Posterity remembers Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) primarily as a novelist. He came into public acclaim around the turn of the century on the basis of his “scientific romances” such as The War of the Worlds (1897), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and The War in the Air (1906), but he soon turned his attention to the social novel, demonstrating a talent similar to that of Charles Dickens in Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1906), and The Undying Fire (1919). Wells was one of the original public intellectuals of the mediated age, his voice familiar to listeners of the BBC, his visage familiar from newsreels. He believed in the social efficacy of science and technology, called himself a socialist, adding that his vision of socialism was so far ahead of Marxism and Leninism that compared to him their adherents were living in the Stone Age. In the monumental Experiment in Autobiography (1934), perhaps surprisingly, Wells tends to characterize almost all his activities under the heading of education – and he makes it clear that he thought of himself, no matter to what he put his hand, as above all an educator. He wrote any number of explicitly pedagogical books. The Outline of History (1919), A Short History of the World (1923), and The Work, Health, and Happiness of Mankind (1932) come to mind, the first two still useful today. Wells’s first idea of a career, in his early twenties, was a school mastership. He persevered through normal training and migrated through a number of appointments until the poverty of it irked him and he turned to writing.
In early adult life, Wells completed a number of degrees, but his formal education remained patchy. He rowed his impressive grasp of things to the inveterate self-instruction of omnivorous reading. In The Experiment, he writes about the crucial moment in his autodidactic curriculum. In the year 1874, Wells, age eight, got into a brawl with an older boy on a cricket field. “I wriggled, he missed his hold on me and I snapped my tibia across a tent peg.” A happy fall! “Probably I am alive today,” Wells writes, “and writing this autobiography instead of being a worn-out, dismissed, and already dead shop-assistant, because my leg was broken.” His mending required several weeks during which, as he writes, “I found myself enthroned on the sofa in the parlour,” where he “could demand and have affair chance of getting anything that came into [his] head, books, paper, pencils, and toys – and particularly books.”
Literacy for Wells meant, as he puts it in The Experiment, “the art of leaving my body to sit impassive in a crumpled up attitude in a chair or sofa, while I wandered over hills and far away in novel company and new scenes.” Wells remembers reading “Wood’s Natural History… copiously illustrated… the life of the Duke of Wellington and about the American Civil War”; and how “Fennimore Cooper and the Wild West generally, seized upon my imagination.” Wells never stopped reading. Another milestone came when at fourteen he ran away from his dreary apprenticeship to a London draper and sought refuge with his mother in the eighteenth-century house where two aging aristocrat-spinsters employed her as housekeeper. Up Park, as the place was called, boasted an impressive library, where “Georgie” was given license to sit and read and even to remove books. By now he could tackle Plato. And he did – The Republic, no less. Wells’s utopias are all attempts to adapt Plato’s discussion of the ideal polity to the twentieth century,
In The Experiment, Wells criticizes widespread effects of inadequate education in his day. In discussions to which he had been invited to contribute under the sponsorship of the League of Nations just after World War I, Wells “had been very much impressed by the perpetually recurring mental divergences due to the fact that everyone seemed to have read a different piece of history or no history at all, and that consequently our ideas of the methods and possibilities of human association varied in the wildest manner.” Wells reports that this insight could befall him because, as he writes, “I was not a ‘scholar’ and had never been put under a pedant to study some ‘period’ intensely and prematurely.” He adds that, “because I had a student’s knowledge of biology and of the archeological record, I had a much broader grasp of historical reality than most of my associates.” Wells wrote a pamphlet, History is One (1919) that provided the basis of The Outline of History, to which “public response was unexpectedly vigorous.” The Outline remains in print today. “No history at all” is the usual state of the contemporary person.
