This tidbit comes from the very entertaining A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, a text I am proofreading for Distributed Proofreaders (a scanned version can be read here). It describes an exceptionally cheerful Englishman’s canoe trip through Europe in 1865. One day while eating his lunch, he ponders the state of his education:
Under a dark arbour-like arch of foliage, where the water was deep and still, I made fast to the long grass, cast my tired limbs into the fantastic folds of ease, and, while the bottle lasted and the bread, I watched the bees and butterflies, and the beetles and rats, and the coloured tribes of airy and watery life that one can see so well in a quiet half hour like this.
How little we are taught at school about these wondrous communities of real life, each with its laws and instincts, its beauties of form, and marvellous ingenuities!
How little of flowers and insects, not to say of trees and animals, a boy learns as school-lessons, while he has beaten into him at one end and crammed in at the other the complicated politics of heathen gods, and their loves and faction fights, which are neither real nor possible.
—J. MacGregor, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, 1866
I don’t know that it has to be an either/or proposition, but I think natural history education hasn’t improved much, with the possible exception of the occasional field trip to a nature house or visit from a naturalist. Shouldn’t education start with what is right around us?