by Kathy Weitz
Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times is a perennial favorite among classical educators, an illustration of how not to do education! It is full of brilliant and biting commentary on an educational system that ignores the soul-building stuff of the poetic imagination in favor of facts and figures. Like all of Dickens’s works, Hard Times bears repeated readings and yields new insights each time. A recent reread of my own prompted some commonplace entries and meditations related to scholé and mental health. As we approach a new school year, I commend these to you.
This first excerpt, describing the students of schoolteacher Thomas Gradgrind, is vintage Dickens, replete with allusions and alliteration:
No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon before it could speak distinctly. No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are! No little Gradgrind had ever known wonder on the subject, each little Gradgrind having at five years old dissected the Great Bear like a Professor Owen, and driven Charles’s Wain like a locomotive engine-driver. No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs. . . . To paraphrase the idle legend of Peter Piper, who had never found his way into their nursery, If the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at more than this, what was it for good gracious goodness’ sake, that the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped it!
As I read, I scrawled “a-scholé” in the margin of my book. Word-savvy readers will recognize that the a- prefix negates what follows, yielding the meaning “not scholé,” or “not restful learning.” I have heard Dr. Perrin say that ascholé is not so much a lack of leisure as a lack of interest. One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of ascholé than in this hilariously pathetic description of the Gradgrinds.
Then there is this doleful little exchange:
“I was tired, father. I have been tired a long time,” said Louisa.
“Tired? Of what?” asked the astonished father.
“I don’t know of what—of everything, I think.”
The great minds of Christendom, including Dante, identified a deadly sin called acedia, which we translate as “sloth,” “boredom,” or, more urbanely, “ennui.” Many medieval thinkers and educators actually proposed purposeful study—scholé!—as a remedy. Louisa is one of the aforementioned Gradgrinds, a young teen when she speaks these words that splendidly depict acedia as ennui. I cannot help but connect her words to Dickens’s description of the ascholé that characterized the Gradgrindian education.
We would do well to hear Louisa’s lament today, in an era when many parents and educators are concerned with the rising rates of mental health disorders among young people. Unarrested ennui in our children is a huge contributor to purposelessness and depression.
But the great storyteller does not leave us, or Louisa, there. The typical Dickensian twists and turns and purifyingly pathetic calamities finally bring forth the mature Louisa:
. . . grown learned in childish lore; thinking no innocent and pretty fancy ever to be despised; trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up, the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death, and the plainest national prosperity figures can show, will be the Writing on the Wall, —she holding this course as part of no fantastic vow, or bond, or brotherhood, or sisterhood, or pledge, or covenant, or fancy dress, or fancy fair; but simply as a duty to be done.
Dickens never intended for his social commentaries to criticize only—he intended for them to also inspire. So, fellow scholé seekers, receive this inspiration: Let us grow learned in childish lore, cherish innocent and pretty fancies, know our fellow creatures, and beautify our lives, and the lives of those around us, with imaginative graces and delights. And let us not neglect to offer all of this to our students as well!