20 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 2

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

This week, my normal rota of blog topics is taking a backseat as I work through a lengthy review of H. G. Wells's autobiography in honor of his 150th birthday tomorrow. (You can access yesterday's kick-off here.) Today's topic is:

Ways of Seeing: Science and Education

It's interesting to note that for all he valued science, was trained in science, and even taught science, that Wells doesn't have a terribly scientific mind himself, as he occasionally admits. For example, he described his childhood friend Sydney Bowkett as "one of those who see quickly and vividly and say 'Look,' a sort of people to whom I owe much. [...] Without such stimulus I note things, they register themselves in my mind, but I do not actively note them of my own accord" (79). Wells does, however, recognize a good scientific thinker when he sees one, praising T. H. Huxley (who was Wells's biology lecturer at South Kensington) for his ability to "see life clearly and to see it whole, to see into it, to see its inter-connexions, to find out, so far as terms were available, what it was, where it came from, what it was doing and where it was going" (169).

I will never get tired of this picture of Huxley.
This is in contrast to a professor of physics he had later, who failed completely to do any of these things, as he was "devoid of interrogative liveliness" (169). My impression is very much that Wells wanted to see Huxley's inter-connected vision applied to all society-- which is a theme of Ann Veronica, for example, where the young female science student Ann Veronica (being lectured by Godwin Capes, a Wells stand-in, who was himself lectured by Russell, a Huxley stand-in) has glimpses of applying the organizing principles of biology to all society, as she realizes that biological science "was, after all, a more systematic and particular method of examining just the same questions that underlay the discussions of the Fabian Society, the West Central Arts Club, the chatter of the studios[...]."

However, the form of Britain's educational institutions worked directly against science education creating the kind of all-encompassing vision Wells hoped for; he claims that injecting science into the curriculum was counterproductive, as "when by means of clamour from without, such subjects as physical science and biology were thrust into the curricula, they underwent a curious standardization and sterilization in the process" (279). What should have been about teaching ways of thinking became something so uncontroversial that Wells observes at one point that you could take a biology course at university in the 1890s and never discover the existence of evolution!

I had known Wells was a biology lecturer; what I had not know until reading the Experiment was that he did not lecture at an actual school (though he did hold a couple school posts over the years, including one where his kidney was partially crushed playing, I think, rugby, which yields some entertaining anecdotes), but for a cramming service. The British universities did a remarkably poor job preparing their students for their exams, so Wells worked for a tutoring service that functioned mostly by correspondence (students would write answers to sample questions and mail them in for assessment), but he also did some lectures and demonstrations to allow for "an efficient drilling in the practical work" (283). He observes that the cramming service would make a good subject for a Dickensian comic novel-- he calls teaching students to pass biology exams "an absolutely different thing from teaching biological science" (283)! If he had written this book, there would probably be a lesson for our own testing-obsessed education culture somewhere within it. (He has a good anecdote somewhere about how his teaching of biology much improved once he stopped letting his students do actual dissections and just told them what an ideal dissection would be like.)

I should note before I end that Wells does believe physics can be interesting-- it's just not immediately applicable to daily life. Not necessarily in a bad way, just in a way that means it can't be the subject of his thoughts for a sustained period of time: "I realize that Being is surrounded east, south, north and west, above and below, by wonder. Within that frame, like a little house in strange, cold, vast and beautiful scenery, is life upon this planet, of which life I am a temporary speck and impression. There is interest beyond measure within that house; use for my utmost. Nevertheless at times one finds an urgency to go out and gaze at those enigmatical immensities. But for such a thing as I am, there is nothing conceivable to be done out there" (183). It's a beautiful little image he conjures here, I think. Wells may find his primary sphere of interest within the house, but that does not mean everyone has to.

Be Back Tomorrow: H. G. Wells on writing.

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