BOOK THE FIRST
NOTE: Education in nineteenth-century England was in disarray, especially in schools for the poor. Many people virtually abandoned students to schools (both day schools and boarding schools) where they were sometimes completely ignored and often mistreated. (Dickens portrayed such a school in his earlier novel, Nicholas Nickleby.) The opposite extreme is exposed in Hard Times. Readers have pointed out that this chapter exaggerates very little in its depiction of the strict teaching methods of schools in factory towns.
The speechmaker in the classroom is Thomas Gradgrind, "a man of realities" and the school's governor. As he quizzes the class, he calls upon a new girl, whom he identifies by her classroom number, twenty. Huge classrooms were common in such schools, with hundreds of students assigned to a handful of teachers. Numbers were assigned to the students to ensure order.
The girl's name is Sissy Jupe, but Gradgrind insists on using her formal name, Cecilia. When Sissy tells him that her father works with the "horse-riding" (a traveling circus), Gradgrind won't hear of such a thing. If Jupe works with horses, Gradgrind insists, he must be a veterinarian.
Gradgrind's view of reality is so strict that he won't accept anything outside its realm. Not only won't he accept the use of the girl's nickname, but he changes Mr. Jupe's occupation to one less involved with "fancy"! Thomas Gradgrind is a major character in the novel, and you see here an early example of his inflexibility (as well as his refusal to face reality).
Gradgrind asks for a definition of a horse. Sissy is too shy to reply, but Bitzer, an eager student, is ready with the proper answer: "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."
Does Bitzer's definition define a horse to your satisfaction? The facts are correct, but do the words suggest the beauty, the grace, the spirit of a horse? Dickens is just beginning to make his point that education requires more than the learning and memorizing of facts. These methods, according to Dickens, would prevent the student from learning things on their own or truly understanding what they had learned.
NOTE: For a portrait of a school that meets with Dickens's approval, see David Copperfield, where the hero attends a school run by Dr. Strong: "It was very gravely and decorously ordered," says David, "and on a sound system; with an appeal in everything, to the honour and good faith of the boys... We all felt we had a part in the management of the place, and in sustaining its character and dignity... We had noble games out of hours, and plenty of liberty." As you read this chapter in Hard Times, notice how the two schools contrast.
Sissy's shyness and Bitzer's aggressiveness are contrasted in this scene; their fates will intertwine in the novel. Notice the ray of sunlight that strikes both students. The sun brings out Sissy's natural, glowing colors, but it makes Bitzer appear pale and cold.
The third man in the room is a government officer, come to inspect the classroom. He questions the children, too. Would they wallpaper a room with pictures of horses or use a rug with flowers in its design? Those who answer yes are wrong. Horses don't walk on walls in real life, nor do people willingly walk on flowers. These decorations contradict fact. Any attempt by the students to talk about what they might "fancy"- or prefer- is stopped short by the government officer. The students must never fancy. They must stick to what is real.
The presence of the officer tells you that the school is government-run to teach the "lower classes." The man's disapproval of horse pictures and flowered carpets comes from an 1851 edict of a Department of Practical Art that recommended against such decorative touches!
The teacher of the class is Mr. M'Choakumchild, one of 140 teachers who have been produced by the same educational "factory." All of the teachers were formed in the same mold, all of their heads stuffed with facts.
NOTE: DICKENS ON EDUCATION
Dickens's disgust with the kind of education shown in the chapter is revealed in other ways:
Is there evidence today of this kind of educational philosophy? Have you ever experienced anything similar to the way this school is run? Is there any benefit in this kind of strictness? Think about the kind of school you would operate as you read this chapter.
NOTE: M'Choakumchild's teaching methods are compared to Morgiana's in the story of Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights. Morgiana was Ali Baba's servant, who, in search of the forty thieves, looked into a large collection of jars. Discovering that all but one contained a thief, she boiled oil from the remaining jar and filled the others with the scalding liquid to kill the men inside. Dickens uses the allusion to scold M'Choakumchild. Beware! says Dickens. You may think you're only killing the imagination- the "fancy"- of these children, but instead you're harming them in more serious ways. As you will see, it's a warning that Gradgrind would do well to heed.
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© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.