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How Geography Paved the Way for Women in Science and Cultivated the Values of American Democracy

From the ideals of “republican motherhood” to a cure for “the wayward attention of children.”

Science education today is in crisis, troubled by a gaping gender gap and coupled with an equally appalling bias in popular perception. But it wasn’t always so: A mere 150 years ago, parents considered the physical sciences better-suited for girls than boys. In The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective (public library), education historian Kim Tolley traces how the curious reversal of gender norms — much like the inversion of the pink-and-blue paradigm — took place and how geography, more than any other discipline, opened the door to science for women.

‘The revolution has been favorable to science in general, particularly to that of the geography of our own country,’ wrote the Reverend Jedidiah Morse. In 1784, when Morse published his first geography textbook, he dedicated it ‘To the Young Masters and Misses Throughout the United States,’ signaling its appropriateness for females. Highly popular among boys and girls alike, Morse’s Geography Made Easy ran through numerous editions at least until 1820, when the twenty-third edition appeared. Geography was the first science to appear widely in girls’ schoolbooks after the American Revolution.

Women were expected to be knowledgeable about scientific topics as they were entrusted with the early education of future citizens — never mind they couldn’t yet vote and thus weren’t fully recognized as citizens themselves. At the same time, formal education was a rarity across genders — in 1800, the average citizen was in school for a mere four months in his or her lifetime. In the postcolonial period, geography emerged not only as an area of academic study but also as a way of instilling in pupils national pride and patriotic values, essential in the architecture of the new country. Still, the rationale for teaching girls geography remained dreadfully rooted in the era’s gender norms:

Some educational reformers argued that knowledge of the sciences rendered women more interesting conversationalists and companions for their husbands. According to the well-known female educator Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, scientific study would result ‘in enlarging [women’s] sphere of thought, rendering them more interesting companions to men of science, and better capable of instructing the young.’ In general terms, educators often stressed the value of education in assisting women to bring up their children as virtuous and intelligent citizens. … Americans promoted [geography] among girls because some contemporaries perceived women as playing a key role in developing scientific interest among children.


Jefferson believed the chief aim of a woman’s education was to train future generations to be effective citizens of the young Republic.

Once again, we see the utility of women in training and entertaining citizens, but not in being citizens. And yet, the study of geography was also promoted as a self-improvement means for women. Tolley writes:

Although some historians have emphasized the role of ‘republican motherhood’ as a rhetorical concept useful to advocates of female education, documentary sources indicate that the contemporaries just as frequently used justifications related o the self-improvement of young women. Arguments falling under the heading of ‘self-improvement’ can be categorized into three distinct groups: (1) moral improvement, comprising both general virtues and spiritual or religious growth; (2) mental improvement, constructed as the strengthening of the muscles of the mind, leading to improved intellectual prowess; and (3) psychological improvements, defined as the enhancement of personal well-being, increased fortitude, and the ability to provide oneself with intellectual resources leading to pleasure and happiness. … During the eighteenth century, Americans came to view geography as a subject particularly capable of promoting moral and religious development.

‘Miss Margaret D. Foster, Uncle Sam’s only woman chemist,’ Oct. 4, 1919 (Library of Congress)

Educators also saw geography as a may to bolster the mental discipline of American schoolchildren:

As citizens of a new political experiment, there were new requirements for young Americans. Faced with the task of building a nation on democratic principles, educational leaders argued that the development of an enlightened, rational citizenry was the key to a successful republic. The task of creating an educational system and a curriculum capable of molding children into enlightened citizens became a political imperative. The ability of a particular subject to promote mental discipline, to strengthen the faculties of the mind, was of utmost importance to educators. According to its advocates, to a grater degree than any other subject in the school curriculum, geography developed the student’s reasoning ability. Drawing maps could ‘fix the wayward attention of children.’ Altering the scale in drawings would ‘exercise the power of judgment to a degree of which few studies are capable,’ and learning geographical facts could ‘exercise the memory.’

(Today, in the age of digitally rendered interactive maps and facts retrievable by Wikipedia searches rather than memory, one has to wonder how many of these alleged valuable skills are still being cultivated and celebrated.)

In addition to extolling its moral benefits, textbook-makers worked to make geography entertaining, hoping to spark a popular enthusiasm for science and frame it as not merely as useful, but also as enjoyable. Some textbook authors were particularly insistent upon engaging girls with the study of science, stressing the wider cultural benefits:

In the preface to their geography published in 1818, Vinson and Mann warned parents of the dangers of encouraging girls to decorate dolls and of allowing their boys too much time for idle play: ‘The parent, who is contented merely with emulating a son by the spinning of a top … or, a daughter by learning her to decorate a doll, to curl her hair … must not be surprised nor disappointed if he discovers no higher, no purer emotions in their bosoms, and ideas in their minds…’

Tolley concludes:

The introduction of geography into postcolonial schoolrooms marked an important shift in the way Americans began to think about the education of their daughters. Through geography, science became an acceptable part of the education of American girls. As the nineteenth century progressed, textbooks devoted exclusively to such subjects as botany, astronomy, and natural philosophy appeared in higher schools and diminished in geography textbooks, where they became redundant. Although scientific content declined in later geography texts, it did not disappear from the curriculum available to females. In the decades to come, increasing numbers of girls and young women would take up the study of science in their educational institutions.

For more on the capacity of maps and geographic curiosity to drive cultural change, pair The Science Education of American Girls with 100 diagrams that changed the world and how the cult of cartography got its start.


Henry Miller on the Mystery of the Universe and the Meaning of Life

“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.”

