Compare and contrast the way in which particular aspects of education are presented in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ and Barry Hines’ ‘Kestrel for a Knave’. In this essay, I plan to evaluate the similarities and differences, techniques used and views expressed by each author in ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ and ‘Hard Times’. ‘Hard Times’ is set in ‘Coketown’; a fictional town invented in the 1850s by Charles Dickens. ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines is set in Barnsley in the 1960s. Both towns are located in Northern England and are industrial; employment for the locals is found mostly in the surrounding factories and mines.
Charles Dickens’ novel comprises of and focuses on many diverse themes such as the educational structure of Victorian England and the Industrial Revolution, which changed how industry was viewed during the 1850s. Industrial towns such as Manchester and Preston sprung up in Northern England at the start of the Revolution. Prosperity came to those who owned factories or mills, while despair and poverty greeted the ‘hands’, (factory workers) as they were harshly referred to devoid of any notion of feeling or individuality. ‘Hard Times’ exemplifies the problems of an industrial town in England in the 1850s. Dickens provides Coketown with a less than glamorous description:
“A town of red brick, or brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.” He explains how black smoke spews continuously from the factory chimneys and how the river is polluted by an ill-smelling purplish dye. During this period Dickens often wrote for a weekly publication called ‘Household Words’, each issue dealt with a different social problem of the period.
‘Hard Times’ began as a series of weekly installments in the publication. Dickens seems to reflect on the industrial revolution with dismay and disappointment. The novel was fuelled by what Dickens had witnessed first hand in Manchester, fifteen years prior to writing ‘Hard Times’. The novel itself is comprised of three books: sowing, reaping and gathering. ‘Book the First’; ‘Sowing’ offers particular ideas and opinions to the reader, rather like the sowing of multiple seeds. This book imitates an introduction that will be expanded upon during the remainder of the novel.
The ‘naming’ of chapters in ‘Hard Times’ is significant as the titles themselves are relevant to the message Dickens’ is attempting to convey. The first chapter is called ‘One Thing Needful’, which tells how children are taught facts. Gradgrind, who believes in a nineteenth century concept called utilitarianism (solutions and answers to problems and decisions), runs the school. Dickens is critical of utilitarianism, as he believes that it affects education in a bad way. This view was influenced by what Dickens saw happening around him; people turning into hard-hearted machines, the effect of a utilitarian society.
The school is designed to produce useful, fact-filled humans who will work well, causing no trouble as they have little imagination and lack their own opinion. The children are treated as products and are conversed to by numbers. The system aims to avoid personality (the ‘naming system’ is a good example of this) and individuality, which is frowned upon, considered as a threat to Gradgrind’s extreme control.
Barry Hines and Charles Dickens are equally critical of the education system of their own particular era. Both writers share the view that pupils’ individuality and freedom are being destroyed by the systems. From a speech in 1857 Dickens states: “I don’t like that sort of school where the bright childish imagination is utterly discouraged…where I have never seen among pupils anything but little parrots and small calculating machines.” It seems that even though Dickens is portrayed as a realist, he still believes children should be taught the arts (perhaps not too surprising as he is a writer of fiction).
The setting of the opening scene of ‘Hard Times’ is a classroom. The Head teacher’s teaching methods are immediately clear when the book opens mid-conversation, interrupting an introductory facts lesson: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Dickens gives the word ‘Fact’ a capital letter, possibly to emphasize its importance to the reader. The opening lines are in direct contrast to what Dickens’ believes, but it was the established teaching method during this period. Mr. M’Choakumchild automatically backs up Gradgrind’s ‘suggestions’ regarding facts.
Gradgrind is a man of very harsh realities and “proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four and nothing else”. Dickens states in Hard Times that the schoolmaster, Mr. M’Choakumchild, along with another one hundred and forty schoolmasters, had been taught everything there is to know. They all had the same principles, the same knowledge on all subjects, as if they were taught in a factory rather than a classroom. Dickens continues to talk about M’Choakumchild, “if he had learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!” By this, Dickens means that the teachers of that generation had all been taught everything there was to know and believed that they were flawless, which they probably were, knowledge-based.
The book starts in the way it does to immediately show the reader how reliant on facts the education system has become. Facts, calculations and precision in everything are encouraged, producing heartless and ‘hard’ individuals, devoid of feelings or compassion. ‘Fancy’ is completely discouraged, as is any use of the imagination, which is devoid of financial gain or practical benefit. Mr. Gradgrind uses his control to humiliate a pupil in front of the class in the opening scene.
Gradgrind uses the ‘number system’ to select Sissy from the class. The girl’s father works for the circus which does not please Mr. Gradgrind so his solution to the predicament is to cover up this plain fact with lies “He doctors sick horses…Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon…” Gradgrind’s control is so strong that the lies he tells are believed and become facts. Sissy has grown up in the circus, where play and imagination are encouraged. It is an environment that fosters emotions and compassionate behaviour and an environment that is free and unrestricted.