Thursday, 23 July 2009

H G Wells, Mankind in the Making (1903)

I was surprised to pick up a first edition (no less) of this title for less than a fiver. It is not, of course, one of Wells’ most famous books, although as a companion piece to Anticipations (1901)—which of course is one of Wells’s more notable non-fiction works—it has some interest. It sets out, according to the preface, to present ‘a general theory of social development and of social and political conduct’. Insofar as it has been noticed, it is as one of the places where Wells was most explicitly eugenicist, and as such it presents the critic with a series of targets almost too obviously absurd and offensive at which to take aim. This is the younger Wells, who believes ‘it is absurd to breed our horses and sheep, and improve the stock of our pigs and fowls, while we leave humanity to mate in the most heedless manner’ [40]. Actually, reading the book, Wells’s eugenicist beliefs, whilst—I'm sure I hardly need to stress—wrongheaded and pernicious, struck me as less monolithic than some commentators had led me to believe. He repudiates the comparison with livestock breeding, for instance, as soon as he makes it: ‘the analogy with the breeder of cattle is a very misleading one. He has a very simple ideal, to which he directs the entire pairing of his stock. He breeds for beef, he breeds for calves and milk, he breeds for a homogeneous docile herd … Which is just what our theoretical breeders of humanity cannot do. They do not want a homogeneous race in the future at all. They want a rich interplay of free, strong and varied personalities, and that alters the nature of the problem absolutely.’ [40-41]

But that said, Wells’s more offensively silly earlier chapters (especially two and three: ‘The Problem of the Birth Supply’; ‘Wholesale Aspects of Man-making’) aren’t what interest me most in this little book. It’s the later chapters about raising the children that smack my gob. Partly this has to do with the naked authoritarianism of Wells’s proposed solutions. Do children in 1903 go ragged and underfed? The answer is to ‘set up a minimum standard of clothing, cleanliness, growth, nutrition and education’, and then have the state lend parents the money to enable them to cloth, wash, feed and educate their kids. This is money the parents would have to pay back later; and if the parents did not use the money wisely, ‘then the child should be at once removed from the parental care, and the parents charged with the cost of a suitable maintenance.’ And what if parents did not (or could not) pay back their state loan?
If parents failed in the payments they could be put into celibate labour establishments to work off as much of the debt as they could, and they would not be released until their debt was fully discharged. [100-101]
The blithe way Wells folds together welfare and penal institutions, and the generally bullying attitude to parents, is nicely astonishing. Is this a man with much sympathy for parenting? Let’s come at that question via his description of that bundle of loveliness, the new-born baby. Did I say baby? Let me hear you say ‘ahhhhh!’:
The new-born child is at first no more than an animal. Indeed, it is amongst the lowest and most helpless of all animals, a mere vegetative lump.[113]
Oh. The chapters on revising the national system of education are simply superb. Wells, for instance, is bonkerishly stern about adults taking the ‘oochy-koochy’ approach to baby communication.
When a child says to its mother, “Me go mome” it is doing its best to speak English … but when a mother says to her child “Me go mome” she is simply wasting an opportunity of teaching her child its mother tongue. Indeed, she ought to understand; it is her primary business to know better than her feelings in this affair. [124]
Fuck yeah. Actually, Wells has a bracingly low opinion of people’s speaking abilities more generally. To be clear: the ‘their’ in the next sentence refers to you and also to me. ‘Their linguistic instruments are no more capable of contemporary thought than a tin whistle, a xylophone and a drum are capable of rendering the Eroica symphony’ [133]. Hey! Fuck!

