how to write a proper letter 92 years ago. Textbook authors (this one happened to be written by a man named Alfred M. Hitchcock of Hartford, Conn.) do their best to use familiar images and examples—images children can recognize. Teachers know how common examples help illustrate unfamiliar lessons.

It’s why Hitchcock filled his school book with common examples any student anywhere in America ought to recognize in 1920. He encouraged his students to do the same. He writes:

“Among the best school compositions are those which tell of the writer’s own experiences, particularly the happenings of childhood days,” the author instructs. The example Hitchcock then offers is of a boy’s attempt to shoot a woodchuck. It’s an example all students surely would recognize 92 years ago.

“Slowly I raised my gun,” the essay titled “Mr. Woodchuck” reads. “Would he hear the click of the hammer as I pulled it back? He did not. Bang!! went the gun.”

The example is no fluke. Like so many school books of earlier generations, the “Junior English Book” invokes steady references to nature and life throughout rural America. One lesson suggests describing to classmates how to build a proper camp fire, or how to clean a gun. There are grammar tests and composition quizzes about making rabbit pie, building a squirrel trap and a story of a boy’s excellent pistol marksmanship.

Much has changed in the classroom since 1920. Nature is no longer a common reference. Today we teach environmental education as an exotic rarity, as if it were some relic in a distant museum rarely visited. The environmental education being offered is perfectly good, taught with great enthusiasm for the cause. Yet part of that novel excitement is the fact nature no longer is a part of everyday life, and we honestly cannot fault textbooks for acknowledging that reality. Textbooks, out of necessity, must continually be updated and revised to reflect our modern world. In the course of revisions, once-familiar terms are deemed out of fashion and references to contemporary society condemned to history. Thus the impartial monitors of textbook revision keep students within our modern world.

Of course I wish it could be different, the way it used to be in 1920 when Helen Sawokin was a school girl in Wadsworth. But this exodus from nature has been a long time coming. It didn’t happen in one generation. The thing is, nobody notices a few leaves missing after they’re dropped from a tree, and nobody notices a few missing words from a textbook once they’re removed. But all that is now missing still make a difference—and I miss it.

By: Joe McFarland