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There was an interesting (tantalizing to me) commentary written by Adam Gopnik on these fantasy fictions: The Sword of Shannara / The Lord of the Rings / The Simarillion / The Children of Hurin, JRR Tolkien and so-called his follower Christopher Paolini (the Eragon series) in New Yorker (December 5), which was titled “The Dragon’s Egg.”

I say tantalizing because I have almost no knowledge of these works apart from “The Lord of the Rings” (that I only know as a movie). I know even less of Ossian (third century Irish bard) and other medieval bards quoted in the article as if they are common knowledge.

The commentary ends with the following sentences:

We mostly learn that lore in the form of conventions - how you hold the knife, where you put it, that John was the witty Beatle, Paul the winning one. Learning in symbolic form that the past can be mastered is as important as learning in dramatic form that your choices resonate; Being brought up to speed is as important as being brought up to grade. Fantasy fiction tells you that history is available, that past counts.”

I don’t understand what the phrase “being brought up to Speed is as important as being brought up to Grade” means. What have “Speed” and “Grade” to do with the benefits of fantasy fictions? Can somebody explain it for me?

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Per my answer, I wouldn't hold up this extract as an example of good English. But you might like to note that Gopnik probably should have written Paul the winsome one. Winsome denotes pleasing and charming, while winning denotes pleasing or victorious. Arguably Paul has "won" since he's not been assassinated, but I don't think that would be a nice thing to say. – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 15:40
I see a close vote for "too local". But this is a useful question about the difference in meaning between two similarly worded common idioms. – MετάEd Jan 16 '12 at 16:29
@MetaEd: But per my answer, the actual "idiomatic" usage for "grade" is way off base. The one being used here is actually transparent, albeit normally only applicable in the case of talking-shops within the teaching profession. – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 0:01
@Yoichi: Not wishing to seem unduly harsh on your choice of reading material, I'd better concede that Gopnik means learning about the past (the core of "speed" here, per my answer) is as important as learning what you need to know to get by in the present (hence, to passing "grades"). He says this because he thinks fantasy draws more on the past (I guess he's not big on science fiction/science fantasy! :) – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 0:06
What were the omitted two lines between the main commentary and the end para? Are you sure they are irrelevant? – Kris Jan 18 '12 at 4:32
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think it's basically bad writing (the usage "winning" where it should be "winsome" put me off straight away), but let that pass...

The common idiom to bring [someone] up to speed means to quickly give a someone the basic information relevant to some ongoing problem/project/process, so they can usefully understand and/or contribute.

If you go round someone's house and they've just started watching a movie half an hour ago, they might quickly bring you up to speed so you know what's happening and can watch the rest of it with them. Or someone might come into a business meeting late, and need to be briefly filled in on what was covered before you arrived.

In a variety of "engineering" contexts, to bring [something] up to grade means to raise the level of something that's currently physically lower than it needs to end up, as a result of work being carried out.

For example: a trench is dug, a pipe laid, and most of the material dug out is replaced and compacted down. This normally results in a slight depression where the trench was, which must be brought up to grade to give a completely flat surface. A similar context arises when filling and sanding scratches in car bodywork.

Google Books also has references to bring up to grade for failing schoolchildren who aren't achieving their target academic grade level. It's hard to see how this is any more relevant than the established idiomatic usage above.

TL;DR: That's the background to factors that a reasonably educated reader might be expected to take into account. As regards what the writer actually intends to convey - basically he's contrasting [superficially irrelevant] knowledge gained from studying the past (getting up to speed) with knowledge of immediate practical value in the present (making the grade).

Since I'm wracking my brains over this one, I'll hazard a guess that learning in symbolic form means by study (of the past), and dramatic form means by doing (passing exams and otherwise succeeding in the present).

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+1 For noticing the naked emperor. – Joel Brown Jan 16 '12 at 13:19
The "engineering" contexts reference is out of place. 'Grading' in the context is a part of surface preparation such as road-laying and involves placing graded materials and rolling to a specific compaction and level. 'Grade' here, however, is NOT about 'up to level'. – Kris Jan 17 '12 at 4:43
@Kris: I did say there are a variety of contexts. The particular one I linked to was about land being "brought up to grade" (where IMHO it does mean "leveled") after digging up a tree. It is also used of bringing car bodywork surfaces up to level as well, in contexts where graded materials aren't noticeably relevant. Possibly those usages derive from yours, but they are now at least semi-independent. Exactly what "backfilling" materials/techniques are involved is moot - none of these details were relevant to OP's author, which was my substantive point. – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 5:09

Seems to me like speed signifies quantity and grade, quality, here.

