"There foam'd rebellious Logic, gagg'd and bound."

--Lewis Carroll, The Game of Logic

"Fact forbid!"

--Charles Dickens, Hard Times

We live in a world full of facts. Reality has a hard, sharp bite. In our modern society, education is one way to increase our chances to survive the world, to succeed, to strengthen our soft, vulnerable humanity and live against the edge of the world we have created. How to do this? In Hard Times, Charles Dickens satirizes plans to mold humans to a mechanistic world through hard, rigid fact. But in the end, the story gives us little hope. Rather than suggesting a concrete solution to education, Dickens vaguely suggests that we leave some room for the imagination or make allowances for our distinctly unmechanical natures. This is not enough.

The Classroom

A child performs math at the blackboard
Photo: USDA

Ignorance is one of the greatest problems in the third world today. While we might balk at discouraging traditional lore and practices, we cannot deny that information about science, data on the weather, and knowledge of farming practices can all benefit humanity. Today, programs like India's Simputer attempt to bring information to the world's poor. But 19th century people had no boxes of electronic truth in their pockets. They had to learn facts the hard way.

Thomas Gradgrind teaches facts. This is a good thing. We wouldn't want him to teach falsehoods or rumors, would we? But, as headmaster of a school in Dickens's Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind teaches only facts, for "facts alone are wanted in life" (Dickens, 5). He considers his students "reasoning animals" to be formed and filled with "imperial gallons of facts" (Dickens, 5-6). For Gradgrind, the entire world is reducable to facts; even "Taste, is only another name for Fact" (Dickens, 9). This, according to today's scientists, is true (and they could prove it too, if we only gave them more grant money).

But Gradgrind doesn't stop at teaching facts. He doesn't just fill minds. He works very hard to ensure that they are filled with nothing else. When he finds his own children peeking through a crack in the boards at a circus, he rescues them and reprimands them for their choice of such a "degraded position" (Dickens 14).

The Factory Town

Photo Credit: NOAA

Of course, all of this factory-like education has effects. Who does it affect most? No. Aside from the children. They're rather inconsequential to this story;, and Dickens ignores all but two of the schoolchildren, saying little about the others' resulting lives. For their lives are fairly straightforward. They're from Coketown after all. They are born, they live, and they die in the warm shadow of benificent smog-clouds. And who enjoys their labors? Who appreciates their rigor and discipline? Who owns the factory, the town, and the cloud of smoke that looms over it? Josiah Bounderby of course.

Bounderby himself is, in fact, a carefully-woven fiction. He is a no-longer-young yuppie who claims to be a self made man. But his factory is most definitely not fiction. It's a fact. A hard fact. Gradgrind's iron fisted rule over the minds of the Coketown residents is only rivaled by Bounderby's titanium-bolted, kevlar-wrapped, inescapable grip on the people of Coketown. Gradgrind, of course, doesn't realize that Bounderby is just using him to extend control on the people of the town until it's too late.

For Coketown is "a triumph of fact; it had no... taint of fancy" (Dickens, 20). It is a vile place, full of "machinery and tall chimneys", an unescapable factory of people and products "where there was rattling and a trembling all day long", a "world without end" or rest (Dickens 20-21). Although the town is a triumph of fact, Bounderby and Gradgrind must maintain their hold on the townspeople by spreading the lie that the town is in horrific danger from the ill effects of their liberality, rebellion, and fancy.

The Four Students

Forlorn boy looking out the window of a schoolbus
Photo Credit: USDA

Bitzer, Louisa, Tom, and Sissy Jupe represent the four poles of effect Mr. Gradgrind's methods produce.

By the end of the story, Sissy is the only sane person. By the end of the story, it is up to Sissy, "grown learned in childish lore" to "beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up" (Dickens 222). Because Hard Times isn't about success; Dickens doesn't try to solve any problems, choosing rather to follow failure to its ultimate ends.

But what is the failure? Is it Gradgrind's attempt to inure people to their social situation so they can become good citizens of Coketown, doing their work uncomplainingly, living as good labourers? Before we Americans whiten our knuckles at insidious British social indoctrination, one which puts down classes of children through common education, we should take a look at our own past:

I believe that the child should be stimulated and controlled in his work through the life of the community....

I believe that the social life of the child is the basis of concentration, or correlation, in all his training or growth. The social life gives the unconscious unity and the background of all his efforts and of all his attainments...

I believe, therefore, that the true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.

My Pedagogic Creed, by John Dewey

Once you think about it, you realize that the role of education is to inure someone so much with their society and culture that they are able to operate well in it. Sometimes, information and facts are useful for this end, but not always. Frankenstein's creation knew information, but he was completely incapable of operating in society. (Why did writers like the chink in the wall -- it seems to be a recurring theme in the 19th century?) So perhaps Gradgrind was helping people out by turning out so many mechanical kids to live mechanical lives in the mechanical factories. He was certainly preparing them for the realiities of their social future.

If Gradgrind was right in teaching facts, right in creating bleak people for bleak lives, where did he go wrong? Gradgrind notices it himself, after his daughter turns into a very intelligent vegetable, "I think there are qualities in Louisa, which -- which have been harshly neglected, and -- and a little perverted" (Dickens, 181). The error of Gradgrind's ways lay in his efforts to completely eradicate the imagination. Too bad. It's too late.

Game Over. Better Luck Next Time.

The Phantastatistician

The Caterpillar propounds to Alice in Dodgson's The Looking Glass.
by Arthur Rackham
"And what," asked Mr. Gradgrind, in a still lower voice, "did you read to your father, Jupe?"

