The Higher the Fewer




Question: Why is a mouse when it spins?

Answer: The higher the fewer.

This question is incorrect. It should read:

How is a mouse when it spins?

The correct answer remains:

The higher the fewer.

This is an old riddle—probably from around the turn of the century when centrifugal governors were in use as regulators on steam engines.

A centrifugal governor is a specific type of governor that controls the speed of an engine by regulating the amount of fuel (or working fluid) admitted, so as to maintain a near-constant speed, irrespective of the load or fuel-supply conditions. It uses the principle of proportional control.

It is most obviously seen on steam engines, where it regulates the admission of steam into the cylinder(s). It is also found on internal combustion engines and variously fueled turbines, and in some modern striking clocks. Source: Wikipedia

In this context, the riddle makes sense since the meaning of the question had to do with the centrifugal governor on an old steam engine.

The weight was called the mouse, and as the engine rpm increased the mouse would rise due to centrifugal force. But as the mouse rose, the arm would force the steam valve in the more closed direction, thus reducing the rpm, that is, the higher (the mouse), the fewer (rpms).

So for a given setting of the mouse on the arm, the engine would run at a constant speed.

Laurie Bestvater refers to this riddle in her article, The Higher the Fewer, an insightful exploration of the interrelation of the works of Charlotte Mason (whose revolutionary methods led to a shift from utilitarian education to the education of a child upon living ideas) and a classical education.

Laurie states:

For the moment, I am exploring how CM [Charlotte Mason] and classical education interrelate as some in my community wish to start a classical school.

As detailed in my article about Dorothy Sayer’s Lost Tools of Learning, my longing for a classical education is still with me, and more-so when I talk to others or listen to them speak about the shortcomings of today’s educational system.

Coming of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I was very interested in education and becoming a teacher. However, at college my training exposed me the ‘new methods’ making the rounds in the public schools of Canada at that time. I was not at all pleased with what what I saw happening in the classroom. Consequently, I never did complete my teacher’s training. Never could I have functioned as a teacher in the school system as it was fast becoming during those tumultuous years.

Because of those experiences, I vowed that when I had children of my own, I would home school them. At that time, the only ‘alternate’ schooling option I was aware of (as home-schooling was not a popular concept in those days) was that of Maria Montessori, whose character, integrity and educational methods I both respected and admired.

I never did have children. However, I have remained interested in education and appreciate that like-minded others have contributed greatly to both the philosophy and implementation of home-schooling their precious children during their susceptible, formative years.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the many fine points of our public school system and the talented, dedicated teachers who have devoted their lives to teaching children. It is the curriculum that I question, because I don’t think it teaches children how to think. The focus is on learning subjects rather than on developing and using the basic tools of learning.

Whew! We’ve gone from centrifugal governors to home schooling in one fell swoop. What’s next?

How about Star Trek?

The episode of “Star Trek: TNG” in which the phrase “the higher, the fewer” appears is entitled: Cost of Living. I’ll leave it to you to discover the context in which this phrase was used.

I’ll also leave it to you to determine what “The Higher the Fewer” means to you.


More Sample Writings by Val

Toilet Paper in Trees

The Tea Party

Literary Analysis, Dulce et Decorum Est

The Higher The Fewer

The Lost Tools of Learning