Literature is an art form that teaches as well as entertains. Many of the greatest texts that have been created have value to help us escape our everyday lives and at the same time, if we look deeply into the text, we can also find a treasure trove of material to help us in many different disciplines. Many authors who write literature incorporate contemporary issues into the text they are writing, because these particular issues are important to the author, and many times these same issues are recurrent within societies at many different times. This creates an opportunity for readers of all times to use these texts to explore these issues at various points in time in order to search for better ways of dealing with these issues.

A good example of this is the work of Charles Dickens, which deal with social, economic, and educational issues. This last issue, of education, is dealt with in the novel Hard Times, and is found at the forefront of many political debates in our own contemporary times. The current educational system in the United States has both the goals and tendencies of the educational system in Hard Times, in that the American system educates toward a person’s greatest utility. By studying Hard Times we can foresee the end result of such a system, which is ultimately destructive to the true goals of our schools and universities, which should teach students to learn instead of how to take a test.

Over the course of its history, Dickens’ Hard Times has been interpreted in many different ways. Among the most prevalent is a Marxist interpretation that focuses on Utilitarianism and the plight of the working class in both the novel’s contemporary time and in each time since being published. That is what makes the way Dickens begins Hard Times a little peculiar. The novel opens, not in a factory or office building, but instead in a schoolhouse. Dickens begins his statement on the plight of the worker by showing the educational system that he feels is being enacted to produce such an environment. In fact, there may even be a case to think of Dickens as a type of post-industrial “prophet,” who writes about something that he foresees as the end result of the system which his contemporaries were trying to enforce.

His view of the educational system is clear as he opens his novel writing, “the scene was a plain, bare monotonous vault of a schoolroom” (7). Dickens emphasizes that the environment that the children are learning in is designed to train them for a place that is uncreative and only holds value in its utility. Dickens continues to punctuate this using words like “inflexible,” “dictatorial,” “obstinate,” and “unaccommodating” (7) all in the second paragraph. Some may be inclined to believe that Dickens is simply “setting a scene,” and that he does not actually view the education system of his time as detrimental to the students. This line of thought may be a bit naïve, because Dickens uses the entire first third of his text to explain this system, that very system which leads to many of the problems later in the text.

Furthermore, in Dickens’ satirical essay A Conference of Statisticians, he writes that education should dwell “upon the immense and urgent necessity of storing the minds of children with nothing but facts and figures” (355). Here we see Dickens drawing a quick distinction between “facts and figures” (355) and the liberal arts of literature, including things like mythology and fictional stories. Dickens goes as far as stating, in a deft twist of irony, that the “members” who advocate for this were made “the men they were” (355) in this same way.

Literature and Language, we read that there are many “scenes exposing the failure of Gradgrind’s utilitarian-Benthamite system for educating his children” (162). Clausson is convinced that Dickens had every intention of exposing the Utilitarian way of educating children as faulty and backward. Even more interesting is how Clausson uses a quote from David Lodge that states how Hard Times “comment(s) directly upon contemporary social issues” (163). Both Clausson and Lodge see that Dickens had a good point. In fact, it seems quite plain as Dickens writes in Hard Times that Mr. Gradgrind, “could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge” (81). Dickens sees this type of education as leading directly to an employer who sees his employees as a commodity to be kept track of, instead of cared for. Dickens’ novel in many ways is a type of pre-dystopian literature, whose goal is to show us what the school system could produce if these maxims are continued.

This leads to the question of whether our modern educational system educates to a student’s greatest utility or to their greatest potential as a person. In “Teaching Writing in a Time of Reform” found in The Educational School Journal by Dorothy S. Strickland, the author discusses how the new standards and tests that measure such standards are effecting the students in our schools. Far from being against such tests, Strickland writes that, “understandably, administrators must demonstrate to parents and policy makers in their communities that they are addressing (the) new…standards” (386). Strickland is pointing out that, of course, we need a way of finding out whether our students are learning the material they need to know, specifically in this case, demonstrating their writing skills, and yet there is a problem.

When Jensen became a professor he decided to take a new approach. Instead of the mind numbing approaches the students were used to, Jensen promises that he will not, “try to teach you anything. It’s my job instead to create an atmosphere where you can teach yourself” (20). In other words, Jensen understands that a student has both a natural drive to learn certain things and the capability of learning those same subjects.

For instance, when any educational system teaches a student who learns with numbers, mathematical word problems, they run into issues. I am not advocating doing away with word problems, but instead we should at the very least be aware that many students learn differently than the way in which the American school systems are trying to teach them. Even so, Jensen admits that he still has to give tests, although he does not seem to like even that.

