Hard Times, Our Times

Charles Dickens published Hard Times in London in 1854, over 160 years ago. In the opening paragraphs, he describes – with raging fidelity – the first harsh lesson drummed into the heads of unsuspecting new teachers:

“’Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!’ …

“The speaker, and the schoolmaster … swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

This fraught description of 19th-century English schooling sounds weirdly resonant, curiously close at hand, quite a lot like the school-world we teachers face right here, right now. One would think that education and schooling in a modern contemporary “democracy” should look remarkably different from the tyrannical classrooms of Great Britain under the rule of Queen Victoria. Monarchies, after all, demand fealty first and foremost, while democracies, at least theoretically, are built on the active engagement and participation of a free and enlightened people. And since schools—no matter where or when—are always mirror and window into whatever social order that created and sustains them, we can easily imagine what society those “imperial gallons of facts” were meant to maintain and reproduce. What’s harder to reconcile is the oddly familiar feeling of that autocratic classroom picture—and the brute logic behind it—in our own contemporary classroom contexts.

Charles Dickens’ introduction of the severe schoolmaster in Hard Times appears in a chapter appropriately entitled “The Murder of Innocents,” which constitutes a kind of meditation on the dangers of imagination and freedom, “self and the imaginary,” to men without ethics, those who are drunk on power, facts, and order. Dickens shows us the degradation and fear that always marks the classroom as slave galley—a place of standardization and hierarchy, dogma and static, established truths—where the teacher’s central task is to beat the drum mindlessly.

Dickens himself turns at last to the schoolmaster with this indictment: “When thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!”

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