So it has been awhile - too long actually - but I couldn't resist a contribution to the latest edition of The 'Heroic' Accretionary Wedge. I'm a fan of both the show Heroes and geologists who turned up their nose at dogmatic scientific ideals; those who suffered from the Galileo Syndrome if you will. There are a number to choose from but I've always held an affection for Louis Agassiz ever since I discovered he visited and studied the Helderberg Escarpment in John Boyd Thatcher Park in Upstate New York during my undergraduate work at the University of Albany. As I've mentioned before, the house I grew up in had an exposed bedding plane of the Manlius Formation as the basement 'floor' and so I have an affinity with the Helderbergs for a number of reasons. My interest in learning more about Agassiz was heightened during graduate school and I managed to find Carozzi's translation of "Etudes sur les glaciers" complete with amazing plates overlain with annotated mylar sheets. You can download a scan of the original here, although I haven't been able to find the plates or mylar sheets scanned online (perhaps a future project).
"Agassiz was among those who received this hypothesis as improbably and untenable. Still, he was anxious to see the facts in place, and Charpentier was glad to be his guide. He therefore passed his vacation, during the summer of 1836, at the pretty town of Bex, in the valley of the Rhone. Here spent a number of weeks in explorations, which served at the time as a relaxation from from his more sedentary work. He went expecting to confirm his own doubts, and to disabuse his friend Charpentier of his errors. But after visiting with him in the glaciers of the Diablerets, those of the valley of Chamounix, and the moraines of the great valley of the Rhone and its principle lateral valley, he came away satisfied that a too narrow interpretation of the phenomena was Charpentier's only mistake' (Agassiz, 1885)Within a single summer Agassiz challenged his own beliefs and began postulating that physical phenomena observed within isolated alpine environments were similar to those at work at the continental scale! This is an astounding feet for someone who was encouraged to 'focus on one discipline and not spread his intellectual gifts to thin' and since the idea was so controversial at the time. I also find his morphological and landscape scale descriptions in "Geologic Sketches" poetic and incredibly astute. His methods were rooted in Baconian-based observations - a true field geologist who embodied the idiom that "seeing is believing." I just can't help but imagine what a marvelous and convincing team "Old Lou" and Tracy Strauss would have made if they could have worked together... Imagine his absolute glee at being able to ask Tracy to morph into a body of water, then ice and then illustrate the physical processes he envisioned at the scale that so many questioned. They would have made a heroic team for sure (perhaps even a historical Wonder Twins if you will!).
While I was initially impressed by his moxie to challenge peers initially considered outside his discipline (there are numerous examples of Humboldt chastising Agassiz for straying from zoology in their correspondences), as I began my teaching career I was later impressed by descriptions of his teaching style. Cooper (1917) authored "Louis Agassiz As A Teacher - Illustrative Extracts on His Method of Instruction" that I found humorous, incredibly engaging and humbling. Chapter titles include "How Agassiz Taught Professor Wilder" and "The Death of Agassiz - His Personality" - all of the chapters contain fascinating passages but the most telling is the opening note. Lane states:
When the question was put to Agassiz, 'What do you regard as your greatest work?' he replied: 'I have taught men to observe.' And in the preamble to his will he described himself in three words as 'Louis Agassiz, Teacher.'It astounds me that after establishing himself as a renown scientist, researcher, and astute field geologist, he identified himself as an educator. His achievements counter the common misconception that you can't be an excellent teacher and a strong scholar. His scholarship informed his scientific principles and beliefs and they informed his teaching. Cooper also states:
Teaching was a passion with him, and his power over his pupils might be measured by his own enthusiasm... Agassiz's general faith in the susceptibility of the popular intelligence, however untrained, to the highest truths of nature, was contagious, and he created or developed that in which he believe...There are numerous other passages with similar glowing descriptions of Agassiz's magnetic personality and ability to instill wonder about the natural world. Given these descriptions I find myself yearning to sit at a dinner table and hear his stories, interpret a landscape together, or climb a remote peak just to 'observe.' I know there are a lot of educators in the geoblogosphere and I'll leave you with the opening poem in Cooper's text - something I think we might all hope remotely pertains to us someday:
The beauty of his better self lives on
In minds he touched with fire, in many an eye
He trained to Truth’s exact severity;
He was a Teacher: why be grieved for him
Whose living word still stimulates the air?
In endless file shall loving scholars come
The glow of his transmitted touch to share