Alice in Standardized Education Land

Tenniel, "Alice in Wonderland"

Tenniel, “Alice in Wonderland”

Please indulge me as I wax enthusiastic about my youngest son. Tobias Wilson-Bates is currently writing a fascinating dissertation about “Victorian time machines” that has changed the way I see the era. Tobias doesn’t only look at H. G. Wells-type time machines although he does examine that novel. He also notes that the Victorians frequently saw novels themselves as time machines, what with their ability to take us back in time (the historical novels of Walter Scott) or to encompass an entire life span (as in David Copperfield). The 19th century was fascinated with time in part because mechanization was upending conventional notions of time.

It used to be that every locale had its own time. As Tobias notes, “[O]ne could literally step from a train platform in one time, onto a train that existed in a different time, and then get off that same train minutes later in a third time.” This situation couldn’t continue on if people were to catch their trains and if trains weren’t to crash into each other. Time has to be universalized and standardized.

One of Tobias’s most exciting ideas is that, once people started thinking of standardizing geography, they also started thinking of standardizing people. Therefore, standardizing railway schedules and factory workdays led inexorably to the idea of standardizing education. And here we are today.

Tobias is teaching as a sabbatical replacement at my college (and his alma mater) this year and last semester gave a talk for our Faculty Seminar Series. He gave me permission to share it here. He notes that, from the first, there was resistance to standardizing time and people, especially from Lewis Carroll. (Mary Shelley also expresses qualms in Frankenstein, as does Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies.) It is no accident, Tobias says, that Alice was written only three years after the Revised [Education] Code of 1862. Carroll’s masterpiece anticipates the frustrations that teachers feel today about all the standardized testing their students are required to undergo. 

I love Tobias’s concluding point: that Alice is truly radical when she turns the questioning back on the teacher.

By Tobias Wilson-Bates, Visiting Instructor, St. Mary’s College of MD

Thank you for having me. It has been incredible coming back to St. Mary’s to teach after going here as an undergrad. I’ve compared this experience to drawing back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, but the wizard is actually more incredible behind the curtain. This really is a special place, and my experience here both as a student and a teacher has been wonderful, above all because of the incredible faculty. It’s with some nerves but a feeling of deep honor to be part of this intellectual community that I begin my talk.

My larger research focuses on the curious relationship of two words in the nineteenth century that circled each other in any number of ways before combining to provide perhaps the most memorable literary trope of the 20th century, “Time” and “Machines,” with the trope, of course, being Time Machines. In my research on texts, particularly novels, that play with time and mechanization, I was struck by the distinct lack of scholarship on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (published 1865) as a text that was reacting to its broader educational context, not the least because Lewis Carroll was a math teacher at Oxford with an intense love for children and children’s literature.

People of course have written about Carroll and his parodies of educational texts like Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715), a group of poems never out of print from its publication through the end of the 19th century and a text consistently assigned for memorization in schools (“How Doth the Little Busy Bee” and all that). But there is no mention of Lewis Carroll operating under the purview of a larger educational paradigm, and this omission exists despite the fact that perhaps the most landmark legislation of mass education, the Revised Code of 1862, came into existence just three years before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

To wrestle with the conceptual disconnect behind the omission of Carroll’s intervention in his educational context, I want to think through the logical pairing of standardization and nonsense. After all, we often use the one as a measure of the other. What standard behavior or cultural norm must be violated in order for a text to move beyond the term fiction, even beyond fantasy, into nonsense?

I begin by talking about a tea party. In June, 2012, New York Times Columnist Gail Collins wrote an extensive review of the effect that Tea Party politics had on the decisions made by the Texas school board, a political body that is elected and extremely vulnerable to the influence of generous political donors.

She describes a science curriculum decided on by a committee chaired by a man who believes “evolution is hooey” and a social studies “expert” who believes that income tax is contrary to the word of God in the scriptures. Other notable inclusions demanded by the board included the philanthropy of industrialists, the positive elements of McCarthyism, and a detailed attention to the guy who broke the motorcycle speed record. Things like slavery and segregation are all but ignored, and Islam, the world’s second largest religion, appears in a side note referring to the terrorist activities performed by some of its adherents.

Lest this seem like a one-state issue, Professor Keith Erekson, director of the Center for History Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at El Paso, estimates that the proportion of social studies textbooks sold in the US containing the basic Texas-approved narrative range from about half to 80 percent.

