Thursday, 20 January 2011

Utilitarian Victorian education

'Speaking on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, said it would be for the panel leading the review to determine what content should be specified in the new curriculum. "I'm not going to be coming up with any prescriptive lists, I just think there should be facts," he said.' 

If you've not read Dickens' Hard Times, here are some extracts from chapter 2:
"Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir -- peremptorily Thomas -- Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositions, no existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind -- no sir!
"In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words 'boys and girls', for 'sir', Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.
"Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.
'Girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, 'I don't know that girl. Who is that girl?'
'Sissy Jupe, sir,' explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.
'Sissy is not a name,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'Don't call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.'
'My father as calls me Sissy. sir,' returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.
'Then he has no business to do it,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'Tell him he mustn't. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?'
'He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.'...

'...Give me your definition of a horse.'
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.'
The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer...
'Bitzer,' said Thomas Gradgrind. 'Your definition of a horse.'
'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.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'...

'Now, if Mr. M'Choakumchild,' said the gentleman, 'will proceed to give his first lesson here, Mr. Gradgrind, I shall be happy, at your request, to observe his mode of procedure.'
Mr. Gradgrind was much obliged. 'Mr. M'Choakumchild, we only wait for you.'
So, Mr. M'Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of headbreaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty's most Honourable Privy Council's Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, Mr. M'Choakumchild. If he had only leamt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!
He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained. Say, good M'Choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by and by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within -- or sometimes only maim him and distort him!"

 Good question, Head Government Educator. 


  1. I'm no expert, but I did teach in a comprehensive school for twenty five years, at the chalk face, as it were. What I think my colleagues and I tried to do was to give our kids something that might, hopefully, enrich their lives in some way; help them to grow into their full potential. If we'd just crammed them with facts we'd have switched most of them off rapidly. Surely education is meant to achieve more than just turning out adults who will do well in general knowlrdge quizes?

  2. I think that DOES make you an expert, Pat. Certainly more than most politicians. I seem to remember the last Education Secretary who taught was Estelle Morris - who was good but short-lived.
    Anyway, I entirely agree with you, and Dickens, that the aim of education is far more than to produce a generation of Eggheads!

  3. Is it not the case that any fool can tell teachers what they should do, particularly when the individual's early academic education has probably been driven by a relatively narrow curriculum aimed at University entry. I think they call it teaching to the test.

    It is frightening to think that many of our "so called" experts at Whitehall have little idea of what little evidence of literature other than the Sun or Daily Mail exists in some households. They are completely out of touch and even more worryingly are unaware of it.

    Real education is about dealing with people young or old and responding to specific needs personal to the individual. After all true education is 'all embracing' and never ends, not even with the attainment of a degree of some sort.