Astronomical world of books
in this space age
TODAY’S YOUNG PEOPLE had the vast world of learning open to them, but they would be able to master no more than a tiny corner of it, said the former Chief Librarian of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Mr. E. D. Jones, C.B.E., B.A., F.S.A., and he cited the extent of even that one library, where he had spent the greater part of his working life, as an example of this, when he spoke at the Aberdare Boys’ Grammar School distribution of certificates ceremony.
“Suppose you read one book a day, ignoring for the exercise the fact that many books would take months to read, how long do you think it would take you to read all the books now in National Library of Wales?” he asked the boys.
The answer was 5,500 years, and whilst they would be plodding through the 365th book, the accumulation of that year would be proceeding at seventy times their reading speed. “So you can quite understand why humility is a virtue which is forcibly impressed on a librarian,” Mr. Jones added.
“At school you are being introduced under the expert guidance of your teachers to that vast field of learning,” he told the boys. “You need not fear that you will become unemployed.”
Sir Isaac Newton, one of the fathers of modern science, even in his day, was conscious of the infinitesimally small proportion of the world of knowledge that could be mastered by the individual. He regarded himself as being but a child playing on the seashore, and amusing himself with pebble after pebble, and shell after shell, while the great ocean of Truth stretched unfathomably away from him. Did they read John Ruskin today?
He remembered vividly a passage which he had read nearly fifty years ago. It related to the education of women but it was equally valid for men. Ruskin’s advice was that they should “follow at least some one path of scientific attainment as far as to the threshold of that bitter Valley of Humiliation, into which only the wisest and bravest of men can descend, owning themselves for ever children gathering pebbles on a boundless shore!” Ruskin had John Bunyan and Isaac Newton at the back of his mind. It behoved us to be humble when considering the eternal vastness of truth.
Today people were beginning to talk about education for leisure. Did they know that the word “school” came from a Greek word meaning “leisure” or “spare time”. Those who were facing the coming examinations would find this rather odd. But the Greek citizens did not work, they had slaves to do that for them, so that they could devote their time to the pursuit of knowledge.
Then he told the boys: “In the technological age into which you are rapidly going you will be very much in the same situation as the Greeks, but that your slaves will be mechanical and electronic, not human.”
Mr. Jones wondered whether future generations would be able to use their leisure to the same advantage as those sages of the Golden Age of Athens?
Technically, with men now encircling the moon and probably landing on it before the year is out and probing into the planets, we were far in advance of the Greeks in one respect, but morally and spiritually we had a long way to go to match the Greek philosophers and the Hebrew prophets.
Man was perfecting his mastery over nature but he was still a slave to his own passions. He had not been able to tame himself. And that was the main purpose of education.
There was another word for it which illustrated the purpose more clearly. That was “erudition”, which meant being brought out of the raw state, removing the rudeness as it were. Perhaps the Welsh word “diwylliant” was as good an illustration as any. It meant the state of being unwild, being tamed in every way, physical, mental and spiritual.
Matthew Arnold defined “culture”—another relevant word—as acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world”, and Matthew Arnold paid homage to both Greek and Hebrew, to philosophy and to religion.
In passing, Mr. Jones expressed the hope that religious instruction would not be banished from the schools.
Here at Aberdare he was sure that religious instruction was on the highest level. The word “diwylliant” in Welsh was also applied to religion, the cultivation of the worship of God. Cicero had derived “religio” which had given us the word religion from “relegere” meaning going through again in reading or in thought. This was essentially a cultural activity and should have a place in every school.
Man had a body, mind, spirit and soul. The complete man had to cultivate the whole of his being. The Headmaster’s report had shown how this was being done in Aberdare.
The Welsh word “enaid” was far richer in meaning than the English “soul”. It was derived from the Brythonic “anatio” or some such form, being related to the Latin “anima”. T. Gwynn Jones in a remarkable poem on the death of a great Druid called Anatiomaros, showed that had the compound come down into Welsh it would have been “Eneidfawr” — Great Soul:
“Y mawr ei enaid, y mwya’i rinwedd.”
The Romans had an ideal of “aequanimitas”, evenness of mind, which had given the English equanimity. There was a higher ideal of “magnanimitas”, magnanimity, greatness of soul, an ideal derived from Aristotle. This was the Anatiomaros of the Celts.
“Equanimity” was a creditable aim in education but he would like to leave with them the suggestion that “magnanimity” was a superior quality and one of which the present so-called selfish age stood in the greatest need.
Thoughts on the coat-of-arms
The guest-speaker said the dragon passant in the dexter half of the school’s coat-of-arms implied “a stately and orderly movement forward, suggesting a deliberate aim,” he said. The open book in the sinister half was highly significant.
“Would I be wrong,” he asked, “in reading this pictorial representation of the school’s aim as standing for steady progress based on learning — on the open book?”
Though there were at least 400 Welsh proverbs beginning with gorau, the superlative of the adjective da (good), their school motto “Gorau llyw dysg” was new to him. He found it very expressive.
‘Llyw’ had two meanings in Welsh, one derived from the other. The primary meaning was a rudder or helm, that very simple device which guided the direction of ships or boats. The original rudder was simply a paddle or oar, and that was the first device and the first meaning of the word.
The original word for ‘rudder’ proper in English was ‘helm’. The Ancient borrowed their word for oar ‘rhwyf’ from the Romans — the Latin ‘remus’. Row and oar, of course, had a common origin. The Romans called the rudder a gubernaculum and they would, he was sure, see there the root of the English word ‘govern’. That was precisely the secondary meaning of the Welsh ‘llyw’ — the one who governs—the Prince. They would remember the epithet applied to the last Welsh Prince, Llywellyn y Llyw Olaf, under the influence of the Welsh fondness for alliteration.
‘Llyw’ in the motto had the primary meaning of ‘rudder’. The best rudder — that which gives direction — according to the motto was ‘Dysg’. What did ‘Dysg’ mean? The word was derived from the verb ‘dysgu’ which came from the Latin ‘discere’ ‘to learn’. The Romans had another word for teaching, docere, which gave us the English ‘doctor’ and the Welsh ‘doeth’, that is a person who had been taught.
In Welsh, however, ‘dysgu’ was extended to cover teaching as well as learning. Indeed, the original meaning of English ‘learn’ was to teach. They might have heard about the remark of an old character who, on being told that a wrongdoer had been hanged said ‘That will larn him’.
‘Dysg’ therefore is that which is taught and that which is learnt. He did not know what the official translation of ‘Gorau llyw dysg’ was, but he would render it as ‘Learning is the best rudder’. That is, it is the instrument which will give the best direction to their lives. They were in the grammar school to acquire this, or at least the beginnings of it, because life was one continuous process of learning.
They should never allow learning to engender a feeling of superiority.