Again, No Time But Must Post Something

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Mock Propaganda Poster Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Pinterest)

I’m in the midst of grading my brains out here at the end of the semester, but I don’t want to let any more time go by without posting something because the current state of liberal arts education, especially at the community college level in my state, demands it. Thank goodness there are others who feel the way I do. So until I’m able to do some more research, I’m posting this great article by Gary Saul Morson, professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University.

As a literature instructor I was a bit taken aback at first, and a little insulted, but then I read on, and he has some great things about the importance of college level literature studies as well as sensible ways to engage students in literature classes.

Article by Gary Saul Morson from Commentary Magazine


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Professional development–It means different things to different people, I suppose, but in my mind, I will soon be experiencing the most wonderful professional development a teacher of British literature could ask for. I’m going to England! One of the highlights of the trip will be seeing Benedict Cumberbatch performing the leading role in Hamlet at the Barbican in London.

The timing is perfect because while I am there, seeing Hamlet live, my students will be reading Hamlet and watching a movie version of it. I wish I could take them with me, but I plan to do a video pre and post show in front of the Barbican and take as many pictures and videos as I can to use in my British literature classes.

I also plan to use my experiences to continue to refine the major capstone project in my online literature classes–the literary travel project that I have discussed in previous blogs. I have created sample literary travel projects, and now I can test out my own literary travel plans to further refine those samples, as well as the project directions, and help my students get the most out of their major research project.

Keeping up with all of my classes, seated and online, will be a challenge, but I thought one way to stay in touch with them, and with anyone who is interested in the value of international travel as professional development for faculty. will be interested in my blog posts over the week–STARTING ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23!

Some Weeks Are Good

I know I whine, but not always. Sometimes things work out. Some weeks are good. Last week was one of those. Classes went well. Real collegiality and collaboration took place. Respect was the watch word. Yes, it was a good week. In celebration, I’m printing the lyrics (rough draft) to one of my favorite songs in my new musical CAMPUS. This song is sung by the three “fairy godteachers.” Enjoy!

The Liberal Arts

Mrs. H (singing)
When I lived in Chicago.

Mrs. Mc and Mr. T.
You lived in Chicago?

Mrs. H
Back when I was a girl.
One thing I used to do

Mrs. Mc and Mr. T
What was it?

Mrs. H
I used to read.

Mr. T
Who would have guessed?

Mrs. H
I mean only read.
You’d think the teachers would agree
That reading was a great activity
But they would roll their eyes and give that look
When they called on me and my nose was in a book.
I read
The Three Musketeers in history.
I think Jane Eyre in PE
In Science it was Pride and Prejudice
Lord of the Rings I read in Math
I even got in trouble for reading
In English class.

Ms. M
Why was that?

Mrs. H.
I’m not sure of the cause
But I think it was
Because I was reading Judy Blume
Instead of Sylvia Plath

Mr. T
But what does this have to do
With signing up kids for class?
How do we make them move
Get up off their tiny…

Mrs. H
I’ll tell you.
And then there came a day
That wonderful, glorious day.

Mr. T
Here we go.

Mrs. H
When I knew
Without doubt
What learning was all about…
It was fifth grade and I was all alone
I had no friends to call my own.
Just only had my books
To keep me company
To keep away the looks
They gave to me.

Then we went to the art museum
The Chicago art museum
And walking down the staircase
I looked up and saw it fill the wall
A painting all in black

Ms. M and Mr. T
All in Black?

Mrs. H
Mainly black.
With a thin line of white running down the middle
And an orange line running down the side.
That was all

Then I walked down that massive stairway
Step by step
Moving closer
Moving nearer
To the truth.

Mr. T.
What truth?

Mrs. H.
There was something
In all the blackness
You couldn’t see it from afar
There was meaning
In the darkness
Shapes and form
And art

Ms. Mc
I love this little story
But I’m not sure what it means

Mr. T
That makes two of us
I just don’t see
What you’re trying to say.

Mrs. H
I’m trying to say
That after that day
I knew what school was all about
Giving me knowledge for my work
But teaching me so much more
Teaching me how to live and
What to live for.
Because you only know what truth is
When you get close enough to see
I learned that’s what the liberal arts
Could give to me.

