Comstock’s Nature Study and the Value of ‘I Do Not Know.’


No science professor in any university, if he be a man of high attainment, hesitates to say to his pupils, ” I do not know/’ if they ask for information beyond his knowledge. The greater his scientific reputation and erudition, the more readily, simply, and without apology he says this.
He, better than others, comprehends how vast is the region that lies beyond man’s present knowledge. It is only “the teacher in the elementary schools who has never received enough scientific training to re- veal to her how little she does know, who feels that she must appear to know everything or her pupils will lose confidence in her. But how useless is this pretense, in
nature-study! The pupils, whose younger eyes are much keener for details than hers, will soon discover her limitations and then
their distrust of her will be real.

In nature-study any teacher can with honor say, ” I do not know “; for perhaps the question asked is as yet unanswered by the great scientists. But she should not let lack of knowledge be a wet blanket
thrown over her pupils’ interest. She should say frankly, ” I do not know; let us see if we cannot together find out this mysterious thing. Maybe no one knows it as yet, and I wonder if you will discover
it before I do.”

She thus conveys the right impression, that only a little about the intricate life of plants and animals is yet known; and at the same time she makes pupils feel the thrill and zest of investigation. Nor will she lose their respect by doing this, if she does it in the right fashion.

The old teacher is too likely to become didactic, dogmatic, and “bossy” if she does not constantly strive with herself. Why? She has to be thus five days in the week and, therefore, she is likely to be so seven. She knows arithmetic, grammar, and geography to their uttermost, she is never allowed to forget that she knows them, and finally her interests become limited to what she knows.

After all, what is the chief sign of growing old? Is it not the feeling that we know all there is to be known? It is not years which make people old; it is ruts, and a limitation of interests. When we no longer care about anything except our own interests, we are then old, it matters not whether our years be twenty or eighty. It is rejuvenation for the teacher, thus growing old, to stand ignorant as a child in the presence of one of the simplest of nature’s miracles — the formation of a crystal, the evolution of the butterfly from the caterpillar, the exquisite adjustment of the silken lines in the spider’s orb web. I know how to “make magic” for the teacher who is growing old. Let her go out with her youngest pupil and reverently watch with him the miracle of the blossoming violet and say: “Dear Nature, I know naught of the wondrous life of these, your smallest creatures. Teach me!” and she will suddenly find herself young.

For three years I had for comrades in my walks afield two little children and they kept me busy saying, ” I do not know.” But they never lost confidence in me or in my knowledge; they simply gained respect for the vastness of the unknown.

The chief charm of nature-study would be taken away if it did not lead us through the border-land of knowledge into the realm of the undiscovered. Moreover, the teacher, in confessing her ignorance and at the same time her interest in a subject, establishes between herself and her pupils a sense of companionship which relieves the strain of discipline, and gives her a new and intimate relation with her pupils which will surely prove a potent
element in her success. The best teacher is always one who is the good comrade of her pupils.”