"About the Fairies, sir, and the Dwarf, and the Hunchback, and the Genies," she sobbed out; "and about--"

"Hush!" said Mr. Gradgrind, "that is enough. Never breathe a word of such destructive nonsense any more. Bounderby, this is a case for rigid training, and I shall observe it with interest."

(Dickens, 41)

The year Hard Times was published, a mathematician graduated from Oxford. This was not very unusual. Many mathematicians have graduated from Oxford. But this person was not just any mathematician. He was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. And he had a solution. His writings have delighted countless generations, but they have also educated us. Rather than leaving room for both fact and fancy, Carroll chose to combine them in his writings, from carefully-studied poems and humorous mind-games to absurdly logical novels and comicly educational textbooks.

Although he was a mathematics teacher, Dodgson wasn't fond of rigorous fact and endless work. In fact, he parodies the same kind of Gradgrind-esque education in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!' And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them.

'I'm sure I'm not Ada,' she said, 'for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn't go in ringlets at all; and I'm sure I can't be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she's she, and I'm I, and--oh dear, how puzzling it all is! I'll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is--oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate! However, the Multiplication Table doesn't signify: let's try Geography. London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome--no, that's all wrong, I'm certain! I must have been changed for Mabel! I'll try and say "How doth the little--"' and she crossed her hands on her lap as if she were saying lessons, and began to repeat it, but her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come the same as they used to do:--

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spread his claws
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws

--Lewis Carroll, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland chapter 2

All of Alice's facts are wrong. Since she has been taught that facts are central to identity, her inability to remember proper facts gives her a difficult identity crisis. Even the poem is wrong; it's a clever parody of "Against Idleness and Mischief" by Isaac Watts, an 18th century hymnwriter who suggests rigor and discipline over imagination:

Against Idleness and Mischief

from Divine Songs for Children

HOW doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

--Isaac Watts

Watts discourages children from using their imaginations, from exercising their minds. He correctly notes that busy hands keep out mental thought. Carroll parodies this poem because he wishes to encourage mental development in children. For Carroll, his seemingly-nonsensical works were designed to educate:

It is written, not for money, and not for fame, but in the hope of supplying, for the children whom I love, some thoughts that may suit those hours of innocent merriment which are the very life of Childhood; and also in the hope of suggesting, to them and to others, some thoughts that may prove, I would fain hope, not wholly out of harmony with the graver cadences of Life.

--preface to Sylvie and Bruno

Both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Sylvie and Bruno are fanciful works. But they are well-anchored in reality. In wonderland, the world works logically -- the story is about a girl trying to analyze and understand that world. If she drinks from the bottle, she becomes smaller. If she eats cake, she becomes bigger. This is one of the rules of the imaginative world she lives in. And the rules are consistent. Interestingly, Carroll also thought of the effect on young readers who read about drinking random things from bottles. Before Alice drinks from the bottle, she uses rational means to determine if the bottle is poison. Carroll even includes a parable on the problems of self-measurement; when Alice eats the cake, she doesn't notice she's growing because she's trying to measure growth by holding her hand on her head. Sylvie and Bruno is much darker, though still fanciful. Who can resist smiling at a book displaying "Less Bread! More Taxes!" as the title of the first chapter? But the book compiles Carroll's collected wisdom, bits of discourse, snippets of wisdom he wrote down in a notebook, all written as a continuous story for children (Preface to Sylvie and Bruno).

Image of Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. A shower of cards is flying around her, and she has her arms up to fend them off

image: Arthur Rackham -- Public Domain

Carroll's best combination of fact and fancy is a textbook, The Game of Logic. Here, Carroll sets out to explain formal logic to children by systematizing it into a simple game. Each copy contains an envelope with colored game-pieces. In the preface, Carroll begins with the advantages of a game playable by one person and then moves into its usefulness:

A second advantage, possessed by this Game, is that, besides being an endless source of amusement (the number of arguments, that may be worked by it, being infinite), it will give the Players a little instruction as well. But is there any great harm in THAT, so long as you get plenty of amusement?

Carroll intends to educate children in formal logic to aid them in life, but he chooses to make the process enjoyable. The contents of the manual remain fanciful and imaginative, very unlike most works on the subject:

Here is another Universal Proposition for you. "Barzillai Beckalegg is an honest man." That means "ALL the Barzillai Beckaleggs, that I am now considering, are honest men." (You think I invented that name, now don't you? But I didn't. It's on a carrier's cart, somewhere down in Cornwall.)

Carroll also attempts to teach social acceptance in the textbook; he is particularly interested in discouraging anti-semitism. A number of the example syllogisms refute anti-semitic statements and promote ethnic harmony. In fact, many of the example statements included at the end of the book teach moral values. Some encourage honesty and friendliness toward others. One warns about eating uncooked food. Others encourage gamers to respect the French or warn them about dismissing the wisdom of the uneducated. My favorites?

[format: premise 1; premise 2; premise 3 is up to you]

49. A prudent man shuns hyaenas; No banker is imprudent.

62. All jokes are meant to amuse; No Act of Parliament is a joke.

63. "I saw it in a newspaper." "All newspapers tell lies."

Some are humorous, like #49. Others encourage children to think carefully about the world around them and apply logic and critical thinking to such areas as the acts of Parliament and the veracity of the press.

Although often considered a writer of nonsensical literature, Lewis Carroll went far beyond the title we give him today. His writings attempt to amuse us, simultaneously educating us about the not-always-happy world, giving us tools to survive well. Where Dickens merely raised questions, Carroll attempted to answer them by combining fact and fancy. Did he succeed? One must only look at the childrens' section of a bookstore to find that the answer is most definitely yes.