Monday, May 4, 2015

Who's for conkers . . . ?

Did you know that conkers are an endangered species?   No, not in the literal sense . . . let me explain.

Our brains, it seems, don't offer us precisely what our ears and eyes are recording.  On the contrary, what we receive is a carefully edited version based on past experience.  To a large extent, our brains place before us the sights and sounds that we already know, ones that we can recognise and name . . . the name being of prime importance.

To give you an example, an Inuit, who has many names for what we call 'snow', would look out of his igloo at a complex and interesting landscape.  In the same situation, the limitations of our language would restrict us to seeing little more than a stretch of endless, monotonous white.

Why am I mentioning this?  Because of a challenging and absorbing new book by Robert Macfarlane.  It's entitled 'Landmarks', and in it the author laments the fact that a recent edition of 'The Oxford Junior Dictionary' chose to omit many words included in previous editions.

Amongst the words excluded were 'conker', 'acorn', 'kingfisher', 'dandelion', 'bluebell' and 'pasture'.  The reason for these omissions?  Because it was felt that the dictionary needed to include a plethora of new words such as 'blog', 'broadband', 'celebrity' and 'voice-mail'.

It was the editor's view that, as the majority of modern children live in urban areas, they didn't need many of the nouns that relate specifically to the countryside.  However, it was essential that they were familiar with the terminology of modern information technology.

A world without conkers or acorns?  Surely not!
Familiarity with these evocative names enables us to look beneath the trees and immediately identify the natural treasures nestling in the leaves.
Without those names we'd be gazing down at a featureless forest floor . . . something that our brains would probably choose to ignore.  'Language deficit,' writes Robert Macfarlane, 'leads to attention deficit'.

As for the 'dandelion' which was jettisoned to make way for the 'celebrity' . . . true, a city child mightn't be able to hold one in her hand, but which celebrity could possibly rival the dandelion's dramatic transition from golden glory to parachuting seed-head?

And, think about it for a moment, without an identifiable name to seize upon, wouldn't the brain consider the flower to be merely part of the meadow and filter it out of sight?
There again, if the word 'meadow' has gone the way of 'pasture', the brain would probably dismiss the whole thing as no more than a featureless, unimportant, green blur.

Surely children need to be offered a wide-ranging, not reduced, view of the world they inhabit?
Might I suggest that 'The Oxford Junior Dictionary'  is overlooking two very important facts . . . the need to root the technological wonders of the modern world into the natural world they stem from, and the need for children's lives to be rooted in that same nourishing soil.

What a bland countryside we're bequeathing to our descendants.  No hillocks, no dales . . . no tussocks, no mole-hills.
The inevitable outcome will be no grandeur, no splendour . . . just stultifying, mind-numbing uniformity.

Is this how we want to be remembered:  the generation who encouraged children to become addicted to smartphones whilst depriving them of conkers . . . ?
Surely not!

In addition to which, as any child will tell you, a conker is far smarter than a smartphone.
Not only is it capable of self-propogation, but it runs on nothing but water and solar power!