Gradgrind and the problem of legless horses

Gradgrind came to epitomise Victorian school teachers. Victorian school teachers were sharply focused on facts. Facts appeared to offer certainty and, even better, they could be tested. A pupil repeating the facts that they’d learned was a good pupil. There’s no ambiguity in facts. The classic Gradgrind example is in Hard Times* when Sissy Juppe was ordered to define a horse. She failed. The boy Bitzer provided Gradgrind answers with ‘Gradgrind’ facts. Bitzer’s answer was that a horse was a “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.” Gradgrind was pleased with this answer.

Horses normally have four legs. However this horse has three legs. Clearly a three legged horse doesn’t have the utility of a four legged animal but does this change its status? Does it cease to a be a horse with a leg amputated, or indeed if born with three legs? Has Bitzer missed something essential? Horses that can’t pull carriages, carry a person or run and jump might be deemed useless. But they might be pets adored and pampered. Disability might add to their charm, making them more lovable. Lovability is a type of utility say co-equal with pulling carriages etc. The horse is now a pet. This implies that horses are horses because they have utility for humans. But surely this can’t be right. What of horses that roam wild on the American prairies without contact with people, are they only potential horses?

What of legless horses, of immobile horses? Obviously they are strange. What if the horse is born legless? Some might they are an imposter to the concept horse. What are the bone fides of a legless horse? Gradgrind would be concerned about immobile horses and especially congenitally immobile horses. Gradgrind worries are quite right because if the four legs criterion fails what of everything else? Obviously teeth fail along with the ageing assessment via teeth, hoofs go into the conceptual bin as well; and feeding ‘graminivorous’- our immobile horse would be fed direct to the stomach. Gradgrind’s fact based definition fails.

Where might this reduction of physical attributes end before the horse isn’t a horse at all. Does a horse need any physical attributes beyond being alive to be a horse**? Suppose its internal organs are non-functional, it’s incapable of moving either its head or rolling from side to side. A life support machine maintains its beating heart and it fails to exhibit any characteristics of a horse. Its essential horseness has evaporated. The horse can’t run, carry a person, or even feed itself. It was born a horse and that is all that matters for it to maintain its status as a horse.

The key attribute is it was born a horse. Whether it has four legs or none, can move or not are purely contingent. They are unnecessary to a horse being a horse. Horses are horses because they are born as horses. Sissy Juppe, Bitzer and Gradgrind are faced with a circular definition:
A horse is a horse because it was born a horse.

Only pedigree matters. Our horse shouldn’t have donkeys or zebras in its pedigree (which would fatally challenge its claim to be a horse). Bitzer’s facts are an interesting list having no bearing on the actual subject matter. Gradgrind simply reflects the industrialised educational processes that were 19th Century schooling. So Hard Times and Gradgrind are a literary condemnation of 19th Century education and its intellectual limitations.

*Charles Dickens Hard Times (1854)
**Naturally a dead horse is still a horse trading on its legacy, as it were.


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5 Responses to Gradgrind and the problem of legless horses

  1. delsmith444 says:

    Not many horses attempt to shag frogs.

  2. Del Smith says:

    Not many horses try to shag frogs.

  3. Dereck smith says:

    It’s perfectly clear to me that horses are horses if other horses think they are. What other species consider their status to be matters not a jot. If you happen to be a horse that is.

    • odeboyz says:

      Actually I doubt that a horse has the concept ‘horse’ available to it. There would be recognition of course but would they be recognising a ‘horse’. We apply the concept as a way of reviewing all the species that are out there (a taxonomy) to help distinguish them from zebras for example.

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