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)