The Liberal Arts
The Liberal Arts
Because you only know what truth is
When you get close enough to see.

Ms. Mc
Now I know what you mean
I’ve felt it too
I only cared about computing
When I was in school
And Chemistry was okay too
The calculations were somewhat challenging.

Then I went to a symphony with my class
Drug to hear a full orchestra on the lawn
Of an old mansion in downtown Tulsa.

Mr. T

Ms. Mc
Downtown Tulsa on the lawn
With my 10th grade class
When I was just fifteen
I sat through some baroque
Didn’t really have a choice
And some other too straight forward
I can’t remember what it was
Then came The Moldau

Mr. T.
The what?

Mrs. H.
Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau

Mr. T

Ms. Mc
I’d never heard anything like it before
It was a river
A river flowing through the music
Through my mind
Starting as a stream
Running through the strings
And I heard the poem
The musical poem
With structure and form

So I’m trying to say
That after that day
I knew that school was all about
Giving me knowledge for day to day
But teaching me so much more
Teaching me how to live and
What to live for.

Because you only know what truth is
When you sit still enough to hear
I learned that’s what the liberal arts
Could make so clear.

The Liberal Arts
The Liberal Arts
Because you only know what truth is
When you sit still enough to hear.

Mr. T
Well, you two can really get on my nerves
I just don’t like people it’s true,
But you’re really all right you two.
I see what you’re trying to say.
Because it happened to me one day.

Mrs H and Ms Mc.
It did?

Mr. T.
It did.
Actually it was one night.

Mrs. H.
Oh, no, not one night.

Mr. T
Well, yes there was a girl
A beautiful girl
With brown eyes and brown hair
Who wore lots of leather
If I remember right
In my acting class.
But she was different than the others
Didn’t want to be a star
She studied and studied
Wanted to be a doctor
But I didn’t care
I just wanted to get with her

Mr. H.
Oh, please.

Mr. T
Well, anyway,
She wanted to go on this field trip
I didn’t really want to go
To the planetarium in Pittsburgh.

Mrs. H.
I didn’t know you lived in Pittsburgh

Mr. T
There’s a lot you don’t know.

So I signed up for the field trip
Flirted with her on the bus.
But she wouldn’t sit next to me
In a darkened room with us
Boys. I guess she was right.
Not to sit next to us boys that night.

So I was bored out of my skull
As the show began to start.
Just about to go to sleep
Until it happened.

Mrs. H and Ms Mc
What happened?

Mr. T.
Out came the stars
In the center of the winter night
They said I could see a hunter.
A hunter I didn’t see
They said two stars mark his shoulders
And two stars mark his knees
Then they outlined his form
Standing with his arms upraised,
A hunter standing strong
I saw Orion.
I saw the Orion Nebula

I’m trying to say
That after that day
I knew what school was all about
Giving me knowledge for my work
But teaching me so much more
Teaching me how to live and
What to live for.

Because you only know what truth is
When someone points you to the light
I learned what liberal arts can do
That fine winter’s night.

The Liberal Arts
The Liberal Arts
Because you only know what truth is
When someone points you to the light

Mr. T
That’s the day I wanted to teach drama

Ms. Mc
That’s the day I wanted to teach math

Mrs. H
That’s the day I knew I could teach English

The day we finally understood
And knew we could

Teach the liberal arts

Katie Goes on a Tear

liberal arts

Classical Liberal Arts

Recently a posting about the cost of education in America compared to countries that offer “free” education got me really going on a tear for some reason. Some of the comments by people I know, like and admire, made me realize how many misconceptions people have about a liberal arts education. First of all, I understand people’s frustration with the current state of higher education in America–it’s a case of paying too much for too little. However, it isn’t entirely the learning institutions’ fault, though they certainly share the blame.

No, the biggest reason behind the failure of our high schools, colleges and universities is that we, as a people, do not understand the true nature of a liberal arts education and therefore devalue it. Listening to some administrators, students, their parents and the general public, I conclude that most people view getting an education as a means to an end–getting a job. Many people seem to think that when they, or the government, pay tuition that they are basically purchasing a diploma, certificate or degree that they need in order to become employed, like purchasing transportation or clothing or anything else that makes work possible.

