The Book of Knowledge

The Book of Knowledge

This one grabbed me in the gut. I want to own this book—the old one, not the new.

From Touchstone Magazine an interesting article by Anthony Esolen comparing two editions of an encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, first published circa 1926 and The New Book of Knowledge, 1968.

I’ve got nothing against The New Book of Knowledge, in itself; it’s not a bad encyclopedia, as such things go.  But it’s illuminating to compare the two.  The old Book of Knowledge presumed that children would not be institutionalized for their entire lives; the new Book of Knowledge takes it for granted.  The new Book of Knowledge boasts that the editors have worked for six years “to complete an alphabetically arranged, curriculum-oriented encyclopedia, one especially designed for today’s requirements . . . THE NEW BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE” (italics mine; capitals, theirs).  The editor of the old Book of Knowledge, by contrast, will not be fooled by walls and blackboards: “The editors have sought to convey to this vast multitude of men and women of tomorrow such an understanding of the world they live in as shall make their lives happier, and save the waste of precious years at school” (italics mine).

    I have never read so remarkable a sentence in any reference book—except that the old Book of Knowledge was not really a reference book.  It was more like a field for play.  “Left to wander in this field,” the editor continues, “the child will find whatever he wants . . . The child who can be left out of doors to play will find here the beginning of interest in natural things.  All the games and pastimes, all the fireside enjoyment children love, the mechanical interests of boys, the domestic interests of girls, and homemade toys for both of them —this is but one phase of the practical value of the book.”  It’s no exaggeration, this.  The new Book of Knowledge has 50 pages of articles on birds, their anatomy, their habits, and so forth, rather in the fashion of a school textbook, but the old Book of Knowledge has 9 pages on “Storks, Herons, and Plovers” alone, with information straight from the memory of an old bird watcher and afficionado (including a flashy account of a heron giving a hawk a good thrashing in mid-flight).

Sound like these books represent in a way twhat attracts me to homeschooling and what I find troublesome about institutional schools. Which really comes down to a philosophy of education. As Esolen says, the 1968 book represents a watershed moment, when educators decided to dispense with the eternal verities and to embrace relativism with open arms.

But the old Book’s greatest sin I mention now, with a shudder.  “Through the use of their talents,” writes the editor, referring to the world’s great artists, thinkers, and statesmen, “they lifted men’s hearts and fired men’s souls in the eternal search for the beautiful, the good, and the true.  From them we catch a clearer vision of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.”  Them’s fightin’ words.  How much more sensible is the new Book’s practical agnosticism: “Old ‘truths’ are becoming invalid; new ‘truths’ are opening vistas never before imagined” (scare quotes theirs).  So the old Book introduced children to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, or to the whortleberry, or to the career of Thomas Carlyle, or how to build a rustic bench (complete with mortises and tenons), or how electric current is like and unlike the flow of water through a pipe, and what was noble about David Livingston.  But the new Book dispenses with all of that.  Factual information is what it intends to deliver, and it does just that; but it does not and cannot deliver wonder.

(hat tip to The Common Room

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