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Great Educator: Thomas Henry Huxley 1825 to 1895

Thomas Henry Huxley’s research was so impressive that in 1851 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; this however brought him no income. After a considerable career in the Navy as a voyaging surgeon, he left it to carry on his career in science.

Surely it would be the most undesirable thing in the world that one half of the population of this country should be accomplished men of letters with no tincture of science, and the other half should be men of science with no tincture of letters ?

thomas huxley

After honing his literary skills, supporting himself by journalism and translation (most notably from German), Huxley was appointed lecturer at the School of Mines in London in 1854.

He focused his interests on fossils and taught students with a great enthusiasm for knowledge. In the evenings he gave courses to working class men thus making education more available in a time in which it was fairly exclusive. This idea he had long held and he took particular pleasure in delivering these courses, passing on his rhetorical skills.

He also taught at the fashionable Royal Institution in London’s West End, where for five decades mixed intellectual audiences had gathered to be entertained and stimulated by Humphrey Davy the chemist and inventor; Michael Faraday the chemist and physicist; and John Tyndall the physicist who was known to hold a distaste for shallow intellectuals in the educational and learned world.

He later taught at the Normal School at South Kensington, both of which later became part of Imperial College London where to this day one can find Huxley’s papers preserved. He wrote the famous textbook The Crayfish published in 1880. It is largely taken up by anatomy, physiology and taxonomy. Here we also find a discussion of the evolutionary relationships of crayfishes and other crustaceans.

His teaching method follows in the tradition of Francis Bacon and shows a clear separation of fact and theory. He was noted for using attractive language, masterful sketches on the blackboard presenting eloquent conclusions. He saw science as ‘trained and organised common sense’ and did much to demystify it by making it accessible. His view of science went with his rejection of organized religion and he opposed dogma wherever he found it.

Thomas Henry Huxley coined the word ‘agnostic’ to describe his own position in the philosophical schema. The agnostic ‘does not know’ being content to doubt what nobody is sure of. Huxley lived a moral life and made agnosticism respectable. He viewed the agnostic position as the common sense guide to life in science and beyond it. He also introduced the word ‘epiphenomenon’ (applied to consciousness) to discussion.

In a review he criticized the anonymously written Vestiges, a unique work of speculative natural history. He slated it for it’s inaccuracies. Never fully convinced that natural selection was sufficient to explain development, Huxley did, however, accept that the Origin of Species (published in 1859) made a sufficiently strong case.

He prepared to fight for Darwin’s corner earning himself the name of ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. Professing was for him an art and his lectures are reputed to be compelling, especially with the highlights of aggressive timbre he brought to his delivery. In the theory of evolution he found the framework within which to make sense of biology. His predecessors had relied mainly on natural theology, a line of thought which posited evidence for the wisdom and benevolence of God.

In science he put forward ‘the warfare against ignorance, bigotry and disease’ and stated that unlike religion and politics, science had never done any harm. In February 1860 he lectured at the Royal institution on the origin of the species which he presented agnostically as a hypothesis.

He also suggested how England might ‘prove to the world, that for one people, at any rate, despotism and demagogy are not the necessary alternatives of government; that freedom and order are not incompatible; that reverence is the handmaid of knowledge; that free discussion is the life of truth, and the true unity in a nation’.

He also petitioned that science be cherished and preserved from foolish meddlers who thought they did God a service by preventing the study of the works of creation. In the summer at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Huxley took on Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in a debate at Oxford.

This confrontation ensured that evolution would not be dismissed as an idea and turned Huxley to a well known public figure. His book Man’s Place in Nature, published in 1863 resulted from these debates. He was never patronizing but instead, for working men he adopted a style like a lawyer putting a case before a jury; drawing them in, and after presenting the evidence inviting them to come to a conclusion.

In a talk delivered in 1868 called ‘On a Piece of Chalk’, he used this most basic of teaching aids as a way into a truer ‘conception of this wonderful universe and man’s relation to it’. He urged upon working men that science was not so different from the reasoning they did all the time, and that it was exciting and liberating.

In 1870 Huxley was elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he also in due course became president of the Geological, Ethnological and Palaeontographical Societies, and of the Royal Society. He also was involved in the opening of John Hopkins, the first research university in the USA.

From the 1860s his role in education was crucial. At South Kensington he inaugurated laboratory teaching and research in Zoology. By the time of his death, most professors of biology in England had been his students, and biology was firmly in the realm of the secular as a professional discipline distinct from medicine and from natural history.

His campaign to replace clergy in the learned world by meritocrats expert in their field, and aristocratic patrons by professors, had succeeded. With Tyndall, Herbert Spencer and others he formed the X-club which played a backstage role as a pressure group within scientific societies.

Much as he supported the idea of evolution in biology, he rejected the idea that evolution was the key to ethics. For him doing right involved putting the weak first, rather than letting the fittest survive at their expense. Science alone was not the key to living well.

He was an extraordinarily active man and periodically lapsed into depression. He served on ten royal or other official commissions and was in constant demand as a speaker. He was much involved in publishing projects including scientific journals and the important ‘International Scientific Series’ of advanced textbooks.

In 1870 when universal elementary education was introduced through the Forster Education Act, he was elected to the London School Board. He was a powerful influence in this role and resisted moves by members of the various churches who had hitherto provided all the education there was and promoted science as an essential part of education at all levels. He actively refused the notion that cholera was a scourge sent from God to the wicked, he said it was a punishment for ignorance and sloth.

He was widely read and had high respect for writers but firmly believed that a literary education alone was a poor preparation for life. His role on the Devonshire Commission of 1872 on scientific instruction was particularly noteworthy. He had little time for the idea that education was merely the imparting of facts and was deeply concerned to make it widely available.

At the end of his life he was locked in controversy with the physicist William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), a pioneer of thermodynamics, over the age of the Earth and hence the speed of evolutionary change. Huxley could not follow Thomson’s mathematical inferences and resented physicists’ assumption that their science was fundamental: in the event Huxley was later vindicated because Thomson had known nothing of radioactivity, which transorms the calculations allowing a much longer history for the Earth and the Sun. Huxley’s excitement in science is still needed.

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