See, I’m still on the warpath, but I’ll get over it. I’ll have to in order to keep my sanity. It did help to vent on the hapless people who commented on my comments on Facebook, and I thought some of my points were pretty darn good, actually, so I’m going to re-print them here.

Point #1–There is something to be said for providing high performing high school students with at least the first two years of college, like in Georgia. It’s not free–students have to work very hard in high school to maintain a B average to get a Hope Scholarship. Getting an education is the goal–not getting a job. We need citizens who know how to read and write well and most importantly how to think critically. We need to give people an incentive to truly learn something in high school, and we need to give parents an incentive to push their kids to do well in school. We could do this if we adopted something like what Georgia has.

Point #2–Getting an education is about more than getting a job–it’s about learning how to think critically and problem solve and be autonomous, not under anyone’s control except God’s. It’s power to the powerless, it’s learning how to appreciate art and literature and music. It’s about making life better for yourself and the people you love. We have lost our way; we have forgotten what a real education is, and we have substituted it with this paltry idea of mere job training. Show me a person who is truly educated–and I don’t mean has a degree–I’m not talking about degrees, and I’ll show you someone who has a career that fulfills him or her. And if that thinking person doesn’t have a job, then he or she doesn’t want or need one. (A bit hyperbolic but I was fired up)

Point #3–We need to start realizing that education is for everyone and start making our middle and high schools places of real learning again. I don’t think everyone needs a four-year degree. I think we need to start coming up with alternative ways for people to get their education, but the biggest concern should be helping people see the value of an education–of learning how to read with real comprehension, to write clearly and effectively, to use modern technology to do meaningful, practical research. Diplomas, degrees and certificates are meaningless unless people are learning skills like problem-solving that will benefit them no matter what they do for a living because more than likely they will be changing careers and jobs more than once in their lifetime, so they need to learn skills that will help them adapt to new work situations quickly–they need to learn how to critically think–we still have that in this country but it’s quickly being lost to this idea of utilitarian education that has been proven (just look at the results of the Industrial Revolution)–it’s called a liberal arts education and it works but only if the public understands the value of it, and right now liberal arts education is under fire and too many people don’t see its value. That is a crying shame.

William Eldridge Dabbs–My Uncle El

The Foundling

This is the edition that Uncle El gave me. I had to replace it a couple of years ago because I read and re-read it so much. I still have the copy, though.

My Uncle El, my mother’s only sibling, passed away over 25 years ago. He, like the rest of those in my mother’s family, was a teacher–at least for most of his life. He taught Spanish. After his first heart attack, even before really, he, like so many teachers before him, was experiencing some significant burn-out–totally understandable burn-out, but he never lost his teacher heart–his love for books and words and music–his yearning to travel and see new places.

He was a tolerant and patient uncle, up to a point. I think when I was about 10, my brother, sister and I learned just how far we could push him–my younger brother learned later. He was a kid’s dream uncle. He would take us to the movies in whatever cool car he had at the time (the convertible complete with 8-track player was my favorite). I remember one time after seeing Charlton Heston in a Sci Fi movie, riding around Columbus with the top down, hanging out the window and yelling, “Soylent Green is people!” And he let us do that! What a great guy!.

Always single with no family of his own, he was always there when we needed him. He drove mom to the hospital when she went into labor with my brother Rob. He took my sister and I to horse shows–staying with us in the heat of an Alabama summer day and late into the night. He accompanied our family across the country when my dad came home from Vietnam, and we wanted to meet Dad in California. He took us out for pizza and steak, ice cream ahd his favorite, Chinese food. He bought us fireworks (legal in Alabama at the time), something that Mom would not have done for sure. He would let us play while he stayed inside and read his books. He was always reading a book.

To satisfy his love of books on a public school teacher’s pay, he often frequented the big used book store in Columbus, Georgia and another one in Montgomery, Alabama–Auburn was still just a little college town and didn’t have too many places to shop in the 60s and 70s. He would go on these book trips and get dozens and dozens of books. He was very proud of them and kept them all in order. He would get detective novels, historical fiction, thrillers, and even romances. He never said that he got the romances for me, in fact, I often saw him reading them himself, but he always made it a point to show me the romances that he bought, and I felt that they were for me.

