'Ah-ness' of Learning
by Deborah Peel
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
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.
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.
- '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
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?).
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.
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.
- '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!
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
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
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,
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
10 Unpublished paper by Geddes, quoted in 'Patrick Geddes: the French
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)