On the teaching of mathematics to children, Wells’ thoughts are nothing short of genius. Genius, I say. I present only three of his many, sensible notions. One is that very young children should be given thousands of tiny little cubes.
There can be little doubt that many of us were taught to count very badly, and that we are hampered in our arithmetic throughout life by this defect. Counting should be taught by means of small cubes, which the child can arrange and rearrange in groups. It should have at least over a hundred of these cubes—if possible a thousand. [151]
As a parent of young children I am here to tell you: give either of my kids a thousand tiny cubes and the chances of them sitting quietly arranging and rearranging the cubes into neat piles by way of mastering number theory are, well, small. The chances of my house becoming littered with myriad tiny cubes, of myself coming down barefoot in the morning to make a cup of tea only to tread painfully upon a great many scattered tiny cubes, and, generally, the chances of my wife and I finding tiny cubes in every nook, cranny, sofa-seam and container for years to come are rather higher. But here’s his second proposal.
It is very confusing to have distinctive names for eleven and twelve. [152]
I take that sentence in, noting that the qualifier is not just ‘confusing’ but ‘very confusing’. OK. Then I read it again.
It is very confusing to have distinctive names for eleven and twelve.
So, instead of these names, we should … um? ‘Use,’ says Wells, with some asperity, ‘the words “one-ten,” “two-ten,” thirteen, fourteen, etc, for the second decade in counting.’ And that would be good, because?
Diagram after diagram displays the same hitch at twelve, the predominance in the mind of an individualized series over quantitatively equal spaces until the twenties are attained. Many diagrams also display the mental scar of the clock face.
I’m not sure how to go about arguing with the diagrams, not least because I’m not sure what the diagrams are, here. But the best is yet to come.
The child should not be taught the Arabic numerals until it has counted [with the miniature cubes] for a year or more. Experience speaks here. I know one case only too well of a man who learnt his Arabic numerals prematurely.
Go on.
…learnt his Arabic numerals prematurely, before he had acquired any sound experimental knowledge of numerical quantity, and, as a consequence, his numerical ideas are incurably associated with the peculiarities of the figures. When he hears the word seven he does not really think of seven or seven-ness at all, even now, he thinks of a number rather like four and very unlike six.
Which would not have happened if, as a baby, he’d been given thousands of tiny little cubes. Now, either Wells’s friend is King Arthur from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (‘one … two … three … seven!’ ‘Four, sir’) or he suffers from dyscalculia. Or else is a loony. Hard not to feel for him, though: ‘when it came to the multiplication table,’ Wells tells us, ‘he learnt each table as an arbitrary arrangement of relationships and with an extraordinary amount of needless labour and punishment. But obviously with cubes or abacus at hand, it would be the easiest thing in the world for a child to construct and learn its own multiplication table whenever the need arose.’ [153] Once again, my eye trips over the ‘obviously’ and then falls flat on its ocular face at ‘the easiest thing in the world.’ Had Wells ever tried the experiment of giving a young child a thousand tiny cubes and telling them to construct a multiplication table with them? I suspect he had not.


jdmartinsen said...

Ah, he was just ahead of his time. Although, I remember having a set of those at home and I don't believe any actual counting went on. Lots of building, and a little bit of throwing.

Adam Roberts said...

I'm sure that's only because you weren't given a thousand of them, Joel.

Cara Powers said...

We had cubes in school--ones, tens, hundreds. Of course we also had instruction. And how does Wells dare explain what some other person thinks of when they hear the word "seven". Some people thing pink.

Adam Roberts said...

I'm starting to think everybody was issued with a thousand tiny little cubes as a child except me.

Martin Wisse said...

Adam, you never played with Legos?

When he hears the word seven he does not really think of seven or seven-ness at all, even now, he thinks of a number rather like four and very unlike six.

Or even of an upside down nose...

Rich Puchalsky said...

In the area where I live, I joke that all the large European countries have left a sort of colony-school -- Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilio. They all seem to have commonalities; some kind of ostensibly more child-friendly, child-centered educational philosophy, and behind that, some kind of weird mystic esotericism that if you took seriously you'd never want your kid near. Like in Waldorf, I think, if your kid doesn't start reading at the right time, there's something wrong with their soul.

But my wife really likes taking up bits and pieces of different things, and one of them really does have a bag full of tiny little cubes. Not Legos, not Montessori Cuisinaire rods. But lots and lots of little white cubes, together with some larger rods and cubes that are clearly made as multiples of the small ones.

jsabotta said...

Here's something I wrote about H. G. Wells and the film THINGS TO COME. It seems appropriate here:

Although beautifully designed, the H.G. Wells-scripted THINGS TO COME (1936) film is ideologically obnoxious, with it's glorification of a horrible statist "scientific" cabal of scientists and technocratic
engineers who coerce everyone into a shiny plexiglass and chrome
global collectivist future.

THINGS TO COME is also a Thirties tract in favor of appeasement and
peace, predicting (basically) the end of civilization if Britain stood
up to fascism and came under air attack. But during the real Blitz,
the British did not act like the panicked mobs seen in Wells'

What is interesting is that Wikipedia lists both THINGS TO COME and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS as films concerned with "past futures", that is,films predicting futures that are now in our past.

THINGS TO COME predicts a World War II that lasts until the nineteen sixties, and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS takes place in 1999.

Thus I imagine the technocratic cabal of soulless materialist Wellsian bastards - Raymond Massey in his fascist black suit, the "gas of peace", etc. - being frustrated by the totally unexpected and surrealistic appearance of Mothra.

(and yes, I prefer the Boss to the black-clad jerks. Mothra would make short work of those Wings over the World aircraft. Mosura ya!)

Adam Roberts said...

Jsabotta: nice.

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