Study Guide

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Education

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Wonderland, Chapter 1

. . . she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that, if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked "poison," it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. (Wonderland 1.16)

The tone of the book becomes extremely dry when the narrator starts mocking the morality tales that Victorian children had to read. You may have read this kind of story yourself – a tale that warns you about the consequences of foolish behavior with a gruesome death or outcome. The narrator is scornful of this kind of story, and we can tell that he would never torture Alice just to make a didactic point.

"I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?" she said aloud. "I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think –" (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) "– yes, that's about the right distance – but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?" (Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.) (Wonderland 1.8)

Alice is a diligent student and makes every attempt to practice her learning. Yet everything she knows about geography is either muddled or useless in Wonderland; none of her book learning has given her practical skills for finding her way.

Wonderland, Chapter 2

"Perhaps it doesn't understand English," thought Alice. "I daresay it's a French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror." (For, with all her knowledge of history, Alice had no very clear notion of how long ago anything had happened.) (Wonderland 2.16)

Practical and theoretical knowledge are contrasted once again. Alice may know about "history" but she doesn't know "how long ago anything had happened." Yet if she truly mastered the theory, she'd have practical knowledge, too.

Wonderland, Chapter 9
The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle

"Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle replied; "and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision." (Wonderland 9.73)

As we're sure you've guessed, these are parodies of the subjects you learned in school: reading, writing, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Yet all the things listed in the parody are things we learn in school too – competing for grades teaches us ambition, there are plenty of things to distract us as we study, we learn to mock and deride one another, and so on.

"I went to the Classical master, though. He was an old crab, he was."

"I never went to him," the Mock Turtle said with a sigh. "He taught Laughing and Grief, they used to say." (Wonderland 9.82-83)

The things the Mock Turtle learned in school are parodies of what a good Victorian child would have learned. Unlike most American schools today, pretty much every nineteenth-century British school would have taught classics – Latin ("Laughing") and Greek ("Grief") language and literature. The puns are based on the fact that Latin is an easier language to learn than Greek (grief).


"I've been to a day-school, too," said Alice. "You needn't be so proud as all that."

"With extras?" asked the Mock Turtle, a little anxiously.

"Yes," said Alice: "we learned French and music."

"And washing?" said the Mock Turtle.

"Certainly not!" said Alice indignantly.

"Ah! Then yours wasn't a really good school," said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief. "Now, at ours, they had, at the end of the bill, 'French, music, and washing – extra.'" (Wonderland 9.64-69)

As the annotations to any good edition of the book will tell you, the Mock Turtle is confusing the fees for extra subjects at boarding school with the fee they charge for doing your laundry. His rationale seems to be that anything you pay for makes you more educated. But we know that (unfortunately) it takes more than buying a lesson to really learn it.

"And how many hours a day did you do lessons?" said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

"Ten hours the first day," said the Mock Turtle: "nine the next, and so on."

"What a curious plan!" exclaimed Alice.

"That's the reason they're called lessons," the Gryphon remarked: "because they lessen from day to day." (Wonderland 9.85-88)

Don't we just wish they did!

"What else had you to learn?"

"Well, there was Mystery," the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers – "Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling – the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils." (Wonderland 9.78-79)

OK, "Mystery" is history, "Seaography" is geography, "Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils" are drawing, sketching, and painting in oils. Of all these, we're most amused by "Mystery," since so many of the things that have happened over the course of human history are bizarre, ridiculous, or inexplicable.

Looking-Glass, Chapter 9
The Red Queen

Here the Red Queen began again. "Can you answer useful questions?" she said. "How is bread made?"

"I know that!" Alice cried eagerly. "You take some flour – "

"Where do you pick the flower?" the White Queen asked. 'In a garden or in the hedges?"

"Well, it isn't picked at all," Alice explained: "it's ground – "

"How many acres of ground?" said the White Queen. "You mustn't leave out so many things." (Looking-Glass 9.43-47)

This reminds us of those thought exercises where you imagine being stranded on a desert island. Even though we're advanced 21st century people, few of us would be able to make all the things we want or need. The queens quiz Alice on her practical knowledge and quickly show her how much explanation and skill is necessary for something relatively simple, like making bread.

The White Queen

"Can you do Addition?" the White Queen asked. "What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?"

"I don't know," said Alice. "I lost count."

"She can't do Addition," the Red Queen interrupted. "Can you do Subtraction? Take nine from eight."

"Nine from eight I can't, you know," Alice replied very readily: "but – "

"She can't do Substraction," said the White Queen. "Can you do Division? Divide a loaf by a knife – what's the answer to that?"

"I suppose – " Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen answered for her. "Bread-and-butter, of course." (Looking-Glass 9.20-27)

Alice's carefully learned mathematical skills are foiled by the riddles of the Red Queen. But it's not just Alice: even the White Queen, who calls subtraction "Substraction," has trouble.

The Red Queen

"We gave you the opportunity of doing it," the Red Queen remarked: "but I daresay you've not had many lessons in manners yet?"

"Manners are not taught in lessons," said Alice. "Lessons teach you to do sums, and things of that sort."

Alice separates intellectual from moral lessons – and people still debate what role schooling should play in one's moral or humanistic education. What do you think?

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