The 'Ah-ness' of Learning
by Deborah Peel

The current interest in inter-professional working, inter-disciplinary education, and experiential learning present something of a challenge to contemporary educators in terms of curriculum content and delivery.1 The demands of the knowledge society, developments in information and communication technologies, and the social reconstruction of professionalism are but some of the trends impacting on higher education.2 This changing context touches teachers and students, and learning and teaching, in a range of ways.

For example, the evolving 'blended learning' environment, bringing together e-learning with relatively more traditional teaching methods, is indicative of the perception that students are increasingly seeking appropriate on-line materials to support and enhance their access to information, and presumably their learning - 24/7.

It also reflects, for many, the reality of part-time work to support the living expenses incurred by students.

In the classroom, gaming and simulation using new technologies appear to offer innovative solutions to contemporary challenges for hands-on skills development in the classroom. Increasingly, students are required to maintain 'personal development plans' which shift greater responsibility onto the individual for identifying and filling gaps in skills and knowledge. This seeks also to ingrain a habit of lifelong learning and continuing professional development. In such ways, approaches to learning, and continuously developing 'appropriate' knowledge, skills, and values are evolving to provide students with relevant learning environments and a nourishing diet of study.
What then is the role of the 'educator' in this context? This article reflects on Patrick Geddes' role as a 'professor of all things general'3 and asks what lessons we might draw today from his thinking and practice.

Geddes - 'the student'
Born at Ballater, Aberdeenshire in 1854, Geddes spent his childhood in Perth from 1857, where he was educated at The Academy. Yet, according to his biographer Helen Meller, Geddes' father, who taught him how to tend a garden, was his first and best teacher. Indeed, Geddes asserted that it was the 'skills, discipline and understanding' involved in the caring for a garden that were critical to being able to manage the wider environment. (4)

Referring to his rural childhood, Geddes later wrote of the 'fundamental vividness of rustic life'.5,p.14 Such sentiments echo the wisdom of Voltaire's Candide that in order to attain happiness in the best of possible worlds, il faut cultiver notre jardin. Indeed, Cumming observes that growing up in rural Perthshire provided Geddes with a 'geographical and spiritual sense of place' that 'sharply contrasted with the tedious mechanical copying of state education'5,p.14 - although this did not, however, deter Geddes from a degree of didacticism in his academic career.

His first experience of studying botany and the natural sciences at the University of Edinburgh in 1874 left him disappointed after only a week. Rather than his preference for studying living nature in evolution, his studies required him to cut up and classify dead specimens. Context is everything - the theory of evolution was coming of age (indeed, Geddes met Darwin). Managing student expectations is clearly critical. Are there lessons here for how we seek to enthuse our students about creating liveable cities, and for the ways in which we attempt to regenerate and revitalise our communities?

To find a more suitable course, Geddes moved to London. During the period 1874-1878, he studied biology under Thomas Huxley at the Royal School of Mines. According to his slightly younger contemporary, H.G. Wells, what fascinated Geddes most was 'the potential brought by modern knowledge to transform society' and the challenge facing contemporary and future generations to manage their relationship with the environment - be that at a local or global level.4,p.3 Clearly, Geddes was already encapsulating ideas of sustainable development.

In 1876, he worked as Huxley's demonstrator, an experience, which, according to Cumming, 'illuminated for him the power of creative education using models to communicate and link ideas great and small'.5,p.15 Responding to the processes of urbanisation (what he then termed city development) and the technological advances of the late 19th century, Geddes identified the importance of motivating people to make the right choice. This was a matter that he determined as a moral issue and a concern of cultural conditioning. This hints at contemporary discourses of justice and equity.

Indeed, later in one of his lectures, Geddes noted that he wanted to transform the 'individual Race for Wealth into a Social Crusade of Culture'.6 Significantly, his particular perspective was informed by his training as a natural scientist, his understanding of cell structure, and his use of a microscope. He inevitably turned his attention to the social world around him.

France - convalescence and discovery
To help Geddes convalesce from a serious illness in 1878, Huxley arranged for him to work at the Sorbonne marine station at Roscoff in Brittany. This Celtic experience proved to be a pivotal one. First, it provided him with an introduction to marine biology - and his study of protozoa was critical for Geddes' understanding of evolution. Second, the working conditions of this educational institution proved influential - particularly its blend of science, community, and life: outdoor practical study and indoor laboratory examination of specimens, followed by social evenings of discussion and activities.
These experiences informed the style of the subsequent annual Summer Meetings of Art and Science in Edinburgh, which were held from 1887 onwards.4 Importantly, these meetings provided an international arena for debate crossing traditional academic disciplinary boundaries. This active inter-disciplinary exchange of ideas is central to many of today's debates, but perhaps we do not create the social, face-to-face contexts in which ideas might be fruitfully and continuously exchanged and nurtured.

