07 February 2012

They Don't Teach Geography Like This Anymore - Part I

Well, like Frank Baum's Woggle Bug, I now feel Thoroughly Educated.

Having talked about geography classes and my schooldays last night, I was delighted this morning to be shown a nineteenth-century geography book, Professor J.M.D. Meiklejohn's 1890 A New Geography On The Comparative Method. It was clearly a popular tome in its day, as my friends' copy proudly boasts of being the twenty-second edition of the book. 

It is, no doubt, the sort of book with which Michael Gove would think all British students should be acquainted. 

You'll no doubt be pleased to know that the book makes sure to confirm British schoolchildren in the conviction that they are, of course, the world's luckiest children. 'The British Isles,' it announces, 'occupy the best geographical position in the world.' (24)

Where the book really shines are in its sections on national stereotypes, or as it subtitles them, 'Character and Social Condition'. Allow me...

Of the French:
'The French people consist of a mixture of races -- Celtic, Romanic, and German; and their character gives evidence of the mental habits of all three. The Frenchman is said to be light and frivolous, but in most cases he is a very serious person; brave, when he is succeeding -- but too easily depressed; very clever with his hands, and generally amiable, polite, and urbane. Intellectually, the Frenchman is famous for lucidity of thought and expression, for fine taste and eloquence of style, for suppleness and even subtlety of intelligence, and for rigour and consecutiveness in his reasoning and methods. Few nations in the world have done so much for literature and art. The Frenchman is also a lover of justice, and has a keen feeling of his own dignity and equality. The working classes, more especially the small farmers, possess the virtue of thrift in the highest degree.' (98)
If the French are seen as being something of a curate's egg, the Dutch are clearly people of whom enough good cannot be said. 
'Attacked by the sea from without, and by rivers from within; gaining land from the ocean and saving it from river-floods; daily using the powers of wind and steam against the powers of water; employing the powers of water against hostile armies; gaining land here, losing it there -- but on the whole steadily gaining; wrestling new lands and farms from the depths of the sea and the beds of lakes, and thus making the whole kingdom grow and expland; eternally on the watch against inundations, -- such is the life of the nation called the Netherlanders.' (107)
And what sort of people does such a life of maritime warfare make? 
'The Dutch character has been determined mainly by two things -- the long struggle against the Spaniards, and the perpetual struggle against water. The Dutch love freedom and are very independent; they are hard-working and thrifty; they are brave and self-possessed; and they are generous to those who have been overtaken in disaster. The Dutchman is slow in promising; but he always keeps his promise. He is slow to make up his mind; but, having once made it up, he acts with untiring energy. He has plenty of common sense, and is fond of method. Generally taciturn and thoughtful, he is boisterous in his amusements. He is fond of old customs and old costumes; and quaint distinctive dresses still linger even in the towns. His most remarkable external virtue is cleanliness.' (113)
Yes, cleanliness. This seemingly, is a matter in which the Dutch have little choice.
'Cleanliness is a passion with the Dutch; and it is forced upon them by the moistness of their climate. From morning till night scouring, rubbing, scrubbing and washing goes on. Even the barges shines with polishing, and are "as clean as a new pin". "Stables are kept with the same care as a drawing-room." Houses, barns, gates, and fences are always bright, clean, and in thorough repair.' (114)
Frankly, this is a far cry from what I learned about the Cool Temperate West Coast Climate with a continental influence, but clearly the Victorians felt confident enough to take a more subjective approach to geography. 

If there's anyone the Victorian schoolchild was called upon to admire more than the Dutch, though, is would have to have been the Germans. 
'Germany is the name of the great military power which stands in the middle of Europe, and which is the chief guardian and guarantee for peace between the large and warlike empires that flank it on three of its sides.' (139)
Two of those, it's worth remembering, would have been France and Russia. Given how things played out within a generation, I can't help feeling this has a certain ring of irony. 

Later it informs us that 'Education is compulsory throughout Germany; and the German people are, on the whole, the best-educated people in the world... The Germans, on the whole, are a straightforward, honest, steady, hard-working, brave, and loyal people. The Empire is growing rapidly in population and in wealth; and, as a military power, it is the first in the world... German belongs to the same family of languages as English. The German printed in books is High-German; English is a kind of Low-German. German is a very pure language; English is greatly mixed with Latin and French words.' (145)

The English shouldn't feel too inadequate, of course, as the book had made sure to remind them early on of their essential Germanness, pointing out how the people of England belong to the Teutonic stock of the Aryan or Indo-European family. There was Scandinavian, Celtic, and Norman-French blood in England too, of course, but even so, 'In spite of all these mixtures, the Englishman is and remains a Northern Teuton.' (37)

The Scandinavians, it's worth adding, fall into the same general category of 'people more-or-less like us':
'The Norwegians are a singularly courteous, helpful, and kindly people: they are a nation of gentlemen. They are the "English of Scandinavia," and are famous for their tenacity of will. -- The Swedes are also good-natured, polite, and hospitable -- "cheerful without excess, firm without violence;" and they are also hard-working and thrifty. The vice of both nations is intemperance.' (167)
We later hear of dirty Russian peasants and Greek schoolboys learning their pages of Homer off by heart, but Where the book really comes into its own, of course, is when it turns towards feckless Latin types. We'd had a hint of that in its ambivalence towards the French, but it's once it turns to Italy that things get really interesting. Italy, of course, is raved about, but the Italians? Well, they don't fit their stereotype, says the book, making sure to remind us what that stereotype was...
'The common notion is that they are extortioners, uncivil, given to revenge, assassination, lying, treachery, and dirt. This is a mistake. The most impartial travellers speak warmly of "the disinterested couresy, the unselfish kindness with which they have been universally treated." The genuine Italian is kind and courteous to all -- high and low, rich and poor; and his courtesy is enhanced by a wonderfully gracious, charming, and attractive manner. He is sober and thrifty, and an ardent lover -- as he cannot help being -- of his country.' (199)
And then we come to the Spaniards. 
'The peoples of Spain differ from each other as much as the climates. The Catalan is hard-working, strong-willed, sober, and thrifty; the Murcian is lazy, sleepy, and given to reverie; the Valancian is industrious, gay, and easily induced to use his knife; the Arragonese so stubborn that he "drives in nails with his head"; the Andalucian graceful, eloquent, charming in manner, fond of song and dance and colour, lazy, poor -- and content to remain so. The Galicians and Asturians are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water both for Spain and Portugal. -- The "noble science of bull-fighting" still, unhappily, continues to brutalise the emotions of the otherwise noble Spaniard. 
The siesta or afternoon sleep, is an institution in Spain. Then, every city is like a city of the dead.' (211)
So much for the highlights of Europe. If I have time, I'll tell you tomorrow all about the rest of the world.


Mark said...

Do you do requests? Italians please :)

Though I note they haven't made it into "the highlights of Europe"; never mind.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Look again. They're the second-last quote. ;)