Imagine if the disciples of John Stuart Mill started an educational program. Oh wait, that is where we are today. Mill and other utilitarians taught that we should do the greatest good for the greatest number. To be sure, that is not always incorrect. Before we list the problems with such a position, we have to appreciate what must be the case for this to work. In order to know the greatest good for the greatest number, we have to know the “facts.” Fact is the key word in this novel. Mr Gradgrind tells the teacher, one Mr M’Choakumchild, to teach them nothing but the facts. No romance, no epics, no fancy. Just facts. “What is a horse?” the teacher asks.
Student: Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.
Even people who do not believe in “essences” or fixed natures know something is wrong with this definition, even though it is factually correct.
Unfortunately, the book does not maintain the tenor set by this wonderful opening. The opening leads us to believe that Cecelia (Sissy) Tupe is the main character. She is not. The next section of the book focuses on Stephen Blackpool. Is he the main character? Indeed, he is not. The main character is probably Louisa, Mr. Gradgrind’s daughter. In Dickens’ other works, such as Great Expectations, a single, often memorable character drives the novel. Hard Times has at least three main characters and none drive the novel.
That is a problem in this novel, but it is not an insurmountable one. In many ways, this might be the best novel to begin with. The lack of a noticeable main character means one does not have to invest emotionally in a character, such as one would with Pip or David Copperfield. And the book is funny and philosophically profound.
By the end of the book we realize that man is more than facts, and education is more than the sum of facts. Here readers of Dickens (and perhaps Dickens himself) might draw the wrong conclusion. One should not conclude that an education focused on facts and hard logic is wrong. I myself am partial to facts. Sentimentality unchecked can be just as dangerous. The solution is in balance.