What the dickens?

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis

Looks like the new UK education minister is channeling Thomas Gradgrind:
Pupils must learn about Miss Havisham, says Minister

They don’t know enough facts, he says. Maybe it’s the fact that Mr. Gibbs does not know enough about Charles Dickens, the age of information and learning theory. Not to mention that his frame of reference is remarkably narrow.

When politicians wax on about what children need to know I always wish I could get then to answer this question:

“How do children learn?”

And then – if the answer is some weaselly version of “Children learn differently” answer some specific follow up questions about how our understanding and knowledge of the world grows?

Here’s schoolmaster Gradgrind of the importance of “facts”:

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…. “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Hard Times, Chapter 1

A little later, factmaster Gradgrind asks girl number twenty -Sissy Jupe, whose father works with horses – to define “horse”. She fails the to pass the test. Model Gradground student Bitzer has a ready answer:

“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.

“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

Question for Minister Gibbs: “Define learning.”

Footnote: Dickens – as in “What the dickens?” – has nothing to do with Charles Dickens. Dickens is a euphemism for devil and the expression appears in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor Act III, Scene II.

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