George Washington Carver: Scientist and Teacher - 3

Article Index

 Much of the success of George's outreach to farmers hinged on his almost magical ability to teach. He did not attempt to demonstrate his superior knowledge about the subjects he studied, but merely tried to transmit what he knew simply and directly. As a result, farmers could understand what he had to tell them and felt more comfortable in adopting the methods which he described. The Farmer's Conferences and classes that he organized enabled him to come into contact with hundreds of farmers throughout the area, and to apply his knowledge to the needs of individual farmers.

In the classroom, George became legendary for being able to draw students' attention like a magnet. His sense of humor would enliven classroom discussions, and he would endeavor that each student work to their fullest capacity. On one point he remained adamant, however: he would not under any circumstances sacrifice quality. "There are only two ways," he would tell his students. "One is right, and the other is wrong. About is always wrong. Don't tell me it's about right. If it's only about right, then it's wrong. If you come to a stream five feet wide and jump four and a half feet, you fall in and get drowned. You might as well have tumbled in from the other side and saved yourself the exertion of a jump." George simply demanded from students what he demanded from himself: a high standard, and the will to attain it.

The entire Institute, besides being understaffed, also suffered from extremely meager funding. George could count on only a tiny trickle of support from the state government, and he responded in the only way he could, by inventing things. "Equipment," he would say, "is not all in the laboratory, but partly in the head of the man running it." To supply his classroom and laboratory, he turned once again to the junkyard. A broken china bowl and a length of iron became his mortar and pestle; the fruit jar lids other people threw away supplied him with zinc sulfate; even the nearby reed patch pushed up a continual crop of pipettes. If a student complained about his lack of supplies, George would reply, "There's no need to whine, 'Oh, if only I had so-and-so!' Do it anyhow; use what you find about you!"

While George worked strenuously to produce change in his own locality, his efforts eventually propelled him into the national arena. His work with the peanut, in particular, called the attention of the peanut industry, which immediately recognized the public appeal George Carver could have in promoting their product. On its invitation, George appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee to lobby for a peanut tariff. He won the tariff, and he also won respect from the congressmen by presenting "one of the most interesting talks I have ever heard before the committee," as one later expressed. He further impressed the committee by receiving their sometimes thinly veiled racist comments with a rare sense of humor and dignity that embarrassed the ones who uttered them.

After this event, George Carver rose to national fame almost overnight. He began traveling far and wide to give lectures on his work with the peanut, and his talks were immensely popular among both white and black audiences across the nation. While he never talked directly about racism in his speeches on campuses and at Christian youth gatherings, he demonstrated that a black man could earn the respect of the white community for his achievements, without sacrificing his own dignity. As a result of his talks, many people felt that Carver helped them to see beyond their racial prejudices and even inspire them to try to end racial prejudice in their country.

While George Washington Carver didn't make any great scientific discoveries or create a revolution in race relations, he helped many people improve their lives and see beyond the narrow confines of race and color. He endured the humiliations of segregation and came into daily contact with poverty, and he worked together with people who didn't always share his desires or agree with his methods. But he persevered, and in the end he offered humankind his enthusiasm for learning and for sharing what he knew with people who really needed it.

On January 5, 1942, George Washington Carver died in his bed. He had become a figure of international importance whose death was mourned by laborers and politicians, by students and by businessmen, and by men and women of diverse races and creeds. His life, filled with tremendous difficulties and suffering, had touched millions of people, and his death showed just how far his love had reached. As one young student wrote, "You have shown me the one race, the human race. Color of skin or form of hair mean nothing to me now, but length, and width, and breadth of soul and loving kindness mean everything."

Opening quotation from Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol.

References and Recommended Reading

Harris, William J. and Judith S. Levey. "George Washington Carver," in The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Washington, Booker T. My Larger Education. 1911.

Reprinted from Walking with Contemplation