The reason for this is that textbook companies blanch at the prospect of making multiple textbooks for different state markets. It is better, for economic purposes, to find a way for one book to squeeze in under the Texas restrictions and then be marketed across the country.

Hopefully this opening anecdote reveals two things: the first is that nonsense may well be inherent to standardized education, and the second is that when it comes to standardizing education in a capitalist environment, economics always trumps education.

To put it another way, the changes made by the Texas school board do not interfere with the working of capitalism as such, and, insofar as standardization is about producing an acceptable national subject, children taught out of these textbooks would hypothetically not be ostracized in any state of the union.

What Collins describes in the Texas educational system is not standardization gone wrong, but rather standardization being unusually transparent. A closer look at common educational practices quickly reveals not just the arbitrary themes imported from contemporary politics, but also the deep-seated cultural practices that become ubiquitous and commonplace under the conceptual framework of the standard educational subject.

In this talk I will look at the moment in British history when government began putting standardization into practice. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published three years after the first major legislation on the subject (the Revised Code of 1862), and I will be discussing how Lewis Carroll’s dream-world acts a direct reaction to and commentary on the logic of standardization.

In the mid-nineteenth century, standard practice still generally meant cultural norms rather than legislated uniformity. The first great impetus towards standardization was the implementation of standard railway time. The speed of trains and the dangers of lacking precision made it necessary to coordinate time between stations, and the trains were eventually coordinated by the time at the Greenwich observatory in London.

However, for several decades after the trains began this practice, many towns (Oxford among them) continued to have a local time in addition to railway time, meaning that you lived in one time, but another time cut through town at great speeds.

By 1855, it was reported that 98% of towns had converted to using Greenwich Mean Time, but there was no legislation on the practice until 1880. Even at that point, England, Scotland, and Wales shared “London Time” while all of Ireland ran on “Dublin Time.”

In the United States, “The Day with Two Noons,” the day when all railroad clocks were reset to standard time at noon, didn’t happen until 1883. It wasn’t until 1916 that Greenwich mean time became the basis for civil time throughout the British Isles, and by the time GMT had reached near international recognition in the mid-twentieth century, most leading countries had already begun transitioning to Coordinated Universal Time (CUT). Not only did time take a very long while to become standard, but the terms of standardization as such have continually shifted during its evolution.

When in Alice’s Adventures we see a tea party frozen in time with “mad” characters speaking about Time as a temperamental interlocutor, this seems, and is in part, fascinating nonsensical play. But a confusion of times was also a proposition not too unfamiliar to Victorians, and it’s worth pausing a moment to reconsider the way Carroll sets up his own play with “time” as a word, a cultural artifact, and a standard practice:

Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with time,” she said, “than wasting it on asking riddles that have no answers.

“If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Alice.

“Of course you don’t!” the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. “I dare say you never even spoke to Time!”

“Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied; “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”

“Ah! That accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now if only you kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked.”

The dialogue, which is central to Carroll’s famous tea party scene, depends upon the linguistic play on various cultural associations with time. Tea time itself as a concept is the subject of hazy cultural practices placing the snack in between four and seven p.m. Even the personification of time as a “him” is completely standard practice, as can be recognized in the figure of “Old Father Time.” However, this is a scene that involves clocks (a theme that initiates the novel with the time-obsessed white rabbit) and references to mathematical time that highlight a version of time that seems to have fallen outside of creative discourse. The Hatter’s conflation of “fictional” temporality with “real” time is at the heart of the “nonsense” the scene produces.

But it’s worth reiterating that at this period in history, one could literally step from a train platform in one time, onto a train that existed in a different time, and then get off that same train minutes later in a third time.

Culturally, this variety of times was completely normal, but the mass implementation of trains and the speed with which one could leap from one time into another made the diversity of time shockingly apparent and, more pressingly, a major economic problem. Karl Marx explains the basic logic of capitalism as a movement between equivalence and exchange. The more readily a commodity converts into the universal equivalent (money), the easier it is to exchange. The old saying “time is money” is profoundly apt in thinking out this relation. Time is far more effective in economic terms if it acts as a universal equivalent for exchange–that is, as a homogenous medium that can be plotted and indexed for the purpose of efficient economic movement.

