Charles Dodgson on Natural Science

On 17 May 1877, Charles Dodgson wrote to the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and his letter was published on Saturday 19 May 1877, appearing on pages 4 and 5. We give a version of the letter below.

To the Editor of the "Pall Mall Gazette."

Sir, - There is no one of the many ingenious appliances of mechanical science that is more appreciated or more successfully employed than the wedge; so subtle and imperceptible are the forces needed for the insertion of its "thin end," so astounding the results which its "thick end" may ultimately produce. Of the former process we shall see a beautiful illustration in a Congregation to be holden at Oxford on the 24th inst., when it will be proposed to grant, to those who have taken the degrees of bachelor and master in Natural Science only, the same voting powers as in the case of the "M.A." degree. This means the omission of one of the two classical languages, Latin and Greek, from what has been hitherto understood as the curriculum of an Oxford education. It is to this "thin end" of the wedge that I would call the attention of our non-residents, and of all interested in Oxford education, while the "thick end" is still looming in the distance. But why fear a "thick end" at all? I shall be asked. Has Natural Science shown any such tendency, or given any reason to fear that such a concession would lead to further demands? In answer to that question, let me sketch, in dramatic fashion, the history of her recent career in Oxford. In the dark ages of our University (some five-and-twenty years ago), while we still believed in classics and mathematics as constituting a liberal education, Natural Science sat weeping at our gates. "Ah, let me in!" she moaned; "why cram reluctant youth with your unsatisfying lore? Are they not hungering for bones; yea, panting for sulphuretted hydrogen?" We heard and we pitied. We let her in and housed her royally; we adorned her palace with re-agents and retorts, and made it a very charnel-house of bones, and we cried to our undergraduates, "The feast of Science is spread! Eat, drink, and be happy!" But they would not. They fingered the bones, and thought them dry. They sniffed at the hydrogen, and turned away. Yet for all that Science ceased not to cry, "More gold, more gold!" And her three fair daughters, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics (for the modern horse-leech is more prolific than in the days of Solomon), ceased not to plead, "Give, give!" And we gave; we poured forth our wealth like water (I beg her pardon, like H_2O), and we could not help thinking there was something weird and uncanny in the ghoul-like facility with which she absorbed it.

The curtain rises on the second act of the drama. Science is still weeping, but this time it is for lack of pupils, not of teachers or machinery. "We are unfairly handicapped!" she cries. "You have prizes and scholarships for classics and mathematics, and you bribe your best students to desert us. Buy us some bright, clever boys to teach, and then see what we can do!" Once more we heard and pitied. We had bought her bones; we bought her boys. And now at last her halls were filled - not only with teachers paid to teach, but also with learners paid to learn. And we have not much to complain of in results, except that perhaps she is a little too ready to return on our hands all but the "honour-men" - all, in fact, who really need the helping hand of an educator. "Here, take back your stupid ones!" she cries. "Except as subjects for the scalpel (and we have not yet got the Human Vivisection Act through Parliament) we can do nothing with them!"

The third act of the drama is yet under rehearsal; the actors are still running in and out of the green-room, and hastily shuffling on their new and ill-fitting dresses; but its general scope is not far to seek. At no distant day our once timid and tearful guest will be turning up her nose at the fare provided for her. "Give me no more youths to teach," she will say; "but pay me handsomely, and let me think. Plato and Aristotle were all very well in their way; Diogenes and his tub for me!" The allusion is not inappropriate. There can be little doubt that some of the researches conducted by that retiring philosopher in the recesses of that humble edifice were strictly scientific, embracing several distinct branches of entomology. I do not mean, of course, that "research" is a new idea in Oxford. From time immemorial we have had our own chosen band of researchers (here called "professors"), who have advanced the boundaries of human knowledge in many directions. True, they are not left so wholly to themselves as some of these modern thinkers would wish to be, but are expected to give some few lectures, as the outcome of their "research" and the evidence of its reality, but even that condition has not always been enforced - for instance, in the case of the late Professor of Greek, Dr Gaisford, the University was too conscious of the really valuable work he was doing in philological research to complain that he ignored the usual duties of the chair and delivered no lectures.

And, now, what is the "thick end" of the wedge? It is that Latin and Greek may both vanish from our curriculum; that logic, philosophy, and history may follow; and that the destinies of Oxford may some day be in the hands of those who have had no education other than "scientific." And why not? I shall be asked. Is it not as high a form of education as any other? That is a matter to be settled by facts. I can but offer my own little item of evidence, and leave it to others to confirm or to refute. It used once to be thought indispensable for an educated man that he should be able to write his own language correctly, if not elegantly; it seems doubtful how much longer this will be taken as a criterion. Not so many years ago I had the honour of assisting in correcting for the press some pages of the Anthropological Review, or some such periodical. I doubt not that the writers were eminent men in their own line; that each could triumphantly prove, to his own satisfaction, the unsoundness of what the others had advanced; and that all would unite in declaring that the theories of a year ago were entirely exploded by the latest German treatise; but they were not able to set forth these thoughts, however consoling in themselves, in anything resembling the language of educated society. In all my experience, I have never read, even in the "local news" of a country paper, such slipshod, such deplorable English.

I shall be told that I am ungenerous in thus picking out a few unfavourable cases, and that some of the greatest minds of the day are to be found in the ranks of science. I freely admit that such may be found, but my contention is that they made the science, not the science them; and that in any line of thought they would have been equally distinguished. As a general principle, I do not think that the exclusive study of any one subject is really education; and my experience as a teacher has shown me that even a considerable proficiency in Natural Science, taken alone, is so far from proving a high degree of cultivation and great natural ability that it is fully compatible with general ignorance and an intellect quite below par. Therefore it is that I seek to rouse an interest, beyond the limits of Oxford, in preserving classics as an essential feature of a University education. Nor is it as a classical tutor (who might be suspected of a bias in favour of his own subject) that I write this. On the contrary, it is as one who has taught science here for more than twenty years (for mathematics, though good-humouredly scorned by the biologists on account of the abnormal certainty of its conclusions, is still reckoned among the sciences) that I beg to sign myself, -

Your obedient servant,

Charles L Dodgson,
Mathematical Lecturer of Christ Church, Oxford.
May 17th 1877.

Last Updated January 2021