Thursday, May 23, 2013


“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!”

- Charles Dickens, Hard Times
Words spoken by Mr Thomas Gradgrind.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Hard Times was Dickens’ tenth novel, his shortest, and is set in a fictitious Northern mill town, Coketown. It sought to highlight the social and economic pressures of the times and the negative effects of industrialisation. It has been criticised for its pessimism. The novel was originally published as a weekly series in the magazine The Household Words, and was intended to boost sales of the failing magazine, a task in which it was successful.

The words above are spoken by Mr Gradgrind, the school headmaster, who has 5 children of his own and who runs a school where children are treated as empty vessels to be filled to the full with facts. It is his philosophy that facts enable people to further their own interests but, despite his stated belief that children’s minds are fertile fields in which facts can be sowed, he treats the children like machines. Eventually he comes to realise that emotions and feelings are important when his daughter Louisa has an emotional breakdown.

The name of Thomas Gradgrind is today sometimes applied generally to a person or persons who are hard and only concerned with cold facts and numbers. 

One of Dickens’ purposes in writing Hard Times was to satirise the views of the Utilatarians, founded by James Mill (the father of political theorist John Stuart Mill) and Jeremy Bentham, a school of thought that held that individuals and society in general should ensure that their actions always produce the largest amount of happiness among the greatest number of people. It was their view that such an application would address the the vast social, economic, and cultural problems caused by the Industrial Revolution and its consequences on the British society.

James  Mill (1773-1836)

Dickens saw Utilitarianism as selfish and divisive. He was appalled to see Utilitarian principles used in schools, believing that this created young adults lacking in imagination and feelings.

Interestingly, James Mill raised his own children in the same manner as advocated by Thomas Gradgrind, emphasising analysis and mathematics above, and instead of, anything else. Like Louisa in Hard Times, his son John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown as a result of the pressure to avoid feeling and emotion, Dickens incorporating that in Hard Times.

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