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Friday, March 14, 2014

Charles Dickens' Girl #20 in Hard Times, a.k.a., Sissy Jupe

Hard Times opens with the following passage of Mr. Gradagrind:

"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!" 

Today, one might just as well substitute the words "Test Prep" for "Fact." With the Common Core edging towards reading manuals and the like in place of literature, little room is left for fancy.  For those favoring test-based metrics to evaluate students, their teachers and their schools, and for those trying to deliver over the data with their relentless emphasis on test prep, everything beautiful in the world of Sissy (Cecilia) Jupe, Girl #20, the counterforce to Gradagrind, has gone out the door. 

The over-emphasis on test preparation strikes against everything of beauty in a child's education.  With so much money poured into testing companies, classrooms lack much needed resources.  Subjects that are not tested high-stakes fashion, like art, music, drama and the likes, are whittled away.  Teachers must frame the year around an upcoming assessment that in many ways is formed for political rather than instructional purposes.  Out the door goes a 3D world of the imagination and a concern for current issues.  In the door walks a 2D simpleton of a review book.  For survival purposes, teachers and students must teach to the test. And, so much is lost.

As Hard Times rolls along, Mr. Gradagrind, although still unwilling to afford any admiration to Sissy and her world of the imagination, grows increasingly uncomfortable with his inability to classify or categorize Sissy among his facts.

"He really liked Sissy too well to have a contempt for her; otherwise he held her calculating powers in such very slight estimation that he must have fallen upon that conclusion. Somehow or other, he had become possessed by an idea that there was something in this girl which could hardly be set forth in a tabular form. Her capacity of definition might be easily stated at a very low figure, her mathematical knowledge at nothing; yet he was not sure that if he had been required, for example, to tick her off into columns in a parliamentary return, he would have quite known how to divide her."

Where are we to put the child with a wild imagination in this new world of testing?  Where are we to put the child who looks past A,B,C,D and possibly even E, to find her answers?  With a singular focus on test prep, children's sensibilities and endless, natural love to explore the world around them will be squashed.  When a child's mind begins to wander, he is now at war with the mission of test prep.  It is not to be tolerated.  How sad for the child!  How sad for humanity!

In the end, when Gradagrind's son, the young Thomas, is in serious trouble with the law, it is Sissy who steps in with the hopes of saving him. 

"'...how is he [Thomas] to be found by us, and only by us? Ten thousand pounds could not effect it.' [Thomas Gradagrind, Sr.]

"'Sissy has effected it, father.' [Louisa answers]

"He raised his eyes to where she stood, like a good fairy in his house, and said in a tone of softened gratitude and grateful kindness, 'It is always you, my child!'"

By the end of the novel, Dickens has brilliantly showed how Gradagrind's persistent attachment to facts in his single-minded education of his own children has stultified the lives of little Louisa and Tom.  In the end, his son and namesake, young Tom, is brought down by the relentless world that Gradagrind helped shape, the fact-bound world in which he had falsely put his faith.

Gradagrind's dysfunctional world of facts seems to come crashing down around him, and all his family has suffered for it.  Sissy with her loving heart and fanciful world of imagination has triumphed.

"But, happy Sissy's happy children loving her; all children loving her; she, grown learned in childish lore; thinking no innocent and pretty fancy ever to be despised; trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up, the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death, and the plainest national prosperity figures can show, will be the Writing on the Wall, - she holding this course as part of no fantastic vow, or bond, or brotherhood, or sisterhood, or pledge, or covenant, or fancy dress, or fancy fair; but simply as a duty to be done, - did Louisa see these things of herself? These things were to be."

I ask myself what is to be with the new emphasis on quantifying children, teachers and their schools to measure their success.  Until someone can effectively measure such intangibles as creativity and imagination and regard with deep appreciation a wide scope of well-rounded pursuits in school, including art, music and drama, we are damning ourselves to the miseries of Thomas Gradagrind's square world.  Dickens would remind us and leave us with the final thought that the future lies within our power.  What kind of world will we create through our schooling?

"Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not [referring to the world of Sissy]. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold."

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