As I Was Saying/Essay XXIX

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Essay XXVIII As I Was Saying
Essay XXIX
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXX

Essay XXIX: About Education

I HAVE dared to suggest that it would be rather a good thing if educated Englishmen knew a little history. I am not worrying about uneducated Englishmen. They do know a little history; a very little history, perhaps, but genuine so far as it goes; they do remember what their father and grandfather said; in what town or village they were born; what was the tone of the society round them; and their testimony, so far as it goes, is true. Any lawyer will tell you that uneducated witnesses are much better than educated witnesses, because they have not been elaborately educated to see what is not there. But it is a bad thing that an educated man, trained to have a taste for many good things, such as music or landscape, should know nothing of the songs of his fathers, and should appreciate the landscape without appreciating the land. Now, the nuisance of it is this: that if I say that people should be taught history, I shall have the horrible appearance of presenting myself as a historian. But that is almost the contrary of my contention. I only know a very little history; and even that very little is enough to tell me that much more important and powerful and successful persons than myself know no history at all.

It is not a question of somebody being a scholar; it is a question of something not being taught in the school. If I found that educated people were not aware that there is any difference between addition and subtraction, I should think myself justified in saying that something had happened to arithmetic in the schools; but it would not imply that I am a mathematician, which is absurd; still less that I could discuss the higher mathematics with Professor Einstein. If I found my most cultivated acquaintances alluding to Vienna as the capital of Spain, or the Volga as the chief river of America, I should feel the geographical studies had become a little vague; in spite of the fact that my own knowledge of geography is very vague indeed. In short, an ordinary man is only justified in complaining of the neglect of a subject when he realizes that the schools neglect even the very little that he knows. He may himself have had heavy and laborious difficulties even in mastering the alphabet; but he still has the right to consider it rather odd that people do know the alphabet of arithmetic and do not know the alphabet of history. For the question concerns, in the most emphatic sense, the alphabet of history; the elements of history; or what has been called, in a famous title, the outline of history. I know nothing whatever about electricity, except that it lights bulbs and rings bells, and does all sorts of fantastic things round me, to which I do not happen to attach much importance, as compared with candles or gongs. I know the name comes from the ancient Greek word for amber; but I also know that its modern use has been mainly modern. I mean that, until it was analysed and utilized in the last few centuries by scientific men like Volta or Galvani, few people appreciated the importance of electricity; except those who had the brief but brilliant experience of being struck by lightning. In other words, I mean that, though I know next to nothing about electricity, I know something about the history of electricity, since I know that, before Volta and the rest, it had no history at all.

Now compare that sort of rudimentary information possessed by one ignorant Englishman about a branch of physics with the complete ignorance of almost all Englishmen about a parallel point of history. Millions of men who know much more about electricity than I do (and nobody could know less) are at this moment convinced that internationalism is a new ideal; and that this kind of ethics is as recent as electricity--or, rather, as recent as electricians. Talk to almost anybody in a train or a tram, and you will find he believes that we all emerged out of savage separate tribes, and that the idea of friendship with foreigners is part of a modern ideal of fraternity. Perhaps he will vaguely suppose that the Communists were the first Cosmopolitans; that nothing can link up nations but the Third or Fourth or Fifth or Sixth international, and the alliance of the Proletarians Of All Lands. But that is only a possibility; for the Communists are still a small minority. But even if he is quite a mild and moderate citizen, of the older parties, you will find he believes that national bigotry is merely a thing of the past; or perhaps that international brotherhood can only be a thing of the future. He will say it is due to the growth of liberal ideas, which have widened the narrow sympathies of the nation and the tribe. He may even hold that Mr. Wells invented the World State; even if he has not exactly founded the World State. But, anyhow, he will almost certainly believe, in one way or another, that going back into the past means going back into more and more partisan patches of patriotism; that the world began by being jingo and has gradually grown more sympathetic with justice to the foreigner.

Now, that is a black-and-white blunder about the outline of history; just as it would be a blunder to say that any prehistoric man was an electrician if he was struck by a thunderbolt. It is completely and colossally the contrary of the fact. Europe is now very national, and some may say very narrow. But certainly it was once much less national and much less narrow. Personally, I rather like nationalism; and I know there are much worse things than narrowness. But I am talking about a historical fact, a plain and primary historical fact; a fact that stands in history exactly as addition and subtraction stand in arithmetic. Nobody who does not know it knows the alphabet of our human history. The fact is, of course, that a narrow nationality has grown steadily and strongly for the last six hundred years; and European nations are much more divided now than they were in the time of the Holy Roman Empire, to say nothing of the Pagan Roman Empire. The French and English who fought each other at Crecy were more like each other than the French and English who supported each other at Mons. Our nationalities, whether good or bad (and they are good enough for me) did in historical fact emerge into separate existence out of a common cosmopolitan civilization, dating from the days of the Caesars, and still recognized in the days of the mediaeval Popes. Now, I am not arguing here about what importance is to be attached to this historical fact; still less about what deductions are to be drawn from it. I only say that the fact is not popularly recognized as a fact like the fact of electricity. I only say that I should be universally regarded as an idiot if I were quite so ignorant of electricity as most of my countrymen are of history.

I think it rather important to press the point; because it is at this moment a point of peril. Everybody is asking in a distracted fashion whether the great nations can understand each other; and nearly everybody is insisting that it must be an entirely new sort of understanding. Now, it is surely not unimportant to point out that all these great nations formed part of one common and completely united civilization for about sixteen hundred years. I do not want them to fade back into the pagan unity of the first century or the feudal unity of the fourteenth. But if anybody says that they cannot find a unity, it is not irrelevant to say that they did find it, for much more than a thousand years. It is more hopeful to say that international brotherhood was the whole historic background from which we came than to say that it may or may not appear as an untried Utopia.