Common Knowledge?

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.


27 thoughts on “Common Knowledge?

  1. In the last year or so I had to explain to someone that “Quarter to 3” was 2:45. And that “Half past 3” would be “3:30.”

    I’ve asked some newly hired younger folk a few questions…

    Have you waited for the picture tube to warm up?
    Have you waited for ALL the tubes to warm up?
    Have you done chemical (film) photography?
    Have you set the needle in the groove?
    Have you threaded the film or tape?
    Have you *dial*ed a phone?

    And yes, I’ve had to explain that the odd little pocket in men’s trousers started as a watch pocket – and was for a while useful for the then ever-shrinking phones.

    And then there’s the stuff that is even more foreign: free rein, why a furlong was sensible measure, and well, almost anything agricultural (and I admit to a vast ignorance on most of the subject).

    The telling of “the first time” can seem underwhelming. A light that lasted a mere 40 hours? A flight shorter than a modern jet’s wingspan? A message by a switch and a relay of sorts. Or sparks? Well, yeah… the first success isn’t the perfected version – it’s the proof that it can be done at all, even if only just barely.

    • A great “Wow, it works! It really does!” story is supposedly that Philo T. Farnsworth was working on his television setup. Camera rig in one room, Picture setup in another room. At one point he notices a wisp of smoke in the picture and rushed to the camera room to deal with the fire… but it was smoke from a cigarette. And then the realization that the setup was good enough to catch and display such a slight thing.

  2. One more thing… (gee, who am I, Columbo? Oops, yet another dated reference.) 1957 saw the first artificial earth satellite. And also the very first commercially available electric wristwatch. You’d kind have expected the watch to be first… but there you are.

    • Gears don’t run a clock. Weights, a spring, or electricity does. There are millions, even billions of electric clocks and watches in which an electric motor drives gears.

      In fact, I would say that most watches sold today are “analog” watches, i.e. with hands which are turned by gear wheels. For instance, the very hip and popular Fossil brand has mostly analog watches. Fossil offers some “Smartwatches” with electronic displays, but also some “hybrids” with electronic innards and hands.

      • The reference was to 18th century clocks, which are the image used by writers like Rousseau and Diderot, as well as Charles Wesley and Benjamin Franklin. Si I have to show the students the insides of an antique clock or pocket watch, give them an idea of how intricate it was and the labor required to make it, and then we can go on with Deism and Newton and the Enlightenment. Because I know what an antique clock looks like and how it functions in general, but I suspect none of them do.

  3. I’m encountering that more and more… But I know I’m a dinosaur, and I don’t have to teach. Don’t envy you that…

  4. Good points about how times have changed.
    I know most of the things mentioned above, but most people my age don’t, and I’m not young anymore. When I grew up we had many ‘older’ things around the house in the 80’s and 90’s. I remember when a rotary phone stopped working because the phone company phased out their support for them.
    Another I noticed reading Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, etc as a kid was how they always went to church, and how language and relationships were portrayed much differently then – not a technological change, but a cultural/ social one.

    • “I remember when a rotary phone stopped working because the phone company phased out their support for them.”

      Really? I know I used one just a couple years ago, so that particular landline phone company actually supported rotary phones after cell phone companies ceased support of analog.

      • In my area the support for dialing out stopped in the mid 90’s; you could still answer on them, but not make a call. The change from analog to digital, or ‘pulse’ to ‘tone’ was for dialing only.

  5. “,,,with parents who were one generation from covered wagons …”

    My father was born in 1918, grew up in a small city, became a farmer with his best friend by choice at the age of 16. Farmed with mules, horses, and early tractors. His best friend was killed on one of those tractors, gave me my middle name decades later. WWII came along and turned him from farmer to airplane mechanic, and he stuck with aerospace (including a small piece of the Apollo program) forever after.

    Mom was born in 1919 on a farm, was a farm girl by necessity. Said they grew nearly everything they ate. One of her sayings was “You can eat every part of the pig except the oink.” (She was never able to convince her children of this, though!). Did not like the farm, became a candy-store operator with her brother until he went off to WWII, then ran it on her own for the duration. Both of course grew up during THE Depression.

    Neither one spoke like farmers or country folk — people were often surprised if they found out neither of my parents had a college degree. Mom had “just” a high school diploma and Dad had dropped out of high school to be a farmer. They read everything they could get their hands on, a trait passed to their children. Dad said he took every training course the Air Force would let him go to. They both learned hard work, and sent three kids to college.

