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Agassiz and the Fish

Earlier this year I was introduced to a professor from the 19th century. Louis Agassiz was an educator I'd venture to say most of us would be frustrated with. He was the founder of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology as well as a professor. Evidently, he was known for his simplicity and his willingness to lead (or force) students to be patience, look closely, and look long at the object of their studies. He, for the years of his professorship and through history is heard to be saying, "Look again! Look again! Look again!" "Look! Look! Look!"

His students were known for their tales of this painful lesson, one Nathanael Southgate Shaler shares:

When I sat me down before my tin pan, Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it, but should on no account talk to anyone concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes, until I had his permission so to do. To my inquiry "What shall I do?" he said in effect: "Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think that you have done the work I will question you."

In the course of an hour I thought I had compassed that fish; it was a rather unsavory object, giving forth the stench of old alcohol, then loathsome to me, though in time I came to like it. Many of the scales were loosened so that they fell off. It appeared to me to be a case for a summary report, which I was anxious to make and get on to the next stage of the business. But Agassiz, though always within call, concerned himself no further with me that day, nor the next, nor for a week.

At first, this neglect was distressing; but. . . I set my wits to work upon the thing, and in the course of a hundred hours or so thought I had done much--a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start. I got interested in finding out how the scales went in series, their shape, the form and placement of the teeth, etc. Finally, I felt full of the subject and probably expressed it in my bearing; [but] as for words about it then, there were none from my master except his cheery "Good morning."

At length on the seventh day, came the question "Well?" and my disgorge of learning to him as he sat on the edge of my table puffing his cigar. At the end of the hour's telling, he swung off and away, saying, "That is not right." .... I went at the task anew, discarded my first notes, and in another week of ten hours a day labor I had results which astonished myself and satisfied him.

Can you imagine? Staring at a single fish for more than an hour, an entire day, an entire week, multiple weeks. One student, Samuel Scudder endured this "looking" for several months.Sadly, the only thing many of us are that interested at starting at for that long is ourselves. Not you? Consider your compulsion to look at yourself in every mirror you pass. Even if for a quick glance. Our powers of observation aren't undeveloped or untrained they are simply improperly pointed.

Consider taking some time today and begin your journey of looking at the Bible. Why not start with Psalm 119:18. Ask God to open your eyes to what’s in the Bible. Grab a pencil, a pad of paper, turn off the distractions and simply Look at the Book!

This post corresponds with Pastor Jacob Atchley's sermon "Our Delightful Word" from Psalm 119 on August 27, 2017.