After one of these shopping trips, he showed me a box full of one particular romance author–Georgette Heyer, his favorite Regency romance writer. I had not started reading Jane Austen yet. She was still a bit difficult for me, so he told me that Heyer was a 20th Century author who wrote about the early 19th Century in England, just like Austen, but that Heyer would probably be easier for me to read. He had at least a dozen of her books in the box, and he challenged me to read them that summer. I took up the gauntlet and after the first book I was hooked! Heyer wrote with such wit–her characters were funny, heroic and honorable–just like Austen. Heyer’s heroines were not always the most beautiful or even the most clever, but they had courage and resilience, and I so wanted to be like them.

Uncle El made it a point to collect all of the Georgette Heyer Regency romances and mysteries. He would read them too, and we would talk about the wonderful characters and the funniest passages. Reading Georgette Heyer, and soon afterwards, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and others, I became a true Anglophile and have remained one ever since, now teaching British literature, specializing in 19th Century British literature.

I don’t think my uncle was looking for a teachable moment when he introduced me to Georgette Heyer–he just shared his love of books with me, but his interest in me and in my literary education has had a profound and lasting impact on my life. He was a great teacher, a great man, and I miss him.

*   *   *

If you like witty, charming romantic novels, give Georgette Heyer a try. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • The Foundling
  • Friday’s Child
  • Cotillion
  • The Quiet Gentleman
  • The Unknown Ajax

Throw Back Sunday

My Work Home

My Work Home

I used to write a BRCC column a couple of times a month for the Hendersonville Times-News. Here’s one of those columns, from back in 2003:

A series of events the past few weeks has caused an identity crisis in me, forcing me to ask that question teachers often find themselves asking. “What exactly do we have to offer—what is our role?

Should we be entertainers? After all, it is difficult to keep students engaged, especially when many have grown up passively viewing a television screen or matching wits with an exciting computer-generated opponent. Sometimes we try to “jazz things up,” yet no matter how witty our illustrations or detailed our demonstrations, despite our high tech visual aids, we teachers can’t match the special effects of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.

Of course, teachers should make attempts to prompt student responses through group discussion and student comments, but in the end it is the teacher who has the responsibility to bring student discussions to the sticking point, to summarize key points of any discussion. I know it’s become a dirty word in some circles, but sometimes we even need to lecture.  For many students, that’s not entertainment.

If it is not a teacher’s role to be an entertainer or merely a facilitator, is it to be an encourager? Everyone needs praise.  Good teachers know this and try to find real reasons for praise. One word of encouragement from an admired and respected instructor can fuel some students for an entire semester. Sometimes praise can even change a student’s life; however, constructive criticism has also been known to be the making of a person.

Teachers sometimes see themselves as physicians, highly trained professionals who diagnose problems and offer cures.  But others sometimes see us as nothing more than dispensers of grades—recorders. I do the work; you write my A in the grade book and raise my self-esteem.

Are we here to make students feel better about themselves?  Are we counselors? As a writing teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to even constructively criticize a student’s work if I’m aware of his or her difficult circumstances. I ask myself, what if he or she takes my criticism personally. Could my words so sting that the student becomes so angry or discouraged that he or she drops my class or quits school?

In the end, good teachers know avoiding the errors in student performance, no matter what the students’ difficulties, can only block their ability to learn. Our job is to assess students and inform them of their problem areas, not to assure them, “Everything is okay.”

At the beginning of the semester in my freshman composition classes, I relate to students my educational philosophy by describing a scene from the movie All That Jazz, based on the life of Bob Fosse, the late choreographer and Broadway director of Chicago.  The Fosse-like character becomes frustrated with a beautiful young dancer who gets her job more for her sexual appeal than her dancing ability. When the young woman breaks down in tears, the choreographer stops the music and goes to the girl, saying something like this: “I can’t promise you I’ll make you a great dancer.  I can’t even promise I can make you a good dancer. But if you work real hard and listen to what I say, I’ll make you a better dancer.”

Like the choreographer, we can’t make many promises. We can’t say for sure that our students will be stimulated or get A’s or even pass. But we can make the promise that if they will listen, even if the delivery is not of their liking, even if the grade is not what they expect, they will learn.

Reminded then of our promise, our role becomes clear. I know what it is we have to give. It’s not entertainment, not unreserved praise; it’s not a shoulder to cry on. The only thing we can offer our students is what we know—about our disciplines, about learning, about life.

