Lasting influence?

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Preparing an assembly on Politics’ effect on education, I find that my usual seasonal reflections on Charles Dickens (Christmas jollity and Scroogery etc) take me down a different channel and into his influence on education.

Dickens’ lifetime (1812-1870) spanned the creation of something that approached a rudimentary universal education system for England: the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which established the basis for English elementary education.  It is neat to connect this with what Dickens said in the early stages of his national popularity in a speech in Birmingham in 1844:

“If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education – comprehensive liberal education – is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.”

Given that the England of  Dickens’ birth was one where there was still a debate about whether there was any point educating large swathes of the population, it is unsurprising that so many of the downtrodden poor of his novels show such a strong desire to learn and to better themselves through education.  For me it is this profound sense of the moral value of each person and the right that he or she has to be something other than a workhorse or a young criminal – the encouragement to good and ultimately the right to be educated.  Through presenting all sorts of different models of what he saw as good and bad models of education in his novels, he both reinforced the public’s sense of moral feeling and established a tradition of dealing with education in novels.

More specifically, in Hard Times, he gave us one of the best images of the tension between the extremes of heartless utilitarian education and the education of the heart: a reading of the first chapter of that book captures that age-old tension as well as tomes of educational theory.

“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!”