Annette and education
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Charles Dickens knew poverty and child labor. He knew these things.
Raised in a middle-class home, Charles was educated, not merely schooled. In fact, his formal schooling was mediocre, like most of the limited formal education available in early 19th century England. He learned anyway, because of the learning that comes by osmosis from a family in a literate household. And above all, he learned because he read voraciously.
And then, before he had a chance to find his own voice, disaster.
Charles' father, a spendthrift clerk, is shut up in the Marshalsea, London's infamous debtors' prison. Young Charles has been sent out to work in a soul-destroying job, pasting labels and paper lids onto jars of shoe polish.
He pastes a paper lid. He sticks it on. It demands just enough attention to stop his mind from wandering. And too little to be stimulating. He takes another lid. He picks up the fishy-smelling pastebrush. Again. And again. And again. And again.
He is only 12 years old.
But Charles Dickens is old enough to understand the implications of this turn of events: His future is destroyed. His life of joyful learning has given way to ten hours a day in a crumbling, rat-infested warehouse, doing work that is precise enough to demand his full attention, and mind-numbing enough to stifle his imagination. There is no hope of escape. No place to go. Nothing to hope for.
And yet, as we know, escape he did.
Was Charles liberated from the boot-blacking factory because of his superior intelligence? No. Because of his superior education? No.
Because powerful Victorians saw the light, and freed children from exploitation and misery? No. Because he worked hard at his humble job? Emphatically, no. There is no reward for hard work, only punishment for falling behind, for any reason.
Charles is made free because his family is middle class: His father came into a large inheritance from Charles' great-grandmother. He is sprung from prison, and so is young Charles.
But the adult Charles Dickens knew that he was both fortunate and privileged. He knew that most people were not. His anger at selfishness, greed, and callousness shines through his novels: What more bitter a statement than Scrooge's vicious response to those who solicit a charitable donation from him: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? When the Christmas spirits educate Scrooge by showing him historical context--past, present, future-- nobody is made more happy than the enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge himself. He's delirious. His excitement, interpreted so beautifully onscreen in 1951 by Alastair Sim in Scrooge (US: A Christmas Carol), in a performance that has never been bettered. But then Sim knew something or childhood misery himself. For the rest of his life, he tried to rescue other lads from it, starting with George Cole.
Charles Dickens needed no such liberation of the soul. His concern and compassion for others came through in his lifetime, not only in his fiction, but also in his cogent criticisms of mid-Victorian society, including education. He attacked as the heartless attitudes of the day evinced in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which forced the poor to choose between destitution, and prison-like workhouses where their families were forced apart.
He also attacked soulless factory-like teaching methods. Dickens supported the efforts of working men to pursue a life of the mind, but he offered fewer prescriptions for good education than he did criticisms, perhaps sensing (as do those of us who follow in his footsteps today) that good teaching is really about caring and sharing one's own life of the literate mind, not obeying bureaucratic instructions.
In every way, Charles Dickens rose above his lower middle-class circumstances to embrace a generous vision of life, precisely because he had stared into the void of a miserable, meaningless existence at a vulnerable age. Perhaps because, even after the family's windfall came, his own mother, shockingly to us, pondered leaving him in the factory. A miserable youth and successful adulthood do not necessarily lead to empathy. But a good education should. Dickens believed in education because he did not want others to suffer as he had. Above all, as he knew, education ought to mean saving oneself and others from learning the hard way.
There is a reason his voice is still relevant today. Indeed, it is growing more relevant than at any time in the past century. Confronting Scrooge (and us) with ignorance and want in the guise of two wretched children, Dickens does not offer as a solution prisons and workhouses, joyless instruction and punishment by bureaucracy. He offers aid and education, not for the few, but for all. His message is both simple and complex, and it is urgent.
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Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com