The rest is up to them.

The Quality of Mercy


Maggie Smith, one of my favorite actors, as Portia 
in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice--
the BBC's 1972 version of the play

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, …

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

I am so much like Shylock. I believe strongly in justice. Just like Shylock, I don’t just seek justice, I demand it. But unlike him, I hope, in dealings with my students anyway, I see the wisdom of Portia, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters, and I know that it would have served Shylock well to heed Portia’s words and render mercy. And indeed, many times when a student asks for mercy, and I choose to give it, we are indeed both blessed. The student gets a chance to rectify whatever problem there is–attendance, poor performance in class, misbehavior in class, whatever it may be, and I get the satisfaction of helping a student succeed and truly learn something valuable.

Sometimes, however, that mercy is given, the student takes it, and then uses my act of mercy against me. This just doesn’t happen to teachers, of course, but I find that the teaching profession seems particular vulnerable to the ungrateful. I get so disheartened when this happens that I want to make a list of strict rules and never show any mercy whatsoever. Sometimes I think my colleagues and supervisors would be happier if my mercy were a bit less freely given.  Now, I do have rules and high standards, but I temper them with mercy if I see that I can help the student. I just have to, you see, because of the mercy shown to me.

I remember when I was a senior in undergrad school. I was struggling, like a lot of my own students, with who I was and where I was going next. I was pretty smart and had a way with words, but I was so caught up in my life –meeting people and learning a new language and becoming a woman and discovering hidden talents, like acting and persuasive speaking, that I had, frankly, lost interest in my English studies.

I procrastinated with my paper and put it off and off that last semester of my first senior year that when I finally started working on it in earnest, I realized that it would be impossible for me to finish. I had to ask for an extension. I was truly scared when I walked into my professor’s office. He was intimidating because he was so brilliant as well as being the head of the English department. I didn’t think he even really knew my name. I was standing there and couldn’t speak. He finally looked up and said something, I can’t really remember, and I blurted it all out. Not all of “it” was absolutely true either, but he had mercy. He gave me the extension I requested without hesitation. Then he did something I never expected–He pointed to the chair and said, “Now sit down and tell me what’s really bothering you.”

I finished the paper that first semester of my 2nd senior year. I never had worked so hard on anything in my life. 35 pages comparing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka–two displaced people who didn’t fit in anywhere, so they became writers or maybe they were writers and that’s why they didn’t fit in. I still don’t know. Anyway, I could say I finally found my way while I was writing that paper, and it would be a lie. I could say I stopped procrastinating and learned my lesson; that too would be untrue. No, I worked that hard out of gratitude to the professor who showed me mercy. His mercy, freely given, was twice blessed.

So I lean towards mercy when I think that mercy is going to be best for the student, when the student has a chance of making real change in his or her life. However, the quality of mercy is not strained (or forced). If the mercy is to be at all, then it must come freely given from the person granting that gift. For example, Portia is a wise judge. She knows she cannot legally force Shylock to have mercy because then that mercy would simply be a violation of justice. True mercy requires true justice. So she appeals to Shylock’s sense of justice when she appeals to his mercy. But he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.

As we see later in the play, Shylock made a grave mistake not granting mercy–it led to his bankruptcy and loss of his only child–making the play a tragedy more than a comedy in my mind, so great is Shylock’s loss. But Shylock’s fall is inevitable because Shylock is so full of anger, justifiably so perhaps considering the anti-semitic society in which he lives, that he can not show mercy because mercy must be freely given.

Therefore, even if a student takes my merciful action and uses it against me, it is still a gift freely given in an attempt to help that student. If now that student is demanding mercy, I can not give it because it is not freely given and would corrupt justice.
However, if I truly believe that I am standing my ground for the sake of the student as well as the integrity of my profession, then I am blessed no matter how the student misuses my gift. If no one ever acknowledges that I did the right thing and some people rally against me because of my stand, I will still be blessed because I didn’t allow others to pervert my deep sense of justice. 
I will continue to seek justice by upholding established policies and procedures, to fight for what is right, and I will continue to show mercy. Not because it is in my nature–it is not; not because my faith demands it–it does not. I show mercy out of gratitude–gratitude to the one whose unmerited favor has given me such a wonderful, abundant life.

