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Jan Resseger, a social justice activist in Cleveland, reminds us that “no excuses” schools are not a new idea. There is nothing innovative about harsh discipline. If you want to read about them in the 19th century, read Charles Dickens.
“I am a great fan of the later novels of Charles Dickens—Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, but 40 years ago, when I read Hard Times, the fable seemed so overdone as to be far-fetched. When I picked up this 1854 novel again last week, however, I discovered that these days, its critique seems hardly over the top at all. Hard Times is Dickens’ critique of inequality in a mid-19th century English mill town, of authoritarian schools that drill utilitarian economic theory, and of the social Darwinist ethic that celebrates the individual and the success of the self-made man. Bounderby, Dickens’ bullying One Percenter, like Donald Trump, creates a fictitious story of a humble origin as a means of promoting the myth of his rise on his own merits. And Thomas Gradgrind, the proprietor of the novel’s school, prefigures his modern counterpart, Eva Moskowitz….
“Dickens’ second chapter, titled “Murdering the Innocents,” begins with a definition of utilitarian education, the children described as “little pitchers… who were to be filled so full of facts.” Never mind their hearts. “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic… Indeed… he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed.”
When you read this, you may be reminded of the developer of the Success Academy methodology, who said his goal was to turn the children into “little test-taking machines.” He succeeded.