Sunday 13 November 2011

Scottish Generalist Learning Technique: Patrick Geddes

So what is this generalism? Geddes put it this way:

‘[a] general and educational point of view must be brought to bear on every

specialism. The teacher’s outlook should include all viewpoints. …. Hence we

must cease to think merely in terms of separated departments and faculties

and must relate these in the living mind; in the social mind as well – indeed,

this above all.’ 5

When the Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo visited Edinburgh in 1994 he


‘Here in Scotland, in Scottish culture, from what I have read and I have

studied, I think you have one educational pillar which is very important. It is

what you call generalism. .... [and] … you have a good grounding in this

approach, not least because of the work of Patrick Geddes...’4

My own awareness of this generalist current of thought stems from the

teaching of the philosopher and historian of ideas George Davie, at the

University of Edinburgh. Davie was the author of that classic book, The

Democratic Intellect, a text that brings into relationship, among much else, the

scientific achievement of the Scottish Enlightenment and the poetry of Robert

Burns. So when I first encountered the work of Patrick Geddes, I saw his

effortless bridging of the gap between arts and sciences in relation to the

wider intellectual tradition that George Davie describes.

Davie’s account of the generalist educational legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment provides the

essential context within which to appreciate the wide-ranging thinking we

associate with Geddes. Indeed Davie himself notes Geddes’ teaching as

representative of this Scottish approach.6 It is important to stress this for it is

all too easy to see Geddes’ breadth of interest as a kind of unique indicator of

genius. What I am arguing here is that it was in fact part of a developed

tradition, which we would do well to learn from today.

Traces of this generalism remain in Scotland, for example the four-year

undergraduate degree, which enables a wider spread of subjects to be studied

than in the three-year system south of the Border. The rationale is, of course,

that one area of thought or expertise benefits from illumination by another

and it is therefore culturally and educationally desirable to be able place such

areas in relation to one another. By extension, any aspect of knowledge,

culture or society benefits from illumination by other aspects. For both

George Davie and Patrick Geddes the task of the educator was to facilitate

such processes.7

Hugh MacDiarmid, a generation younger than Patrick Geddes and a

generation older than George Davie, and a friend of both men, wrote of

Geddes in The Company I’ve Kept in these terms:

his constant effort was to help people to think for themselves, and to think

round the whole circle, not in scraps and bits. He knew that watertight

compartments are useful only to a sinking ship, and traversed all the

boundaries of separate subjects.’

As Philip Boardman put it, Geddes ‘held constantly before both teachers and

students the single goal of reuniting the separate studies of art, of literature,

and of science into a related cultural whole which should serve as an example

to the universities still mainly engaged in breaking knowledge up into

particles unconnected with each other or with life.’9

Could my device help to re connect different subjects? like a tree reaching out to each subject through its roots or branches.

Comenius shares something else with Geddes. He was an advocate of visual

methods, indeed in his book, Orbis Pictus he developed for the modern era the

notion of visual experience as integral to verbal explanation. In that work,

according to another of Geddes’ older Scottish colleagues, the pioneering

educationist Simon Somerville Laurie, ‘Comenius applies his principles more

fully than in any other.’11 I have noted the link between the visual and the

general, and one of my aims this evening is to draw attention to the linkage in

Geddes’ thinking, as in that of Comenius, between the ability to take a broad

view of knowledge on the one hand and the ability to think visually on the

other. It is important to note that such linkage is also crucial to understanding

other generalist thinkers, whether we think of a 15th century artist like

Leonardo Da Vinci or a 20th century geneticist like C. H. Waddington.12 It is

not hard to see why this psychological linkage should exist, for there is a

holism in a visual approach that is not evident in more linear methods of

notation. And there was, in Geddes’ Scotland, a cultural and intellectual

understanding of this.

Let me take the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh as a case study of Geddes’

generalist visual thinking.

Certainly the way Geddes developed his Outlook Tower can be thought of as

a kind of three-dimensional response to Comenius’ Orbis Pictus(first picture book encyclopedia for kids) in so far as it

is ‘not only a … treatment of things in general, but of things that appeal to the


But whether it owed a direct debt to Comenius or not, the

organisation of the Outlook Tower was a physical expression of Geddes

philosophy. The Outlook Tower was both at the heart of the social spaces of

Geddes’ halls of residence and central to the wider historical and

geographical context of the city and the region.

