recess radio program

19th Century Science
    by Rita Smith

Books on science and natural history composed a significant part of the publications for children in the 19th century. The writers of these texts were not scientists, but they were very conscientious and scrupulously accurate with their scientific facts and the books did go a long way towards teaching children about the natural world. Science, however, wasn't the only thing being taught; proper social behavior was often woven into the texts as well. Throughout the century, for example, there are many pointed references to bees as models of the social values of hierarchy and authority.

Margaret Gatty, in her popular series of books entitled Parables from Nature, posits a variety of social values through stories of animal and plant life. In a story called "The Law of Authority and Obedience," a young bee leaves the hive one morning and accidentally flies through the open window of a country home. Before he can find his way out, a boy and a girl discover him. The boy, observing the bee's load of honey, says, "He's a Working-Bee, poor wretch!...they do all the work for everybody. And," he continues, "when the bees are first born they are all just the same and it is only the food that is given them and the shape of the house they live in that makes the difference."1

The worker bee eventually finds his way back out the open window, but is considerably less happy since receiving the humiliating knowledge about his status in the world. The more he thinks about it, the madder he gets, and, by the time he arrives back at the hive, he is full of wild resentment. He proceeds to incite other worker bees to a rebellion and they all leave the hive in a swarm. Almost immediately, however, they begin to fight and argue as to where they are going to relocate: "A garden of course," says one. "A field," says another. "There is nothing like a hollow tree," says a third, and so on.2 They flounder in a sea of leaderless confusion and also discover that they aren't all equal anyway: some are young and some are old; some are wise and some foolish, some strong and others weak and, to make things work, they all need to contribute in different ways, which is really right back where they started from. Chastened, they return to the hive having discovered the necessity of having one ruler over the masses and each bee fulfilling his particular role.

For Gatty, the structure and ways of the hive are a valid model for the social hierarchy of humans, and she points out to her young readers in the last line of her story, "Thus, the instincts of nature confirm the reasoning conclusions of man."3

1 Gatty, p. 20-21.
2 Ibid., p. 27.
3 Ibid., p. 33.

Gatty, Margaret. Parables from Nature. London: Bell and Daldy, 4th ed. 1857

Copyright 2005 Rita Smith

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Thursday, 01-Sep-2005 12:56:02 EDT

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