In Diamond, Missouri around 1864, one of the greatest scientists was born. He was born into slavery, thus no records of birth are available for George Washington Carver. Today there is a National Parks monument to Carver because of his brilliance and great contribution to this country. Most biographers describe him as a botanist and inventor but he was much more than that. He was also a college professor, prolific artist, and chemist. As I researched Carver’s life I was struck by the many contributions he has made to agriculture, chemistry, industrial production and the economic development of the South. Several historians relay the countless inventions, applications and innovations for which Carver was responsible. He developed over 300 uses and applications for the peanut alone (and no, he did not invent peanut butter).
Although I Carver was undoubtedly a genius, he did not however seek monetary gain from his inventions and knowledge. Ironically it was his knowledge and expertise that helped rescue Southern farmers from economic ruin when cotton proved to no longer to be king. Carver was extraordinarily generous in sharing his understanding of the science of soil and introducing the concept of crop rotation. More importantly he heeded the advice of one of his first teachers, Mariah Watkins who told him:“You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people.” In 1896 by invitation of Booker T. Washington, Carver came and established the Department of Agriculture at the then Tuskegee Institute. He went on to teach there for nearly fifty years.
Although he taught many African Americans to become more self-sufficient with his understanding of agriculture and chemurgy, Carver’s genius did not just benefit Blacks. All Americans continue to benefit immensely from Carver’s work. His research of the soybean helped make it the billion dollar industry it is today. Henry Ford and his automobile empire also benefited from Carver’s knowledge of developing soy plastics. In addition, he developed 116 uses for the sweet potato and 60 products from pecans. We give little thought to things like paper, ink, bleach, soap, shaving cream and other products we rely on daily that were all made possible by Carver.
In all aspects of his life and work, Carver gave his learning back to the people. To honor him and his legacy means we not only teach students about him, but also prepare them to carry on his example of excellence. A Pew Research Center 2015 study found the racial disparities in science knowledge and academic performance is strongly linked to access to information. Furthermore Terence Ross points in The Atlantic out that research finds Black students fare better in STEM subjects when learning is not in isolation but rather incorporates strong community and a shared approach to learning.
Carver himself employed innovative teaching methods with his “mobile classroom” to take education out to the farmers. In the same way we must find ways to meet our students where they are and engage them intellectually. Some of our students may not see themselves as scientists or researchers but it our job to show them what is possible.
Peace good people!
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