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Would Dickens Make a Difference Today?

by Brad Mitchell

My family holds three holiday habits high on its list of seasonal musts: trudging out to the woods for a live Christmas tree, watching the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," and reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol on Christmas morn.

The third event always carries the most significance for me. Dickens knew how to help us locate and embrace the lost child of our past, present, and future.

The spectacle of the lost child is an important aspect of most Dickens novels (witness Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Hard Times). The products of his pen consistently prompted the governmental and economic elite of England to place the lost child near the center of social and educational policy.

Dickens told the lively and robust stories of the alienated, marginalized, and dispossessed in an effort to prick the conscience of English society and conquer the prejudice against children of the poor. He was not always successful, but he did continue to write. And people continued to read his books and newspaper serializations.

In an era devoid of TV docudramas, sensational sound bites, and political "spin doctors," mid-1800's England relied on a public discourse fueled by literary imagination and tempered by moral reasoning. Put simply, someone like Dickens could craft a portrait of social injustice, economic inequity, and educational malpractice in words that made a difference.

I am not sure Charles Dickens would have a similar influence in today's America.

Certainly, pre-21st-century America is not lacking in authors who provide social criticism in a Dickens-like fashion--Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Kozol, Robert Coles, Marion Wright Edelman, Frank Smith, and Cornel West, to name a few. Unfortunately, a critical but compassionate essay on modern American Society gets knocked off the bookshelf to make room for "self help" literature on topics such as co-dependency, high cholesterol, sexual prowess, and power dressing. We are more interested in the shadows of ourselves than the shadows of our society.

When we do read about the "less fortunate," we tend to get books on the New York Times bestsellers list about what the less fortunate lack--good education, good parents, good values, good neighborhoods. E.D. Hirsch took the deficit-model mentality to the top of the charts with Cultural Literacy, a book that promotes "good culture" as the panacea for the fallen.

Perhaps we need to look a bit more carefully at how Charles Dickens influenced his age. Why did so many people from so many diverse aspects of English society experience his books with their heads, hearts, and hands? I think Dickens had such an impact for five basic reasons.

First, he was able to crystalize the life and prospects of the lost child through passionate characters and poignant characterizations. Dickens made the reader feel responsible for all of England's children, regardless of their social class. Tiny Tim touches all.

Second, he demonstrated that capitalism and capitalists could and should have compassion and responsibility to (not for) individuals with less power. The Brothers Cheeryble in Nicholas Nickleby represent capitalists with moral character.

Third, Dickens confirmed the age-old hope that good wins out in the end and time heals allwounds. Like most villains he depicted, the brutal and malicious headmaster in Nicholas Nickleby, Mr. Squeers, gets his just desserts at the close of the novel and the hero, Nicholas, goes on to live a long, happy, and prosperous life.

Fourth, Charles Dickens gently but firmly reminded the readers of his day that individuals, institutions, and societies could change. Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps the holiday season's most cherished literary expression of the power of personal transformation. Scrooge demonstrates that people, places, and policies can change for the better when the true nature of things is revealed.

Fifth and finally, Dickens wrote books based on a simple premise--we learn from the company we keep. The working poor of England's dawning Industrial Revolution learned about life as they labored together in the linen mills, coal mines, and factories. At the other edge of the spectrum, the captains of industry discovered life together as they meandered through their all-boy boarding schools, social clubs, and board rooms.

Dickens brought these worlds to8gether and forced their members to deal with each other. He recognized that class prejudice and notions of civic responsibility relate to the company we keep. What life we choose to live primarily is a function of which company we choose to engage. Of course we do not always have the luxury of choice.

Would Dickens make a difference in today's world? Would the five literary lessons he repeatedly expressed in each of his books move the modern-day reader? Peruse the five lessons again and make your own determination of how they would be received today.

The spectacle of the lost child can spur social consciousness and galvanize personal responsibility.

Capitalism and capitalists can have and should have compassion and responsibility to (not for) people with less power.

We always should promote the hope that good wins out in the end and justice prevails.

