Monday, October 16, 2006

This interesting piece i got from a very old book (purchased for Rs.10 only) . This particluar chapter is labelled "Spoon Feeding" and there are many more featuring daily life.

From “Lay Thoughts of a Dean” by William Ralph Inge

At the season when the British paterfamilias sending his children on their Christmas visit to the dentist it must occur to wonder why the noble savage never has any trouble with his teeth. It is said that they are kept healthy by the hard work they have to do in tearing tough meat without the help of knife and fork. These implements, and the art of cookery, are reducing man to a toothless animal, and are, perhaps, responsible for such evils as appendicitis and cancer, from which savages hardly suffer at all.

This is only a sample of what civilization is doing to us, and civilization, for the majority in every nation, is not yet a hundred years old. Until quiet lately the housewife used to bake her own bread, make her own jam, and offer her friends home-brewed wine. Now she can do none of these things. The labourer, before the industrial revolution, was a handy man, almost self-sufficing. Now he understands only one thing – perhaps how to punch out biscuits from a slab of pulp without making the circles intersect. Mr. Austin Freeman, whose observations of savage peoples have made him keenly alive to the evils of machinery, describes how his caravan was overtaken by a storm in Central Africa. The natives set to work in the forest, and in a few hours a row of serviceable waterproof huts had been constructed. The despised savage would no more ask the Government to spend a thousand pounds in building a house for him than he would ask it to comb his hair.

Every year we invent machines to do something new for us. Handwriting used to be an art, and a pretty one. Now an increasing number of people rely entirely on the typewriter, and advertisers assure us that “you cannot afford to do your writing in the old way.” When the typewriter has been introduced into schools we may have a generation who cannot write at all.

Walking and riding, two delightful and health-giving exercises are becoming extinct. Two hundred years ago the roads were full of riders, and of pedestrians who thought nothing of thirty miles a day. The joys of a long country walk, either solitary or with a friend, are unknown to the younger generation, although there is no more delightful way of spending a spring or summer day.

The changes that have come over reading are less obvious, but equally great. An ancient manuscript fills us with wonder that men ever had eyesight and patience enough for such reading. It must have been a slow process – not altogether a disadvantage when the book is a good one. Medieval manuscripts and early printed books are sometimes clear, but often so minute as to try the strongest modern eyes. And spectacles, probably poor ones at first, are said to have been discovered about 1300 A.D. No wonder, we think, that the Greeks disliked old age, when they had neither spectacles, nor false teeth. But they got on without them fairly well, though they were a long-lived race. Sophocles wrote his last play, without spectacles, when he was ninety.

The Germans too, until very recently, made reading a painful exercise. They still like large and closely printed pages, but when to this was added the black-letter type, peculiarly trying to the eyes, and the contorted German sentence, sprawling over half a page, with the verbs, or parts of them, in a bunch at the end, we cannot say that the path of learning was made easy for the most diligent and plodding of nations. Even in English, if we compare the prose of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries with that which is written to-day, we shall find that the earlier prose demands real mental exercise on the part of the reader. Modern prose, even when written quickly for ephemeral purposes, may not be beautiful or dignified, but is generally clear. There is no difficulty in understanding what any sentence means, and writers are careful not to jolt the minds of their readers by anything obscure or ambiguous. Our books are now printed in good plain type.

Reading in these circumstances is purely receptive; it is not able to work at all. For most people it is an agreeable way of killing time, and obviating the painful necessity of thinking, when we have nothing else to do. Our journeyman fiction is evidently a means of getting away from real life, a mild anodyne, or a stimulus to day-dreaming. Newspaper-reading seems to be very largely the result of interest in vicarious athletics and in betting, topics which make no demand on the intellect whatever. There is also a wide desire for general information, but it is only the results, not the method by which they are arrived at, which interest the public. The newspapers are full of snippets, often very well written and illustrated, which give their readers the latest science in tabloid form. The pictures are all photographs; here again, we are watching the death of a fine art, that of drawing and engraving.

Education except where the pupils are encouraged to make things with their own hands is mainly spoon-feeding. Fifty years ago the editions of the classics were so bad that the student had to puzzle out difficulties for himself. Now he sits luxuriously before a crib, two commentaries, and a book of lecture-notes which have been slowly dictated in class. He need not use his brains at all. The battle between Greeks and Trojans in education has raged for many years; but the truth is that the conscientious tutor and the conscientious editor between them have killed the valuable part of a classical training.

The same process of making things easy is discernible even in games. Half a century ago the cricket coaches at Eton and Harrow used to bowl to the elevens down a slope, to teach them how to stop the famous Lord’s shooters. Now if a ball shoots at Lord’s, which it hardly ever does, it always gets a wicket, and the aggrieved batsman complains of the ground-man. The modern mountaineer leaves it to others to “climb the steep ascent of heaven in peril, toil and pain”; he prefers a more comfortable way of getting to the top – he “follows by the train.”

Everywhere we find the same demand to make life easy, safe and fool-proof. The fine trees in our public parks are periodically mangled and reduced to the condition of clothes-props by our urban and country-councils, because boughs have known to be blown down in a a high-wind, or eve, in the case of elm-trees, to fall suddenly, and once in two hundred years some fool might be standing under the tree at the moment. Every workman must be insured against every variety of accident, even when it is caused by his own negligence. If a traveler slips on a piece of orange-peel, which he ought to have seen, in a railway station, or allows his coat to be stolen under his eyes in a carriage, he brings an action against the railway company, and wins it. We now demand to be personally conducted through life, all risk to be taken by someone else. After a century or two of this regime we shall be as helpless as Lord Avebury’s ants, who starved to death in sight of food because they were used to having it put into their mouths by their slaves.

All this may be right, or it may only be inevitable. But do not let us deceive ourselves. Nature will make us pay for it. Nature takes away any faculty that is not used. She is taking away our natural defenses, and has probably added nothing, since the beginning of the historical period, to our mental powers. The power of grappling with difficulties, and finding our way out of labyrinths, will soon be lost if we no longer need it. And after any derangement of our social order we might come to need it very badly. Besides, we can look with satisfaction at the completed product of civilization, a creature unable to masticate, or write, or to walk, a mere parasite on the machines that enable him to live? Many would prefer to be savages if they could have the magnificent physique of the Zulus or some South Sea Islanders.

There is a general slackness and dislike of unnecessary exertion among our younger people. It affects their religion, which they like to have given them, like everything else, in tabloid form, and without any irksome demands upon their energies. This is certainly not the way of the Cross, and it compares badly with Michael Angelo’s words: “Nothing makes the soul so pure, so religious, as the endeavor to create something perfect; for God is perfection, and whoever strives for perfection strives for something that is godlike”; or with Newton’s “Genius is patience”.

But I refrain; for I hear my young friends saying to me: “My venerable sir, when I am your age I shall talk just like that, and I suppose I shall find somebody to print it.”

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