As we mark the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth (Feb. 7), the most fitting tribute we can offer to the man, who first wrote and became famous under the pen name “Boz,” is to examine the ways in which his work still speaks to our lives.

As professor of 19th century British literature, I have the daunting task of convincing undergraduates that reading Dickens’ novels, often approaching a thousand pages long, will be a worthwhile endeavor from which they will glean valuable insight about their own worlds.

Although they may be skeptical at first, students soon recognize the multitude of ways that Dickens still helps us to negotiate our own times as well as his. I would like to offer a few of these Dickensian epiphanies as brief memorial to his enduring influence and importance.

Any student or reader of Dickens’ books soon will recognize that his novels are often about students, readers and books: The politics about the rise of mass literacy and education that characterized the Victorian age became one of his favorite themes.

In 19th century England, schools were often more concerned with social containment and discipline than they were with individual learning, empowerment or agency. Charity schools and other educational establishments primarily policed the reading that the lower orders did, and sought to concretize very strict hierarchies of behavior in terms of social class, gender identity and nationhood.

In the wake of the French and American revolutions, the ruling classes often considered book-learning the most promising form of “revolution prevention,” as well as an effective way to spread English imperialism to its colonies.

Unfortunately, because the central goal of education was to keep learners content in their subordinate places, schools frequently had a terrible effect on individual lives, indoctrinating their subjects through a curriculum that consisted mostly of rote memorization and very little critical thinking.

Dickens, having visited more than 70 schools in person, vigorously wrote against these educational dangers. Famous for his character names, he saved some of the best for his dangerous schoolmasters: Wackford Squeers, Bradley Headstone and Mr. M’Choa-kumchild.

In “Hard Times,” he exposes the folly of the popular utilitarian education of his day, a program that adjured its students to stick only to facts, to repress their imaginations and “never wonder” about such things as poetry or storybooks and the usual joys of being young. Indeed, in an environment where students are called by number (“girl No. 20”) rather than by their names, only the most pragmatic training fits in the curriculum, as the rote lessons create automatons devoid of free thinking and perfect for future factory exploitation.

In reading “Hard Times,” students learn a wealth of information about Victorian England, but the most wonderful moments in the classroom begin when they start to apply Dickens to their own lives.

One student noticed that Dickens’ warnings about rote memorization applied directly today to such educational matters as standardized testing, and the “teaching to the test” mentality that drives so many of our middle and high schools, often leaving students sadly disconnected from their educational experiences.

Another student argued that the “just the facts” curriculum that ruins Dickens’ characters’ lives reminded her of recent trends in education to eliminate arts, music and humanities programs in favor of business, computers and skills courses that seek to train rather than empower. Yet another reader wondered how these 21st century educational dangers might have a similar effect on his life as the perils about which he read in Dickens.

Would a curriculum that is more about job training than critical thinking result in a diminished capacity for social awareness and resistance? Are our own educations creating modern-day automatons, perfect for our own office cubicles? What does this mean for our possibilities for freedom, agency or authentic forms of democracy?

Dickens’ novels continue to provoke crucially important questions and explorations about a multitude of essential ideas today.

In “Great Expectations,” he questions the construction of gender identity, forcing us toward a revision of how we define masculinity, and what it takes to be a gentleman in a society that perpetuates male violence, possessiveness and control as its distinguishing features.

In the same novel, and elsewhere in “Oliver Twist” and “Bleak House,” he cogently explores the pathology of domestic abuse, and the societal forces that enable violence against women.

In “Bleak House,” he cautions us against the pitfalls of empire and colonialism, outlining the dire consequences that attend a nation that neglects “the obligations of home” in favor of imperial expansion abroad: dire poverty, homelessness and the contamination of a healthy populace.

In doing so, he exposes the myth that poverty is the fault of the poor, a symptom of moral failing on their part rather than an indication of systemic inequality. He also makes us question the ways in which notions of false charity are tied to ideas of class warfare.

Throughout his novels, Dickens offers inspired alternatives to the traditional family dynamic, places where abandoned children, orphans and other individuals can find happiness and love, constantly reminding us that people are always more important than institutions.

All of these themes are shockingly relevant to us today — a simple perusal of this or any newspaper will readily reveal direct 21st century parallels, and why the novels of Charles Dickens still matter.

His enduring narratives captivate us, transport us to another time and place and allow us to become a part of the Victorian world he helped to shape, so much so that many often refer to it as Dickensian England.

Most impressively, they not only allow us to read his words perceptively, but our own worlds as well. There can be no higher praise.

Eric G. Lorentzen is an associate professor at the University of Mary Washington, where he teaches 19th century British literature. Email at [email protected] He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va. It was distributed by MCT Information Services.


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