Charles Dickens knew poverty and child labor. He knew these things.
Raised in a middle-class home, he was educated, not merely schooled, because his early schooling was mediocre, like most of the limited formal education available in the early 19th century. He owed much to the learning that comes by osmosis in a literate household. Above all, he read voraciously.
And then, disaster.
Charles' father, a spendthrift clerk, was shut up in the Marshalsea, London's infamous debtors' prison. Young Charles was sent out to work in a soul-destroying job, pasting labels and paper lids onto jars of shoe polish.
He was only 12 years old.
But Charles Dickens was old enough to understand the implications of this turn of events: His future was destroyed. His life of joyful learning had given way to ten hours a day in a crumbling, rat-infested warehouse, doing work that was precise enough to demand his full attention, and mind-numbing enough to prevent imaginative thought. There was no hope of escape.
And yet, escape he did. Was he 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.
Charles was made free because his family was middle class: His father came into a large inheritance from Charles' great-grandmother. He was released from prison, and young Charles was saved.
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.
Charles Dickens needed no such liberation. 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, attacking soulless factory-like teaching methods as well 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. 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.
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 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.
Learn more about my books (available worldwide through Amazon) and my programs for schools across the United States, presented by a middle grades author, published historian, and former professor with 15 years experience working with kids and teens at AnnetteLaing.com
Lady Bird, the new movie written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is getting fantastic reviews for its depiction of a teenage girl in her last year of high school, in the unpromising setting of Sacramento, CA. And so it should. But I am not an unbiased reviewer, and so this is not a review. This Brit, like the titular main character, came of age in Sacramento.
"Very well,” Mrs. Jenkins said, fetching a small hardbound book from a cupboard.
She began flipping through the pages. “Just remind me that we must stir
the soup that’s on the fire so it does not burn, and meanwhile we will make a
cake. Hmm. . .Let’s see. . .I rather fancy this one.” She pointed to a recipe, and
held open the book on the table, so they could both read it together:
To make a fine feed or faffron-cake.
You must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour, a pound and a half of butter,
three ounces of carraway seeds, six eggs beat well, a quarter of an ounce of cloves
and mace beat together very fine, a pennyworth of cinnamon beat, a pound of
sugar, a pennyworth of rose-water, a pennyworth of saffron, a pint and a half of
yeast, and a quart of milk; mix it all together lightly with your hands thus: first
boil your milk and butter, then skim off the butter, and mix with your flour,
and a little of the milk and stir the yeast into the rest and strain it, mix it with
the flour, put in your feed and spice, rose-water, tincture of saffron, sugar, and
eggs; beat it all up well with your hands lightly, and bake it in a hoop or pan,
but be sure to butter the pan well. It will take an hour and a half in a quick
oven. You may leave out the seed if you chuse it, and I think it rather better
without it, but that you may do as you like.
“What’s a feed or faffron-cake?” Hannah asked, pointing to the words with a
I was delighted to be interviewed last week for a blog run by the American Council of Learned Societies, an umbrella organization of humanities groups.
Find it hard to get kids interested in history? Here are some questions I regularly ask myself when attention wanders...
Am *I* interested in this? If the answer is no, then it’s harder to excite the kids and teens. What would it take to get *me* interested? Can I at least watch a documentary or (better) read a book? If I teach history and never learn more about it, and not just what’s on the curriculum, I’m making life harder for myself and my audiences.
Watching on TV as hundreds of avowedly racist young men carried torches through a college campus, gave the Nazi salute, chanted anti-semitic and racist slurs, and flaunted swastikas through the streets of Charlottesville was profoundly shocking and disturbing.
This is a good time to revisit questions that nag at the backs of our minds: How does history help? What does teaching about long-ago people and events have to do with the present?
The appalling events in Charlottesville this weekend, in which Nazi demonstrators took to the streets, and those who stood up to them were assaulted and murdered, put me in mind of the Battle of Cable Street (1936) It's remembered in the UK as a great anti-fascist victory. But one historian argues that it's actually a cautionary tale.
Here's the link to the 2011 article in History Today: http://www.historytoday.com/daniel-tilles/myth-cable-street
My research for The War to End War, my new program for schools on WWI, led me on an interesting tangent, musing over the impact of propaganda, "fake news", and the rest. Here's my guest blog post for The Saporta Report:
The news comes this morning, following an online global shaming, of the resignation of the mayor of a small town in Clay County, WV, who had praised a revolting internet post by the director of the local development agency in which she had described Michelle Obama as an ape. I don't have to tell you that it was right that she should resign, and right that others in the community should condemn hate. The two women should send personal letters of apology to Mrs. Obama.
But note this from the article on the resignation: "The uproar occurred as the town of about 500 residents is still trying to recover from severe flooding in late June along the nearby Elk River. Clay County also has been hit by hundreds of layoffs in the coal industry this decade."
Now let's think. Was there the same national and international publicity about the catastrophes that have crushed this little community? Will there now be calls for aid?
Of course not. And therein lies a little clue to where Trumpism came from.
Most historians-- not all-- tend to stay away from active involvement in politics. Sure, we have views, but we're slippery creatures, always beholden to evidence, and subject to changing our minds as new evidence comes available. That's why we prefer to wait on current events to recede into the past before we start forming arguments about them. Personally, I prefer early American history, because all my subjects are safely dead, and we have a long -term perspective, three centuries in fact, on their lives.
I cannot, however, pretend that this election did not happen. I can tell you this much: Not one professional historian of whom I am aware supported Donald Trump for president. Not one. If I am wrong, I would be delighted to stand corrected. But I don't think I am. We are not all "liberals", a word with many meanings. We are not all upper-middle-class people. We don't all think the same way--historians sometimes appear to come close to fistfights at their meetings, because ideas and evidence matter. But on Donald Trump, historians agreed. There is no point in my pretending otherwise, nor would I wish to: Historians, even those most critical of how things have been for working people, are afraid, because so much of what is happening right now is evocative of the instability and anger and policies that gave rise to fascism in 1930s Europe. Will it play out now as it did then? No idea. I hope not. It helps that fascism never got very far in Britain or America, even then. But as one of my old professors used to say, historians are great at predicting the past. The future? Not so much.
But that's enough. The most important point I want to make is that, regardless of whom you voted for, there is one point on which I think can all agree. I have attended homeschooling conventions, teachers' conferences, and spoken (and listened) to people of all political persuasions throughout the South, much of that time in rural areas. We all understand that kids need to read books. Lots of them. They need to have available to them a range of books (not just reading the same couple of authors, the same kinds of books) and to make their own choices. Understanding history is not about memorizing facts, no matter what they are, or indoctrinating kids. It is about kids reading books, and forming ever larger and more complex contexts for their own experiences. That is what education must be. It is what schooling is not. We must sweep away the bad curriculum, the excessive bureaucracy, the absolute nonsense of a moribund system, and allow teachers to encourage and enable kids to read. That is what must change. Because, honestly? That's the only thing that will fix what ails us.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com