What it means to be a naturalist and the future of natural history at American universities

Schmidly, D. J.

This commentary originally was presented to recognize receipt of the Joseph Grinnell Award for Excellence in Education at the 85th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists in Arcata, California, in June 2004. Natural history is the multidisciplinary description of nature, and naturalists are those who study nature. In its own right, natural history is a relevant discipline, despite varying degrees of focus by professional biologists and academic institutions over the past 100 years, and it is a critical contemporary discipline relative to global crises in the conservation of biodiversity. Many scholars have written that natural history has fallen out of favor at American universities. I review this perspective within the context of 20th century developments in society and trends in American higher education. My conclusion is that a narrowing of the context of natural history in the 20th century has diminished its significance. However, there is compelling evidence that, if we broaden our approach and horizons, natural history scholarship can play a pivotal role in American science and education in the 21st century. Institutions of higher education that emphasize natural history in their curriculum will enhance not only their academic profile but also students’ appreciation of the importance of natural history throughout their lives.

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Schmidly, D. J.. 2005. What it means to be a naturalist and the future of natural history at American universities. Journal of Mammalogy 86(3):449-456.