Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“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 these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.

Like It Is

In a recent interview on E.S.P.N. a very articulate black N.B.A. athlete was dismayed by the fact that “a majority” of Americans had spoken and it is now more clear than it ever was that racism is the order of the day. I paraphrase, of course, but his resentment over the fact that a “majority” of Americans had exhibited their racism struck me as a bit out of order.

I realize that those in a minority in this country have just been slapped in the face, and very hard at that. I can understand their anger and frustration even though I do not share their minority status. I can only imagine what it must feel like today to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country after Trump’s victory. But let’s set the record straight. We got in this mess because we confused facts with factions — not to say outright lies. And the fact is that almost half of the eligible voters in this country didn’t even vote. And of those voting Hillary Clinton won the majority of those votes. Thus, to say as this man did, that this election proves that a majority of Americans have exhibited their racism is simply not true.

It is possible that a majority of Americans are, in fact, prejudiced against blacks and minorities. But this election didn’t show us much of anything except for the fact that there are a great many people in this country — hardly a majority — who are proud of their prejudice and racism and were eager to support a bigot who is openly biased against any and all who are different from himself. But we knew that going in.

Our disappointment must be over this fact and this fact alone, because it doesn’t help heal the wounds to cast aspersions against a majority of Americans who may, in fact, have few or no prejudices against minorities. We simply don’t know how or what “the majority” of Americans feel about much of anything. Since a great many don’t bother to vote and of those voting voted against the bigot, the claims are cloudy at best. Thus, we must remain focused on what we do know: racism is a problem and it must be addressed. This election was a wake-up call, but it did not prove that a majority of Americans are bigots.

Among the other comments in the interview I refer to were a number that expressed hope that we would, as a nation, come together. This is also a sentiment echoed in a recent blog post by my blogging buddy Keith. These were the comments that I found most encouraging. A result like the one so many of us feared and now are depressed by may well help to bring people together. To begin with, it is clear that racism and bigotry are huge problems in this country — though it remains unclear just how big they are. And they need to be addressed. They will not be addressed until they are recognized as serious problems. Such recognition has just been forced upon us. So let us hope that it does bring a bit of light that can now be shed on problems that have been thus far kept in the dark closet of despair.

A great many people stand to lose a great deal as a result of this election. It makes perfect sense that some, if not all, would resort to exaggeration and hyperbole to express their feelings. But, again, we have learned how easy it is to be mislead by feelings and what consequences face us when we do not attempt to separate fact from fiction and use our minds as well as our hearts to search out the best path to the truth and the resolution of difficulties.

In any event, now is indeed the time to come together and to open lines of communication with one another, to seek solutions to complex issues rather than to simply stand by and wring our hands and cry crocodile tears because things didn’t turn out as we had hoped. So let’s not resort to hyperbole and self-pity to make a point that will not withstand criticism. There are a number of scenarios that could evolve in the days to come and none of us knows which is the one that we will actually experience. Let us continue to hope that things cannot possibly be as bad as they seem and in fact that the test we now face will make this nation stronger, not weaker. History has shown that nations and people can do extraordinary things during hard times. And we are indeed facing hard times.