The physics laboratory at Bootham is 100 years old this week, if you go by the official opening date. It was opened on 27th January 1914 by Professor Silvanus Thompson, a well-known physicist who went to Bootham between 1858 and 1867, and was science master between 1870 and 1875 – look for the blue plaque on Bootham. According to the account in ‘Bootham’ magazine (Vol VI, March 1914), when the building was declared open, it was “received with loud and prolonged cheering by the pupils.”
Silvanus Thompson went on to make a speech on ‘The Place of Science Teaching in Schools’ which was reported in ‘Bootham’. With all the debate about curriculums now, it’s interesting to see a perspective on what should be taught, and why, from a hundred years ago.
Here are some of his points about what should be included in the curriculum:
- “Chemistry, because a little knowledge of it would save them from many absurdities of thought.
- An intelligent understanding of the principles on which machinery was constructed and on which it operated. He had no doubt that a considerable percentage of the boys in Bootham School would in the future, as they had done in the past, enter into industrial life where machinery was used.
- A fair grounding in physics, which dealt in detail with the properties of matter. There was a vast difference between the lives of the people in the age before steam engines and steam boats were introduced.
- Astronomy…would give them a sense of the proportion of things.
- Geology was a thing they might study with great advantage, without going outside their own country.
- A study of human physiology might not solve the problems of life, but it was useful so far as the great laws of health were concerned.
- By a careful study of the sciences they got training in measurement and accuracy which could not be got in any other way.
- Classification and verification were necessary in everything, and science would teach them that.
- As well as science, they should learn history – he did not mean the learning of dates, and the accounts of battles of great generals and admirals. There had been too much of the beating of the big drum in the past. What he meant by history was a true account of the progress of the human race.
- In addition they could not separate history from economics, for economics was the experience of the past classification.
- It was also necessary to learn geography.
- Mathematics must not be overlooked.
- With regard to languages, they should above all learn some language which was not too closely akin to their own, and he believed educationally the best language to learn would be Greek.
- In conclusion, the speaker said they should in addition to all those things he had enumerated cultivate their hobbies, for they were well worth cultivating.”