Humpty Dumpty School

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 190.

Friday’s Guardian reported that a new £4.7m primary school in Sheffield, which is due to open on Monday, the same day I go back to work, will instead be called a “place for learning”.

“We decided from an early stage we didn’t want to use the word ‘school’,” [the headteacher] told local newspaper the Sheffield Star.

“This is Watercliffe Meadow, a place for learning. One reason was many of the parents of the children here had very negative connotations of school.

Nevermind for the moment the good idea that schools ought to be more open to parents (see my post on network permission structures). I’d think twice about sending my kids to a school that makes such a hash of language. Go too far with this and you’ll never get it back together again, for all the king’s horse and all the king’s men.

But these days, alas, pragmatics usually trumps semantics–therein is the origin of that horrible verbal dismissive “What-ever!” But semantics do matter, as anyone who has read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language–or 1984–knows. I was going to say Watercliffe Meadow, which sounds more  like a condominium development in Richmond, B.C., needs some sense knocked into it. But, on second thought, it needs some nonsense knocked into it.

Lewis Carroll knew a thing or two about nonesense. He knew, for example, that we all want it. The Alice books may be a product of Lewis’ fancy for logic, his purported pedophilia, his distaste for the Victorian taste for stiff, didactic, moralizing children’s literature. (We see how the Alice books and Hard Times come from the same society. If only the Dickens’ little Gradgrinds, and Adam Smith and Malthus, had a copy of Alice!) Mostly though, Alice is a product of want. We want the book, like we want April Fool’s day, so we might lampoon the world before we take it too seriously; but also so we might take more seriously the lampoon that is the world. Someone said to me we first need sense if we are to have nonsense, but I think the matter is almost the other way around.

We commonly and curiously associate the entirely sensible person with the entirely dull person; or more exactly with the person whose senses of wonder and excitement have been dulled, perhaps by too much of a good thing, like a teetotaller; or, perhaps, like Alice herself, by too much stern moralizing by an Isaac Watts. I say curiously because we would think the entirely sensible person to sense things in their entirety, and with greater sensitivity than the ordinarily sensible sort of person. But, as it turns out, what we really mean by enitrely sensible is entirely reasonable, and reason, as we know from Mary Shelley and Dickens, is something of a cold fish that, as would be plainly evident to the Mock Turtle, goes swimming about without a porpoise.

Now early after creation—whether you count that as 6,000 or 160,000 years ago doesn’t matter—I’d suppose everyone was more sensitive to the novelty and strangeness of existence. The most ordinary objects—apples for instance—are exotic at the first bite. Primitive sun-worshippers knelt before the sun not because they hoped they could command it, but because they knew they couldn’t. It is far more impressive, says G. K. Chesterton, that a witchdoctor orders the sun to rise and it doesn’t than had it leapt over the western horizon and danced a jig. Something else is at work. The Enlightenment, however, picked up Archimedes lever and brought us very close to thinking that we could in fact make the sun rise as we wished. Once you have moved a giant, roiling ball of fire a few times, even in principle, the novelty of just about everything else quickly wears off. The worst sort of people become jaded. Except for the poets, most of the rest become, well, entirely sensible…I mean entirely reasonable about the whole business of creation.

There is nothing reasonable about it, however. Creation could just as easily have been something radically different. That was the premise of Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life. And that is why we need Alice. She is a kind of funhouse mirror in which we might see ourselves as fantastic once again. “Who in the world am I?” Alice asks, and it is a good question. In answering, we must note that the creatures of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are as startled by Alice as she is by them because she is startling, full stop. Certainly, she is as startling as a white rabbit in a waistcoat, a smiling cat, a singing turtle, or a smoking caterpillar. We are so used to seeing things as they are that we forget that they are not something else. It’s nonsense like Carroll’s that gives back to us our sense of wonder. The governors of Watercliffe Meadow, being entirely sensible sorts, think they’ve done a good thing, like Dickens’ Gradgrind thought he’d done a good thing, and a pragmatic thing, like Humpty Dumpty. They shoud remember that the Big Egg’s story is a cautionary tale.

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