The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What the Dickens is the Common Core Doing?

on December 5, 2015

Since Charles Dickens receives much attention at this time of year with his beloved story, “A Christmas Carol,” I am posting  an essay today that I wrote a while ago about his novel, “Hard Times.” In that novel I found a wonderful satire on the foolish and harmful educational practices of his time that closely resemble the practices today. Read about them and laugh–or weep.

Did you know that Charles Dickens denounced the Common Core Standards more than 150 years ago and didn’t think much of the value of teacher education either? In his 1854 novel, “Hard Times,” Dickens devotes the first two chapters to satirizing education in the grade schools of his era, and it looks a lot like the teaching recommended for our schools today.

Right away, Dickens introduces Thomas Gradgrind, owner of a small school in an English industrial town, who makes clear to his companions, the school master and an unamed visitor, what he thinks education should be: “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.”

Next, the three men enter a classroom, and lessons begin with Gradgrind in charge. He looks around the room and points to a young girl: “Girl number twenty,” he calls out. She stands up and gives her name: “Sissy Jupe, sir.”

“Sissy is not a name,” charges Gradgrind.“Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecelia.”

After learning that Sissy’s father performs with horses at the local circus, Gradgrind demands of her, “Give me your definition of a horse.” When Sissy doesn’t answer, he turns to a boy named Bitzer and repeats the order.

Bitzer recites,“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eyeteeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now,”gloats Gradgrind,”girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.”

Later, while lecturing the class on the foolishness of using representations of horses and flowers as home decorations, Gradgrind calls on Sissy again, asking her why she would have such pictures on carpets where people would step on them. Sissy, no longer tongue-tied, replies,“It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy….”

“But you mustn’t fancy,”cries Gradgrind. “That’s it! You are never to fancy”

Having humiliated Sissy once again, Gradgrind turns the lesson over to M’Choakumchild, who, Dickens tells us, has been thoroughly trained to be a teacher: “Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy,  geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the end of his ten chilled fingers ……He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more.”

Dickens then ends the chapter with a metaphorical musing that compares M’Choakumchild’s teaching to Morgiana the slave girl’s actions in the ancient story,“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”: “Say, good M’choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim and distort him?”

Today we educators might say,”Common Core originators and supporters, do you trully believe that with your continual emphasis on close reading and text analysis, without giving students any access to background knowledge, that you will curb only their imagination and curiosity–or perhaps fully destroy their interest in reading and persuade them that education is just a waste of their time?”













2 responses to “What the Dickens is the Common Core Doing?

  1. […] students short texts of no more than a page or two. We should have our students read these texts without any background into who wrote them or why. We should then have students answer questions that require them to go […]


  2. Brilliant piece, Joanne. Ah, those disassociated facts… so lonely, so useless without interesting and motivational connections.


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