In Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner tells the story of John Wesley Powell, probably best known as the first explorer of the far reaches of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. A Civil War veteran who lost an arm at Antietam, he was an ethnologist and geologist who led both the US Geological Survey and led the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian.
Stegner deliberately does not provide lots of details about Powell’s early life. His book, he says, is not a typical biography full of personal details. Instead, his focus is on Powell’s career and how his work led to the opening of the American West.
Stegner does discuss Stegner’s early education and, like many of Powell’s contemporaries, it was a “homemade education.” The son of a poor preacher, his family moved several times when he was young, and Powell had little formal schooling. Instead, he borrowed books from wherever he could find them, reading when he could find the time in his hard scrabble life. It is reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln who said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.”
Depending on who that “best friend” was often determined the direction of the reader’s later life. Lincoln borrowed books from a lawyer and thus the law became his path. Powell was fortunate to meet George Crookham, a farmer and scientist, who kept a private natural history museum and a scientific library. This meeting is fortunate for the rest of us as well as it led Powell to his lifetime’s work.
But, Powell had another teacher and that was nature itself. Like John Muir some years later, Powell spent time in the woods around his Wisconsin home:
Both boys were confirmed in their scientific interest by the surroundings of a backwoods Wisconsin farm, by nature in its intimate variety, by wandering Indians, by the persistent, constant stream of questions that the mind proposed and clamored to have answered. Both boys broke away for long rambling excursions justified by scientific collections (p. 15).
And they engaged with formal education on their own terms:
Both sought college at their own expense and interrupted their schooling by intervals of teaching and farm labor; and both ultimately got what the schools could give them, but never graduated (p. 15).
This education sometimes hurt Powell as he was not as systematic in his science inquiry as those with more formal training. But, it also helped him as well. Stegner compares him to Clarence King, a contemporary of Powell’s who enjoyed a Yale education but failed to live up to expectations:
Clarence King failed for lack of character, persistence, devotion, wholeness. For that important job he seemed to Adams cut out out to do, John Wesley Powell was actually much better equipped. Despite his homemade education, and just possibly because of it, he would do more than Clarence King would do and do it better (p. 21).
There is a lesson here for contemporary educators: Powell was just one of many great Americans who spent very little time in school rooms, putting in seat time. His own curiosity and creativity was what drove him to learn. I was struck by a similarity in the path of Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter. A recent New York Times’ article
describes how Williams, a farm boy from Nebraska, found his life work and it did not happen in a classroom:
In 1993, a chance encounter with a new magazine at the mall in Grand Island, Neb., seemed to seal his destiny. It was the second issue of Wired, a publication dedicated to the geek gospel that a new world was dawning. One story was about a retired Army colonel named Dave Hughes who wanted to hook up all 5.5 billion brains
on the planet. No farmer’s kid need ever be lonely again.
I am heartened to hear stories of innovative schools that are letting kids explore the world and pursue their passions, designing their own “homemade” educations. The stories of people like Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Evan Williams suggest that they will turn out just fine.