Thursday, August 11, 2011

Look at the Fish! Look again! Look again!

Louis Agassiz was an early naturalist who taught at Harvard University in the 1960’s. In David McCullough’s book, Brave Companions, there is a wonderful chapter on Professor Agassiz and his belief that students should study nature itself rather than learn facts through books.

In a interview for admittance to his class, Agassiz would present a dead fish to a student and ask them to carefully study it. The assignment has been dubbed The Incident of the Fish.

One student said after ten minutes he thought he’d noted all that could be seen in the fish. But Agassiz hadn’t returned to the room so he had to stare at the fish for an hour, and then another hour. The fish looked loathsome to him. The student went to lunch, returned for more fish observation and finally decided to draw a picture of the fish. In doing so, he started discovering new features in the creature.

Professor Agassiz finally returned to the classroom and they discussed his observations. But again, the student was told to go back to the fish: Look again! Look again!

Initially mortified to have to study the ghastly fish again, the student then resolved with new determination to discover something else, something unique about the fish. Eventually he began to really see the fish, he started to see things he hadn’t seen noticed earlier.

Then Professor Agassiz sent the student home with the task of thinking about the fish overnight. The next day he gave an account of his discoveries, particularly his observation that the fish had symmetrical sides with paired organs. Professor Agassiz was pleased but when the student asked what he should do next, he was told: “Oh, look at your fish!”

For three more days the fish was placed before the student’s eyes with the repeated injuntions to “Look, look, look.”

In later years the student realized that this was one of the best lessons of his life and a turning point for him.

The fish story (told much better by historian David McCullough in the book) has so many layers of meaning. I can conjure up all kinds of analogies beginning with an obvious: learning from nature itself rather than merely reading about it. Or, discovery by staying focused on things for long and concentrated periods of time.

The fish story also demonstrates how initial perceptions of things are limited. If I’m quick to judge I may be misinterpreting information. Careful and close analysis leads to more accuracy. Refining and analyzing what I see moves me closer to truth. And, perhaps most important, I come to my own understanding and don’t simply rely on conclusions or observations made by others.

The Incident of the Fish and Louis Agassiz’s teaching methods remind me of gospel study too. In so many aspects, especially scripture study, I sometimes read too quickly and move on. When I stop and really delve into a verse or study a work (say, The Book of Mormon) over and over, I notice other things I hadn’t seen until I spend inordinate amounts of time with it.

I particularly like the fish story; David McCullough is superb at historical storytelling. Plus, I love the premise that I can learn so much from observation. Besides, I tend to skim a lot of things; I’m quick to seek but also quick to judge. So, being admonished to “Look at the fish” is a good reminder for me to pay closer attention, look, look, and then look some more.