Certainly, this experience of French culture opened Geddes' eyes to a different way of doing things (and Geddes was a fluent French speaker - another lesson?).

Geddes and community learning
One of Geddes' most well-known physical contributions is his so-called 'sociological laboratory', the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh, which he acquired in 1882. His intention was to create an observatory, as well as an 'Index Museum to the World' to act both as a local memory storage and a link to the wider world7 - thus classifying and inegrating local, regional, national, European, and global aspects of life. Critically important to the philosophy of the Tower is its focus on the art of seeing. Its objective is to create new points of view. At the top of the Tower a camera obscura enables the looker to hold the life of the city in the palm of the hand.
Writing in 1910, one commentator noted: 'We say that that we look, and we truly believe that we see, whereas in reality our vision is, for the most part, limited by traditional and undernourished horizons. No, we do not know how to see. … The field of our vision is limited by our habits: we see what we have always seen. … Professor Geddes does not hesitate to declare that books are largely responsible. He believes that we are mesmerised by books, and that we only see what it is that they want to show us.'8 Rather than the art of listening, the Outlook Tower stresses the eye as the principal organ of education and source of reflection.

A primary objective of the Outlook Tower was to encourage people to watch, to see, to examine, and to reflect - processes which, according to Geddes, first required the unlearning of what one already (thought one) knew. This represented an educational reform in terms of providing a new outlook on life, requiring that individuals not only 'see' the world around them, but also see the world within themselves. In particular, this required the education of the eye, in both its scientific and its artistic vision. Thus, for Geddes, the Tower represented an important visual synthesis of education.
A number of questions arise. Do we sufficiently stress to our students the importance and power of observation? Do we show? Do we teach them to look? Can we train the eye? Are we replacing books with DVDs? Do we provide our students with appropriate outlook posts with which to examine, question, and observe in order to better see the world and themselves? Do we know what to look for?

Geddes was active in a wide variety of social projects, and his thinking about education and self-directed learning also informed the work of the Edinburgh Social Union, established in early 1885. In reality, his approach to education reflected his personal childhood experiences in Perth and his belief that 'the child's desire of seeing, touching, handling, smelling, tasting and hearing are all true and healthy hungers, and these should be cultivated'.9 Indeed, his advice to teachers was not to 'manufacture a ready-made synthesis, but to make their pupils realise that every man is his own philosopher, synthesiser, moralist, art critic, and even artist and educationalist and so on up to priest and king'.10 Such child-centred learning and emphasis on people and place finds echoes in the thinking of educators such as Colin Ward11 and reminds us how we learn through all our senses.

Geddes - 'the professor'
While Geddes is acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of British planning, he first made a name for himself as a scientist. For a while, he worked at the University of Edinburgh's Medical School as a demonstrator in zoology and natural history. He was offered a professorship at the University of Dundee in 1888; a post he held until 1919.
Of his lecturing ability, Geddes once observed that 'I'm quite clear that I'm not a popular lecturer, having neither the voice nor the reputation necessary, much less both, nor the 'popular gifts' either'.12 But he appears to have been held in high regard by his students, as this comment in the December 1888 edition of Dundee's The College magazine illustrates: 'It is with ever fresh delight one listens to his bright conversational lectures - as remote as possible from the regulation dry-as-dust hour's note scribbling - sparkling with new ideas, new turns of thought and most happily chosen similies.' Can educators today aspire to that?

Yet, while his habit of 'wandering from the subject' may have proved entertaining for some, it was clear that some students had an instrumental eye to exams.13 Thus, in 1904, the Students' Representative Council petitioned the University College: 'to take under consideration the question of the teaching of Botany in University College, so as to ensure, as far as possible, that in future the lectures delivered on that subject, shall be more in accordance with the requirements for the Degree examinations than has hitherto been the case.'14 Clearly, it was not matters of assessment that were able to rein in the extrovert Geddes. Indeed, he had himself 'refused on principle to take examinations or stand for a degree … to be entangled in [the] formalities, legalisms, stale traditions, and tepid conversations' of academic life.15 What challenges there!

