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Blog - Charles Dickens: Engineering an Educational Disaster (Flashback)

January 14, 2024

Another college literature paper.


This one was my ENG 323 course, "British Novelists," where we read books by Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey, Emma), Charles Dickens (Hard Times, Great Expectations), and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim).   This was probably my favorite class in my entire college career and my favorite professor.  (Hey Professor Newman!)


In this class we had a midterm paper that was I think 40% of our grade, and then a revision of it that was another 40%.   This was the prompt, which was assigned about a month in:


Illuminate some thematic or technical facet of any novel on our reading list by viewing it through the prism of your academic major or any other academic discipline that you like and know reasonably well. For English majors, the topic simply advances to the prism of one critical theory--for example, psychoanalytic, new historicist, feminist, deconstructive, reader-response.


This was a high level English class; I was the only Engineering major in it.  I read the prompt, considered the 80% of my grade this was going to be, and thought "... I am going to fail this class."  I thought about it for a few days then went to Professor Newman and told him I was having a little trouble coming up with a topic.  He asked me my major and when I told him "Biomedical Engineering" his eyes got real big and he looked slightly panicked.  He didn't articulate it, but I definitely saw a "What the hell are you doing in here?" look on his face.  I got the impression that I was not only the only Engineering major in this particular class, but probably the only one Professor Newman had ever had.   We talked a bit and he said he needed some time mull it over.   We parted, both feeling a little defeated.  It was actually a really funny exchange.  I was shit out of luc


The next day I had the idea that maybe i could tie the asshole teacher/industrialist shill Gradgrind from Dickens's "Hard Times" to the scientific method. (Yes, "Gradgrind."  Real subtle there, Charlie.)  It was total bullshit, and I had no idea what I was going to actually write past the basic premise, but I took a deep breath and prepared to shovel like I'd never shoveled before.  


As before, I've preserved the professor's critiques.  Underlines and things in [brackets] are from the professor. Things in {{braces}} are notes from present day me.




Engineering an Educational Disaster


As the Industrial Revolution gripped England in the mid-nineteenth century, the country traded hoes for conveyor belts and idealistic Romanticism for hard mechanical Industrialism. Long days spent reminiscing in the countryside gave way to long days laboring in the cities. Feats of engineering such as the steam engine helped shift the society from being manually agricultural to machine driven. But driving and manufacturing people themselves like soulless machines strikes Charles Dickens as a terrible mistake. The realist engineering philosophy of the budding machine age soaks through his London in Hard Times. The novel reflects Dickens' negative view on the application of this new assembly line attitude to people as well as economics and machinery.


The philosophy or, more accurately, process of engineering is a logical progression. A student of engineering is taught to "analyze any problem in a simple and logical manner and apply to its solution a few, well-understood basic principles" (Beer and Johnston xiii). Establishing design criteria and defining the parameters in terms of factual evidence is the essential starting point. Only by defining all the given values and collecting initial data can goals be conceptualized and conceivable paths be analyzed.  The next step is to devise possible solutions to the given problem and then implement the  best solution given the initial data. The "best solution" is not always the "perfect solution," obviously, and so some desirables must be compromised for the greater good.  Therein lies the need for extreme objectivity of fact- the engineer must be able to judge which solution would bring the most benefits while fulfilling the greatest amount of design criteria. While an oil pipeline of stainless steel may have the best corrosion resistance and strength, if its high cost prevents practical mass production, a more affordable and lesser quality material must be used. The final step in any engineering endeavor is to evaluate the results of the implemented solution. If a solution does not give the anticipated satisfactory results, a different solution can be attempted with the benefit of hindsight. An engineering approach to problem solving is Jeremy Benthem's Utilitarian calculus in practice the best solution is the one that garners the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.


In Hard Times, this highly empirical problem-solving model is applied not only to the best way to build an efficient factory, but also to people as well. The cornerstone of the educational system that Gradgrind promotes is the belief that turning the schoolchildren into efficient fact-filled machines is the best solution for their own well-being. Gradgrind's philosophy is a less than subtle reflection of real life textbook writer J.M McCulloch's views on education. McCulloch advocates a move from the "artificial" schooling consisting of "dramatic scenes" and "sentimental poetry" to a more grounded, ordered approach (Norton 303). The omnipotence of fact in this system turns a child's education into industrialist vocational school. Children infused with analysis and facts become more equipped for their new industrial world, and so contribute to the productivity and well being of the country as a whole. Gradgrind seems to be able to mathematically prove that people, like any concrete problem, can be reduced to pure data and figures. By defining a person as a bipedal, omnivorous creature with thirty-two teeth, Gradgrind can focus on turning that person into a factory of economic and technological prosperity without being distracted by the sentimental guilt of reducing a human being into an automaton. Sissy Jupe is even denied that fanciful concept of a name at the novel's opening, being called upon as "girl number twenty" (8). Gradgrind is programming the children to make their way down the assembly line and emerge from their schooling ready to wrestle the "melancholy mad elephants" and "monstrous serpents of smoke" in Coketown (56). His system cultivates empiricism and a pure objectivity where even horses on a child's wallpaper are mere fancy and thus irrelevant and unthinkable. The students are taught that objectivity should overrule even the subjectivity of personal preference. As the gentleman lecturer impresses upon his students: "What is called Taste is only another name for Fact' (10).


