Facts in Neverland

It’s always nice to find that one’s research bears on topics being covered in non-academic media outlets.

While preparing a talk I’ll be giving next week — or rather, while browsing Arts and Letters Daily and procrastinating from said preparation — I came across this article in City Journal, by E. D. Hirsch. For those who know Hirsch’s work, the argument is a familiar one: a decent vocabulary, Hirsch argues, is a necessary (if not sufficient) requirement for critical thinking. Nearly two decades ago, in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), Hirsch connected many American educational woes to the the pedagogical ideologies that developed in the early twentieth century, and took over education schools like the Columbia Teacher’s College. He returns to these ideas in the City Journal piece:

Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States. It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience.

This “well-meant but inadequate conception of education” did not, of course, emerge from nowhere: natural development, factual knowledge, and practical experience had been important components of the pedagogical conversation since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hirsch, who began his career as a scholar of Romanticism, argues in The Schools We Need that although “The Romantic Movement marked a genuine advance in early education,” some tenets of Romanticism “when they are carried too far or accepted uncritically, conflict with effective practice and research.” Our inadequate conceptions of education, in other words, have their roots in nineteenth-century literary movements.

My current project (which I’ve written about on this blog, and parts of which I’ve presented at the NASSR and NAVSA conferences) picks up a question Hirsch implicitly raises: to what extent did concepts like natural development, factual knowledge, and practical experience feature in the pedagogical conversations that took place in the Romantic and Victorian periods? My talk next week will be about how the teaching of facts was treated in nineteenth-century fiction. Victorianists likely associate the phrase with Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens’s ironic portrayal of a schoolmaster who wants to teach his pupils “nothing but facts.” But Dickens’s satire goes too far, as modern cognitive scientists know:

Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyze and to think critically – require extensive factual knowledge. (Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, Jossey-Bass, 2009)

Victorian defenders of factual knowledge included James Kay-Shuttleworth, who founded teacher-training college, Battersea Normal College, and was likely the direct target of Dickens’s criticism. But literary types, too, understood the complexity of these debates, and may find a defender in an unlikely place: J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy.

Peter Pan initially seems to be a story very much opposed to school. Captain Hook, as many critics have emphasized, went to Eton, and Peter’s resistance to growing up has a lot to do with being made to go to school: at the end of the novel, when Wendy tells him her parents would like to adopt him, he immediately inquires whether he would be sent to school, and when she answers in the affirmative, he declines. But when I teach this text to undergraduates I often ask them what surprises them about it – what they thought they knew about Peter Pan that Barrie’s text seems to challenge. One of the answers is always that Peter is kind of a jerk. Barrie gives us a story about a boy who refuses to grow up, but he’s at best ambivalent about it. While our sympathies are certainly not with Hook, they’re not necessarily with Peter, either. The other children – Wendy and the Lost Boys – all get to grow up, and go to school. All children except one, the famous first sentence tells us, grow up, and part of growing up is going to school.

If we read this text through the lens of pedagogical practices – specifically, factual learning – we can I think make the case that Barrie is very much pro-school. When Peter first enters the nursery, “Wendy, who always liked to do the correct thing, asked Peter how old he was. It was not really a happy question to ask him; it was like an examination paper that asks grammar, when what you want to be asked is Kings of England” (27). A reader presumably recognizes why “grammar” and “Kings of England” are related in this way: they’re both things one learns in school, and that show up on examinations. And examinations can be fun, or so the text would have it. One of the games the children play in Neverland involves Wendy giving the boys examination papers about their parents – and all the Lost Boys participate, not just John and Michael.

What’s most interesting about this scene, I think, is the way in which Barrie uses a game about examinations to apply the reader’s knowledge about a subject formerly associated with exams: grammar. The narrator chastises John and Michael for starting to forget, but also tells us that “the questions were all written in the past tense. What was the colour of Mother’s eyes, and so on. Wendy, you see, had been forgetting too” (70). Wendy forgets her parents, but the reader is not allowed to forget either the lessons learned in school (English grammar), or the method by which these lessons are learned: examinations. And what’s more, Wendy even seems to be teaching these lessons to the Lost Boys. In chapter eleven, “Wendy’s Story,” when she tells the boys a story about her own life — the story that ultimately leads to their all leaving the island — she begins, “There was a lady also, and” but is interrupted by one of the twins: “you mean that there is a lady also, don’t you? She is not dead, is she?” (93). This twin has clearly grasped the lesson that, the narrator tells us, Wendy had been forgetting in her examination questions.

The text also returns to facts about the kings of England. Describing Hook, the narrator tells us, “In dress he somewhat aped the attire associated with the name of Charles II, having heard it said in some earlier period of his career that he bore a strange resemblance to the ill-fated Stuarts” (50). On stage a director could presumably dress Hook appropriately, but we don’t necessarily need to know about clothing in order to make sense of this. What we do need to know, though, is that Charles II was one of the Stuarts, and that they were “ill-fated.” In other words, facts about English kings.

The talk I’ll be giving next weeks continues along these lines, going into a bit more detail about the background and looking at Alice in Wonderland and Hard Times in addition to Peter and Wendy. But I hope I’ve given a taste of the project here. As more and more states adopt the Common Core Standards, and as we continue to feel pressures toward standardized testing from No Child Left Behind, the backgrounds of these policies deserve investigation.

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