A lost high school artefact: Manuel de botanique (1961)

Manuel de botanique (1961) by Rolland Dumais

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

– H. G. Wells (1920)

The things you can find in a pile of unwanted books. This 1961 French high school textbook from Quebec, Manuel de Botanique (Botany Manual), materializes as if from a long-forgotten past or parallel universe.

I was immediately drawn to this discard-bin treasure with its aspirations for students engaged and interested in the natural world around them. Today, its simple message seems almost subversive. Is it even conceivable that this type of thinking finds a place in a modern curriculum crowded with technological distraction?

Manuel de Botanique
Botany Manual for grades 8 and 9

Very little natural history1 appears to be taught at any level of education in today’s tech-centric world. Shockingly, it is now even possible to obtain a degree in biology without taking any courses in natural history2.

The adage that you will not save what you do not love may be true, but you are even less likely to save that which you do not understand. Schools now prioritize knowledge in the service of business and the global economy over personal enlightenment and agency.

The equipment of a young botanist: mattock, trowel, penknife, magnifying glass, satchel, notebook and pencil | Collecting, drying and pressing plant specimens

Can we even achieve a sustainable future without first establishing a deep interest in living systems among our youth? Yearly day trips to a local Museum of Natural History will not get students very far. Especially to a level that this book suggests, encouraging lifelong discovery and understanding of our living world.

Research shows that noticing nature is more important than simply spending time in green places. People who watch wildlife, listen to birdsong, or take photos of nature feel closer to nature than those who don’t do these things.

―The nature connection handbook: A guide for increasing people’s connection with nature; Richardson (2022)
Illustrations from Manuel de botanique (1961) by Rolland Dumais

Lovingly written by Rolland Dumais, professor of biology at l’Académie de Québec, the book was published a full year before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The author’s intent to distill an interest and skillset in youth for exploring and understanding nature is compelling even today.

From Manuel de botanique (1961) by Rolland Dumais

The book’s photos of grade 8 students outside and interested in nature are in stark contrast with today’s distracted, tech-immersed generation. Noteworthy are the recommended monthly nature activities to break students out of the classroom and into the natural environment.

Students were encouraged to sustain their interests outside the classroom year-round. Sample weekly ‘botanic observation’ activities for the young botanist during the month of March.

Courses like this are surely needed now to close the expansive sustainability gaps in mainstream education and increase our ecological literacy3.

Is it romantic to long for students studying nature for the purpose of understanding and appreciating it and not solely for the purpose of seeking commercial advantage from it?

What kind of society would we fashion if we allotted more of modern curriculum to tuning our youth into the natural world?

Illustrations from Manuel de botanique (1961) by Rolland Dumais

  1. Natural history is a domain of inquiry involving organisms, including animals, fungi, and plants, in their natural environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study. A person who studies natural history is called a naturalist or natural historian. – Wikipedia ↩︎
  2. Natural History is Dying, and We Are All the Losers; Jennifer Frazer (2014). https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/natural-history-is-dying-and-we-are-all-the-losers ↩︎
  3. Ecological literacy (also referred to as ecoliteracy) is the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible – Wikipedia ↩︎
Illustrations from Manuel de botanique (1961) by Rolland Dumais

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