Sunday, June 28, 2009

Children's Literacy ...

Aged around seven, living in Cwmbwrla, I struggled with my uncle's childhood copy of R.M. Ballatyne's 1857 The Coral Island, with its fascinating descriptions of cannibalism in the South Seas (and I don't pretend it was anything other than hard going for a seven year old. Finished it though).

Re-reading that, or Robinson Crusoe, makes you realise what a high level of literacy prevailed in those times. The sentences are complex, dense with qualifications and sub-clauses.

"He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly."
(from the opening chapter of Robinson Crusoe)

Occasionally at a market stall or bookshop I'll come across a book awarded as a school or Sunday School prize, and I never fail to be impressed by the standard of reading which was obviously expected.

Here's a closing paragraph from The Coral Island, noteworthy only because the English understood by millions of schoolchildren for a hundred years after its publication is now too tricky for a prospective Cambridge undergraduate - studying English Literature.

Before leaving, we had many long and interesting conversations with the missionary, in one of which he told us that he had been making for the island of Raratonga when his native-built sloop was blown out of its course, during a violent gale, and driven to this island. At first the natives refused to listen to what he had to say; but, after a week's residence among them, Tararo came to him and said that he wished to become a Christian, and would burn his idols. He proved himself to be sincere, for, as we have seen, he persuaded all his people to do likewise. I use the word persuaded advisedly; for, like all the other Fiji chiefs, Tararo was a despot and might have commanded obedience to his wishes; but he entered so readily into the spirit of the new faith that he perceived at once the impropriety of using constraint in the propagation of it. He set the example, therefore; and that example was followed by almost every man of the tribe.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nobody alive can write like that today. It's the same with music, even sixties lout kid musician knew how to use a diminished chord creatively. Not so now. Technologically we are more advanced than ever, yet culturally less than savages. Even the word "culture" has come to denote a kind of commodity and not a union of the soul and the world.

Working Class Geezer said...

All part of the seemingly semi-official dumbing down of our society away from traditional English (British) culture to accommodate immigrants ... perhaps.

The rise of (inferior languages) Jafrican (The Guardian):
Learn Jafaikan in two minutes

Indians (Vineeta Gupta) denying Britons British culture (The Telegraph):
Words associated with Christianity and ritish history taken out of children's dictionary

Dumbing down (The Daily Mail):
The councils who ban Latin words because they are 'elitist and discriminatory' and confuse immigrants

I'm sure there must be many many more examples.

malpas said...

Back then those that read did so but an awful lot of people didn't get involved with ' book learning' through lack of need or lack of ability.
Biceps over brains often.

DJ said...

I thought the same watching 'Carry On Cleo' once. For the lowest of low-brow entertainment, they sure weren't shy about expecting their audience to have a familiarity with Roman life.

Laban said...

I worked a lot with South Indian IT people a couple of years back, and asked one day if my use of Latin abbreviations in mails - i.e., etc and e.g. all over the place plus a few other phrases - was a problem for them.

Not at all, it turned out. Education over there's still based on the pre-comprehensive Brit model, so they knew them.

(I explained that Roman imperialism had left a deep impact, such that we were still using the language more than 1600 years after they left ... they said in their excellent English that they understood entirely)

JuliaM said...

"I explained that Roman imperialism had left a deep impact, such that we were still using the language more than 1600 years after they left ... they said in their excellent English that they understood entirely"

Heh..!

Malthebof said...

Ah Coral Island, I was awarded a copy of that book in primary school, aged 9, in a reading competition. The school was in a working class district, cos that waz wat we were, now wat I mean like?

Anonymous said...

May God damn us for the travesty of our national life.

Sgt Troy said...

The Biblical and Classical and historical references, with which the works of our great authors are illuminated, are very largely a complete mystery to the fodder who are fed into the ghastly, Gradgrindish "educational" maw.

Hardy received a copy of Dryden's Virgil and Johnson's Rasselas at age eight from his mother, a singular lady of advanced taste and humble origin. Reading Hardy or Milton, particularly, I am always struck by the sophistication of their readership, obviously a given.
Clearly a fairly small minority, though there again one of my grandfather's prized possessions was a work by John Locke - and he was a workingmen. But if it was a smallish minority, so what? It kept the flame alive.

Now we are descending into an appalling third world night. I honestly believe that if this nation is to be saved then thousands of leftists are going to have to be shot, or put to work in coal mines - perhaps that would be better, they will suffer more and the nation might get some use out of them for a change. Of course the banksters will be similarly served.

It's coming, it's coming

Sgt Troy said...

Sonnet XVI: To the Lord General Cromwell
On the proposals of certain ministers at the Committee for Propagation of the Gospel

1Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
2 Not of war only, but detractions rude,
3 Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
4 To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough'd,
5And on the neck of crowned Fortune proud
6 Hast rear'd God's trophies, and his work pursu'd,
7 While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbru'd,
8 And Dunbar field, resounds thy praises loud,
9And Worcester's laureate wreath; yet much remains
10 To conquer still: peace hath her victories
11 No less renown'd than war. New foes arise
12Threat'ning to bind our souls with secular chains:
13 Help us to save free Conscience from the paw
14 Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw.

Excellent sentiments

Anonymous said...

I too had a copy of that book (I still have it, in fact). I bought it a school jumble-sale, I think, when I was about nine or ten. It looked like an exciting story, and so it proved.

I remember it as a dense but enjoyable read.

How many nine-year-olds today could read it?

Disclaimer - I was NOT at a state school.

Joe Bloggs comprehensive said...

Oh please give us all a break. You don't need to know the meaning of the word "vicissitudes" to know that the entire paragraph is trying to say that the middle-class have it easy. A moron could read it.

How many of you pompous oafs actually know what "vicissitudes" means? I certainly don't. Sadly, despite the fact I clearly read it in my youth (as I have read both books) the curious fact is that the meaning did not seem to stay lodged in my capacious mind. I could hazard a guess from the context. It is not a word even the Times would use today. It is obsolete, as many oft used words in the English language have a tendency of becoming. A little like "oft" itelf.

In the meantime you might like to try the meaning of the word "mutability" - since it is rather more likely to make your aquaintance than "vicissitudes" and means the same thing.