Charles Dickens’ Hard Times: The Usefulness of Useless Things

“The Child is father of the Man,” wrote William Wordsworth, marveling at the enchantment of the child’s early experience and delight in play. The formative period of childhood cultivates in the young a love of life, a sense of adventure, and an imaginative world filled with wonder. As the child in Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses observes, “The world is so filled with a number of things, / I think we should all be happy as kings.” However, when outdoor fun, fairy tales, and games are condemned as forms of idleness, a waste of time, and useless activities that divorce children from the harshness of reality and the seriousness of life, then a utilitarian view of school and life reduces man to an economic being, rather than a child created for happiness. Utilitarianism subverts the classical-Christian ideal that man works in order to play, and that wonder is the beginning of knowledge. The opening line of the novel is famous: “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.” The Gradgrind Academy views education exclusively as preparation for work, schooling that limits learning only to empirical knowledge, the laws of science and mathematics, and the subjects most useful for a future in the business world. The end of education, then, is purely utilitarian—for the purpose of work to earn money, to rise socially, and to enjoy the benefits of material possessions that define human happiness in terms of things.

The Gradgrind philosophy of education limits the term “useful” only to the functional, the efficient, and the gainful. Education is a self-serving means to an end, not an end in itself, or something good loved for its own sake but a servile activity that produces results, profit, and success, measured by financial prosperity. Liberal education, then, is condemned as “useless,” a form of idleness similar to the make-believe of children who waste time and daydream, instead of learning at school and preparing for work. According to Mr. Gradgrind, man does not work to play but lives to work. Man is a worker, not a player with a sense of mirth who enjoys hospitality, fellowship, the arts, or the outdoors. Man is a laborer, not a thinker who philosophizes or contemplates the true, the good, and the beautiful. The successful utilitarians in Coketown like Mr. Bounderby and Bitzer have no time for friendship, romance, worship, beauty, leisure, or recreation, because these pursuits do not lead to success in a competitive society ruled by the worship of force and by survival of the fittest. Whereas St. Thomas Aquinas argued that “No man can live without pleasure”—a self-evident truth about human nature like Aristotle’s “All men by nature desire to know,” and “Man by nature is a political animal”—the Gradgrind philosophy denies man’s human, social, and moral nature, and disfigures the essence of childhood.

Students who enter Gradgrind Academy are warned never to fancy and never to wonder. They should never imagine a carpet with a flower design because “You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets.” At school, students are never taught about fairies, elves, genies, and Greek gods. They never read the adventurous fiction of Goldsmith or Defoe, or study mythology. Children are deprived of the enjoyment of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes and the playfulness of poetry. They are severely reprimanded for watching a circus after school because the performers do not produce anything “useful” by way of manufacturing necessary goods. Ignoring the hearts and souls of the young, the teachers view their pupils as “little vessels … ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.” The greatest damage inflicted on the children of a utilitarian education, however, is the neglect of moral education. The graduates of the school—Tom, Louisa, and Bitzer—lack the virtues of the heart, a right conscience, and the ability to make prudent decisions. In other words, the allegedly practical education of the Gradgrind school ultimately proves to be useless when tested by human experience.

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Dickens illustrates that the so-called “useful” things of the world—facts, work, and money—ultimately prove to be useless in life’s major crises, while the “useless” activities scorned by the utilitarians—play, friendship, charity, hope, and beauty—prove to be infinitely valuable and, ultimately, more beneficial than facts. Mr. Gradgrind has only contempt for Mr. Sleary’s circus troupe engaged in unnecessary frivolous nonsense, but all the problems suffered by the Gradgrind children have no factual answers, but only imaginative solutions. Tom Gradgrind’s utilitarian education offers no benefits after he enters the work force. Deprived of a normal childhood and the wholesome pleasures of simple fun, Tom resorts to gambling and drinking to compensate for the void in his life. In serious debt, he pleads with his sister Louisa for money to pay for his bad habits, and he steals money from a bank and cleverly frames an innocent bystander for his crime. Thus Tom’s useful education in facts offers no help in the practical business of living and making moral choices. Desperate when pursued by the law as a common criminal, Tom appeals to the kindness of Bitzer, a fellow student. Gradgrind implores his former student not to press charges or provide evidence to convict Tom: “Have you a heart?” and “Pity us!” Bitzer responds that he acts only on the basis of self-interest, not charity, compassion, or affection for a classmate or former teacher.

Gradgrind’s utilitarian education produced the hard-hearted, cold-blooded, selfish pupil who defined the heart on the basis of “the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood.”  Bitzer’s explanation of his heartlessness accords with the Gradgrind education he received: “Mr. Bounderby will promote me to young Tom’s position.” Ironically, it is Mr. Sleary, using his childlike creative imagination and playful mind, who delivers Tom from Bitzer’s ruthless persecution. Sleary, always the circus performer, disguises Tom as a clown, and coaches him to ride a horse. At the opportune moment, Tom, as if performing a stunt at a show, jumps from the horse onto a pony-gig that races away at breakneck speed as Sleary’s dog snarls and keeps Bitzer at bay. Tom escapes the clutches of Bitzer, who wants Tom apprehended to gain his position in the struggle of the fittest for survival. Dickens, then, demonstrates the usefulness of useless things. An education that leads the mind to love goodness, wonder at beauty, and revel in the truth cannot possibly be unproductive or impractical. As Cardinal Newman explained this paradox in The Idea of a University,

… though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful. Good is not only good , but reproductive of good, this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around. Good is prolific…. A great good will impart a great good.

It is this “overflow” of play from the circus that proves infinitely more valuable than the utilitarian work ethic inculcated at Gradgrind Academy.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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