This give us a pretty clear picture of Dickens’ take on the education system and how that system has morphed into the current system in America. In another satirical essay Joe Whelks and Education, Dickens writes that, “[t]here is a range of imagination in most of us, which no amount of steam engines will satisfy” (356). It is this imagination that Dickens believes is an integral part of the human person and that must be grown and taught as well as the facts and figures, otherwise a person will be left “unappeased” (356). This is a dangerous thing for a student and it leads to a student not learning anything, including the things they are actually interested in. It is even worse for a nation that is filled with the “unappeased” (356) who do not have the ability to teach themselves new ideas.

From all this it is clear that Dickens begins his novel in the schoolroom on purpose in order to show that the instruction of the students is the starting point of how we will one day treat these same students in the work force. Although some contemporary criticism pointed to this as purely fictional, I would counter that, not only has the system that Dickens writes about come true, it is as detrimental as he claims. This is seen in evidence from the educational systems in the elementary and post-secondary areas proving it is an issue that merits a good looking at, and radical changes would only help our students and the work force they will one day enter. If not we run the risk of creating citizens who state with Louisa, “All I know is your philosophy and your teaching will not save me” (176). The question is, do we have the forethought to say with Mr. Gradgrind, “Some persons hold…that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is wisdom of the Heart. I have not supposed so; but.. mistrust myself now” (179). Can we take the vision of Dickens, the pre-dystopian and prophetic author of the nineteenth century, and change our education system for the benefit of our students?

Annotated Bibliography

Clausson, Nils. “Dickens’ Mixta: What Kind of Novel is Hard Times?” Abstract. Texas Studies in
Literature and Language
vol. 52. (2010): 157-180. Print.

In this paper, Nils Clausson makes a good case for Hard Times being a “Genera Mixta,” or what he believes is a number of different genre types mixed together. Specifically, Clausson aims to answer the question posed by David Lodge, “what kind of novel is Hard Times,” which Clausson feels has “never been satisfactorily answered.” For our purposes here this paper points out how Hard Times and the novel genre itself, help to bring to light social issues of their time and continue to do so in our own contemporary society.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times 4h ed. Ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

This critical edition of the classic novel Hard Times brings together criticism from Dickens’ contemporary peers and the newest criticism from our own time. This 4th edition brings together essays about Industrialism, Education, and Utilitarianism and the Science of Political Economy, which help to tie the contemporary critiques into our modern age.

“A Conference of Statisticians.” Hard Times Fourth Norton Critical ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

This text, by Dickens himself, is found under the section of “Education,” and gives us a hint into how Dickens felt about the educational system of his time. It is a satirical piece that he uses to mock the way his contemporaries were using statistics to devalue literature and forcing students to learn “nothing but facts and figures” (355). We can now use this text to compare our current educational system in order to determine whether or not ours is better, or if it has changed at al. In the text of the essay it seems clear that Dickens was not a fan of the system in place

“Joe Whelks and Education.” Hard Times Fourth Norton Critical ed. New York: w.w. Norton & Company, 2017.

In this text, we find Dickens again using a fictional person in order to show what he believes to be a problem in the educational system of his time. Specifically, Dickens points out the differences in the educational systems between the classes.

Jensen, Derrick. Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2005.

In this text Jensen makes a case for using a much less structured class room setting in order to bring about his student’s educational success. Jensen writes that he uses everything in his classroom, including the desks, to foster an environment of learning as opposed to merely trying to pour facts into his students’ heads. Jensen is clear that he feels that the current educational system in America is not conducive to teaching students how to learn and is instead simply teaching them how to take tests.

Sinnett, Jane. “Dickens as a Critic of Education.” Hard Times Fourth Norton Critical ed. New York: W.w. Norton & Company, 2017. In this text, found in the “Education” section of this critical edition, is found a contemporary criticism of Hard Times, and therefore gives evidence of how some of Dickens’ peers felt about his novel’s implications about the educational system at the time. In this text we have Sinnett making the case that the type of educational system in Hard Times is not being practiced in England at the time.

Strickland, Dorothy, et al. “Teaching Writing in a Time of Reform.” Abstract. The Elementary
School Journal vol. 101 (March 2001): 385-397. Print.

In this article, Strickland makes the case that because of the standard setting that has Occurred recently in our school systems that many see as necessary to show the progress of our students, that our teachers are finding it difficult to teach students in a
productive way. Strickland does not seem to be against the standards themselves but points out that the way these standards are set up causes the teachers to focus on their students passing the standards test instead of teaching them how to learn.