What Every Child Should Know
October 29, 2004 6:15 AM   Subscribe

A series of books published in the early 1900s in the United States dictated several topics that children should be able to recognize and provide discourse. Among those available for reading online are Birds Every Child Should Know ("Two close relatives there are which, like the poor, are always with us-the crow and the blue jay."), Heroes Every Child Should Know ("To be some kind of a hero has been the ambition of spirited boys from the beginning of history; and if you want to know what the men and women of a country care for most, you must study their heroes."), and Pictures Every Child Should Know ("The true art-lover has a catholic taste, is interested in all forms of art; but he finds beauty where it truly exists and does not allow the nightmare of imagination to mislead him.").
posted by keli (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Daniel--Michael Angelo (Buonarroti). Heh.
posted by smackfu at 6:21 AM on October 29, 2004

From Chapter X, "King Alfred":

We now come to the great King Alfred, the best and greatest of all English Kings. We know quite enough of his history to be able to say that he really deserves to be so called, though I must warn you that, just because he left so great a name behind him, people have been fond of attributing to him things which really belonged to others. Thus you may sometimes see nearly all English laws and customs attributed to Alfred, as if he had invented them all for himself. You will sometimes hear that Alfred founded Trial by Jury, divided England into Counties, and did all kinds of other things. Now the real truth is that the roots and beginnings of most of these things are very much older than the time of Alfred, while the particular forms in which we have them now are very much later. But people have a way of fancying that everything must have been invented by some particular man, and as Alfred was more famous than anybody else, they hit upon Alfred as the most likely person to have invented them.

I could rephrase this by saying: "Alfred the Great wasn't as Great as everyone says he was -- but he was still pretty great."

This passage typifies an attitude, for me -- an expectation, maybe, would be a better way to phrase it: That "children" ought to be able to read complex prose, and be able to make critical judgements about what they're told. And they're expected to learn from context.

I don't know what kinds of books are foisted off on American kids now, but I know most of my classmates in high school c. 1980 would have found this passage difficult to read, and would have thought it was "unfair" to expect them to remember the asides (trial by jury is an old idea, but the current form is new; England's counties are old, but their current form is new).

Just observations, for now, since I don't have time to fully develop the rant. Cool stuff; the kind of thing that keeps me using Gutenberg even though they're still needlessly married to their fixed-length lines and copyright prepending requirement.
posted by lodurr at 6:49 AM on October 29, 2004

OTOH, our art books now have color pictures. So score one for modern society.
posted by smackfu at 6:54 AM on October 29, 2004

Thanks, keli!
posted by sciurus at 6:59 AM on October 29, 2004

lodurr: that passage is quite remarkable in laying on a younger readership a far more reasoned and critical view of history - getting them to understand the fuzziness of "X invented Y" stories - than you'll see in much modern material pitched at adults.
posted by raygirvan at 7:29 AM on October 29, 2004

Well, that sure does help figure out where the moral mindset of William "Double-Down" Bennett falls chronologically.

Interesting links, thanks.
posted by briank at 7:54 AM on October 29, 2004

Distinguishing crows from Blue Jays : this is long longer a problem, as most crows have died from West Nile Virus, the "Crow Holocaust".

Apparently - as a result of the intense pressure on crow society which has decimated crow families - the social dislocation of the crow plague has given researchers a unique, one time window into the secret lives of crows.

Crows never die alone. If one is living, another family member is always present at the time of death and - lacking that - a friend from the surrounding community is always there.

After their families had been all killed off by the crow plague, young sexually mature crows opted - instead of going off to search for mates - to stay in their local area and band together with other survivors to form ad-hoc families and take care of each other.

I never liked crows before I knew this.

Now, my sense of them is irrevocably transformed.

Crows never die alone.
posted by troutfishing at 8:08 AM on October 29, 2004

Distinguishing crows from Blue Jays : this is long longer a problem, as CROWS ARE ABOUT TWICE THE SIZE OF BLUE JAYS. WTF? Did this change over the course of the 20th century or something?

Anyway, that "Birds Every Child Should Know" is a great resource with some very nice photos - or would be a great resource if the photos were in color! I have to say I was mildly surprised at the quality of close-up nature photos 100 years ago, but for identifying birds, there's just nothing like color. What, they were too cheap to have someone sit down and hand-color each and every print?
posted by soyjoy at 8:19 AM on October 29, 2004

trout, the plague on crows and jays (they're the same family) is bad, but it's pretty regionalized, and not as bad as the numbers might lead you to believe. Crows are adaptive and globally in no danger of extinction; once resistence develops in the population, they'll rebound.

I've been reading a lot about crows recently, too, oddly enough. The scientific literature is surprisingly thin, but there are fictional accounts going way back that mention all the things you mention. They tend to be buried in folklore and legend, so sure it's legitimate to require corroboration, but humans would seem to have been fascinated with crows (and ravens) more or less forever. Amazing buggers. Truly amazing. They also seem to essentially take drugs (by seeking out anthills and letting themselves be bitten hundreds of times); spread behaviors by teaching, like monkeys and apes; have an extended adolescence during which they display marked childlike characteristics like playfulness; have highly developed vocalization capabilities (not on par with parrots, but still very very good); and have extremely flexible family grouping (which contributes to their adaptability).

And there's nothing in the bird kingdom that I find quite so impressive as those big regional gatherings of crows that seem to happen in the early spring. At least, they do around here -- tens of thousands, clustered in a very small area, all squawking at once -- enough to make a superstitious person run and hide.
posted by lodurr at 8:33 AM on October 29, 2004

Thank you for the link, keli. Ever since reading 'The Big Year', I've wanted to get a rudimentary bird guide.
posted by of strange foe at 8:41 AM on October 29, 2004

trout, the plague on crows and jays (they're the same family) is bad, but it's pretty regionalized, and not as bad as the numbers might lead you to believe. Crows are adaptive and globally in no danger of extinction; once resistence develops in the population, they'll rebound.

Crows are doing very well in the UK, Carrion Crow numbers are up 84% in the period 1970-2001.
posted by biffa at 8:59 AM on October 29, 2004

lodurr - I can read that passage, and I can remember the asides, too. But, the whole piece comes off (to me) as overly wordy, with excessively long and complicated sentences. sentences, 187 words total and the shortest sentence is the lead one, at 16 words. Bleh - maybe I am some kind of social defective, but not I don't find it fun to slog through that style of writing.

troutfishing - how about some linky goodness to backup your claims of their superior social skilz?
posted by Irontom at 9:12 AM on October 29, 2004

that should have been: "6 sentences, 187 words..."
posted by Irontom at 9:22 AM on October 29, 2004

Crows: remember this one? A crow is given a straight piece of wire to retrieve a piece of food at the bottom of a plastic tube. After several unsuccessful tries it removes the wire from the tube, makes a hook in the end, then puts it back in the tube and retrieves the food. Awesome.

(Link is to story, page has link to "Betty the Crow" video (Real) just to the right.)
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:31 AM on October 29, 2004

Yeah, I am aware of the tool making crows. I just wanted more data on the "no crow dies alone" meme.
posted by Irontom at 9:54 AM on October 29, 2004

what about the last crow? is it immortal? or do the last two have a suicide pact?
posted by andrew cooke at 10:47 AM on October 30, 2004

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