Dickens’ system of utilitarianism in Hard Times as a foreshadow of Chinese education

 I.

Dickens’ Hard Times is set in a dank and dirty English town during the Industrial Revolution. It was written in part as a response to the utilitarianism made popular by John Stuart Mill. One of the main characters, Thomas Gradgrind, is the perfect model of a utilitarian, and sets up an education system in which his sons and daughters are cups, waiting to be filled to the brim with Facts. They were allowed no access to fairy tales, could not associate, and imaginations were not allowed to roam as those of other children did. They sat in school from sun up until sundown, learning things such as the 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.”

Mr. Gradgrind:

“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!”

II.

Fast forward. Another continent, over a hundred years later, my interview with a twelve year-old student:

“Do you enjoy school?” “Not really.” “Why not?”

“Well, I am so busy all the time. My parents want me to be at the top of my class. I wake up at six thirty, go to school, and get back at 7:00. I have plenty of homework to keep me occupied until it is time for bed. I have no time to play or enjoy life. I like drawing and swimming but never really get the opportunity because of school.”

Great–so in Europe, God is dead. In America, we killed hope, and in China, they killed art. Any takers for science?

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