Dombey & Son & Schools as Ecosystems

dombey coverI’ve been reading Dickens’s Dombey & Son and having a wonderful time. Less than 200 pages in, I’ve already found lots of passages on education that seem remarkably contemporary.

One section in particular seemed relevant to our Schools as Ecosystems project. Mr. Dombey, the wealthy and highly respected head of a shipping firm, is grooming his sickly, sensitive, 6-year-old son Paul to take over the company. Dombey is trying to choose the proper school for Paul and decides on Doctor Blimber’s Academy which, he is told, “[is] very strictly conducted…there’s nothing but learning going on from morning to night.”

Dickens goes on to describe Blimber’s school in language full of ecological imagery:

“In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hothouse, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boy blew before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (and very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.”

This last part struck me because the approach it described — forcing all students to “bear to pattern” regardless of the student or the “season” — struck me as exactly the type of one-size-fits-all approach being advocated from the federal to the local level in public education today, from Common Core standards that make no mention of students’ varied learning needs to high-stakes tests that demand a uniform product from all students, regardless of their circumstances.

It’s interesting that methods so comically inhumane that Dickens was lampooning them in the 1840s are now promoted as the cutting edge of educational innovation.

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