Today Is What It’s All About

Yesterday, I was discouraged, but today is a new day. Why? I went to rehearsal of my college’s new play. We’re performing a stage version of the movie Clue that is based on the old sleuthing board game so many of us know and love. The movie has an all-star cast, including the late great Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame), the fabulous Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren.

At auditions, there were so many fine actors that our director, head of the drama department, decided to have understudies for some of the roles, include a “household staff” that will serve as entertainment between scenes and then get their shot at the big roles during two additional shows. Great idea, and it’s what directors who are primarily good educators at community colleges do–make their lives much more complicated for the sake of their students as well as the community members who are also significant stake holders in their college.

Today’s rehearsal reflects what community colleges are all about–play production students coming early and staying late to work on the set, more seasoned actors helping the newer ones, agreeing with the director without argument, offering suggestions, happy to have them accepted or not, the director’s quick and non-embarrassing corrections when new actors make mistakes, each actor creating a story for his or her character, an occasional harmless joke, the joys of physical humor leading to laughter and a true knowledge of an art form that only comes with actually getting up and doing it.

This is educational theater and the essence of what liberal arts is all about–following directions, creative problem-solving, collaborating and creating. I’m so glad to once again be a part of it.

Also, today–my positive day–I want to give a shout out to the colleagues, support staff, administrators and students who helped me so much during this past discouraging week. I complain sometimes, but I truly just want to make things better for my fellow instructors and my students, especially my students. Nevertheless, I want to find more time to praise the people I work with who also have the welfare of all of our students foremost in their minds. I also appreciate those students and friends who have reached out to me this week, offering me respect and encouragement. Thanks, guys–you know who you are.

So Frustrated I Can’t Write Much, So I’ll Let Tom Hanks Speak for Me

Today, I’m feeling once again minimized, like my efforts to educate people in my community, to try and instill in them not just skills but a love for learning and a desire to be a lifelong learner, to be a thinker, is seen by some people in power to be a waste of people’s time, that College Transfer Programs leading to four years degree are at best excessive and at worst wasteful.

So I come back to my office feeling a little depressed–go figure. Most people have gone home, but I have to type up a reading comprehension test for one of my classes tomorrow. I hate giving reading comprehension tests, but see, my students don’t read their assigned texts–as a whole they don’t do anything unless they get a grade for it. They don’t understand what it means to be educated and very few have any desire to be. I don’t blame them. They are products of a society that has people in power who seem to think that all education needs to be directly measurable, so they naturally do not understand what it means to read something because it will help them understand the material better, because it will help them write their papers better if they apply what they read. Oh no, if the reading does not have the price tag of a grade, then few students will do it. The idea of learning for learning’s sake is alien to them because it is alien to most of the people all around them, a product of the instant world to which they’ve become accustomed.

Anyway, so I haven’t started that quiz yet. Why? In my inbox was this wonderful article by Tom Hanks appearing in the New York Times that made me feel so much better. Did you know that Tom Hanks got a really good liberal arts education at a community college? Yep. So here it is:

Read it and then hear me saying, “What he said.” That’s my blog for today.

Everything Old Is New Again, Part I–Hard Times


One of my areas of concentration in my graduate studies was 19th Century British literature, specifically the Victorian Era. Something about this time period has fascinated me since I was a little girl. Public television, bless it, introduced me to works by Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Gaskell, and of course, Charles Dickens.  I also read Dickens in school, and when I was eight, I saw the classic musical Oliver based on Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, which fueled my desire to read his books. I remember as a young pre-teen, how I would settle in a corner and re-read A Christmas Carol by the lights of the Christmas tree. I’ve seen just about every film version of any Dickens’ novel that has been made–A Christmas Carol–many, many versions–Alastair Sim is still my favorite Scrooge, although Bill Murray and Patrick Stewart are right up there.

My interest in Dickens and Victorian literature continued into high school and then college. As an English major in undergrad school, I took a course called the Victorian Era where I read about Dickens’ role in educational reform, along with other great reformers, including John Henry Cardinal Newman (whose work The Idea of a University will be the subject of my next blog).

