Postmodern Gradgrindification

In the great pantheon of Charles Dickens characters, one of the lesser lights is Thomas Gradgrind—that’s Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, sir. You may be familiar with him.

In the opening chapters of the Dickens novel Hard Times (1854), Gradgrind operates an experimental school. There, in the polluted northern British industrial city of Coketown, he sees to it that young pupils are trained according to the best principles of modern utilitarianism and empiricism.

Gradgrind’s poor students—typically “poor” in more than one respect—will not waste their time daydreaming. They will be prepared with absolute efficiency to enter the adult middle-class world of the industrial nineteenth century.

Dickens introduces Gradgrind as he inspects his model school and interrogates a young pupil, in a hilarious scene of mundane childhood terror:

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl.  Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind.  ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy.  Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind.  ‘Tell him he mustn’t.  Cecilia Jupe.  Let me see.  What is your father? … Very well, then.  He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker.  Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers.  ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!  Some boy’s definition of a horse.  Bitzer, yours.’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight ….

‘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.’

Of course, it’s very unlikely that Bitzer knows better than Sissy what a horse is—not least because Sissy comes from the countryside and has a father who works with horses. But this reality is lost on Gradgrind because of his narrow conception of knowledge (or of horses, for that matter) and also probably because of his sexism.

This is also lost on another man in the scene, a government official who has come to inspect the school. After Gradgrind’s interview with Sissy Jupe, this man conducts an interrogation of his own:

‘Very well,’ said this gentleman, briskly smiling, and folding his arms.  ‘That’s a horse.  Now, let me ask you girls and boys, Would you paper a room with representations of horses?’

After a pause, one half of the children cried in chorus, ‘Yes, sir!’  Upon which the other half, seeing in the gentleman’s face that Yes was wrong, cried out in chorus, ‘No, sir!’—as the custom is, in these examinations.

‘Of course, No.  Why wouldn’t you?’ … I’ll explain to you, then,’ said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, ‘why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses.  Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality—in fact?  Do you?’

‘Yes, sir!’ from one half.  ‘No, sir!’ from the other.

‘Of course no,’ said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. 

As cartoonish as Gradgrind’s educational philosophy is, it’s easy to miss that Gradgrind legitimately cares about his pupils’ future. He believes he is doing the right thing for them. He thinks he is giving them a practical education that will allow them to rise in the world. And he is, apparently, following a state-approved program of modern scientific instruction.

But Gradgrind’s methods are soul-destroying—partly, but only partly, because they’re implicitly misogynistic. In fact, Gradgrind’s philosophy is driving his own young daughter to despair. We might say she is suffering from precocious burnout, as she makes clear in a later scene:

‘I was tired, father.  I have been tired a long time,’ said Louisa.

‘Tired?  Of what?’ asked the astonished father.

‘I don’t know of what—of everything, I think.’

I think about Thomas Gradgrind, sir, fairly often. I thought about him this week when I read Jill Barshay’s Hechinger Report story about a research article published this November in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

The article, “Investigating the Causal Effects of Arts Education,” shows what happened when 8,000 students in Houston public schools suddenly gained access to extra arts programming, thanks to the generosity of organizations like the Houston Symphony.

(An aside: I myself enjoyed special programming put on by the Houston Symphony and other area organizations when I was in elementary school—somewhat before this study was conducted.)

Long story short: After a year or more, the arts programming didn’t change students’ test scores in math, reading, or science. That is, even though they were devoting school time to supposedly more frivolous pursuits, students didn’t lose any ground in the state’s favorite academic subjects. But some things did change. The 8,000 students who got to enjoy the arts had fewer disciplinary infractions than students in the equally large control group; they showed more empathy; they were more interested in their academic work; they showed stronger thinking skills; and they were more interested in attending college.

Of course, having solid research on the effects of arts education is good. But that the study needed to be conducted in order to justify arts education is horrifying.

The educational Gradgrinds of America in the twenty-first century—in the age of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, charter school networks, and all the rest—put on a very different kind of show from the one put on by the Charles Dickens character. For one thing, they often make a very public performance of their concern for students’ emotional welfare. But their defining idea seems to be the same: that schools from the nursery to the university must efficiently train young people for remunerative work at the expense of enriching their leisure.

A few days ago, I complained about some examples of what this attitude can look like at the college level. But when I think about the devastation it wreaks in K-12 schools, I now think about a conversation I had with a brand-new undergraduate student this fall.

This student—one of the most intellectually active students in my class—told me they couldn’t remember a time when they didn’t hate school. Parental pressure was the only reason this student was in college—and they made clear that parental pressure might not be enough to keep them there. A visceral loathing for academic work that this student had felt since elementary school now kept them from enjoying even topics that should have been interesting in my course.

On top of that, this student, like Louisa Gradgrind, seemed to be “tired of everything.”

I’ve had several other conversations recently that convince me this student is not unusual—and that what they’ve experienced has a lot to do (albeit in some complicated ways) with the larger mental health crisis among young Americans.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching a lot of teachers argue online about the best teaching methods for counteracting the bruising nature of Gradgrindified schooling during a global respiratory pandemic. But after what I’ve seen in the last four or five years, I’m not convinced anything we can do in any specific classroom is likely to make much headway against the larger problem. By the time students have arrived at the end of secondary school, at least, I’m not convinced any individual’s pedagogy (or assessment method) has much to do with the real issue.

And as an individual, I don’t know what to do about that.


Image: Illustration of Thomas Gradgrind by Joseph Clayton Clark, ca. 1890 (public domain), courtesy of the John and Mary Nichols Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries

1 thought on “Postmodern Gradgrindification”

  1. Fascinating. I agree that college is likely too late for many students–but not all. And for those on the cusp, you can still rescue them. I remember loving school, and I don’t think I loved it because I did well; I did well because I loved it. I grew up with weekly trips to the library and parents who encouraged learning for learning’s sake. These issues need to be addressed at the family level, and by schools only where the family can’t. Learning as a means to an end is sad.


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