Saturday, August 30, 2014

Charles Dickens on discovery learning

‘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!’
When people turn to Dickens for a critique of educational practices, what they cite is almost always this opening passage from Hard Times. And, like all of Dickens' parodies, its a great one, gaining momentum as it continues:
The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, — nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, — all helped the emphasis.

‘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.
The fact that there probably isn't a single classroom left here in America that involves bare walls and fact-filled teachers determined to pour gallons of those facts into passive, vessel-like students doesn't stop people from using these excerpts to evoke strawmen images of traditional classrooms.

Given actual practices today, a more relevant Dickensian excerpt is this one from Martin Chuzzlewit. It describes the educational practices of a Mr Pecksniff, who runs a studio for aspiring architects:
Mr Pecksniff's professional engagements, indeed, were almost, if not entirely, confined to the reception of pupils... His genius lay in ensnaring parents and guardians, and pocketing premiums. A young gentleman's premium being paid, and the young gentleman come to Mr Pecksniff's house, Mr Pecksniff borrowed his case of mathematical instruments (if silver-mounted or otherwise valuable); entreated him, from that moment, to consider himself one of the family; complimented him highly on his parents or guardians, as the case might be; and turned him loose in a spacious room on the two-pair front; where, in the company of certain drawing-boards, parallel rulers, very stiff-legged compasses, and two, or perhaps three, other young gentlemen, he improved himself, for three or five years, according to his articles, in making elevations of Salisbury Cathedral from every possible point of sight; and in constructing in the air a vast quantity of Castles, Houses of Parliament, and other Public Buildings. Perhaps in no place in the world were so many gorgeous edifices of this class erected as under Mr Pecksniff's auspices; and if but one-twentieth part of the churches which were built in that front room, with one or other of the Miss Pecksniffs at the altar in the act of marrying the architect, could only be made available by the parliamentary commissioners, no more churches would be wanted for at least five centuries. [Emphasis added.]
Yes, with his mockery of student-centered, discovery-based learning, Dickens was way ahead of his time. Of course, part of this satire involves not just this particular pedagogy, but also the easy financial rewards that accrue from it to the Power(s) that Be, in this case, Mr. Pecksniff. But I'm not sure whether this makes the passage any less relevant today--despite the fact that, somehow, it doesn't seem to be cited quite as often as the "facts" passage from Hard Times.


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