Down around Biloxi

This weekend I’ll be traveling in Jimmy Buffet’s footsteps, and will find myself down around Biloxi for the Children’s Literature Association conference. I’m presenting another section of the project I’ve been working on, about psychology, pedagogy, and literature in the nineteenth century. I’ve been thinking mostly about fact-based learning and prior knowledge, and that’s that the conference paper is about, adding readings of Peter Parley and the Alice books, on top of what I earlier wrote about Peter Pan. The abstract is pasted below.

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“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.” Our educational system values experiential learning, such as learning through play, more than the rote memorization that Dickens caricatures. So why does Gradgrind remain such an appropriate caricature of a teacher? Why do we ask students to learn facts? In other words, to borrow a question faced by teacher at all levels, why do students have to learn that? These questions – especially relevant today as states seek to standardize education and testing practices necessitate a focus on information that can be conveyed in multiple choice – have a history of their own, which this paper will explore.

Psychologists have long recognized that facts are 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, in his Talks to Teachers, recognized the necessity of prior knowledge. E. D. Hirsch makes the case in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them that a standardized national education would result in a more equal society, providing cultural capital to lower-income and migratory students who might not get it at home. If these were the main justification for teaching facts, few would resist.

But fact-based learning is generally associated with rote learning, and with conservative, outmoded education. And it has been since at least the beginning of the 19th century. This paper will address the history of reactions to fact-based education in two popular nineteenth-century children’s books: Samuel Goodrich’s Peter Parley books and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Goodrich’s series, published in America and widely pirated in Britain, rejected fiction and fairy tales in favor of true, factual information. He writes in his autobiography that Hannah More “had discovered that truth could be made attractive to simple minds. . . Did not children love truth? If so, was it necessary to feed them on fiction?” 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. I read the Peter Parley books as an attempt to bring literature in line with schools’ emphasis on factual knowledge, and the Alice books not as mere parodies of Victorian education but as genuine attempts to consider the role of facts in learning.

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