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The elephant in the room: presence, practice and pachyderms in Victorian education

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Margaret Carlyle.

Throughout the 19th century, object lessons had been celebrated as the most novel and effective way of entraining young minds and bodies with vital scientific skills and knowledge. Basing educational experiences around particular artefacts, it was argued, provided unparalleled opportunities for visual appeal, sensory investigations, and cohesive storytelling. By the last decades of the century, ‘object-teaching’ became a standard part of school curricula around the globe; yet with its expansion in scope and topics the approach was a victim of its own success: inspectors bemoaned the farcical recital of properties that accompanied the presentation of each object; government circulars denounced ‘information lessons’ which privileged storing the memory with ‘interesting facts’ over ‘firsthand’ knowledge. In this talk I will explore the promises and problems of this type of pedagogy as it entered the classroom. By taking as my focus the elephant, I will reveal the limitations of teaching all subjects through object lessons (the elephant in the room was the fact that there was no elephant in the room at all); the visual, metonymic, and imaginative strategies deployed by teachers and authors to circumvent such limitations; and how wider natural historical and imperial meanings were put to work.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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