Thursday, 22 July 2021

The Spirit of the Age

There was a time not so far in the past when ignorance was feared and education was seen as the antidote. Ignorance could lead to crime, disorder, riots and subversion. Of course the drive to educate the masses had a number of aspects, but one which has declined in perceived importance is a visceral fear of widespread ignorance.

Why we should fear it is obvious enough - widespread ignorance takes us into the unknown where painfully acquired cultural competence begins to fall apart. 

In his short story 'A Son of the Soil', writer George Gissing introduces us to his character Jonas Clay, an agricultural labourer who aspires to better himself in London. Unfortunately Clay’s aspiration is founded idle ignorance rather than anything more constructive. It doesn’t end well of course. Gissing was no great fan of happy endings.

At school he had learnt — well, what had he learnt? In the main, to spell out police news and to scrawl obscene words. His education, in the real sense, he owed to a powerful but unacknowledged instructor, the Spirit of the Age. Hence his discontent with everything about him, his thorough dishonesty, his blurred, gaslight vision of a remote world.

Certain well-meaning persons had given him ‘religious teaching,’ that is to say, had laboriously brought him to the repetition of phrases he did not understand, to which he attached no particular significance whatever. He could not name the flowers by the wayside; no one had ever thought of teaching him that. He did not know — he did not hear — the bird that sang to him at his work; no one had ever spoken to him of such trifles.

He was aware, by consequences, that the sun rose and set; but never had he consciously looked at its setting or its rising; for all that Jonas thought about it, the sky might have lowered in a perpetual leadenness. He had no conception of geography — save that somewhere vaguely to the east lay a huge town called London.

George Gissing – A Son of the Soil (1898)

As Gissing wrote of Jonas Clay: His education, in the real sense, he owed to a powerful but unacknowledged instructor, the Spirit of the Age. Where are we if the spirit of our age actively promotes ignorance? Which it does – we know it does in ways too numerous to count. Perhaps this is a situation we should fear.

Charles Dickens gives us an earlier and better-known hint that ignorance is something to be feared in 'A Christmas Carol'. It isn’t a new problem but what we seem to have forgotten is the fear itself and the reasons why we should still fear ignorance.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol (1843)


Sackerson said...

Good find in Gissing. I used to attend meetings of the National Association for Teaching English and they seemed to think I was crazy when I said that for all their theorising we couldn't even name the plants we see outside.

DiscoveredJoys said...

My old Grammar school aimed to turn out well rounded young men (it was a boys' school). Educated young men.

Regrettably those who though it was more important to not discriminate between the academically inclined and the trade inclined destroyed the Grammar schools and perhaps many pupils possible accomplishments.

Sam Vega said...

The Spirit of the Age is much too sophisticated to promote ignorance. What gets promoted are received opinions, often cleverly constructed so as to look like competence or even wisdom.

There have been a few glitches recently and people are wondering why we have to wear masks, why white lives don't matter, and why mentally defective foreign girls should be listened to on matters of national policy. They'll have to find a way of unpersoning those who ask awkward questions.

Tammly said...

DJ is absolutely correct. Instead of amending our secondary school system to alter the balance of resources allocated towards the Secondary Moderns, ignorant, doctrinaire Labour politicians like Williams and Crosland abolished the selective system to the Country's lasting detriment. Of course they did not understand that there was a difference between 'the academically inclined and the trade inclined' since in their warped middle class socialism, children were all blank slates to be written upon.

Scrobs. said...

​B​ and Q - et al - founded their huge businesses on 'the academically inclined and the trade inclined'​, making citizens aware that they could be in charge of their own work at home for much less money.

D.I.Y. was never a popular industry in the fifties and sixties, until many people realised that they were 'allowed' to paint their houses, build their own kitchens etc.​

​Labour's failed experiment to damn Grammar Schools didn't get as far as Kent, luckily!​ B and Q did though!

James Higham said...

The Zeitgeist of this age now is cabal-fed ideology and ignorance among the masses as a consequence of the close organisation of which data sees the light of day and which remains hidden, suppressed, even falsified, as we've demonstrated many times in many cases.

It's hardly sophisticated, it's straight playbook from organisations such as the Royal Society and the NPCC, various UN positionings, e.g. Codex Alimentarius.

James Higham said...

Sorry to double comment, AKH, but something came through which is a commentary in itself on the Zeitgeist of our age:

“The good news from all this is that [Peter] Daszak finally recused himself from a COVID-19 commission that was established by the medical journal The Lancet after his conflicts of interest with the WIV came to light.

The bad news is that up until then, Daszak had been functioning as an apologist for the Beijing regime, parroting its nonsense that the SARS-CoV-2 originated somewhere else and somehow made its way to China.

Worse still, Daszak was the only representative of the U.S. appointed to a 10-person panel convened by the World Health Organization (WHO).”

Also part of the Zeitgeist today is the breaking into two opposed camps on virtually every issue, such that, even if the ignorant person is able to overcome that intellectually, he is then faced with opposed and extreme jockeying, plus less than temperate language about the other.

This the curse of academia and the legal profession.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - for some reason I've always been mildly embarrassed by my lack of knowledge in this area so I do make an effort to look up wild flower names.

DJ and Tammly - our grandson is academically inclined and it infuriates me that he does not have the same opportunity to develop his natural abilities as I had over fifty years ago. Pulling up the ladder seems to be the explanation.

Sam - I'm sure they are relying on big tech to unperson those who ask awkward questions.

Scrobs - I remember how impressed I was when my dad went in for DIY in the sixties and built a shelving unit for the living room. Only veneered chipboard and polyurethane varnish but a new thing at the time.

James - a big issue seems to be petty professional corruption where the rewards and associated status are not vast but easily good enough to attract dodgy professionals if a contrived consensus protects them from their own lack of integrity.