Charles Dickens was no saint, but he knew what a saint looked like. In his great novel Hard Times he described the school of the future . . and the future looked grim. There facts replaced passion and imagination was forbidden. The Gradgrind teacher was a name dropper, had credentials, but viewed each student as a monetary unit.
Family, tradition, love, beauty were all gone in a Gradgrind world. The Gradgrind school calculates the value of each student and will drive him or her into debt for the bottom line. Mass marketing replaces beauty and the conman is more important than the teacher.
This is Dicken’s prophetic vision of Western education: the rise of Gradgrind.
Oddly, Dicken’s book is often misunderstood. Dickens wasn’t mostly arguing in favor of fantasy or whimsy, though he was not opposed to either. He saw that most education missed the “horse” by listing facts about horses. CS Lewis made much of this in his great essay Abolition of Man: the student who thinks of a horse first as a series of facts about horses will misunderstand horses. The animal and our proper relationship to the animal is greater than the sum of the facts.
Sentiment is a reality that schools often miss. If we miss the sentiment behind a thing or person, we miss the most important part. This happens when we must reduce learning to a Scantron test or the relationship between professor and student is “quantified” instead of humanized.
Here is a tough statement: education should be joyful. When education is not joyful, there is something wrong. Learning and teaching are wonderful and when they are not full of love, then we should find out why.
The greatest enemy of educaton is fear because fear destroys the love that is the engine of education. Students will do for the love of learning what you could not pay them to do. Teachers who love their students will work harder than any threats or rewards could cause. When students, teachers, parents, and the community are working together in love, nothing can stop them.
There are three ways fear often intrudes into education. Fear comes when teachers are made powerless by a bloated administration or by parents. Teachers need accountability surely, but the educators also need the power to make decisiions. Ask the professors at your college or the teachers at your school: what is our mission? How much say do you have in deciding the mission?
Powerless teachers are the first symptom of Gradgrind.
Fear comes when information is hidden. In the Gradgrind school, data is everything and everywhere except the data about operations. One quantifies every performance and event . . . the art is lost in the numbers. After all, most people gave Socrates a fatal teacher evaluation! The numbers that are hidden are the decision making numbers. Those are in the hands of Gradgrind.
Fear is most evident when money replaces mission. You cannot love a student that becomes a mere monetary unit. You cannot drive him into lifelong debt and be his advocate. Dickens was right because the Bible is true: the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. (ITimothy 6)
Against Gradgrind, Dickens has nothing positive to say. That is where Christians can do Dickens one better. Classical, Christian education must be built on servant leadership and motivated by love. When we have the marks of Gradgrind, we are antichrist and not of Christ.
It is that simple.