David Copperfield is a classic Bildungsroman – a novel of education. School is only one of many avenues for education available to David. Indeed, many of his most productive sites of education – the factory where he learns the misery of isolation and poverty; Miss Betsey's cottage and Mr. Peggotty's boat house where he learns the importance of generosity; the bad first marriage where he learns the importance of finding a partner who shares your ideas – teach through experience rather than books. At the same time, there are some really memorable depictions of schools in this novel. Who can forget Mr. Creakle's hugely abusive dive of a school, which exposes some classic critiques of the use of physical punishment on students in schools and its effects on both students and teachers. Dickens combines some specific, barbed attacks on styles of schools in his day with a broader look of what learning means and where we might achieve it outside of the classroom.
Doctor Strong's school offers an idealized model of an institution based on self-discipline and self-determination. This mode of trust-based discipline echoes Doctor Strong's ethical treatment of his wife, Annie, after discovering that she may be cheating on him.
The novels David reads outside of the classroom help to structure his understanding of his own early experiences in the world.