Hard Times for These Times

Prior to becoming an academic administrator I was for nearly two decades a teacher and student of Victorian literature, and in particular of the novels of Charles Dickens. This revelation typically brings responses ranging from mild surprise -- how... quaint -- to outright shock, as if I were a physician confessing to having done a residency in medieval barbering.

In truth, it took me a long time to understand fully the relevancy of my "residency" in Dickens to the work and the world I now encounter. I can be slow about these things. But I have come finally to recognize that nearly everything I needed to know about my current situation was revealed in Dickens had I only taken the trouble to look.

Consider for instance the influential report on the future of American higher education prepared in 2007 under the direction of then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The report opens with a statement on "The Value of Higher Education," which speaks about "intellectual capital" and "the new knowledge-driven economy" and "economic benefits" and, really, about little else.

Surely the report would have brought a smile to the face of Thomas Gradgrind, the forward-thinking educator in Dickens's Hard Times, who insisted that "In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!" Later, of course, a chastened Gradgrind acknowledges that "Some persons hold... that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart. I have not supposed so; but... I mistrust myself now. I have supposed the Head to be all-sufficient. It may not be all-sufficient." But I assume the Spellings Commission never got past the first few chapters of the novel.

When I think about more recent efforts by the federal government to regulate and standardize higher education, I recall, from Little Dorrit, Dickens prescient description of the Circumlocution Office, the "most important Department under Government," whose great accomplishment is to be foremost among all government departments in practicing the great art of "HOW NOT TO DO IT." "It is true," Dickens concedes, "that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering How not to do it." But the Circumlocution Office sets a standard to which other offices of government can only aspire.

The financial wizards who have done such good for the global economy would have found a worthy model in Mr. Merdle, also from Little Dorrit, a titan of the banking world who is "the recipient of more acknowledgment within some ten or fifteen years... than had been bestowed in England upon all the peaceful public benefactors, and upon all the leaders of all the Arts and Sciences, with all their works to testify for them, during two centuries at least." Ultimately, when it is revealed that Mr. Merdle is in fact "the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows," the economy of England nearly falls crashing into ruins. But for the first 600 pages things are looking really good for Merdle and his investors.

Our ongoing, systematic disinvestment in the education of our young? Recall the scene in A Christmas Carol in which the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge two prostrate, shriveled, and degraded children. "This boy," he explains, "is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and of all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that is written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

And what of the way we are, during these particular Hard Times, treating those among us who are most vulnerable, most in pain, and most in need of kindness and care?

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"