As early as 1899 Charles Zueblin of Chicago University felt

confident in describing it as the world’s first sociological laboratory.19

Three years earlier Geddes had emphasised the visual thinking inherent to

the arrangement of the Tower, in these words:

‘While current education is mainly addressed to the ear (whether directly in

saying and hearing, or indirectly in reading and writing), the appeal of this

literal “Outlook Tower,” or Interpreter’s House, is primarily to the eye…’

The visitor to the Outlook Tower would be taken by Geddes to the top and

would then see the city itself in two ways: an enclosed, painterly and magical

view from within the camera obscura and a direct view, weather and all, from

the terrace. With these already contrasting perceptual experiences of the city

firmly in mind, the theoretical exploration, cultural and ecological, could

begin floor-by-floor below, in rooms devoted to Edinburgh, Scotland,

English-speaking nations, Europe and the world. The Outlook Tower thus

enabled the visitor to unite the local, the regional, the national and the

international as if they were a series of waves spreading from, and returning

to, a central point. The starting point was the direct perception of a real city

not an idea of it, and this perception was the basis for any further exploration.

Geddes’ conception of the Outlook Tower was thus radically local – that is to

say down to the level of individual perception - but that local quality became

the context for the understanding of the regional, the national and the global.

The way Geddes used this tower, as a college, as a museum and as a

laboratory is one of the most developed examples his thinking. But we must

remember that complementing the Outlook Tower is Geddes’ Arts and Crafts

condominium of Ramsay Garden. This complex was another pioneering

expression of generalist educational aims. By 1893 the old house of the poet

Allan Ramsay had been transformed into Ramsay Lodge, a student residence

capable of accommodating some forty students. This was the heart of the

varied buildings which Geddes developed at the head of the Old Town to

serve as ‘accommodation of graduates, extra-mural teachers, and others more

or less connected with the University’.22 Ramsay Garden is both traditional in

ethos and modernist in implication.23 And at its core is, of course, that symbol

and real expression of environmental sustainability, a tree.

The teaching method that Geddes helped to pioneer in this complex of

buildings was a further expression of his generalism. This was his annual

international summer meeting, and for Geddes a crucial aspect of the summer

meetings was the interplay of different areas of knowledge. For example the

prospectus for August 1896 advertises Geddes himself teaching courses on

‘Contemporary Social Evolution’ and ‘Scotland: Historical and Actual’. Others

teaching included the artist Helen Hay, giving a course on ‘Celtic Ornament

and Design’, and the geographer Elisée Reclus lecturing on ‘The evolution of

rivers and river civilizations’. Music was in the charge of Marjory Kennedy-

Fraser, at that time beginning her experiments with Gaelic song.24 The

inherent internationalism of the meeting is implied by the fact that Reclus’

course was advertised and - in part at least - delivered in French.

In a weekly column that Geddes, or a close colleague, wrote to accompany

these summer meeting studies, an intriguing glimpse is given of the

interdisciplinary links being fostered. The writer addresses Helen Hay, asking

her if she can find in her Celtic ornament ‘means for the pictorial

representation and symbolism of current ideas’.25 This generalist challenge to

explore art and ideas must be seen in the context of Hay’s ongoing work for

Geddes magazine, The Evergreen. The Book of Summer, the third part of The


These almanacs are conjunctions of art and

ecological thinking.

Hay’s Celtic knotwork borders for a mural scheme in the student common

room of Ramsay Lodge. These can be seen in old

photographs, but sadly they are now mostly destroyed.

Geddes was an advocate of the importance of the arts to everyday life.

Geddes’ enthusiasm

for their formal beauty, and their diagrammatic and symbolic potential. T

hese murals had a direct educational function with respect.

Geddes was interested in how the interlace

borders of these murals had the potential to convey ideas.

So these murals had a direct educational function with respect

to the intellectual history of Scotland. They exemplify Geddes’ emphasis on

cultural sustainability as the complement to environmental sustainability.

And they are one more aspect of Geddes’ wider view of Ramsay Garden and

the Outlook Tower as a site of thinking guided in the first instance by the eye

and then by a generalist philosophy of education.

Geddes underlined this visual generalism further when he described the

Outlook Tower as a ‘graphic encyclopaedia’. In a letter written in 1905 he

explains this in the following terms:

‘the Tower may be best explained as simply the latest development of our

Edinburgh tradition of Encylopaedias, and hence arising in turn in the very

same street where are all the others, Britannica, Chambers, and minor ones. It is

in fact the Encylopaedia Graphica. The Encyclopaedia Graphica for each science

and art in turn and in order ..."

