FROM THE PULPIT

WILLIAMPALMER LOSING THE PAST

what we accumulate in our heads. As early as 1978, Paul Copperman, in The Literacy Hoax, pointed out that the US school system had ‘replaced items of long-term educational value with items of short-term interest and

THELIVINGPASTexists only in our memories and our records. Our own memories are faulty and short-lived; but the recording of ideas and events has created an enormous communal memory store that we can all consult and learn from. Ah, you mean the Internet? Not quite. By far the greatest source of knowledge of our past is contained in the libraries of the world, which will soon face a huge and possibly fatal challenge. They are not under direct threat yet, but a new generation of librarians and managers wishes to replace what they see as static and outmoded sources of knowledge, ie books, with the flow of information available on the Internet. As Thomas Mann, author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, points out, the trouble with this is that library resources ‘allow avenues of subject access that cannot be matched by “relevance ranked” keyword searching’ and that ‘the Internet does not and cannot contain more than a small fraction of everything discoverable within library walls’. Some surprisingly famous libraries are selling or dumping older books and ‘preserving’ others, if at all, only electronically. Given the fallibility and short-lived viability of software programs and computer systems, this process could make the destruction of the library at Alexandria look like a garden bonfire. Already school libraries have been abandoned or lie unused and university tutors complain that the only source cited by new students is the Wikipedia. Students no longer know how to use library catalogues or how to consult an index or bibliography. More damagingly, they come from school having no general knowledge of mythology, history, religion, science or literature, and no sense of historical perspective. The inhabitants of the past – Plato, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, say – cannot be placed in chronological order. Student essays often display an astonishingly patronising attitude to such founders of our world, whose philosophy and poetry and novels display such an ignorance of feminist theory or post-colonial studies. The combination of the ‘bit-ification’ of knowledge, modular teaching and modish theories have led these students to be educated in a common error of our times: that we have somehow reached an apogee of achievement in the arts and science and social organisation, and that we can now safely ignore the past and what it thought. The past is dead. What’s more, it is embarrassing and complicated and hard to learn. How much better to store it all in the machine and forget the dusty and irrelevant old books. But surely Google, in scanning all the books in the Bodleian, is opening up resources? Mann argues that it will be ‘a wonderful supplement to a real library... but a terrible substitute’. This is, he says, because a system of searches simply by keywords is grossly inefficient and militates against the ‘understanding of texts as connected wholes’. The important word here is ‘whole’. The computer can provide information readily, but knowledge is

entertainment value’. And where America has boldly gone, we are gamely limping after. Most American universities have already dropped Shakespeare from their courses, and some of ours itch to do the same. Religious education has become a vague mishmash of ecumenical tosh. Hymns, including those by important poets such as Vaughan and Herbert, are being filleted of such supposedly offensive male terms as ‘man’, ‘King’, and ‘Lord’. The title ‘Professor of Education’ begins to take on a more literal and farcical meaning when one reads articles by one or other in the Times Higher Educational Supplement calling for yet more ‘relevance’ and an end to ‘elitism’. The idiosyncratic glory of the individual book and its place in a whole system of knowledge is being junked for a sort of swirling alphabet soup of ‘information’. The idea, promoted by the Romantics, that children have an innate genius has now been refined to a view of the brain of the child as an incredibly delicate mechanism that will be irreparably damaged by the intrusion of hard knowledge. The child can be educated now, it seems, solely by having access to the bright screen, obviating all need for memory or intellectual curiosity. Perhaps those who advocate this single source of knowledge should bear in mind a possible Orwellian future in which it would be terrifyingly easy to modify the information on the screen to fit in with whatever were the prevailing political and moral fashions. Wikipedia already shows the way that content can be tampered with in some special interest. As an instance of contemporary values affecting common sense, consider this from Henry Hitchens, in an otherwise excellent book about Samuel Johnson: ‘The Dictionary transmits an image of English and Englishness which is not just predominately middle-class, but also backward-looking, Anglocentric, and male.’ By his tone, none of these adjectives is meant in praise, but surely, on reflection, most people would ask what else a dictionary recording English words, illustrated by past usages, and assembled by an eighteenth-century man could possibly be? Perhaps a future online version could provide suitable glosses correcting the good Doctor’s political deficiencies? It may be that I am being unduly pessimistic. I do not think so. Living as we do in a ludicrously self-congratulatory present, it cannot be long before the oratorios of Handel are reckoned old-fashioned and inferior to those of Sir Paul McCartney. I have a nightmare of the defining moment of this future age, when Lord Blair is finally laid to rest at his state funeral, with the choir and congregation of Westminster Abbey joined in a rendition of ‘Yesterday’, that most emotionally vapid and musically limp anthem for our times.

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LITERARY REVIEW August 2007