From the Archives #3: Are Whip-poor-wills actually sad?

I this 1875 essay, “Teaching to Think,” by George S. Burleigh on teaching and learning. Let me count the ways.

1. It follows an essay “Walks Among the Trees – No. 1: For Young People,” which offers teaching practices for acquainting ourselves with trees. That article opens with this bucolic passage, which I doubt would open any piece on teaching and learning today: “Our friends, the trees, are always inviting us to their delightful shades, cool retreats and charming bowers, from early spring when the anemones and blue violets first open their happy eyes till the last golden or crimson leaf of autumn days has gone to sleep beneath their bare branches.” In my own writing on outdoor education, I didn’t dare to take this much poetic license.

Imagine a moment when every educator knows, as the author of this essay imagines we do, the names of wildflowers and the trees by their leaves.

2. Burleigh’s essay itself makes the case for forms of teaching and learning beyond the memorization of facts, though these are, indeed, at the foundation of his practice. Rather, he encourages educators to teach ways of thinking about and organizing those facts. Sure, the approach is fairly analytic–Burleigh encourages us to help students learn to organize facts into categories that will allow them to make distinctions between and among the things of the world. And still, it’s a far cry from what most of us have experienced as learning: the mass accumulation of facts, unmoored from systems of meaning.

To be thoughtful, is one thing ; to teach, another ; to think, is a more complex affair.

3. The essay mentions the Whip-poor-will. Of course it does. Why else would I be writing of it here? In fact, the essay is ripe with images and metaphors from the natural world. The quality of soil stands in for the quality of mind of learners. There’s also a hawk and a marsh and a crab and a cow. And more: an ant, a violet, a cornstalk. This is not an essay about these beings and environments. And yet the essay is enriched by Burleigh’s engagement with the world beyond the classroom.

4. And then there’s the Whip-poor-will. Burleigh wants us to think beyond our mental stereotypes of the world, particularly our stereotypes of other living species. So he calls into question the stereotype of the melancholy — in the mid-1900s, we’ll begin saying lonesome — Whip-poor-will.

Immemorial tradition calls the whippoorwill melancholy, so when he pipes his merriest, people straightway fall into a pensive vein, think of dead flowers, funerals and evil portents, and the superstitious drive off the poor bird that they may avert the disaster he prophesies, as if to foretell was to cause, and a threatened life might be insured by stoning the prophet. But when we give tradition the cold shoulder and look only at the fact, we find the whippoorwill a jolly bird, social, emulous, a lover of man, and so full of eager rivalries he will hurry his song to get it out before his brother’s, till all together they whip up, dropping one syllable and another, “whippo,” “whip, whip,” – as many a night I have heard them on the old home hill-side. So to me he sings of pleasant memories and glad thoughts.

There’s much to unpack here, particularly in relation to my previous posts. Burleigh gives lie to the coherence of Whip-poor-will’s song, as translated by the English: “Whip poor will.” His own observations have the bird singing minor variations of its three syllables, particularly when it is singing in chorus with other birds.

Burleigh also suggests that the melancholy Whip-poor-will is a false judgement of the bird. I’m not smitten with his own impression — that the bird is jolly, social, emulous, and a lover of man — as I find it replaces one “old formula,” as he describes these stereotypes earlier in the essay, with a new formula. And yet I appreciate him cutting across the grain of generations of cultural constructions of the bird.

And finally, there is this: the seed of nostalgia in Burleigh’s closing observation: “So to me he sings of pleasant memories and glad thoughts.” What is nostalgia if not the bittersweetness of glad memories?

Birds in 19th Century Education

One of the more surprising things to encounter while researching Whip-poor-wills is just how often the bird’s name — and various other species’ names, too — show up in 19th century educational materials.

In 1842, for instance, the Connecticut Common School Journal offered a program for slate and blackboard instruction: “Slate and Blackboard Exercises.”

As an educator, I heart this window into earlier educational moments. Today, the article would be on Learning Management Systems.

The program includes instructions and word lists for teaching children how to spell words within various classes of words: common garden flowers, field and forest flowers, and common birds, for instance.

The lists are revealing of the time, the taken for granted assumptions about young people’s worlds, and the priorities of CT educational systems. They also reveal how much has changed since 1842. After all, do most adults now know the name of the common field and forest flowers: may-weed, johnswort, woodbine, barberry?

The bird list is captivating, a mix of generic types of birds (sparrow, humming bird, hawk, and heron) with specific species of birds (martin, woodcock, snipe, and Whip-poor-will). The latter are not especially familiar to non-birders (and perhaps not to most birders even). They require an effort to encounter — visits to marshes, bogs, and woods at dawn and dusk, or later.

Whip-poor-wills appear in a range of educational materials in the mid-to-late 18th and early 19th centuries, including songs, poetry, and word lists. More on this in future posts.

Featured image from The See and Say Series, Volume 2 (1914)

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