Sunday, June 13, 2010

Utilitarianism and Utilitarian Education

© 2010 Mukesh Williams

Utilitarianism is a philosophy based on a minimalist view of human beings that explains human nature in terms of economic relations alone. It believes that the moral significance of an action is judged by its utility to people. Though it has many contradictions it was responsible, in some measure, for reforms in administration, sanitation and education. Utilitarianism promoted a theory of laissez faire and came to represent a streamlined civil service and centralized administration. G. D. Klingopulos highlights the contradiction in utilitarian thought by saying that though “in some matters, such as the agitation for cheap bread, the utilitarians were friends of the working man, in others, such as the regulation of conditions in factories, they were his enemies” (Klingopulos, 1970 30-31).


It was difficult to reconcile the Bentham’s idea of general happiness, based on enlightened political and legal principles, and Adam Smith’s self-harmonizing economic principle of laissez-faire (minimum intervention from the law). Dickens seemed to be both a victim and a chronicler of a contradictory response to utilitarianism in Hard Times. This contradiction is evident both in his treatment of education and trade unionism.

Dickens’ polemical response to industrial growth, utilitarianism, capitalism, education, economic self-interest and trade unionism is also reflected in the novel through his representation of Coketown, Gradgrind, Bounderby, Mr. M’Choakumchild, Harthouse and Slackbridge.


The redbrick Coketown is presented in the novel as soot-coated, black and savage. Its daily life is repetitive, monotonous and grinding (HT, p. 22). Both its streets and inhabitants have lost their uniqueness,

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 (HT, p. 22).

The repeated use of the word “same” and the phrase “like one another” reveals both the tedium of Coketown and the drudgery of its inhabitants. In a prophetic vision at the end of the novel the author tells us that five years later Bounderby would die of a fit on these very streets (HT, pp. 217-8).

Everything in Coketown is “severely workful” and the idea of sameness extends to the eighteen churches of different “religious persuasions,” the jail, infirmary, town hall, school and cemetery. Its blasting furnaces become hot as hell and gas from them fills the air asphyxiating the people. In Dickens’ own words,
The streets were hot and dusty on the summer day, and the sun was so bright that it even shone through the heavy vapour drooping over Coketown, and could not be looked at steadily. Stokers emerged from low underground doorways into factory yards, and sat on steps, and posts, and palings, wiping their swarthy visages, and contemplating coals. The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam-engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many stories oozed and trickled it. The atmosphere of those Fairy palaces was like the breath of the simoom: and their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert. But no temperature made the melancholy mad elephants more mad or more sane. Their wearisome heads went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul. The measured motion of their shadows on the walls, was the substitute Coketown had to show for the shadows of rustling woods; while, for the summer hum of insects, it could offer, all the year round, from the dawn of Monday to the night of Saturday, the whirr of shafts and wheels (HT, pp. 85-6).

Dickens brings out the unreality of Coketown and its ominous power. It stands at the edge of doom stifling the lives of its inhabitants. Yes it’s the unreality of the town that stands out as if it seems that Dickens did not understand Coketown as well as London. The sense of intimacy, the closeness, the insider’s perspective is missing. The serialization technique and polemical confusion further limits his vision. However, in spite of the unreality of vision Coketown is definitely an ideal setting for the manifestation of a utilitarian philosophy.


Dickens campaigned for structuring education and wished to do away with unqualified teachers in schools. He strongly felt the need to provide training to teachers. He introduced Mr. M’Choakumchild, fresh from a training college, accompanied by his wife, about to deliver his first classroom lecture. The satire, both in the choice of the name and presentation of character, seems inescapable. M’Choakumchild is after all a representative of a new school ideology. His Scottish-sounding name obviously refers to the import of trained Scottish teachers in English schools. Obviously M’Choakumchild possesses too much useless knowledge in his own conceited way. He bores and confuses his simple-minded but ignorant students. Dickens writes:

He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmology, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild (HT, p. 12).

M’Choakumchild’s “ten chilled fingers,” and his “stony way” point to the fact that though he may be extremely knowledgeable he has lost the ability to enjoy or make his innocent wards enjoy life. His hard facts stifle the imaginative “fancy” that is “lurking within” each child. Dickens concludes his sketch of M’Choakumchild by saying that, “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

Through M’Choakumchild, Dickens expressed some of the popular criticism against training schools of the time. Dickens wanted training schools to instruct teachers in teaching methodology and help them to develop the intellect of children, not just impart some erudite scholarship. Educators felt that Dickens’ account of M’Choakumchild and the object lesson at Gradgrind School were only partially correct. Scuh presentation could be just Dickens’ own middle class emotional reaction to an educational system that he disliked. Monroe Engel believed that Dickens was not attacking but dissociating himself “fully and publicly from the Benthamites” (Engel, 1959 160-62).


Chapter two of the novel is entitled “Murdering the Innocent” framed within one of the three sections of the book “Sowing.” The other two sections, “Reaping” and “Garnering” also come from an agricultural vocabulary—a vocabulary that describes, and sets in contrast, the mechanical world of Coketown. Klingopulos believes that the school setting and the title of the chapter help Dickens to “go beyond matters of economic theory to strike at those psychological and educational ideas, which formed the ‘philosophical’ part of utilitarianism” (Klingopulos, 1970 34). Gradgrind’s boast that he can easily reduce “any parcel of human nature” into “a case of simple arithmetic” underscores his cold intellectuality. Gradgrind’s over-confidence exemplifies the misguided belief of utilitarianism in the efficacy of their educational content and method at the primary level. Gradgrind is absolutely certain as to what the children require and the way it ought to be given to them. The vocabulary of Hard Times is loaded with this sentiment—children are passive “little vessels’ or “little pitchers” to pour utilitarian “facts” into. His approach stands in stark contrast to the understanding gained by the senses, based on feeling and mutual respect for others. The episode where Gradgrind asks Sissy to define a horse and Bitzer’s successful definition of it is an example of the twin approaches to life.

Benthamite utilitarianism argued for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” but failed to realize it. Though few succeeded most people continued to live in grinding poverty. Dickens felt that there was more to life than just economic success. It was not just to brand the discontented and disenchanted as dregs of society and send them to prison. Bentham believed in moral principles and disciplinary institutions for the betterment of society. He campaigned for the building of Panopticon prison which allowed an observer to observe the prisoners without being noticed. Through this design Bentham wanted to bring about social and legal reform based on the concept of invisible omniscience. Foucault saw the Panopticon as a reflection of nineteenth century rule-based institutions to police the individual. The terrible discourse of state control does not result in human progress or happiness.

Works Cited
KLINGOPULOS, G. D. “Notes on the Victorian Scene,” in Boris Ford ed., The Pelican Guide to English Literature Volume 6. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970.
ENGEL, MONROE. Charles Dickens, Hard Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.

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