Posted in Books | Leave a comment




I. There are few persons of so penetrating a genius, and so just a judgment, as to be capable of learning the arts and sciences without the assistance of teachers. There is scarce any science so safely and so speedily learned, even by the noblest genius and the best books, without a tutor. His assistance is absolutely necessary for most persons, and it is very useful for all beginners. Books are a sort of dumb teachers; they point out the way to learning; but if we labour under any doubt or mistake, they cannot answer sudden questions, or explain present doubts and difficulties: this is properly the work of a living instructor. II. There are very few tutors who are sufficiently furnished with such universal learning, as to sustain all the parts and provinces of instruction. The sciences are numerous, and many of them lie far wide of each other; and it is best to enjoy the instructions of two or three tutors at least, it order to run through the whole ency clopaedia, or circle of sciences, where it may be obtained; then we may expect that each will teach the few parts of learning which are committed to his care in greater
perfection. But where this advantage cannot be had with convenience, one great man must supply the place of two or three common instructors. III. It is not sufficient that instructors be competently skilful in those sciences which they profess and teach; but they should have skill also in the art or method of teaching, and patience in the practice of it. It is a great unhappiness indeed, when persons by a spirit of party, or faction, or interest, or by purchase, are set up for tutors, who have neither due knowledge of science, nor skill in the way of communication. And, alas! there are others who, with all their ignorance and insufficiency, have self-admiration and effrontery enough to set up themselves; and the poor pupils fare accordingly, and grow lean in their understandings. And let it be observed also, there are some very learned men, who know much themselves, but have not the talent of communicating their own knowledge; or else they are lazy, and will take no pains at it. Either they have an obscure and perplexed way of talking, or they show their learning uselessly, and make a long periphrasis on every word of the book they explain, or they cannot condescend to young beginners, or they run presently into the elevated parts of the science, because it gives themselves greater pleasure, or they are soon angry and impatient, and cannot bear with a few im pertinent questions of a young inquisitive and sprightly genius; or else they skim over a science in a very slight and superficial survey, and never lead their disciples into the depths of it. IV. A good tutor should have characters and qualifi cations very different from all these. He is such a one as both can and will apply himself with diligence and concern, and indefatigable patience, to effect what he undertakes; to teach his disciples, and see that they learn; to adapt his way and method, as near as may be, to the various dispositions, as well as to the capacities of those whom he instructs, and to inquire often into their progress and improvement. And he should take particular care of his own tem per and conduct, that there be nothing in him or about him which may be of ill example; nothing that may savour of a haughty temper, or a mean and sordid spirit; nothing that may expose him to the aversion or to the contempt of his scholars, or create a prejudice in their minds against him and his instructions: but, if possible, he should have so much of a natural candour and sweet ness mixed with all the improvements of learning, as might convey knowledge into the minds of his disciples with a sort of gentle insinuation and sovereign delight, and may tempt them into the highest improvements of their reason by a resistless and insensible force. But I shall have occasion to say more on this subject, when I come to speak more directly of the methods of the com munication of knowledge. V. The learner should attend with constancy and care on all the instructions of his tutor; and if he happens to be at any time unavoidably hindered, he must endeavour to retrieve the loss by double industry for time to come. He should always recollect and review his lectures, read over some other author or authors upon the same subject, confer upon it with his instructor, or with his associates, and write down the clearest result of his present thoughts, reasonings, and inquiries, which he may have recourse to hereafter, either to re-examine them and to apply them to proper use, or to improve them farther to his own advantage. VI. A student should never satisfy himself with bare attendance on the lectures of his tutor, unless he clearly takes up his sense and meaning, and understands the things which he teaches. A young disciple should be have himself so well as to gain the affection and ear of his instructor, that upon every occasion he may, with the utmost freedom, ask questions, and talk over his own sentiments, his doubts, and difficulties with him, and in an humble and modest manner desire the solution of them.

VII. Let the learner endeavour to maintain an honorable opinion of his instructor, and needfully listen to his instructions, as one willing to be led by a more experienced guide; and though he is not bound to fall in with every sentiment of his tutor, yet he should so far comply with him as to resolve upon a just consideration of the matter, and try and examine it thoroughly with an honest heart, before he presume to determine against him: and then it should be done with great modesty, with an humble jealousy of himself, and apparent unwillingness to differ from his tutor, if the force of argument and truth did not constrain him.

Oh, those arrogant youngsters:

VIII. It is a frequent and growing folly in our age, that pert young disciples soon fancy themselves wiser than those who teach them: at the first view, or upon a very little thought, they can discern the insignificancy, weakness, and mistake of what their teacher asserts. The youth of our day, by an early petulancy, and pretended liberty of thinking for themselves, dare reject at once, and that with a sort of scorn, all those sentiments and doctrines which their teachers have determined, perhaps, after long and repeated consideration, after years of mature study, careful observation, and much prudent experience.

