The Chief Use of Facts: Memory, Psychology, and Victorian Education (abstract, NAVSA 2012)

This weekend I’ll be heading to Madison, Wisconsin for the NAVSA conference. I’ll be discussing my latest project, which investigates the intersections of literature, science, and education in the nineteenth century. I’ve posted below the abstract of my paper, scheduled for 1:30 on Friday afternoon.


“Now what I want is Facts,” says Thomas Gradgrind in the opening sentence of Hard Times. Dickens satirizes the Gradgrindian mode of education, and surely we reject Gradgrind’s claim that “Facts are all that is wanted in life.” But psychologists have long recognized that factual knowledge is an essential component of critical thinking: higher-order thinking requires a context and a background, a network of prior knowledge in which to process new information. Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham stresses this point in Why Don’t Students Like School (2009), and as early as 1898 William James recognized the necessity of prior knowledge, writing in his Talks to Teachers, “Your memory for facts of a certain class can be improved very much by training in that class of facts . . . But other kinds of fact will reap none of the benefit, and, unless one have been also trained and versed in their class, will be at the mercy of the mere crude retentiveness of the individual.”

In the twenty-first century it is fairly common to discuss teaching as the application of psychological principles (as in Susan Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works [2010]) or even the alteration of neural pathways (as James Zull does in The Art of Changing the Brain [2002]). And principles of psychology were applied to the field of education throughout the nineteenth century. Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth drew on David Hartley and Erasmus Darwin for Practical Education (1798), and at mid-century Herbert Spencer argued that “Some acquaintance with the first principles of physiology and the elementary truths of psychology is indispensable for the right bringing up of children” (“What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?”, 1860). Late-Victorian teachers could acquire this knowledge from works like James Sully’s Teacher’s Handbook of Psychology (1886) and Joseph Baldwin’s Psychology Applied to the Art of Teaching (1892).

This paper will explore the intersection of literature, science, and education in the domain of factual knowledge. I will address educational debates about rote memorization and “facts which can be of no service in establishing principles of conduct, which is the chief use of facts” (Spencer), and then turn to two very different literary treatments of these debates: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Tom Tulliver, I will argue, lacks the proper background knowledge to process Mr. Stelling’s lessons, even while he “had never found any difficulty in discerning a pointer from a setter.” And as Alice falls down the rabbit hole she recalls a litany of facts, which follow throughout her journey: her reliance on her previous education helps her process the nonsense world she enters. Even as Carroll separates his child heroine from the adult world, she proves unable to process her surroundings without relying on her internal network of prior knowledge.

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  1. Pingback: Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor: week 6, an article and a conference | Patrick C. Fleming

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