One of the most popular home schooling movements equates the elementary school years to the “Pol Parrot” stage, in which a child’s amazing capacity for memory should be used to load up on facts of all sorts. I understand the urge, but question the value in the long term… and, of course, I am reminded of a most amusing bit by Dickens in Hard Times
MURDERING THE INNOCENTS
THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir-peremptorily Thomas-Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind-no, sir !
In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words “boys and girls,” for “sir,” . Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.
Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of child-hood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.
“Girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?”
“Sissy Jupe, sir,” explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying,
“Sissy is not a name,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”
“It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,” returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.
“Then he has no business to do it,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”
“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.”
Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.
“We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?”
“If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.”
“You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?” “Oh yes, sir.”
“Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horse-breaker. Give me your definition of a horse.”
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.) “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.”
The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the comer of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.
“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”
“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”
Facts, yes, but the sparks jumping between those facts hold real promise; when a student realizes for herself the connection between horses and her own love of bicycling, the distances between cities in the East, or the end of the Pony Express after the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point, Utah.