    They went from chamber pots and wood- or coal-fired kitchen stoves to creating a superpower and putting a man on the moon. And air conditioning. (I remember when we got our first A/C. I also remember using the outhouse at Grampa’s place). I liked their stories of growing up when I was a kid, and now that I am not a kid, I wish I knew more of their stories.

    I don’t know how you communicate this kind of history and culture. I’m glad I had a chance to learn some of it from them.

    • It’s hard. I can do a little by telling “history as story” when it fits the material, but even then how much sinks into the students? I don’t know.

      • Some of them will be magpies, and every concept will be filed away in its proper place, ready to be used when needed.

        The rest, you couldn’t drive your point in with a mallet.

        Same as trying to teach anything else…

  6. Some other things for your students: Manual typewriter. Changing the ribbon on typewriter.Typing on a non Roman language on a typewriter:Hebrew or Japanese. My father was a Rabbi and had a Hebrew typewriter.. Wite-out? tokens on a subway? TV that wasn’t 24 hours. elevated trains (subways that were above ground or street level.) I grew up in New York City so that From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler had personal meaning to me as I’d gone there on a class trip. Xerox machine? Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Microform. If you wanted to read an article, you had to physically go to the library it was in..

    As far as family knowledge goes, my father was an immigrant to the US when he was a toddler. Stories of the Old Country resonated with more with me because he was an immigrant. I was told stories of what it was like in NY in the 30’s.

    Sorry for rabbiting on so long!

    • Nothing to apologize for! It’s intriguing what people know, or have heard of. Wite-out is still “a thing,” and is still in use by students, but for hand-written assignments in pen instead of for typos.

    • Elevateds still exist. Plus there are ample films featuring them that you can find trolling through the various movie channels.

      I’ve told each of my kids how I used to write papers in college with my manual typewriter. First draft single spaced on legal paper using the red half of the ribbon. Repeat in black. Proof copy double spaced on regular paper in red, repeat in black for the final copy.

      My writing was much better in college – word processing makes it too easy to settle for correcting errors, rather than tightening the verbiage and getting the sequencing of your arguments right. Plus your typing skills go to pot because correcting errors is trivial.

  7. “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.”

    Sounds like a good story. Do you remember the title/author?

    • No. It was in a school anthology collection, and I can still see the setting and the line about her mother grew up with certain books, and her grandmother grew up with other books (“Five Little Peppers and How They Grew”) and how at the end of the story, only her deaf grandfather tries to comfort her, even though he has no idea why she’s sobbing. But I don’t know the title or author.

      • One of the coolest things I remember about reading to my girls was the memories some of them (Suess and Sendak mainly) brought back of my early childhood. We moved every couple of years until I reached middle school, so I have very limited memories of my childhood because everything tends to get overwritten by the new house, new town, new friends. it’s an interesting contrast with my wife, whose mom still lives in the house she was born in -she has memories of things she did when she was 2.

  8. Pingback: Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

  9. CS Lewis recommended reading three old books for every new one, specifically to be able to learn from eras that had different perspectives. “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

  10. My grandparents on my mother’s side grew up on farms off W.25th and Clark in Cleveland, near the old stockyards, married in their teens and had 13 children. Gramps drove a wagon and a team delivering beers to Irish saloons in Cleveland in the early 20th century. He had great stories and spoke a lot about the people he knew who died in the flu epidemic of 1919.

    I never knew much about my father’s family and he dies 50 years ago.

    I remember as a child being sad that the USSR sent a small dog named Laika into space where it would die.

    I was on one of the last coal burning steamships on the Great Lakes in 1970, the SS Henry Stienbrenner (George’s father). 610 feet long and traveled at 11 knots empty, 9 knots loaded and burned 35 tons of coal a day. That was also the last year for the Huron light ship. The Huron became a museum, the Henry became razor blades.

    I keep telling my kids and my grandson that i have always been on the cusp of changes I didn’t want to see happen.

  11. Huh! I always thought that “Holy, Holy, Holy” was the Methodist national anthem. We seemed to sing it once a month or so when I was growing up.

    • We seemed to alternate “Holy Holy Holy” and ‘O For a Thousand Tongues,” but “O For a Thousand Tongues” was #1 in the hymnal for many editions, and I’ve heard two different preachers refer to it, half-jokingly, as the UMC Anthem, so that’s how I think of it.

      I had a youth choir director who threatened us with singing “Holy Holy” in unison as the anthem if we misbehaved, and he’d let the congregation know why we were doing it that way. We generally settled down right quick pronto.

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