Individuals, institutions, and societies can transform when they face their own shadows and exert a moral will over time.

We learn from the company we keep.

My cynical side senses these five statements would not dramatically capture the hearts and souls of the populace even at the height of the holiday season.

We see countless spectacles of lost children on our highway billboards, milk cartons, and local news broadcasts every day of our lives. We have grown numb to these flowing images of oppression and harm. Junk-bond jockeys such as Michael Milken and S.&L. mountebanks such as Charles Keating certainly are not heartwarming models of compassionate and responsible capitalists. Yet, they capture considerable media attention mainly because they were foolish enough to get caught.

Acts of personal transformation in modern America have more to do with diet and exercise regimens than with moral and/or spiritual reflection and growth.

We do accept (although we abuse it often) the homily that we learn from the company we keep. Educational policy is replete with examples of the negative aspects of the "company we keep" principle--remedial education, gifted education, tracking, parental choice. The Milwaukee school system has taken this principle to its logical apex with the establishment of two schools designed exclusively for African-American males.

Dickens most likely would not describe the Milwaukee experiment as a positive example of "the company we keep" principle. He envisioned a world where company transcended class, age, gender, and race. As the honest, hard-working power-loom weaver, Stephen Blackpool, said to Mr. Bounderby, the factory owner in Hard Times:

"Sir, I canna, wi' little learning an' my common ways, tell thegenelman what will better aw this--though some working-men o' this town could, above my powers--but I can tell him what I know will never do 't.

"The strong hand will never do 't. Vict'ry and triumph will never do't. Agreeing fur to mak' one side, unnat'rally awlus and forever right, and toother side unnat'rally awlus and forever wrong will never, never do 't.

"Nor yet lettin' alone will never do 't. Let thousands upon thousands alone, aw leading the like lives and aw faw'en into the like muddle, and they will be as one, and yo will be as anoother, wi' a black unpassable world betwixt yo, just as long or short a time as sitch-like misery can last."

I yearn for the day when a Dickens could make a difference. Perhaps the modern manifestation may be a motion picture such as Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." Unfortunately, we seem to be more comfortable with a "Driving Miss Daisy" world where we recognize the personal touch of pluralism but we doggedly maintain distinctions in power based on class, race, gender, and age.

We speak of school restructuring as if it were simply an act of technical and/or managerial wizardry. Schools and school systems are not tinker-toy sets which can be taken apart and reconstituted at a moment's whim (although we often treat them this way).

Schools constitute the time and space when people of diverse races, ages, class, and gender come together to learn in each other's company. Educators have the power to reshape the conceptualization and use of time and space. These two factors can be managerially altered. And, in fact, control over the clock and the physical structure of the school dominates the attention of many.

We need to pay greater attention to the more untidy "company we keep" factors of school restructuring, such as race, gender, age, and class. We speak of multicultural education as a curricular addition rather than as an issue of fundamental restructuring. The time has come to face the bedrock issues of belonging which shape who we have been, who we are, and who we might become.

Like John Goodlad, I can see a day when children and their families seek the company of others from diverse age groups, races, cultures, ethnic communities, and economic fortunes in a place called school. Like John Dewey, I see a time when school and community are virtually inseparable, where the success of all students is considered a prime directive.

Like Cornel West, I see a flowing curriculum where multicultural literacy will encompass notions of compassion, moral responsibility, economic justice, and self-reflection. Like Marion Wright Edelman, I see a time when we worry less about getting children ready for school and more about getting schools ready for children.

Like Dickens, I see a time where the spectacle of the lost child would be a rare event and all would understand we are the company we keep. A time when childhood, once again, would be a context for communal living and learning, when we would no longer shake our heads in solemn agreement when we heard this American Indian adage about the condition of the younger generation: They act as if they had no relatives.

Perhaps the real issue is why American society in general and too many parents in particular act as if they had no children.

I see a time when childhood would once again be a time and space where we renew our sense of obligation and avoid the stagnation of self-absorption.

It would be a Dickens of a time.

Brad Mitchell is an associate professor of education at Ohio State University.

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