Moonbeams From The Larger Lunacy

6.0 Education Made Agreeable -- Or the Diversions of a Professor


A few days ago during a pause in one of my college lectures (my class being asleep) I sat reading Draper’s Intellectual Development of Europe. Quite suddenly I came upon the following sentence:

“Eratosthenes cast everything he wished to teach into poetry. By this means he made it attractive, and he was able to spread his system all over Asia Minor.”

This came to me with a shock of an intellectual discovery. I saw at once how I could spread my system, or parts of it, all over the United States and Canada. To make education attractive! There it is! To call in the help of poetry, of music, of grand opera, if need be, to aid in the teaching of the dry subjects of the college class room.

I set to work at once on the project and already I have enough results to revolutionize education.

In the first place I have compounded a blend of modern poetry and mathematics, which retains all the romance of the latter and loses none of the dry accuracy of the former. Here is an example:


Introduction. A party of three persons, a Scotch nobleman, a young lady and an elderly boatman stand on the banks of a river (R), which, for private reasons, they desire to cross. Their only means of transport is a boat, of which the boatman, if squared, is able to row at a rate proportional to the square of the distance. The boat, however, has a leak (S), through which a quantity of water passes sufficient to sink it after traversing an indeterminate distance (D). Given the square of the boatman and the mean situation of all concerned, to find whether the boat will pass the river safely or sink.

A chieftain to the Highlands bound
Cried “Boatman do not tarry!
And I’ll give you a silver pound
To row me o’er the ferry.”
Before them raged the angry tide
X2 + Y from side to side.
Outspake the hardy Highland wight,
“I’ll go, my chief, I’m ready;
It is not for your silver bright,
But for your winsome lady.”
And yet he seemed to manifest
A certain hesitation;
His head was sunk upon his breast
In puzzled calculation.
“Suppose the river X + Y
And call the distance Q
Then dare we thus the gods defy
I think we dare, don’t you?
Our floating power expressed in words
Is X + 47/3”
“Oh, haste thee, haste,” the lady cries,
“Though tempests round us gather
I’ll face the raging of the skies
But please cut out the Algebra.”
The boat has left the stormy shore (S)
A stormy C before her
C1 C2 C3 C4
The tempest gathers o’er her
The thunder rolls, the lightning smites ’em
And the rain falls ad infinitum.
In vain the aged boatman strains,
His heaving sides reveal his pains;
The angry water gains apace
Both of his sides and half his base,
Till, as he sits, he seems to lose
The square of his hypotenuse.
The boat advanced to X + 2,
Lord Ullin reached the fixed point Q,—
Then the boat sank from human eye,

But this is only a sample of what can be done. I have realised that all our technical books are written and presented in too dry a fashion. They don’t make the most of themselves. Very often the situation implied is intensely sensational, and if set out after the fashion of an up-to-date newspaper, would be wonderfully effective.

Here, for example, you have Euclid writing in a perfectly prosaic way all in small type such an item as the following:

“A perpendicular is let fall on a line BC so as to bisect it at the point C etc., etc.,” just as if it were the most ordinary occurrence in the world. Every newspaper man will see at once that it ought to be set up thus:


The Line at C said to be completely bisected
President of the Line makes Statement etc., etc., etc.

But I am not contenting myself with merely describing my system. I am putting it to the test. I am preparing a new and very special edition of my friend Professor Daniel Murray’s work on the Calculus. This is a book little known to the general public. I suppose one may say without exaggeration that outside of the class room it is hardly read at all.

Yet I venture to say that when my new edition is out it will be found on the tables of every cultivated home, and will be among the best sellers of the year. All that is needed is to give to this really monumental book the same chance that is given to every other work of fiction in the modern market.

First of all I wrap it in what is called technically a jacket. This is of white enameled paper, and on it is a picture of a girl, a very pretty girl, in a summer dress and sunbonnet sitting swinging on a bough of a cherry tree. Across the cover in big black letters are the words:

and beneath them the legend “the most daring book of the day.” This, you will observe, is perfectly true. The reviewers of the mathematical journals when this book first came out agreed that “Professor Murray’s views on the Calculus were the most daring yet published.” They said, too, that they hoped that the professor’s unsound theories of infinitesimal rectitude would not remain unchallenged. Yet the public somehow missed it all, and one of the most profitable scandals in the publishing trade was missed for the lack of a little business enterprise.

My new edition will give this book its first real chance.

I admit that the inside has to be altered,—but not very much. The real basis of interest is there. The theories in the book are just as interesting as those raised in the modern novel. All that is needed is to adopt the device, familiar in novels, of clothing the theories in personal form and putting the propositions advanced into the mouths of the characters, instead of leaving them as unsupported statements of the author. Take for example Dr. Murray’s beginning. It is very good,—any one will admit it,—fascinatingly clever, but it lacks heart.

It runs:

If two magnitudes, one of which is determined by a straight line and the other by a parabola approach one another, the rectangle included by the revolution of each will be equal to the sum of a series of indeterminate rectangles.

Now this is,—quite frankly,—dull. The situation is there; the idea is good, and, whether one agrees or not, is at least as brilliantly original as even the best of our recent novels. But I find it necessary to alter the presentation of the plot a little bit. As I re-edit it the opening of the Calculus runs thus:

On a bright morning in June along a path gay with the opening efflorescence of the hibiscus and entangled here and there with the wild blossoms of the convolvulus,—two magnitudes might have been seen approaching one another. The one magnitude who held a tennis-racket in his hand, carried himself with a beautiful erectness and moved with a firmness such as would have led Professor Murray to exclaim in despair—Let it be granted that A. B. (for such was our hero’s name) is a straight line. The other magnitude, which drew near with a step at once elusive and fascinating, revealed as she walked a figure so exquisite in its every curve as to call from her geometrical acquaintances the ecstatic exclamation, “Let it be granted that M is a parabola.”

The beautiful magnitude of whom we have last spoken, bore on her arm as she walked, a tiny dog over which her fair head was bent in endearing caresses; indeed such was her attention to the dog Vi (his full name was Velocity but he was called Vi for short) that her wayward footsteps carried her not in a straight line but in a direction so constantly changing as to lead that acute observer, Professor Murray, to the conclusion that her path could only be described by the amount of attraction ascribable to Vi.

Guided thus along their respective paths, the two magnitudes presently met with such suddenness that they almost intersected.

“I beg your pardon,” said the first magnitude very rigidly.

“You ought to indeed,” said the second rather sulkily, “you’ve knocked Vi right out of my arms.”

She looked round despairingly for the little dog which seemed to have disappeared in the long grass.

“Won’t you please pick him up?” she pleaded.

“Not exactly in my line, you know,” answered the other magnitude, “but I tell you what I’ll do, if you’ll stand still, perfectly still where you are, and let me take hold of your hand, I’ll describe a circle!”

“Oh, aren’t you clever!” cried the girl, clapping her hands. “What a lovely idea! You describe a circle all around me, and then we’ll look at every weeny bit of it and we’ll be sure to find Vi—”

She reached out her hand to the other magnitude who clasped it with an assumed intensity sufficient to retain it.

At this moment a third magnitude broke on the scene:—a huge oblong, angular figure, very difficult to describe, came revolving towards them.

“M,” it shouted, “Emily, what are you doing?”

“My goodness,” said the second magnitude in alarm, “it’s M A M A.”

I may say that the second installment of Dr. Murray’s fascinating romance will appear in the next number of the Illuminated Bookworm, the great adult-juvenile vehicle of the newer thought in which these theories of education are expounded further.