IX. It is true teachers and masters are not infallible, nor are they always in the right; and it must be acknowledged, it is a matter of some difficulty for younger minds to maintain a just and solemn veneration for the authority and advice of their parents and the instructions of their tutors, and yet at the same time to secure to themselves a just freedom in their own thoughts. We are sometimes too ready to imbibe all their sentiments without examination, if we reverence and love them; or, on the other hand, if we take all freedom to contest their opinions, we are sometimes tempted to cast off that love and reverence to their persons which God and nature dictate. Youth is ever in danger of these two extremes.

X. But I think I may safely conclude thus: Though the authority of a teacher must not absolutely determine the judgment of his pupil, yet young and raw and unexperienced learners should pay all proper deference that can be to the instructions of their parents and teachers, short of absolute submission to their dictates. Yet still we must maintain this, that they should never receive any opinion into their assent, whether it be conformable or contrary to the tutor’s mind, without sufficient evidence of it first given to their own reasoning powers.

Posted in Philosophical Ponderings and Ideas | Tagged | Leave a comment

Davao Diary Update

(I wrote this some time last week, so references to ‘today’ are not really accurate any more)

I read a description in a book that is perfect for here the last couple of days- the air was mild, but had the touch of a wet sponge against her cheek.  It’s been in the 80s, but the humidity is high so there’s a feel of being damply kissed and caressed by the breezes.

I helped out at the school again today and walked there in a mild drizzle. It didn’t seem like I’d need my umbrella, but whenever I put it down it was wet enough that I hastily put it right back up again.

The last stretch of the walk to the school from our house is a stony dirt road- too many stones to call it a dirt road, too much mud and dirt to call it a gravel road.  There are no houses on either side, just overgrown grass, jungle (did you know boondock is a Philippino word?), and a boggy stretch.  Today as I walked things kept moving on the path and I realized they were tiny frogs, no bigger than my pinky fingernail- and I bite my nails.  They were all moving from right to left, or rather, from the boggiest, wettest side of the road to the still dampish but not standing water side of the road.  I had no time to stop and examine them if I wanted to be at my substituting gig in time.   I also had no time to avoid them, and no way to be sure that I was.  The road was that crowded with them.  I finally had to just set my face and keep my eyes up and straight ahead of me without looking at the path at all and walk on, not thinking about the tiny frogs I was probably squishing beneath my shoes from time to time. I hope that they all escaped, but if they did not, at least they were too small for me to feel any that I crushed.


At school today I was to read If You Give a Moose a Muffin to the kindergarteners.  They all assured me they knew what a moose was and had seen them before, but one of those positive children also asked me what antlers were when we got to the bit in the story where the Moose puts on a puppet show and his antlers show.


The rain picked up and did not relent. It was a curtain of water cascading down by the time the class was over.  The teacher I subbed for had managed to finish her appointment early and return to school.  She offered me 50 pesos in taxi fare to get home, and I did not refuse her. Jeepneys don’t seem to come right to our neighborhood, and all the trikes I saw were full.  It was 1/3 of the way home before I was able to flag a cab and my arms were pretty wet by then.

Our house stays dry, the street less so.  We are fortunate. Our helper says her street stays dry, but the water comes in through the roof in several places.

As usual, after a heavy rain the frogs are out in full force.  I simply cannot convey how incredibly loud they are. There are at least three different kinds, I think. One sounds like a horn at a sporting event, the kind blown by fans. One sounds something like a kettle drum, it actually says ‘KEK KEK KEK KEK’ very loudly. I had no idea. And the third is more of a chorus of smaller creatures in the boggy wetland area across the street from our house.
I tried to record them while standing in our patio, but the recording does not do them justice. After a rainstorm they are often so loud we cannot hold a quiet conversation in the house.