More than merely one of the most memorable, prolific, and disciplined authors of the twentieth century, Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) was also a champion of the wisdom of the heart, a poignant oracle of writing, a modern philosopher. But hardly anywhere does Miller’s spirit shine more brilliantly than in the 1974 gem This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn: Conversations with the Author from the Henry Miller Odyssey (public library) — not a book in the traditional sense, but “a transmutation, a reduction of the hours and hours of film and tape” that filmmaker Robert Snyder began recording in 1968 as the basis for the 1969 documentary The Henry Miller Odyssey. The book itself, as Snyder puts it, “is only a skimming of the film of the man” and “couldn’t be more than an invitation to the man’s work.”

Anchoring the biographical anecdotes are Miller’s many meditations on writing, creativity, and the meaning of life. Among the most poignant is this hand-written “memo to self,” dated 9/17/1918, in which Miller adds to other famous wisdom on the meaning of life:

What are we here for if not to enjoy life eternal, solve what problems we can, give light, peace and joy to our fellow-man, and leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.

The book ends with Miller’s grandest reflection on the eternal mystery of the universe, something great minds from Galileo to Montaigne to Neil deGrasse Tyson have pondered. He observes:

No matter what you touch and you wish to know about, you end up in a sea of mystery. You see there’s no beginning or end, you can go back as far as you want, forward as far as you want, but you never got to it, it’s like the essence, it’s that right, it remains. This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it. And it’s meant to be that way, do y’know. And there’s where our reverence should come in. Before everything, the littlest thing as well as the greatest. The tiniest, the horseshit, as well as the angels, do y’know what I mean. It’s all mystery. All impenetrable, as it were, right?

Complement This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn with Miller’s meditations on creative death and the art of living.


A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Vintage Illustrated Verses for Innocent and Experienced Travelers

“William, William, writing late by the chill and sooty grate, what immortal story can make your tiger roar again?”

As an admirer of literary personification, a lover of vintage children’s books — especially ones with a literary slant and especially illustrated children’s verses by famous poets — and a longtime fan of Alice and Martin Provensen, I was instantly taken with A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (public library) — a 1981 collection of playful poems by Nancy Willard that take us on a tour of Blake’s imaginary inn, inspired by Blake’s beloved Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and tenderly illustrated by the Provensens in their signature mid-century sensibility of vibrant vignettes and expressive creatures.

This inn belongs to William Blake
and many are the beasts he’s tamed
and many are the stars he’s named
and many those who stop and take
their joyful rest with William Blake.

Two mighty dragons brew and bake
and many are the loaves they’ve burned
and many are the spits they’ve turned
and many those who stop and break
their joyful bread with William Blake.

Two patient angels wash and shake
his featherbeds, and far away
snow falls like feathers. That’s the day
good children run outside and make
snowmen to honor William Blake.


Keep your whiskers crisp and clean.
Do not let the mice grow lean.
Do not let yourself grow fat
Like a common kitchen cat.

Have you set the kittens free?
Do they sometimes ask for me?
Is our catnip growing tall?
Did you patch the garden wall?

Clouds are gentle walls that hide
Gardens on the other side.
Tell the tabby cats I take
All my meals with William Blake,

Lunch at noon tea at four,
Served in splendor on the shore
At the tinkling of a bell.
Tell them I am sleeping well.

Tell them I have come so far,
Brought by Blake’s celestial cat,
Buffeted by wind and rain,
I may not get home again.

Take this message to my friends.
Say the King of Catnip sends
To the cat who winds his clocks
A thousand sunsets in a box,

To the cat who brings the ice
The shadows of a dozen mice
(serve them with assorted dips
and eat them like potato chips),

And to the cat who guards his door
A net for catching stars, and more
(if patience he abide):
Catnip from the other side.


Roast me a wren to start with.
Then, Brisket of Basilisk Treat.
My breakfast is “on the house”?
What a curious place to eat!
There’s no accounting for customs.
My tastes are simple and few,
a fat mole smothering in starlight
and a heavenly nine-mouse stew.

I shall roll away from the table
looking twice my usual size.
“Behold the moon!” you will whisper.
“How marvelous his disguise.
How like the King of Cats he looks,
how similar his paws
and his prodigious appetite–
why, in the middle of the night
he ate, with evident delight,
a dozen lobster claws.”


“Ah, William, we’re weary of weather,”
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
“Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?”

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.


Tiger, Sunflowers, King of Cats,
Cow and Rabbit, mend your ways.
I the needle, you the thread –
follow me through mist and maze.

Fox and hound, go paw in paw.
Cat and rat, be best of friends.
Lamb and tiger, walk together.
Dancing starts where fighting ends.


William, William, writing late
by the chill and sooty grate,
what immortal story can
make your tiger roar again?

When I sent to fetch your meat
I confess that I did eat
half the roast and all the bread.
He will never know, I said.

When I was sent to fetch your drink,
I confess that I did think
you would never miss the three
lumps of sugar by your tea.

Soon I saw my health decline
and I knew the fault was mine.
Only William Blake can tell
tales to make a tiger well.

Now I lay me down to sleep
with bear and rabbit, bird and sheep.
If I should dream before I wake,
may I dream of William Blake.


My adventures now are ended.
I and all whom I befriended
from this holy hill must go
home to lives we left below.

Farewell cow and farewell cat,
rabbit, tiger, sullen rat.
To our children we shall say
how we walked the Milky Way.

You whose journeys now begin,
if you reach a lovely inn,
if a rabbit makes your bed,
if two dragons bake your bread,
rest a little for my sake,
and give my love to William Blake.

Gracing the very last page is a piece of heart-warming, aphoristic advice:

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn received the Caldecott Honor Medal, the highest recognition in children’s literature, in 1982. Five years later, Martin passed away. Alice, currently in her nineties, continues to draw.

Thanks, Wendy


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