What is common knowledge? What touchstones, or objects, can a speaker or lyricist refer to that a large majority of her listeners will understand and possibly relate to? I am starting to wonder, because a few weeks ago the senior minister at the church where I sing picked a Charles Wesley* hymn. OK, the tune was familiar (Richmond) and the lyrics were typical late 1700s Christian terms. But the minister had to explain the meaning of “It varies with the wind” referred to the spring in a clock, and that winding the mechanism more tightly affected how fast or slowly the clock ran. The text specifically is about what we’d call a grandfather clock, because it also mentions the chain that holds the weights. I thought everyone knew how clocks worked. Oops.
Then I started thinking about how I teach the French Enlightenment and the rise of Deism. The standard metaphor is “the clockmaker god,” a deity who created everything, started it in motion, and then left it alone and who took no special interest in humans other than to observe them. Makes perfect sense to me, because I’ve owned mechanical watches, my great-uncle was a clock-maker and watch-repair specialist, and I had relatives with grandfather clocks that were wound every Sunday night. But what about my 13-15 year old students? How many of them have seen the insides of a mechanical clock? Or even have mechanical clocks in their homes?
I’m going to add images of the gears and springs of a mechanical clock to that lesson.
However, what else do I understand, or did I understand at their age that they have no concept about? I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rudyard Kipling, F. H. Burnett, and other older writers as well as the then-modern ones (Susan Cooper, Judy Bloom, Lois Lensky). I knew about horses and buggies, and oil lamps, and making candles, and canning food (plus Mom put up veggies from our garden), about coal-scuttles and Conestoga wagons and oxen, about herbal remedies… I knew that food came from animals and dirt (farms), and what plows and tractors did. I learned about cannons and whaling ships and that you can use rawhide as a splint or to mend split wood if you are careful, and powdered wigs and other sorts of things. This is by the time I was in Junior High, often earlier. We churned butter in grade school when we studied pioneers and pilgrims and Thanksgiving. I also read lots of manners books, from the 1950s and ’60s, which greatly contributed to my unending confusion about modern dating and boy-girl relations.
I’d wager that none of my students have that kind of knowledge of pre-modern tools and techniques. I don’t know how to design web-sites, or to use social media, or play modern video games, or use apps on my phone (the only ones I have are what it came with.) They know how to manipulate things in Windows 10 and Google Images and other things. I don’t. I don’t follow all the web-based celebrities. I don’t know the You-Tube stars. I don’t keep up with TV beyond glancing every so often to see if there are any sci-fi shows worth watching, or good concerts on PBS or (at Christmas) the BYU Channel. I do glance at the top YA books, just to keep an eye on what they are reading outside of class, those who read.
Do I have their common knowledge? No. Should I? I don’t know. I’d prefer not to in many ways. They live in a different world than the one I fondly remember, but I also vividly recall a short story about a little girl— five or six years old?—whose mother and grandparents and aunts and uncles kept her culturally in the 1890s. When she discovers the rest of the world—late 1940s—it leads to her first heart-break.
How much of what used to be common knowledge do I need to teach my students in order for them to understand some things about the past? I’ve never really thought about it. I understood Kipling and Wilder because I grew up reading them and with parents who were one generation from covered wagons (MomRed’s mother was born in a covered wagon before 1910). I will have to teach them about pocket-watches and clocks, and how amazing at the time the technology and social wealth was both to make them and to have them. Beyond that? I’m not certain.
*Charles Wesley (1704-1788) was John Wesley’s brother. Charles was a minister, hymn-text writer, and was probably a lot more humane than John was. But oh, he could be wordy, and some of his texts are more than a little awkward when shoved into “four-square” hymn tunes. “Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” is his best-known every-day hymn, and one I refer to most irreverently as the Methodist National Anthem.