Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Not much changes in 58 years.

Quite by chance I stumbled this evening upon the 1951 edition of Jacob Bronowski's "The Common Sense of Science". I'd never heard of it, but the title intrigued me. See what you make of the introduction:

I came to England when I was twelve, and when I landed I could speak, rather badly, two words of English which I had learnt on the channel boat. I did not read English at all easily for two or three years after. The first writers in whom I was able to distinguish what my patient schoolmasters called style were, I remember, Macaulay and Joseph Conrad. I do not remember now whether at that time I was also able to distinguish between their styles. I read greedily, with excitement, with affection, with a perpetual sense of discovering a new and, I slowly realised, a great literature. But I was handicapped then, and I have been ever since, by the disorderly way in which I fell upon my masterpieces: Dickens cheek by jowl with Aphra Behn and Bernard Shaw, and elsewhere leaving tracts of neglected literature by the century. To this day I have not read the Waverley novels, and in consequence I have remained rather insensitive to historical romance, particularly if much of the conversation is in dialect.

I make these confessions because they seem to me to bear on many stories besides my own. The difficulties which I had are not mine alone, and they are not in any special way literary difficulties. At the bottom my difficulties in facing a strange literature are precisely the difficulties which all intelligent people today have in trying to make some order out of modern science.

We live surrounded by the apparatus of science: the Diesel engine and the experiment, the bottle of aspirin and the survey of opinion. We are hardly conscious of them; but behind them we are becoming conscious of the new importance in science. We are coming to understand that science is not a haphazard collection of manufacturing techniques carried out by a race of laboratory dwellers with acid-yellow fingers and steel-rimmed spectacles and no home life. Science, we are growing aware, is a method and a force of its own, which has its own meaning and style and its own sense of excitement. We are aware now that somewhere within the jungle of valves and formulae and shining glassware lies a content; lies, let us admit it, a new culture.

How are we to reach that culture, across its jargons, and translate it into a language which we know? The difficulties of the layman are my boyhood difficulties. He opens his newspaper and there stands a revelation in capitals: THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN, or SUPERSONIC FLIGHT, or Is there life on Mars? But capitals or itallics, the revelation remains in code for him. The language is as strange to him as The Anatomy of Melancholy was to me at fifteen. He has only the smallest vocabulary: a smattering from other popular articles, schoolboy memories of the stinks lab, and a few names of scientists sprinkled at random across history. His history, which might have given an order to it all, is the most maddening of his uncertanties. I knew no English history, and therefore I would not make sense of literary development. How well I recall the helplessness with which I raced a list of names such as Marlowe and Coleridge and H. G. Wells. I could not make any historical order of them. It is hard to visualise my difficulty; yet just this is the difficulty which every reader meets when he sees the names of Napier, Humphry Davy, and Rutherford. These three scientists were contemporaries of the three writers, and they were by no means lesser men.

I think a lot of educators could do with reading this now. We constantly fret about how to "make science relevant to children's everyday lives", but from the way it is taught, you might think it was always there by magic - the answers which you can check in the back of a textbook, and make sure you revise for your exam. Constant fusses are made about science seeming uncool and remote, but in my experience these are merely pressures put on student teachers - no analyses or tentative attempts at a solution such as the above tend to be offered.

He's not kidding about it being hard to read in an unfamiliar language. I arrived in Granada, Spain, aged 21 with (thanks to exam-orientated university teaching) a knowledge of the pluperfect subjunctive but barely the ability to ask for a cup of coffee. And reading books in Spanish, even those I'd read in English such as Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits", was virtually impossible. I did manage the whole thing out of sheer determination, but I could never have told you about Spanish styles, authors, or much history! And I have to say that until a couple of years ago, when I became immersed in the culture of science as I never had at university, I wouldn't have been able to say much about the history or literature or people of science either.

I'd say that Bronowski's analysis might just as well be talking about today, except for one thing. That is all these writers he talks about, with whom in 1951 people were evidently expected to be familiar. That is definitely no longer the case. I hadn't even heard of a couple of them. I was glad I hadn't bothered to pick English as an A level, ten years ago now, when I discovered that the students spend the entire two years only studying eight texts! GCSE's, of course, were worse. As was history. We went into "depth" in a few topics, but a broad overview was never given. I would have loved a timeline, a chronology, to dip far and wide. The more you read, the more you can read - like taking exercise. But that's not expected now. When I was 13, my English teacher suggested we "try to read 15 pages a day for homework". I was devouring entire novels in a single evening back in those days. Reading and history themselves are such chores now - no wonder the methods that (to judge by the broad knowledge of so many older people I have met, though I am sure it does not apply universally) got people familiar with a wide range of authors and a sense of history 58 years ago never do seem to have caught on in science.

I may be way off the mark - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

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