It is my contention that the standardization of time, increasingly accepted by 1855, set the stage conceptually for the standardization of education. A unified national time seems to make thinkable the idea of a standard subject existing within that time. One could readily imagine children across the country aging and learning set patterns of information simultaneously.

To put it concisely, this practice might be considered the standardization of a “lifetime.” In literature, there is a genre that deals explicitly with the historically specific development of a life over time, the Bildungsroman. Although originally a German genre that dealt with specific late-eighteenth century class formations in Germany, the genre was copied and refigured across continental Europe and England, where the social upheaval of the industrial revolution demanded new forms of storytelling to detail the creation and experience of a lifetime.

The quintessential English industrial bildung narrative is Frankenstein. In depicting a scientist’s life story that involves the artificial production of a new kind of life story, we see both the education of an industrial subject and the deep existential anxiety of what it means to produce life and to be produced as a life. We might say that two artificial beings are formed simultaneously, one via scientific education and the other via technology. These two social elements were already trending towards mass production and standardization. At a critical moment in the text, Victor Frankenstein is stunned by the realization that if his creature receives a mate, the dangers of the monster would transition from those of an individual to those of a population.

In the years after the publication of Frankenstein, building people transitioned from science fiction to a national obsession. The cultural debate took up the question of what to do with the growing population of “wasted” children.

Given the intense religious and political deadlock between Anglicans, Catholics, and Nonconformists who ran the nation’s various public schools, legislation to manage children, and hence the root of mass education, were economic measures. The Factory Acts (in particular the 1833 Factories Act), designed to reduce the working day, make factories safer, allow for oversight, and reduce child labor, included a provision that child workers be given two hours of education a day.

A year later, the New Poor Law demanded that workhouses for the poor include separate facilities for educating the pauper children. In order to avoid intense sectarian debate, these institutions had either no standard for teaching and knowledge, or that material was barebones secular subjects and rote memorization.

This system of education, which amounted to barely more than putting dozens of children of all ages into cramped rooms with a single vastly underpaid teacher, was predominant as the only “regulated” system of teaching until James Kay-Shuttleworth, secretary for the Committee of Council for Education between 1839 and 1849, began implementing a standardized system of training teachers.

In order to incentivize more effective teaching, the government instituted, in the Revised Code of 1862, a system of payment-by-results inspection that would award teachers for how well their students did on standardized exams. While the committee attempted to create an acceptable exam that would incorporate religious education into the testing, sectarian divisions struck down even the most banal exam material. This set the stage for a system of knowledge that monetarily rewarded instructors for how their students performed secular knowledge and provided no incentive for religious instruction.

Perhaps nowhere did this political evolution of education appear more vividly than in the fantasy writing of Thomas Kingsley, a contemporary of Lewis Carroll who wrote the The Water-Babies (1862). Kingsley was a fascinating historical figure who existed at a political / scientific / theological nexus it would be almost impossible to reproduce.

He was tutor to the Prince of Wales; first Professor of Modern History at Cambridge; Chaplain to Queen Victoria; a staunch defender of Thomas Arnold’s education reforms; and sat on the Edward Eyre Defense Committee with Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson after the Morant Bay Rebellion; he was in regular correspondence with Charles Darwin (and was anonymously cited by Darwin in the second edition of The Origin of Species); and a review he wrote provoked a controversy with John Henry Newman that prompted the writing of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Perhaps more than any other Victorian, we might imagine Kingsley as possessing a multi-faceted view of the period’s major minds and intellectual discourses.

From this position, Kingsley became passionate about the state of national education. In his well-known lecture “Human Soot,” on the subject of the impoverished masses, given at the Kirkdale Ragged Schools in Liverpool, Kingsley said:

The great majority of children who attend this school belong to the class of “street arabs,” as they are now called; and either already belong to, or are likely to sink into, the dangerous classes–professional law-breakers, profligates, and barbarians. … Let us take hold of these little ones at once. They are now soft, plastic, mouldable; a tone will stir their young souls to the very depths, a look will affect them for ever. But a hardening process has commenced within them, and if they are not seized at once, they will become harder than adamant… 

And further on:

“[T]he existence of such an evil is proof patent and sufficient that we have not yet discovered the whole will of God about this matter; that we have not yet mastered the laws of true political economy, which (like all other natural laws) are the will of God revealed in facts. . . . I conceive a time when, by a higher civilisation, formed on a political economy more truly scientific, because more truly according to the will of God, our human refuse shall be utilized, like our material refuse.”