Our dog Gold has been very sick, I think quite close to dying, but we seem to have rounded the corner and are moving into a good place. A friend of a friend is a Vet, newly returned to Davao City and he is trying to build clientele, so he has come out to see the dog twice- he hardly charged anything the first time, and refused to take anything but remuneration for the medicines he gave us the second time. I have been making the dog small batches of artisan dog food, mostly minced cooked chicken, mashed sweet potato, a bit of boiled egg, and some rice. He gets as much of that as he will eat throughout the day. I also give him water and chicken broth mixed together with some glucose powder via syringe I squirt in his mouth multiple times about every three or four hours. He is much perkier than he was, and shows other gratifying signs of healing and recovery, but I really wish he’d start drinking on his own. I am worried that he is going to decide being hydrated while in my lap is his kind of life-style. Kindly recall that I don’t want a dog, said I did not want a dog, and insist that I do not have a dog. Nevertheless, I am glad that the dog who is not and never shall be mine is not going to die on us, this week, anyway.

On Saturday, we actually had thunder for the first time since we’ve been here. That was startling and also quite pleasant.

I cannot recall if I have mentioned my husband and I are taking language lessons here now, and I’ve spending quite a bit of time reading up on the best ways to learn a new language and using an app called Anki to make my own flashcards which then show themselves to me on a scientifically programmed basis of repetition. Meanwhile, I still keep up with Spanish a bit on Duolingo, and the occasional Korean lesson just to maintain a steady level of ignorance. I will post a little more about that later, the teacher said something very moving.

We have more Indian neighbors than I had realized at first- a group of medical students and interns live somewhere nearby, up the road. They have been getting together with friends and playing cricket in an empty lot and at the old basketball court several times of late. That is fun to watch (and listen to).

Our local church preachers have a small bookbinding set up in their house, and they are printing and binding hymnals in their native Visayan. When that is finished, they will take them by motorcycle up into hills and out to some of the more remote villages where there are small churches who don’t have any. We gave some of our support money to them to help carry that work out.

A few nights ago I had been reading too many science texts while working on a plan for my son’s final science term, and my head needed clearing. I took a walk down the road, and was accosted in the friendliest of tones by a small busload of about a dozen children and a couple teenagers. The bus is a small jeepney that either wasn’t running, or was done running for the day- parked on the side of our small, narrow road, and the children were sitting in it visiting and playing. It is nearly always cooler outside than inside in the evening because of the breezes. They wanted to practice their English and I wanted to let them. They were delightful, teasing each other making up names for one another – ‘that one is charcoal. He is small, dark, and quits easily.’ The charcoal for grilling here is different- it’s hollow, very thin, and breaks into pieces, and it does finish burning fairly fast. ‘That one is Dora the Explorer, she wants to know everything.’ Dora the Explorer’s little brother said something else I didn’t understand, but must not have been complimentary as she reached out the window and thumped him on the head and he laughed and ducked around to the other side of the bus.

The trash pick up here is not by house, but by neighborhood. There are two places on our street with several largish trash cans (not much larger than a couple of outside waste bins at home), and you can carry your trash bags down to either one. they do not seem to have lids. Sometimes they are overflowing before the city truck comes to collect the trash. That means it always reeks mightly in the general vicinity of those bins. Sometimes somebody who lives nearest will light the bags that have spilled out of the garbage bins on fire in sheer self defense. Remember what a tropical climate this is, too.

We are missing our dozen grandbabies, their parents, and my mom, of course, but we are still very glad to be here.

Posted in Davao Diary, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Recollection and Memory in Education

“Active Recall Testing
Active recall testing means being asked a question and trying to remember the answer. This is in contrast to passive study, where we read, watch or listen to something without pausing to consider if we know the answer. Research has shown that active recall testing is far more effective at building strong memories than passive study. There are two reasons for this:
The act of recalling something strengthens the memory, increasing the chances we’ll be able to remember it again.
When we’re unable to answer a question, it tells us we need to return to the material to review or relearn it.
You have probably encountered active recall testing in your school years without even realizing it. When good teachers give you a series of questions to answer after reading an article, or make you take weekly progress-check tests, they are not doing it simply to see if you understood the material or not. By testing you, they are increasing the chances you will be able to remember the material in the future.

