Make naturalists, not biologists.


A new kind of school — our new kind of school — is attempting to provide a fuller, deeper science curriculum than any school has ever achieved. Today — following my series of riffs off of Scott D. Sampson's powerful book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature — I'd like to suggest that, to do this, we shouldn't try to make biologists — we should try to make naturalists.

What's the difference, you ask?

It's subtle, but exciting.

Sampson talks about how scientists and explorers adopted the moniker "naturalist" in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin called himself a naturalist. So did Thomas Jefferson! And in the 1870s and '80s, so did a whole host of Americans.

Nature fever overtook the general public, resulting in hundreds of small natural history associations from coast to coast.

This wave of excitement brought us our great natural history museums (including the Milwaukee Public Museum, which I loved as a boy).

But, by and by, people started spending more time indoors, and the scientific field became professionalized. A new field — "biology" — was defined, focusing

on genes and molecules rather than whole organisms.

The professionals wanted (quite understandably) to differentiate themselves from the masses. And they had reason to, because the sorts of research they conducted was quite different:

Field observations, the bread and butter of natural historians, were replaced by replicable experiments conducted in sterile laboratories.

Ultimately, the word "naturalist" itself faded. Sampson laments:

By the time I began exploring that forest on Vancouver's west side in the mid-1960s, natural history had become a quaint hobby for amateurs.

But, I think, in the death of "naturalist" lie the seeds of its renewal.

"Amateur": an interesting word!

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives one definition of amateur:

"a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity"

It probably goes without saying, but: That's bad. We don't want that.

But there's something cool in the word. Remember that amateur comes from the Latin amare: "to love".

Amateurs are lovers.

A new kind of school — an actual new kind of school, that pushes beyond the tired educational debates of the 20th century — needs to be a school for lovers, even before it needs to be a school for mastery or a school for meaning.

And so, I suggest, we need to reclaim the word "amateur".

The good people at the podcast A Way with Words summarize the difference between "naturalist" and "biologist" quite nicely —

"Naturalist" connotes "muddy boots". "Biologist" connotes "crisp, clean lab coat".

You think "naturalist", and you think tromping in the muck. You think "biologist", and you think holding a tenured chair.

In the last few decades, people have valued chairs over boots.

Well: "naturalist" is coming back. It's being reclaimed by scientists — most notably E. O. Wilson — who see the need to reconnect people to the natural world.

Now, ain't nothing wrong with lab coats. And ain't nothing wrong with tenured chairs!

Ain't nothing wrong, that is, with learning about the natural world through carefully-controlled experiments conducted in sterile labs.

Our society needs (desperately!) more of that sort of science. And we need to do some of it in our schools, too.

But it's not where we need to start.

So, let's be clear on this: A new kind of school needs to do science in the muck. A new kind of school needs to bring back actual experiences — oftentimes messy, occasionally dangerous — into science. A new kind of school needs to reclaim the mantle of amateur science.

Sampson writes:

We're closer than you might think to rebuilding a country of naturalists.

A school for humans needs to be a school for naturalists. And that's one of the things, I'm proud to say, we're doing!