“Not one in ten”

Some of the people who talk most about “change” and “progress” are the people who can least imagine, really, any alteration in the existing texts and methods of life. For instance, they make “reading and writing” a test for all ages and all civilizations. Reading and writing are in themselves simply accomplishments, very delightful and exciting accomplishments, like playing the mandolin or looping the loop. Some accomplishments are at one time fashionable, some at another. In our civilization nearly everybody can read. In the Saracen civilization nearly everybody could ride. But people persistently apply the three “R”s to all human history. People say, in a shocked sort of voice, “Do you know that in the Middle Ages you could not find one gentlemen in ten who could sign his name?” That is just as if a mediaeval gentlemen cried out in horror, “Do you know that among the gentlemen of the reign of Edward VII, not one in ten knows how to fly a falcon?” Or, to speak more strictly, it would be like a mediaeval gentlemen expressing astonishment that a modern gentleman could not blazon his coat-of-arms. The alphabet is one set of arbitrary symbols. The figures of heraldry are another set of arbitrary symbols. In the fourteenth century every gentlemen knew one: in the twentieth century every gentlemen knows the other…

We talk, with typical bigotry and narrowness, about the Alphabet. But there are in truth a great many alphabets besides the alphabet of letters. The letter alphabet was only slightly used in the Middle Ages: these other alphabets are only slightly used now. A certain number of soldiers learn to convey their meaning to each other by abruptly brandishing small flags. Others talk to each other in an intimate and chatty way by flashes of sunlight on a mirror. These alphabets are as peculiar and restricted an accomplishment as writing was in the Dark Ages. They may some day be as broad and universal a habit as writing is now.

The Illustrated London News, 2 December 1905.

Published in: on August 15, 2007 at 12:44 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Much as I love GKC, I have to say he is talking bobbins this time. Reading and writing are objectively more important measures of civilisation than falconry and heraldry because they are foundational: they are the way in which all other aspects of civilisation are passed on from one generation to the next. Sorry, GK — no points this week.

  2. Thanks, Mike, for your comment.

    I agree that he’s getting carried away. The quote reminds us that he was not infallible.

    But his point is not entirely without merit. You’re quite right that reading and writing are superior to heraldry because of their major cultural effects. To say that one is just as good as the other is bonkers. But if we consider them simply as personal accomplishments, as “things I can do”, then his point again becomes pointed. He’s getting at that patronizing sense of superiority people have with respect to the past. We think we’re better than them because we’re good at . . . the things we’re good at, and they weren’t. It’s a marvellous game: we can always win, because we can always stack the deck in our favour.

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