Up to speed is a known idiom suggesting 'to know all that matters'. By analogy, up to grade should imply the quality of the knowledge, as in 'high grade' material.

Together, the literary device should mean, to gain knowledge in all its breadth and quality.

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I don't think the author intended to identify breadth and quality as the two primary subdivisions of knowledge. Per my comment to the question, he's mainly contrasting (superficially irrelevant) knowledge gained from studying the past with knowledge of immediate practical value in the present. – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 1:17

The sentence "being brought up to speed is as important as being brought up to grade" is the conclusion to, and parallels, this earlier sentence:

Becoming an adult means learning a huge body of lore as much as it means learning to know right from wrong.

  • being brought up to speed = learning a huge body of lore

The idiom "up to speed" means being fully informed or up to date on some matter.

  • being brought up to grade = learning to know right from wrong

The phrase "up to grade" is related to the idiom "making the grade," which can variously mean "meet the standard," "satisfy the requirements," or "succeed."

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-1: I don't see how you get from "making the grade" to "developing a moral compass". – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 15:26
@FumbleFingers: Isn't being brought up to/making the grade learning how to do the job whereas being brought up to speed is learning how the job is done? I entirely agree that it's poor writing, but surely OPs entitled to know what's intended. – TimLymington Jan 16 '12 at 15:35
@TimLymington: Check a few bring you up to speed usages. I think they mostly support my definition. – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 15:57
...as to making the grade, it's not necessarily the same thing as bring up to grade anyway, but I never heard either used in reference to "ability to do a job". Both usages are almost entirely restricted to passing some level of test (academic or otherwise), apart from the "true" idiomatic usage I set down in my answer. – FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 16:00
@FumbleFingers Perhaps make the grade meaning to be good enough or (to use another idiom) cut it is an AmEng idiom. Note the example given here. And, amusingly, the reference I gave for up to speed is from someone writing about English "from a British standpoint." – Gnawme Jan 17 '12 at 0:56

I love Gopnik's writing. Although I think this bit is a slight stretch of metaphors, it works anyway. The article as a whole contrasts history as a dull body of information vs. fantasy fiction which makes a fictional past come alive. His contention is that the allure that this fiction has for readers, especially school-age readers, is not a bad thing, but rather a good thing because when they feel that this fictional past matters, it follows that then they can grasp how the real past matters as well. In addition, they can understand that their own choices made in the present matter too. He's not contrasting the metaphors so much as saying how the first (being brought up to speed = understanding WHY the past matters) is equally as important as the second (being brought up to grade = learning the body of knowledge).
up to speed:
On World Wide Words: These days, up to speed mostly often appears in non-technical writing in the figurative sense of being fully informed or up to date on some matter... So many examples refer to a machine being brought up to operating speed — a boat, an electric motor, a car, or indeed a film camera — that it looks as though that was the source. ... However, the origin may not be mechanical but a person or animal that was performing at its best rate. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the New York Times of 1879: “The mare was shown and her qualities and record were expatiated on. She looked decent and up to speed.” I found another in a book of 1857 about a voyage of exploration, in which the writer is chasing a boat that’s floating away, which he knew would leave them stranded if he didn’t retrieve it: “It was this conviction which, combined with my ‘badly-scared’ condition, served to keep me up to speed, while I felt every moment more and more like fainting.”

So my understanding is that the teenager would be "up to speed" if he is fully informed or aware of why the past matters.

up to grade On dictionary.com: Idioms 23.at grade, a. on the same level: A railroad crosses a highway at grade... 24. make the grade, to attain a specific goal; succeed: He'll never make the grade in medical school. 25. up to grade, of the desired or required quality: This shipment is not up to grade.

So in sense #25, the teenager would be "up to grade" when he has learned his history lessons. But I can also see why the metaphor echoes also with meanings 23 (the student gaining knowledge filled in to "ground level"), or 24 (the student reaching the goals of his school), or even resonating with the noun definition of the grade being the student's class in school.

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