Teacher and students
Perhaps one of Geddes' best known 'students' was Lewis Mumford, although this was most certainly a case of distance-learning by correspondence (they typically wrote several letters a day). They met on only two occasions - in 1923 and 1925. It was not always a happy relationship. Initially, the young Mumford saw Geddes as his mentor and most important teacher, someone who prompted an intellectual awakening, while also offering an important intimacy. The impact of the older man's work on Mumford was significant, and he noted how Cities in Evolution had 'profoundly altered' his 'habits and ways of living'.3,p.5

Their much-discussed 'collaboration', however, was abortive, partly owing to their incompatible learning styles, temperaments, and habits. Novak, for example, contrasts Mumford's cautious, careful, and meticulous approach with Geddes' rapid impetuosity, whose copious 'morning mediations' produced 'disorderly accumulations'.3,p.10 But the relationship tended to the master-pupil rather than the truly collaborative. The 27-year-old Mumford described a strained relationship in 'The disciple's rebellion', where he noted his frustration and humiliation at being asked to set out on a blackboard all the graphs and charts of Geddes' that he had learned.16 Such rote and dogma seem at variance with the stimulation and excitement Geddes clearly also provided his students. Yet Mumford's experience was not unique, and 'this 'prodigious' thinker had not been able to enlist and retain capable disciples'.3,p.17

Despite the frustration felt by Mumford, he nonetheless articulates a deep affection and respect for Geddes, the Socratic teacher who conveyed more through his spoken than his written words.3,p.33 In particular, it was his talent for penetrating observation and incisive comment, his personal example and impromptus that attracted the younger man.3,p.33 For Mumford, 'Geddes the teacher takes precedence over Geddes the systematic thinker.'17 As we engage with redesigning curricula and learning and teaching methods, it is salutary to remember that personality and face-to-face exchanges count.

A poem published anonymously in The College entitled 'The New Education or Botany, 1905' captures perhaps a little of the Geddesian passion to which all educators might aspire. The following extracted couplets18 merit no concluding comment - but just a little reflection:

Forget your empty parrot-talk, your meaningless verbosity,
And let the 'ah-ness' sense of things arouse your curiosity.
Forget the silly notion that I'm here to teach you Botany -
And never come to me for facts, because I haven't got any.
'The more you know, the less you know' in figurative speech,
And the converse is the principle of everything I teach.
Away with dull scholastics and their round of rote and rules,
Better fifty days of Geddes than a cycle of the schools! n

Deborah Peel is with The Geddes Institute in the School of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Dundee.

1 N. Harris: 'Experiential learning in built environment education'. CEBE Transactions, 2004, 1 (1), pp.3-7
2 D, Peel: 'Dual professionalism: facing the challenges of continuing professional development in the workplace?'. Reflective Practice (forthcoming)
3 F.G. Novak: Lewis Mumford & Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence. Routledge, London, 1995
4 H. Meller: Patrick Geddes. Social Evolutionist and City Planner. Routledge, London, 1990
5 E. Cumming: 'Patrick Geddes: the French connection'. In F. Fowle and B. Thomson (Eds): Patrick Geddes: The French Connection. White Cockade Publishing, Oxford, 2004
6 From the 'Claims of Labour' Lectures, a series delivered by various lecturers in Scotland in 1886, quoted in H. Meller: Patrick Geddes4
7 M.W. Volker: Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life. MIT Press, London, 2002, p.127
8 B. Faure: 'Le professeur Geddes et son Outlook Tower'. Revue Politique et Parlementaire, 1910, no. 190. (translated by the author)
9 K. Caldenhead (1992), quoted in 'Patrick Geddes: the French connection',5 p.17
10 Unpublished paper by Geddes, quoted in 'Patrick Geddes: the French connection',5 p.17
11 C. Ward: The Child in the City. Architectural Press, London, 1978
12 Letter to Lewis Mumford, 17 Feb. 1923, quoted in Lewis Mumford & Patrick Geddes,3 p.165
13 M. Jarron: ''Forget the silly notion that I'm here to teach you Botany': Patrick Geddes at University College Dundee'. In M. Jarron (Ed.): The Artist & the Thinker - John Duncan & Patrick Geddes in Dundee. University of Dundee Museum Services, Dundee (forthcoming)
14 University of Dundee Archives, Recs A/344/1
15 L. Mumford quoted in Lewis Mumford & Patrick Geddes3
16 L. Mumford: 'The disciple's rebellion'. In Lewis Mumford & Patrick Geddes,3 Appendix 2
17 Quoted in Lewis Mumford & Patrick Geddes3
18 'The New Education or Botany, 1905', published anonymously by 'Semper Idem' in The College, 1905, Vol. II, Jun. (University College, Dundee)