The effect this factual hammering has on the Gradgrind family is Dickens way of expressing his disapproval of this system. The ruin of the elder Gradgrind children is a particularly potent critique. Louisa is trapped in a world where gazing out the window or into the dying fireplace is the only bit of wonder she can allow herself. She did not have the happy "childhood of mind no less than a childhood of body," and is unable to express any fanciful emotion that defies a tabular format. 


Louisa's charity to Stephen Blackpool after he is fired represents her desperate struggle to break out; selflessly giving something for nothing is a concept not covered in her life's algebra. Her steps are tentative and she acts haltingly, her kindness mired by the numbers. When Stephen's stoicism falters, she reaches for him "as if she would have touched him; then checked herself and remained still." (121). Louisa is unable to complete the simple comforting gesture, an indication of the toll her father's religion of concrete facts has taken on her humanity. That she made the attempt at all does provide a shred of hope, but this small victory of Louisa's emotions over cold equations is eclipsed by the fact that she leaves understanding Stephen even less than when she arrived. "He was neither courtly, nor handsome, nor picturesque in any respect," and yet he possessed "a grace in it that Lord Chesterfield could not have taught his son in a century" (121)   By facts and figures the desperate, unemployed, and unexceptional Stephen should not be such a good and honest man. With this seeming paradox Louisa reverts back to the conditioned arithmetic that drives her and once again the reason that dominates her existence strangles and binds her emotions.


Even her confrontation with her father over the injustice his system has inflicted upon her is controlled.  At the beginning of the encounter, she is "looking fixedly at his face" (162). As she informs him of her "deadened state of mind," she is "looking fixedly at his face" (162). Throughout the entire incident, until the repression of seventeen years collapses her, she remains "steadfastly regarding him" (163). The personal information she reveals to her father is presented as a logical argument, rather than an appeal to his emotions. She cannot break out of her conditioning, despite the flickering hope brought by Sissy Jupe's care. At the novel's final chapter, Louisa still sits gazing into the fire as before, untouched by the happy future which "was never to be" (219).


Her brother, Tom, the whelp and criminal, fulfills his own prediction that his father is to make him a "Prig or a Mule" (43). His exploitation of his sister as a tool to both curry favor with Bounderby and pay off his debts is a result of his empirical education. When Tom defines his problem as debt, then the easiest and most painless solution is to get the money from his sister. His problem is now solved, the case is closed, and Tom is unhindered by sentimentality for a blood relation. Familial love aside, by the pure monetary calculations he knows best, his course of action is good business. Tom's ruin is so absolute that even hiding in the circus, the antithesis of his factual upbringing, cannot save him. Dickens' metaphor is not a subtle one. Cloaking Tom in all the fancy in the world will not erase or stop the consequences of his programming.


Finally, poor "white-haired decrepit" old Mr. Gradgrind only makes his "facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity" after he loses his son's body to fever and his daughter's soul to the assembly line (218). With his children's education, he had made the "round mistake in the arithmetic that balanced" the kindness of his character (26). The empirical system of "fact, fact, fact that cancelled out his humanity for so long crumbled when he saw the damage it had caused." (11). This change from the man who taught his children by "squarely pointing with his square forefinger" came far too late to be anything but a regret (8). Gradgrind failed to emotionally nurture as a father, and he failed in the implementation of the system that should have, by his calculations, produced the most happiness for the greatest number of people.  


Through all this tragedy, it seems obvious that Dickens is implying that though engineering and mechanization may be satisfactory for machines and structures, the stresses and strains it places on human beings make it an undesirable implementation for the common good. None of the characters who fall into the empirical category come away the better for it, and so by induction it could be said that the fault lies in the system.  This statement is not surprising from Dickens, himself an acknowledged sentimentalist who educated himself by reading fanciful novels. A hard-nosed Utilitarian, upon evaluation of this education system, would by facts and figures conclude that it produced only shattered husks like Louisa and pale non-people like Bitzer. Then, with the tally of ruined lives and the benefit of hindsight, this Utilitarian could put his numbers down and begin to wonder about wallpaper with horses on it.




[Prof. Newman's note next to the underlined passage in the paragraph about Louisa and Stephen:   Isn't Louisa's acknowledgement of this ineffable grace - indeed, it's very ineffability - evidence of a flame that Gradgrindism can't finally snuff out, despite how successfully her father deprives her imagination of oxygen?  She's permanently, tragically, distorted. Yet though her best self can't finally be rescued, even with SIssy's help, it isn't entirely suffocated]   


{{I like this comment.  It's not really a grade-affecting critique of this essay, but more of Professor Newman's poetic response to it.  It's like he was having a dialog with me.  I'm not all that surprised.  He and I had a good naturedly antagonistic back and forth.  If he asked a tough question in class and no one volunteered an answer, it was almost guaranteed that he would give a little smirk and then call on me directly to see if I could come up with a response.  It clearly amused him to try and put the screws to me and watch me wriggle out of it.  There was always a sort of brief acknowledgment after, a silent "Well done, Juliano.  Till next time, rogue."


He wrote me a really nice note on the bottom of this paper along with the grade.  I hope he's doing well.}}

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