Mr Gradgrind and the Ghost of Education Past

Recently I blogged about the mistake of always trying to make learning fun. But since I generally ride a horse by falling off first one side and then the other, I am reminded that the opposite of always trying to make learning fun is thinking that it must always be as dry as dust. What we are talking about here is facts! Or maybe some might phrase it as “back to basics.”

Charles Dickens immortalized this attitude in Hard Times with his Gradgrind character:

“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!”

Cover of

Cover of Hard Times (Oxford World’s Classics)

We are in such a sad, sorry state in education these days that it is easy to think that maybe Gradgrind had it right. After all, look where all this self-esteem and fun has gotten us? Apparently we feel better about ourselves while knowing less than those who have gone before us. A good dose of reality in the form of facts might do us some good, put us in our place. Walking 5 miles to school barefoot in the snow while memorizing facts worked for our forefathers. And the fact is you can’t really be educated without knowing a few facts, right?

You can see why it is easy to fall into this error. We do want our children to understand that ideas have forms. The key, though, is not found in facts but rather relations. As Charlotte Mason says, “Education is the science of relations.” This does not mean that we have to force our lesson plans into unnatural relations. We don’t have to somehow tie our geography lessons to our math lessons which tie into our history lessons. We don’t have to spend a day learning the letter “A” by eating Apples, looking up Andalusia or Alabama, and studying Ants. The real relations are there naturally. They are endowed “liberally” by our Creator. As we become intimate with the world God has made we can begin to take joy in the forms of our affinities.

Mr Gradgrind did not get this. He thought he knew what a horse was:

Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your 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.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.”

Gradgrind is a sad picture of knowledge divorced from meaning. Perhaps Mr Gradgrind needed a visit from the Ghost of Education Past.

It is important that we keep our students in touch with living ideas. Thankfully this can often be done using books written by men and women who are enamored with their subjects not the distilled leftovers of textbooks. The Great Conversation is an example of the science of relations working across the stream of history.

We can also make sure our students are experiencing the out of doors, performing community services, and learning physical labor, all part of the symbiosis of ideas, relations, facts and fun.

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