Then, in graduate school, preparing for my comps, I took a course called 19th Century British Literature and had the opportunity to read Dickens’ book Hard Times, a novel about Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy retired businessman who believes in practical, tangible knowledge above all and does his best to wipe all “fancy” and imagination from his children’s lives as well as the people in the town he controls, effectively crippling them. Gradgrind founds a school, run by one Mr. M’Choakumchild, to further his utilitarian ideas of education.

Hmmmmmmm–an extremely wealthy businessman who knows little about education presuming to tell educators what and how they should teach and wishes to privatize education–sound familiar?

Well, I’m a decent writer, but I’m no Dickens, and I couldn’t possibly put into words the way I feel about the current state of education in my country better than he does, so here’s two passages from Hard Times. The first opens the novel and lays out Gradgrind’s educational philosophy. The second is a grim description of what life is like for the people indoctrinated by said philosophy. Let’s hope “our town” never looks like “Coketown.”

From Hard Times by Charles Dickens


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!’

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve.  The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall.  The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set.  The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial.  The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside.  The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders,—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,—all helped the emphasis.

In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.


Coketown, to which Messrs. Bounderby and Gradgrind now walked, was a triumph of fact; it had no greater taint of fancy in it than Mrs. Gradgrind herself.  Let us strike the key-note, Coketown, before pursuing our tune.

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.  It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.  It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.  It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

These attributes of Coketown were in the main inseparable from the work by which it was sustained; against them were to be set off, comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made, we will not ask how much of the fine lady, who could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned.  The rest of its features were voluntary, and they were these.

You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful.  If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there—as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done—they made it a pious warehouse of red brick, with sometimes (but this is only in highly ornamental examples) a bell in a birdcage on the top of it.  The solitary exception was the New Church; a stuccoed edifice with a square steeple over the door, terminating in four short pinnacles like florid wooden legs.  All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white.  The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction.  Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial.  The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.

A town so sacred to fact, and so triumphant in its assertion, of course got on well?  Why no, not quite well.  No?  Dear me!

No.  Coketown did not come out of its own furnaces, in all respects like gold that had stood the fire.  First, the perplexing mystery of the place was, Who belonged to the eighteen denominations?  Because, whoever did, the labouring people did not.  It was very strange to walk through the streets on a Sunday morning, and note how few of them the barbarous jangling of bells that was driving the sick and nervous mad, called away from their own quarter, from their own close rooms, from the corners of their own streets, where they lounged listlessly, gazing at all the church and chapel going, as at a thing with which they had no manner of concern.  Nor was it merely the stranger who noticed this, because there was a native organization in Coketown itself, whose members were to be heard of in the House of Commons every session, indignantly petitioning for acts of parliament that should make these people religious by main force.  Then came the Teetotal Society, who complained that these same people would get drunk, and showed in tabular statements that they did get drunk, and proved at tea parties that no inducement, human or Divine (except a medal), would induce them to forego their custom of getting drunk.  Then came the chemist and druggist, with other tabular statements, showing that when they didn’t get drunk, they took opium.  Then came the experienced chaplain of the jail, with more tabular statements, outdoing all the previous tabular statements, and showing that the same people would resort to low haunts, hidden from the public eye, where they heard low singing and saw low dancing, and mayhap joined in it; and where A. B., aged twenty-four next birthday, and committed for eighteen months’ solitary, had himself said (not that he had ever shown himself particularly worthy of belief) his ruin began, as he was perfectly sure and confident that otherwise he would have been a tip-top moral specimen.

Then came Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, the two gentlemen at this present moment walking through Coketown, and both eminently practical, who could, on occasion, furnish more tabular statements derived from their own personal experience, and illustrated by cases they had known and seen, from which it clearly appeared—in short, it was the only clear thing in the case—that these same people were a bad lot altogether, gentlemen; that do what you would for them they were never thankful for it, gentlemen; that they were restless, gentlemen; that they never knew what they wanted; that they lived upon the best, and bought fresh butter; and insisted on Mocha coffee, and rejected all but prime parts of meat, and yet were eternally dissatisfied and unmanageable.  In short, it was the moral of the old nursery fable:

There was an old woman, and what do you think?
She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink;
Victuals and drink were the whole of her diet,
And yet this old woman would NEVER be quiet.