Of particular interest within this context of a graphic encylopaedia is the use

of stained glass windows by Geddes for his generalist teaching purposes. In

one of these windows in the Outlook Tower,

the Arbor Saeculorum, or tree of

the generations, what Geddes sees as the temporal and spiritual contexts of

the Western tradition are presented in a historicist manner from ancient

Egypt to the late nineteenth century. I don’t have time to go into detail, but

the basic point is that while the Arbor Saeculorum reflects on the content of

cultural history, its complement, the Lapis Philosophorum encodes the essential

relationship of the arts and sciences considered as methods of thought.

Geddes’ concern here is with public communication of the central generalist

point that what we call arts and sciences are deeply intertwined with one


The final window from the Outlook Tower that I consider here is The Typical

Region, better known as The Valley Section, which

is a multiple representation of what the


and social world is at the moment and could be in the future.

Looking at the

Latin wording which appears below this window –

‘Microcosmos Naturae.

Sedes Hominum.

Theatrum Historiae.

Eutopia Futuris’

- one sees Geddes

insisting on a set of at first sight contrasting and yet mutually illuminating

views of the valley.

The valley window is first and foremost ecology: a ‘microcosm of

nature’, but it is also the ‘sedes hominum’, the seat of humanity, the place

where human beings make their lives as part of that ecology. And linked to

this it is the dramatic ‘theatrum historiae’, the theatre of history, the past

experience that should inform the future.

Finally, it is the ‘eutopia’

of the future, a place that Geddes believed could be achieved through

local and international co-operation, and adoption of sustainable


Geddes’ holistic cultural and ecological vision was thus given impetus and

focus by the development of the Outlook Tower. Charles Zueblin’s

characterization of the Tower as the world’s first sociological laboratory has

been noted, but it can be emphasised here that Zueblin considered that the


merited this description because it was ‘at once school, museum,

atelier, and observatory’.

So for the participants at Geddes’ summer

meetings the Outlook Tower was not just the venue, it was the symbol and

context of the thinking, within the wider social context of University Hall and

of Edinburgh itself.

Geddes knew the value of specialisation: he was a biologist by training and he

helped to bring into being the disciplines of sociology, geography, ecology

and planning. But he understood that disciplines depend for their origin on

interdisciplinary thinking. They emerge from the interaction of earlier

formulations of study.

They come from the spaces in between. The irony is

that as they develop into disciplines, their interdisciplinary origins are often

no longer seen as relevant and the significance of their relationship to other

disciplines may no longer be perceived.

Generalism is rooted in the intellectual tradition of which he was part, in

which one area of knowledge is honoured with


espect to the way it relates to

others and informs the whole.

George Davie called this ‘democratic

intellectualism’ and Geddes is one of its greatest exponents.

At the same time,

we who advocate the interests of Scotland should take pride, not just in

Geddes, but in this tradition of thinking.

Design my device like this to relate my small biosphere relates to the whole world and all other areas of knowledge, its just about seeing things with curious and questioning eyes.

The key to discovery learning is understanding relationships whether it be a person to their food which is a basic relationship but deeper ones like how does the way a a ecosystem work and relate to how we design sustainable cities or how something small and physical relates to how we live our lives is more complex. We all seek to understand relationships whether it is about how to live or to understand how we

relate to eachother through human relationships.

Two industrialised wars fostered specialisation in the 20th century and the

second world war was a watershed for how Geddes was considered.


the best efforts of Lewis Mumford, after that war Geddes’ generalism began

to be seen as an eccentric quality, not of importance in its own right.

In the present sustainability and generalist learning is becoming more popular but its origins from Patrick Geddes have been forgotten.

Geddes’ relevance to the debate was little

noted and his reputation was seen primarily in terms of his role as a

pioneering planner. Indeed had it not been for planners keeping Geddes’

generalist reputation alive during a period of specialisation, he would have

risked being forgotten entirely.

As we stumble from financial to ecological crisis and back again, the value of

Geddes’ Scottish generalist view could hardly be clearer. I would argue

indeed that Geddes’ generalism didn’t simply allow him to look for

sustainable solutions, whether cultural or ecological, it actually impelled him

to look for those solutions and to see them as linked. And more widely, for

Geddes, any sustainable place could only continue to be so if it took both its

heritage and its ecology seriously. And for Geddes, appropriate action in the

present, in the interests of the future, depended on an in-depth, generalist

understanding of what had happened in the past. That was the essence of his

thinking whether applied to ecology, cultural revival or planning, the crucial

point being, of course, that he saw all these activities as illuminating one


Geddes himself put it this way:

‘Breadth of thought and a general direction are not opposed to specialised

thought and detailed work. The clear thinker realises that they are

complementary and mutually indispensible.’

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