Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover and Colonial Literacy

Having recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown and listened to an audiobook on Colonial Virginia history on the way there, I have become interested in William Byrd II of Westover, who was born in 1674. He was an author, businessman,  and statesman of the early 18th century. He left behind several diaries and a "commonplace book". A "commonplace" is a journal for random notes rather than a sequential account like a diary. The owner writes quotes, literary snippets, and discovered facts often with some kind of subject markings which can then be referred to later, further explored,  or copied out and filed elsewhere. A commonplace gives a running narrative, not of events in a person's life but the course of their self-education and research. These days, I use a tablet application to make and file very similar entries. The surviving commonplace of Byrd's is apparently only one of a number of such volumes he kept, posthumously transcribed, edited, and published.

Byrd was responsible for creating the largest library in Virginia at the time, some 4,000 volumes. Although we have a record of the books he collected, it is not necessarily known that he read and studied all of them. The commonplace gives us information about what he actually delved into, at least during the time this one volume was written. The breadth of subjects Byrd explored, referenced, and quoted is stunning. This was made easier by his early education at Felsted Grammar School in Essex starting at 7. Based on what we know of the school and Byrd's later writings:

<<He learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as well as mathematics, history, and other subjects. His mastery of these ancient languages is evident in his lifelong habit of reading Scripture and the classics in the original languages nearly every day.>> [Introduction to "The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover" ]

He had mastered these subjects before "university"-- in other words, as a teenager. I have not, at middle age (though I'm working at it.) Nor was this one school or single student an anomaly. Literacy during the Colonial and Founding period was very high. Many prominent men (John Adams, say), had little formal education, were largely self-taught or were simply handed books and expected to learn them, were multilingual, had a strong command of classical works-- ++and this was not thought very remarkable++. Colonial women were also highly literate-- well-read and writing frequent correspondence, often managing ledgers and farm records, here and there fully managing estates and businesses as widows. Literacy among Colonial women is thought to have reached 90% by the Revolution. Women's organizations in Northern textile mills drove and spread the literature of the Abolition movement during the early-to-mid 19th century as well as organizing for wages and labor conditions. Literacy tended to be lower in the South than the North by the Civil War, yet Confederate soldiers passed around battered copies of "Les Miserables" they read in the French.

So why are we so poor at learning/educating today? Why in a world where we have the lion's share of the collected works of humankind a few keystrokes away are we by and large +less literate+ than a day where a library of 4,000 volumes was a generational undertaking and many people still dipped pens in ink they boiled from oak galls and walnut hulls? Clearly it isn't because we need more education +money+ or more laptops/tablets in schools. Thomas Sowell (among others) writes at length of the complete lack of correlation between education funding and education +success+. Certainly schools in the US today can afford the resources available to a 17th, 18th, or early 19th-century student when books were so precious that they were named individually in wills and probate documents!

Somewhere, we have made a seriously wrong turn.

No comments:

Post a Comment