Is it a gross unfairness – an “apples and oranges fallacy” – to compare Wells at twenty, when he embarked on his abortive career as a public school teacher, with contemporary college students in the middle-tier state universities? Perhaps. Yet according to the self-assessment of American education, today’s students are the brightest ever, bringing with them from high school to college the vaunted “multicultural experience” and the progressive skill of critical thinking, so-called, which apparently obviates everything, including knowledge. That is often how the students see and describe themselves: Super-competent, but without being able to supply any details. So how will it go – the comparison? Wells was born in lower-middle-class poverty and insecurity and he had to escape from a hopeless apprenticeship in his early teens. Modern college students were born in middle class affluence and security; many have never worked a job, but they have enjoyed the boon in the classroom and at home of the digitized brave new world of instruction, including that super-encyclopedia the Internet.
Wells started out to be a teacher, a goal shared by many of my students at SUNY Oswego, which began in the nineteenth century as a normal school and still boasts one of the state’s most important teacher-training programs. Wells at twenty was already impressively well-read. Five or six years ago I stopped asking students on the first day of the semester to write down the titles of the last ten books that they had read discretionarily because few of them could list as many as three or four and some could list none. When I asked students what they had read in high school, the answer was always vague, so I stopped posing the question. When poverty bit Wells, who could not earn a decent living in the classroom, he turned to writing and swiftly made himself wealthy and famous. Many of my students struggle to write a grammatical sentence. A century of John Dewey-inspired progressive education, yoked up with the flashing lights of video games and communication gadgets, has produced the post-literate age in which we live. (Yes, all that and television, it hardly need be said.)
The relentless cohorts of freshmen resemble collectively a Wellsian character, Bert Smallways, the point-of-view provider in The War in the Air. Wells describes Smallways as “a vulgar little creature, the sort of pert, limited soul that the old civilisation of the early twentieth century produced by the million in every country of the world.” Smallways is amiable and capable of decency, but he is restricted. Wells portrays him as stuck “in a narrow circle of ideas from which there was no escape,” the creature of a haphazard education, “aimless and wasteful.” Modern college students are vulgar too, in the sense, as Wells intends, that the largest component in what passes for their prior instruction is a debased popular culture that celebrates grossness and resentment, and to which ideas are foreign. In The War, Smallways is privileged to be lifted out of his condition by chance and to observe the collapse of civilization literally from a height. Wherever it is possible, I try to arrange something like that for my students – I ask them to read Wells, which among other things lifts them out of the parochialism of the twenty-first century.
I do this in the “Business in Literature” course that I sometimes teach, where I assign Tono-Bungay, and in the “Science Fiction” course that I created ten years ago and that fills up swiftly at the beginning of each semester. Speaking of vulgarity, there is a vulgar misapprehension concerning Wells – that he was a blinkered advocate of technocracy and the utopian future. Say rather that Wells was the prophet of catastrophe; that he recognized with keenness and urgency just how fragile is the fabric of civilization and just how vulnerable to unraveling. The Wellsian authorship is recurrently an attack on complacency and a vision of catastrophe – and in these dispositions Wells is tonic for students, whose insulated lives and tendency to conformism stand as obstacles in the way of their actual higher education. So I assign them to read, as I did recently, The War in the Air and the even more startling World Set Free (1913), in which Wells foresaw that once men had mastered atomic power they would apply it to warfare with Armageddon-like results. Unexpectedly if not oddly, education is a major theme in The World Set Free and many of the students who read it are education majors.
The War in the Air and The World Set Free tell variants of the same story. The War in the Air puts it this way: “The stages of the swift and universal collapse of the financial and scientific civilisation with which the twentieth century opened followed each other very swiftly, so swiftly that upon the foreshortened page of history – they seem altogether to overlap.” People who felt themselves as living “at a maximum of security” deceived themselves under a “hallucination of security.” How an international political crisis could set off a domino effect in the global economy, wrecking every national economy in days, Wells presents in convincing detail. So too in The World Set Free where the nations blunder into mutual radioactive destruction: No one sees it coming because no one knows history and no one ever looks up from his own near-term preoccupations. Will student-readers of the two novels grasp that these fictions implicate the world in which they live – or indeed indict them, in their habits and prejudices?
