Skirts and Sea Stars
Pacific Grove librarian chronicles how women trailblazed hands-on science education.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Hopkins Marine Station library assistant Donald Kohrs sees Pacific Grove not as it is, but as it used to be.
As he gazes out a library window, the waves break against Lovers Point as they always have. But instead of the grassy park, Kohrs sees a grove of towering trees and railroad tracks. On the point, men in suits and women in heavy skirts take long breaths of fresh air.
“Let me tell you a story,” he says.
The story is of Pacific Grove’s dedication to nature, and how that dedication fostered an educational revolution.
It started with Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor who raised America’s first generation of natural historians. He was committed to revolutionizing science education: “Study nature, not books,” was his mantra.
In 1873, the final year of Agassiz’s life, he founded a Summer School of Science on Penikese Island, Mass. His students gained knowledge by observing and interacting with nature. He chose 44 students to attend what Kohrs says is America’s first summer school. Almost half were women.
Women’s educational opportunities were extremely limited in 1873. If a woman was lucky enough to receive basic schooling, she might attend a “normal” school – a school that teaches teachers – or a seminary school. Afterward, Kohrs says, she would most likely become a Sunday school teacher. This job was important, but it didn’t allow for higher education.
Agassiz’s summer school marked one of the first events where women were included in college-level study. Naturally, it received a lot of attention.
“Agassiz was like Madonna at the Superbowl,” Kohrs explains. “Everyone wanted to see what he did. If Louis Agassiz was accepting women into his school, that was a huge deal.”
Within a year, other summer schools, called Chautauquas, started cropping up. In 1880, the Chautauqua movement came to Pacific Grove; members of satellite groups, called Literary and Science Circles, gathered at Lovers Point once a year. The gathering was called the Pacific Coast Assembly, and it offered opportunities unlike any other.
“The assembly was a bunch of tents,” Kohrs says. “And yet they were teaching botany, zoology – with microscopes! – and conchology. And they were teaching it the way Agassiz taught. Hands on.”
To Kohrs’ knowledge, no other Chautauqua had an emphasis on the natural sciences, or such easy access to samples from both the grove and the sea shore. And remarkably, the assembly taught 80 to 90 percent women.
“It was very important,” says Steve Honegger, president of the Heritage Society of Pacific Grove. “A lot of women came.”
The Chautauqua Literary and Science Circles also offered four-year college degrees to women, designed to reach teachers, teachers of school teachers and housewives. Kohrs describes it as an online degree program without the Internet. The circles would complete an annual reading list and receive degrees after four years.
Kohrs pulls out his laptop. “No story is complete without pictures,” he says, gesturing to a sepia-toned image on the screen. A half-dozen stone-faced women in severe dresses and broad-brimmed hats perch on rocks near the sea. Each holds a roll of paper: a diploma.
The female founders of the Pacific Coast Assembly helped establish Pacific Grove’s first museum of natural history. The building still stands as Chautauqua Dance Hall.
Then, in 1892, David Starr Jordan (a longtime Chautauqua participant) founded Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, which was accessible each summer to the members of the Pacific Coast Assembly.
For nearly 50 years, the assembly thrived. But eventually the core founders passed on, and the campground gave way to populated beaches and summer houses. The Chautauqua movement’s impacts, however, survived: More universities opened their doors to women, and a culture of nature-based science learning rooted deep in P.G.
Kohrs believes the Chautauqua movement still has lessons to teach. His book, Chautauqua: The Nature Study Movement in Pacific Grove, California, covers the history of the Pacific Coast Assembly and will be self-published this summer.
The main Hopkins building was named after Louis Agassiz’s son in hopes, as an early Hopkins Marine Station director put it, “that those responsible for leading the younger generation have not forgotten [Agassiz’s] ideals.”
Kohrs sees manifestations of those ideals all around us. You just have to look back a century or two to see the full picture.