'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!' (1.1.1)
It is interesting that even when giving these instructions, Gradgrind can't help but speak metaphorically. Even more interesting, the metaphor is one of nature ("plant nothing else, root out everything else"), exactly the thing that this educational system is hoping to go around.
So, Mr. M'Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. 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 cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, 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. (1.2.48-49)
The educational preparation of Mr. M'Choakumchild is so completely based on fact that even its mild gestures towards creativity manage to be completely non-creative and instead machine-like and conformist. He seems to be decorative, like a "pianoforte leg." But in reality, it's a leg that is just like all the others that have been made on the same lathe. He can teach drawing, but only "from models", and never from the imagination. He knows history – which in its best form is narrative – but the phrase "of all the peoples" gives us the idea that what he mostly knows is dates and events.
'You are extremely deficient in your facts. Your acquaintance with figures is very limited. You are altogether backward, and below the mark.' 'I am sorry, sir,' [Sissy] returned; 'but I know it is quite true. Yet I have tried hard, sir.' 'Yes,' said Mr. Gradgrind, 'yes, I believe you have tried hard; I have observed you, and I can find no fault in that respect.' 'Thank you, sir. I have thought sometimes;' Sissy very timid here; 'that perhaps I tried to learn too much, and that if I had asked to be allowed to try a little less, I might have — ' 'No, Jupe, no,' said Mr. Gradgrind, shaking his head in his profoundest and most eminently practical way. 'No. The course you pursued, you pursued according to the system — the system — and there is no more to be said about it. I can only suppose that the circumstances of your early life were too unfavourable to the development of your reasoning powers, and that we began too late. Still, as I have said already, I am disappointed.' (1.14.11-15)
Gradgrind is so married to his educational system that even in the face of its obvious failure (can Sissy really be the only student for whom it didn't work?) he blames her, and not his theories. This seems like a pretty astute observation of people who are ideologues of one kind or another.
It was very remarkable that a young gentleman who had been brought up under one continuous system of unnatural restraint, should be a hypocrite; but it was certainly the case with Tom. It was very strange that a young gentleman who had never been left to his own guidance for five consecutive minutes, should be incapable at last of governing himself; but so it was with Tom. It was altogether unaccountable that a young gentleman whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle, should be still inconvenienced by its ghost in the form of groveling sensualities; but such a monster, beyond all doubt, was Tom. (2.3.1)
We hope you are hearing the sarcasm dripping from the text here. The narrator means the complete opposite of what he is saying. Naturally, Tom turns out like he does precisely because of the way he has been repressed all his life.
With the aid of a little more coaching for the political sages, a little more genteel listlessness for the general society, and a tolerable management of the assumed honesty in dishonesty, most effective and most patronized of the polite deadly sins, he speedily came to be considered of much promise. The not being troubled with earnestness was a grand point in his favour, enabling him to take to the hard Fact fellows with as good a grace as if he had been born one of the tribe, and to throw all other tribes overboard, as conscious hypocrites. 'Whom none of us believe, my dear Mrs. Bounderby, and who do not believe themselves. The only difference between us and the professors of virtue or benevolence, or philanthropy — never mind the name — is, that we know it is all meaningless, and say so; while they know it equally and will never say so.' Why should she be shocked or warned by this reiteration? It was not so unlike her father's principles, and her early training, that it need startle her. Where was the great difference between the two schools, when each chained her down to material realities, and inspired her with no faith in anything else? What was there in her soul for James Harthouse to destroy, which Thomas Gradgrind had nurtured there in its state of innocence! (2.7.1-3)
Harthouse's heartlessness is so similar to Louisa's father's heartlessness, that she very easily takes him up as her teacher. His lesson plan is basically that nothing moral or emotional matters, which is a soothing thing to hear if you're trapped in a loveless, miserable marriage.
I cannot possibly be hard upon your brother. I understand and share the wise consideration with which you regard his errors. With all possible respect both for Mr. Gradgrind and for Mr. Bounderby, I think I perceive that [Tom] has not been fortunate in his training. Bred at a disadvantage towards the society in which he has his part to play, he rushes into these extremes for himself, from opposite extremes that have long been forced — with the very best intentions we have no doubt — upon him. (2.7.49)
What does it mean that Harthouse is so intuitive and correct here? Especially since he's generally a negative character, whose philosophy of life may just be even more poisonous than the Gradgrind's.
'You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ologies of all kinds from morning to night. If there is any Ology left, of any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name […] But there is something — not an Ology at all — that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don't know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now.' (2.9.55-57)
It's interesting that Mrs. Gradgrind gets at the heart of the matter here. In general, it feels like we're supposed to ignore or dismiss her, but all of a sudden she says something smart. Why does Mrs. Gradgrind suddenly realize that something was missing from the kids' education after a lifetime of ignoring them?
'My dear Louisa, then consent to receive the submissive representation of your devoted friend, who knows something of several varieties of his excellent fellow-creatures — for excellent they are, I am quite ready to believe, in spite of such little foibles as always helping themselves to what they can get hold of. This fellow talks. Well; every fellow talks. [Stephen] professes morality. Well; all sorts of humbugs profess morality. From the House of Commons to the House of Correction, there is a general profession of morality, except among our people; it really is that exception which makes our people quite reviving. You saw and heard the case. Here was one of the fluffy classes pulled up extremely short by my esteemed friend Mr. Bounderby — who, as we know, is not possessed of that delicacy which would soften so tight a hand. The member of the fluffy classes was injured, exasperated, left the house grumbling, met somebody who proposed to him to go in for some share in this Bank business, went in, put something in his pocket which had nothing in it before, and relieved his mind extremely. Really he would have been an uncommon, instead of a common, fellow, if he had not availed himself of such an opportunity.' (2.10.26-28)
Here, Harthouse demonstrates the danger of statistics. He condemns Stephen because robbing the bank is the kind of thing someone like Stephen would do, not because Stephen actually did it. Also, notice the description of teaching here. Harthouse leads Louisa through his slippery logic, first asking her to "receive" this knowledge he is imparting.
'Father, you have trained me from my cradle? […] I curse the hour in which I was born to such a destiny […] How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here! […] I don't reproach you, father. What you have never nurtured in me, you have never nurtured in yourself; but O! if you had only done so long ago, or if you had only neglected me, what a much better and much happier creature I should have been this day!' (2.12.10-18)
The repetition of the questions, and the feeling of rushing words really heightens the tension in this scene. Why doesn't she blame her father, incidentally? Is that fair or realistic?
'I had proved my — my system to myself, and I have rigidly administered it; and I must bear the responsibility of its failures. I only entreat you to believe, my favourite child, that I have meant to do right.' He said it earnestly, and to do him justice he had. In gauging fathomless deeps with his little mean excise-rod, and in staggering over the universe with his rusty stiff-legged compasses, he had meant to do great things. Within the limits of his short tether he had tumbled about, annihilating the flowers of existence with greater singleness of purpose than many of the blatant personages whose company he kept. (3.1.19-20)
There is a comparison here between the true nature of the universe and the ability of any science to measure it (in Dickens's opinion) – "fathomless deeps" and "universe" have the ring of the divine. They really stand out when juxtaposed with the sad little manmade "mean excise-rod" and the "stiff-legged compasses."