Friday, 14 October 2011

The Spectator on Blogging (1711)

A man who publishes his Works in a Volume, has an infinite Advantage over one who communicates his Writings to the World in loose Tracts and single Pieces.  We do not expect to meet with any thing in a bulky Volume till after some heavy Preamble...This gave Occasion to the famous Greek Proverb....That a great Book is a great Evil.

On the contrary, those who publish their Thoughts in distinct Sheets, and as it were by Piece-meal, have none of these Advantages.  We must immediately fall into our Subject, and treat every part of it in a lively Manner, or our Papers are thrown by as dull and insipid: our Matter must lie close together, and either be wholly new in itself, or in the Turn it receives from our Expressions.  At the same is expected that every Sheet should be a kind of Treatise, and make out in Thought what it wants in Bulk: that a point of Humour should be worked up in all its Parts; and a Subject touched upon in its most essential Articles, without the Repetitions, Tautologies, and Enlargements that are indulged to longer Labours. An Essay Writer must practise in the Chymical Method, and give the Virtue of a full Draught in a few Drops. Were all books reduced thus to make their Quintessence, many a bulky Author would make his Appearance in a Penny Paper....The Works of an Age would be contained on a few Shelves; not to mention Millions of Volumes that would be utterly annihilated. (Addison, No 124, full text at

Blogs in history

One of the main spurs to me to get this blog going has been The Spectator, published in London every couple of days during the period 1709-15 that enjoyed enormous circulation for its time, and was highly influential in developing ideas about behaviour and social mores in the public sphere, traces of which can still be observed today.  The authors achieved this by being highly idiosyncratic, gently mocking of fashion and fads, and of easily identifiable social types, slightly cynical and ironical but wearing their liberal values on their sleeves. The word 'lucubration' in the my Blog's strapline comes from the Spectator: it means 'laborious and intensive study' - of course used ironically in the original, as well as by me!  What Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, the main authors, were doing, though they didn't know it, was blogging....I am slowly reading the complete lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaffe, the Spectator himself, in the Everyman Edition, which fills four volumes, so it will keep me going a good while!

While on this subject I will provide a quote from the said Bickerstaffe's ruminations, of relevance to educationists. After complaining about the widespread use of beating by school teachers, he goes on: 'Tis pity, but we had a Set of Men, polite in their Behaviour and Method of teaching, who should be put into a Condition of being above flattering or fearing the Parents of those they instruct.  We might then possibly see Learning become a Pleasure, and Children delighting themselves in that, which now they abhor for coming upon such hard Terms to them: What would be still a greater Happiness arising from the Care of such Instructors, would be, that we should have no more Pedants, nor any bred to Learning who had not Genius for it.'

It occurs to me that Montaigne's essays (1588), one of the few books known to have been in Shakespeare's library, are also very like a blog.

Other examples of historical blogs will be referenced here when I come across them: any contributions will be gratefully received

A Devils' Dictionary of Education

One of the projects I will occasionally pursue with this blog is a Devil's Dictionary of Education: an attempt at a series of corrective discussions of words and phrases used commonly in the world of education that need unpacking, either because they are misleading, or have had their meanings forcibly changed by policymakers.  Why Devil's Dictionary - well, because one of my favourite books is Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, compiled about 1890, which is addressed to 'enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour.'  In it, for example, Education is defined as 'that which discloses to the wise and disguises to the foolish their lack of understanding'. 

Having conceived this plan, but before I had done anything about it, I came across John T Spencer's blog Ditch that Word (see address to the right), which has a related, but perhaps more pessimistic purpose: he discusses words and phrases whose meanings have become so corrupted he believes we should stop using them altogether. 

A good example from the world of education in England is perhaps 'satisfactory'.  This word is used as a technical term by OFSTED, the Inspection Agency for schools and colleges, to mean 'unsatisfactory'.  Ambrose would have loved that....

John Spencer gives a long list of words and phrases he plans to discuss.  Here are some of the ones I will try to get round to in the fullness of time:
Intervention, Delivery, Learning Styles, Outcomes, Individual Learning Plans, League tables, Lesson plans, Quality standards, Consistency, Fairness, Differentiation, Well-being, Self-esteem.

New suggestions and any contributions to the dictionary will be very welcome!