Whether you prefer to think of poor children as street arabs, barbarians, or human refuse, it is worth taking note of how Kingsley’s vision translates into fictional fantasy.

In The Water-Babies, written three years before Alice, the chimney sweep Tom is wrongfully accused of robbing a wealthy house (it turns out he was just cleaning the chimney!) and is chased across the country until he drowns in a quiet pond. He then is birthed out of his soot-covered shell and becomes a tiny larval “Water Baby” that cavorts about with bugs and fish underwater. Eventually he swims out to sea and receives a stringent moral education from two mechanical fairies, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. These fairies travel through time and collect photographs of immoral humans devolving into apes.

Tom sets off on an adventure to speak to the Titan of science, Epimetheus, and finally succeeds in regaining his body and becoming a “a great man of science” who

can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth.

Kingsley’s vision of Tom as industrial waste (his body is repeatedly described as being made up of coal dust) is repurposed through scientific-theological education into a productive industrial subject. And it’s worth noting that the title of the novel is The Water-Babies, plural, signaling Kingsley’s fantasy of Tom as a model for the mass production of enlightened pauper children.

The Water-Babies, unlike Alice, has never been described as nonsense, and it is interesting to see where it has been included in conversations about Alice’s Adventures.

In his book The Making of the Alice Books, Ronald Reichertz discusses the predominance of informational literature in the reading practices prescribed for nineteenth-century children. Against this literary formation, Reichertz discusses a series of authors who participate in imaginative literature that explicitly combats informational didacticism, or, as Dickens famously imagined it, Gradgrindian teaching, the heartless utilitarian memorization of information. Recihertz lists William Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Catherine Sinclair, Thomas Kingsley, and Lewis Carroll as all championing the imagination as necessary for childhood learning.

What strikes me as problematic about this list is that Carroll is, in some meaningful ways, as different from his fellow imaginative authors as he is from the didactic educational catechisms of William Pinnock, who wrote “A catechism of the history of Greece, including its literature, geography, and antiquities.” Thomas Kingsley, as I have shown, was incredibly critical of educational reform, but he was critical as someone who had an alternate vision of a standardized system of mass education. Kingsley’s critique is of the way standardization is done, not whether or not it is desirable as a practice. The end goal of a productive industrial subject remains the same. Imagination is merely the vehicle through which young minds might be more efficiently programmed with scientific and religious information.

When we bring this question of a reproducible subject to bear on Alice, we see something quite different:


‘Who are you?’ the hooka-smoking caterpillar asks of Alice in chapter 5 of her adventure:

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’

‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

‘It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; ‘but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’

‘Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; ‘all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.’

‘You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. ‘Who are you?’

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. Alice felt a little irritated at the Caterpillar’s making such very short remarks, and she drew herself up and said, very gravely, ‘I think, you ought to tell me who you are, first.’

‘Why?’ said the Caterpillar.

Here was another puzzling question; and as Alice could not think of any good reason, and as the Caterpillar seemed to be in a very unpleasant state of mind, she turned away.

Despite being written in the form of questions and answers, this is not a catechism. A catechism forecloses the possibility of an opposed position. There is only a question and a correct answer for the response to that question. We might think about this as an underlying logic of standardization. To reference my opening example, the cultural debate has become whether the Texas school board has chosen the correct focus for textbooks, not whether or not there should be standardized textbooks, or even what standardizing such narratives does to children’s education.

This is not to say standardizing is wrong or damaging or that there is some organic alternative available inside the Alice books. Rather, Carroll proposes a kind of thinking that is precisely NOT that. The book does not provide a competing ideological agenda like Kingsley, but rather poses questions without answers that lay ubiquitous cultural practices open for debate.

In her conversation with the Caterpillar, Alice is repeatedly frustrated and confused by being asked who she is. The questions continue until she fires back “I think, you ought to tell me who you are, first.” This image, of a child asking questions back against the unyielding catechism of identity formation, is the legacy of Carroll’s resistance to education, and there is a danger in consigning this act, even in the most sympathetic terms, to mere nonsense.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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