Few writers have meant as much to me, as consistently, over many years as Loren Eiseley — I say a bit about my teenage discovery of him in this essay. I am now writing a piece on the new Library of America edition of his essays for Education and Culture, and, man, is it going to be hard for me to keep it below book-length. I keep coming across little gems of provocation and insight. In lieu of buttonholing my family and making them listen to me read passages aloud — though I’m not saying I’ll never do that — I may post some choice quotations here from time to time.
Here’s a wonderful passage from the early pages of The Firmament of Time, Eiseley’s lapidary and meditative history of geology, or rather of what the rise of modern geology did to the human experience of time. I like it because it illuminates certain blind spots of today’s academics — and people more generally — and because it reminds us just how essential the study of history is.
Like other members of the human race, scientists are capable of prejudice. They have occasionally persecuted other scientists, and they have not always been able to see that an old theory, given a hairsbreadth twist, might open an entirely new vista to the human reason. I say this not to defame the profession of learning but to urge the extension of education in scientific history. The study leads both to a better understanding of the process of discovery and to that kind of humbling and contrite wisdom which comes from a long knowledge of human folly in a field supposedly devoid of it. The man who learns how difficult it is to step outside the intellectual climate of his or any age has taken the first step on the road to emancipation, to world citizenship of a high order.
He has learned something of the forces which play upon the supposedly dispassionate mind of the scientist; he has learned how difficult it is to see differently from other men, even when that difference may be incalculably important. It is a study which should bring into the laboratory and the classroom not only greater tolerance for the ideas of others but a clearer realization that even the scientific atmosphere evolves and changes with the society of which it is a part. When the student has become consciously aware of this, he is in a better position to see farther and more dispassionately in the guidance of his own research. A not unimportant by-product of such an awareness may be an extension of his own horizon as a human being.