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It’s hard to imagine that there were encyclopaedia salesmen. There were regular salesmen who would come to our house, selling hardware, brushes and cleaning products, and occasional callers selling clothes from suitcases, but no-one ever called selling encyclopaedias.

If someone had called, they wouldn’t have found a buyer. We had two sets of encyclopaedias, one was bound in brown covers with gold print. It was old, probably from before the First World War, and was filled with words beyond the comprehension of even the most curious of schoolboys. The other set was Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, it had blue covers embossed with silver print.

The compilers of the Arthur Mee series had firm ideas about what children should do with such an abundance of printed knowledge, they should learn it. At regular intervals, there would be exercises to be completed, questions about what might have been gleaned from the entries that had been read. I would take a piece of paper and a pencil and try to write answers.

I was suspicious about some of the entries, thinking that some of the knowledge seemed to be very out of date. I discovered from an online search that the first edition of the Children’s Encyclopaedia was published in 1908, which might have explained the dearth of information about the two World Wars, topics which greatly fascinated me. It would also explain the lack of entries about jet planes, Formula 1 cars, and space travel, the sort of thing that would have been more interesting to a boy than histories of long dead kings and queens and the geography of the British Empire.

What the encyclopaedias with their dry content and difficult questions did achieve was to foster a love of learning for its own sake. There would never be a school test or examination in the random stuff that I would read, but it would never have occurred to me that learning things was about getting grades. One of my most treasured possessions was a globe with the nations of the world marked in different colours and the capital city shown for each. I would never sit an exam that asked where Mali or Chad were, but that did not mean the hours spent looking at that globe were not time well spent.

Having prepared lessons to upload onto an online platform tomorrow, I wonder if sometimes I would do better to tell students just to go and find out some random things for themselves. It won’t get them grades, but it might show them learning things can be fun.


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