Incompetency of articulation often gets in the way. What does the young writer mean who asserts, first, that “in the tales of H. G. Wells there is an underlying need for what is beyond our touch”; then that “in both novels… there is an evident display of curiosity”; and finally that, “Wells makes a clear statement about the world’s need of a pull of the unknown future and what will happen next”? The young writer, seeing as through a glass darkly, has discerned Wells’ reiterated conviction that people need a sense of transcendent purpose – whether it is building cathedrals, as in the High Gothic, or setting out to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth, as in the decade before the Johnsonian Great Society swallowed up every other endeavor. The super-personal goals that the academic world offers to students – “sustainability,” “carbon-neutrality,” and a saccharine regime of “multiculturalism” – really never inspire them.
Thus the character Marcus Karenin, who in The World Set Free organizes universal education in the aftermath of the holocaust, speaks of the religious essence of the redemptory World Republic that arises by dedicated work out of the ashes, even going so far as to say that, while not Christian in any conventional way, the World Republic fulfills the spirit of the original Christianity. One or two students pick up on this thesis. “While reading the Wellsian texts assigned in class, I have found that I agree that the thought of a ‘World Republic’ and ‘collective or higher consciousness pervade most of his themes…” The student has not really differentiated thoughts from themes, and the sentence runs on for thirty-eight more words before discovering a period. Nevertheless he or she has recognized a basic Wellsian assumption: That most people, most of the time, live ensconced within narrow intellectual horizons, so that they cannot see past a short prospect of cause-and-effect; and that this deficiency is a spiritual affliction that is bound to eventuate in bad consequences. On the other hand, the same student cannot separate what he or she calls a “mass mind,” that is, a conformist tendency, from transcendence through an inspiring cooperative project. But just that distinction is crucial to a complete understanding of Wells’ argument in The World Set Free. In the failure to distinguish we see how hobbled many young people are in their literacy by the insipidity of the contemporary high-school curriculum. They are doomed to frustrating half-articulations and to murky argumentation.
A good reason to assign Wells is that, in a broad sense, he is a liberal, just as most students are, and he wants things they think they also want – an egalitarian society, dispossession by the state of surplus personal wealth of others, universal free healthcare and universal free education. Wells has, however, no respect for democracy, a liberal fetish, a student fetish. The World Republic of the post-atomic war is the dictatorship of a usurping vanguard, which finds its opportunity in chaos and despair when it takes things in charge. Karenin’s global system of education requires the abolition of every natural language except English, so as to ease the administrative labor of the governing council. One writer is rightfully shocked: “They take away any individualism from the world, one sole heart under one government.” The second part of the sentence baffles me, but the outrage in the first half encourages me. As propagandized as students are, if only given a chance, they might think their way out of their jejune inculcation.
Yet another student, while doing it awkwardly, manages sufficiently to dispel the glamour of the word “progress” as to be able to criticize it – and perhaps also to criticize Wells legitimately. Karenin, the writer argues, begins with a transcendent vision, but becomes “dogmatic.” Karenin loses sight of his goal, to raise everyone to a pitch of conscious clarity, and becomes obsessed with manipulating people into conformity of thought through the schools. “According to Karenin’s dogma, science is the means of transportation [sic] by which humanity will use [sic] to progress towards its true cosmic potential.” Karenin has become another dictator, like the national dictators that the World Republic suppressed and replaced. “Instead of supposing to understand [sic] what is best for the lower classes and making plans to act out his will over the future of civilization, shouldn’t he talk with them all arrogance and pretensions aside?”
By the time they reach college, the paltry, heavily politicized curriculum of American K-12 has wickedly betrayed students, depriving them of the opportunity to develop real literacy, to acquire a sense of history and the long view, and to articulate the occasional dissentient thoughts that they have when circumstances cause them actually to take stock of the reigning shibboleths of postmodernity – one real word for which is post-literacy. Like any healthy person, the specimen college student welcomes the chance to see things from a higher perspective, but the system as it stands is designed precisely to deprive students of any higher perspective. What passes for education is a mental diet of infant pabulum and an entrenched infantilism is one of its noticeable results. If I were Caesar or Marcus Karenin, I would put The Outline of History at the center of the high-school humanities curriculum, for its content of knowledge. Perhaps on arrival in college, students who had read it would not be as prone as they are to drab doctrinal conformism.