Charlotte Mason on the value of narration in securing the attention:
But, it will be said, reading or hearing various books read, chapter by chapter, and then narrating or writing what has been read or some part of it,––all this is mere memory work. The value of this criticism may be readily tested; will the critic read before turning off his light a leading article from a newspaper, say, or a chapter from Boswell or Jane Austen, or one of Lamb’s Essays; then, will he put himself to sleep by narrating silently what he has read. He will not be satisfied with the result but he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience; he knows, he has assimilated what he has read. This is not memory work. In order to memorise, we repeat over and over a passage or a series of points or names with the aid of such clues as we can invent; we do memorise a string of facts or words, and the new possession serves its purpose for a time, but it is not assimilated; its purpose being served, we know it no more. This is memory work by means of which examinations are passed with credit. I will not try to explain (or understand!) this power to memorise;––it has its subsidiary use in education, no doubt, but it must not be put in the place of the prime agent which is attention.
Long ago, I was in the habit of hearing this axiom quoted by a philosophical old friend: “The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself.”
Our more advanced psychologists come to our support here; they, too, predicate “instead of a congerie of faculties, a single subjective activity, attention;” and again, there is “one common factor in all psychics activity, that is attention.” (I again quote from the article on Psychology in the Encyclopedia Britannica.) My personal addition is that attention is unfailing, prompt and steady when matter is presented suitable to a child’s intellectual requirements, if the presentation be made with the conciseness, directness, and simplicity proper to literature.
Another point should be borne in mind; the intellect requires a moral impulse, and we all stir our minds into action the better if there is an implied ‘must’ in the background; for children in class the ‘must’ acts through the certainty that they will be required to narrate or write from what they have read with no opportunity of ‘looking ‘up,’ or other devices of the idle.

This repeated questioning in a Charlotte Mason education happens at the end of a reading or selection, when we ask for narration. It happens at the start of the next reading, which we begin by asking, “Where we were?” Or “Who remembers what happened last?”
It happens again at the end of every term, when the children are given exams. It also happens in a general way when we ask, “What else does this remind you of?” and the child then asks himself that question, turning over other readings and stories and events in his mind as he searches for connections, for other things that relate in some way to today’s reading.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Did the AP really discover Trump wanted to deploy 100,000 National Guardsmen to deport Illegal aliens?

Read the memo (scroll down to find it. Note this is a memo which the AP declined to release until other news outlets finagled copies of their own. The AP wanted you to take their word for the contents. Hmmmm). Read the AP article. Originally the AP said the President was considering mobilizing the National Guard (here’s the tweet).
Compare and contrast. Ask some questions.

Where does the 100,000 number come from?
Where does the statement about what their duties would be come from? Specifically, where does it say they would be asked to round up illegal immigrants? Are there any other things the National Guard might do to help protect borders? Things perhaps they have done before under a certain other president or two? (surveillance, for instance)
Where does the memo originate? (Trump? The White House? DHS? head of DHS? A staffer at DHS or elsewhere?)
Find the words which state the National Guard would be involved in deportation. Find the word deportation.

Context: in 2014 Obama also spoke positively about employing the National Guard to help fight illegal immigration.
Previously he also deployed 1200 National Guardsmen to help secure the border. No, 1200 is not 100,000, but remember, there is not relationship between that number and the contents of the memo.
BTW, Obama apprehended over 25,000 illegals with the help of the NG.
In 2009 there was another memo on using the National Guard.

The White House says the AP report is 100% not true. But you don’t need to have the WH’s comment. Just compare the AP story to the actual memo and ask some questions about the claims made by the AP story vs what the memo says.
Thanks to Gabriel Malor, Sean Davis, the AP for making the memo available, and several others I’ll come back to name if my wifi allows me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

  • The Common Room on Facebook

  • Amazon: Buy our Kindle Books

  • Search Amazon

    Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

  • Brainy Fridays Recommends: