Education in Hard Times by Charles Dickens

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The days of childhood are limited, and inevitably everyone will grow old. Yet the way a childhood should be spent has often been disputed, by some regarding it as a time to prepare for the future, and others as a chance to explore freedom. Charles Dickens, in Hard Times, portrays both sides of the argument in their most extreme forms. One might argue that much of Hard Times is about extremes. The first character to be introduced, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, enforces a very rigid approach to education, while everything contrary to his approach is depicted through Sleary’s Circus. In his school, Mr. Gradgrind uses techniques that have the effect of “mechanizing” the children, aiming to fill their minds with rationales and deplete any fancy. However, he will learn that not all of life’s problems can be figured out through calculation. Dickens allows the reader to see both philosophies in practice, and successfully persuades one to favor neither one nor the other, but a combination of both. “You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact.” (Dickens19) These words are the harsh reality that the children at Gradgrind’s school are forced to believe. The first of the philosophies that we see Dickens describe is one of immobility and a severe focus on factual information. Mr. Gradgrind, who is the principal of the school in Coketown, is a firm believer in facts and statistics. He has lived his entire life by his own book, and does his best to instill such “values” in his own children as well as in his students. The teachers at his school view their pupils as nothing more than empty vessels that they must fill with information. Topics such as poetry, fiction, or the fine arts are excluded from the curriculum at Gradgrind’s school, despite the necessity of these to expand and challenge a child’s mind, and imagination. Cecilia Jupe, who throughout the novel is called “Sissy”, is a product of a much different way of life. Sissy comes from Sleary’s Circus. A circus that, counterpart to Gradgrind’s school, represents living freely, compassion and filling life with enjoyment. Surrounded by people such as Mr. Sleary, a fun loving though simple-minded man, Sissy understands that there is more to life that knowledge. As Sleary states, “People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow,' … 'they can't be alwayth a working, nor yet they can't be alwayth a learning.” (Dickens66) The philosophy the circus people believe in is one of freedom; freedom of thought, passion, emotion, imagination, and even the physical freedom to roam as they please. The ideas of not being able to leave Coketown as well as spending all of ones time learning facts are viewed as preposterous by Sleary’s people. However, life in the circus is not all it’s cracked up to be. The people in the circus tend to have ailments directly related to all their fun and games. We see a consequence in the life of the circus people when Sissy’s father abandons her out of his shame for his being “goosed”, a term used by those in Sleary’s Circus, meaning being unable to perform in the circus. Sissy’s father became to old and his aches and pains were preventing him from being able to execute his acts in shows, or make enough money. (Dickens51-53) Indeed, Dickens makes sure to demonstrate to the reader that Senor Jupe, Sissy’s father, did not leave out of lack responsibility or care for his daughter. “Jupe sent his daughter out on an errand not an hour ago, and then was seen to slip out himself, with his hat over his eyes, and a bundle tied up in a handkerchief under his arm. She will never believe it of him, but he has cut away and left her.”(Dickens54) “Pray, … ‘why will she never believe it of him?”(Dickens55) “Because those two were one. Because they were never asunder. Because, up to this time, he seemed dote upon her…”(Dickens55) Using a...
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