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One Eye Fixed, One Eye Rolling: Critical Thinking in the Midst of Hard Times

Casey Cothran

Casey A. Cothran, Winthrop University
One of the most memorable scenes in Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times occurs in the second chapter of the book, as two schoolchildren are each asked to define a horse. Sissy Jupe (also known as “girl number twenty”) is rendered speechless by this demand, while young Bitzer is able to give an answer that pleases the two authority figures in the room. In this scene Bitzer notes that a horse is a:
“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.” (3)
Thomas Gradgrind’s response to this recitation is to note: “Now girl number twenty […] You know what a horse is” (3).
But, of course, this extraordinary definition means nothing to Sissy. Or to the reader, for that matter. Indeed, the reader may continue to wonder: What is a horse? She may even feel inclined to correct Bitzer in her own mind, noting how her own definition of “horseness” contrasts with his cold recitation of the animal’s physical characteristics. Bitzer gains approval for his recitation, but certainly his answer does not satisfy. In turn, one might note that Sissy’s silence and “alarm” in this scene indicates that an answer to this seemingly simple question will require deep and complex thought. To Sissy, horses are known entities, but in order to articulate her knowledge she will need to recall, evaluate, and organize multiple layers of lived experience. She seems, in this textual moment, unable to do this. Thus, as neither Bitzer nor Sissy offers an eloquent answer, the reader is left to arrive at a personal answer for herself.
There are multiple ways for readers to respond emotionally to this moment: with judgment for Gradgrind, with sympathy for Sissy, with fear for Bitzer, or with approval for Dickens (for highlighting the need for educational reform). Yet, within this memorable introductory scene, the reader also is prompted intellectually, pushed to define a concept. How would one, if asked, explain the known? This question leads to more questions: Should one have to explain the known? Is this intellectual prompt (“Define a horse.”) a meaningful one? If not, why not? If so, how?
I would argue that this technique, where the reader is prompted to think about a question (that may or may not have an answer), is typical of Hard Times. The repeated use of this technique also may explain the sheer volume of excellent academic criticism on Hard Times, a book that is sometimes described as “curious” or “distracted” (Kearns 878). Many have noted complexities or dichotomies in this work; often scholars describe the novel either as flawed in design or else as creatively employing interdependent sets of conflicting opposites. Rather than elaborating more fully on any of these specific observations, this essay will attempt to illustrate the variety of meaningful ways that the text invites the reader to do his or her own critical work. In her article “The Literary Imagination in Public Life,” Martha C. Nussbaum notes that “the novel […] is a morally controversial form, expressing in its very shape and style, in its modes of interaction with its readers, a normative sense of life. It tells its readers to notice this and not this, to be active in these and not these ways; it leads them into certain postures of the mind and heart and not others” (224). Nussbaum convincingly promotes the idea that Hard Times directly instructs readers to value “fancy” alongside “reason”; she also describes how the book itself has influenced her own work with global political economies. I would take Nussbaum’s theory a step further and claim that Hard Times is a novel that trains the reader to become what Gerald Nosich defines as a “critical thinker.”
According to Nosich, critical thinkers exhibit eight distinct character traits. They are intellectually empathetic (“They willingly commit themselves to thinking through the logic of any point of view”), they are intellectually courageous (“They face up to challenges to their settled beliefs and habitual ways of thinking”), they exhibit intellectual humility (“They can accept criticism, and learn from it”), they are “truth seekers,” they have confidence in reason, they are fair-minded, they are intellectually engaged, and they exhibit intellectual perseverance (175). In general, a critical thinker is actively engaged in formulating meaningful responses to the complexities of lived reality, rather than simply living within it, a passive victim either to circumstance or to learned illogic. The process of reading Hard Times, which exposes readers to a variety of good and bad logic, as well as to problems that have no easy logical solutions, may be said to encourage the development of these eight “critical thinking character traits” within the reader.
There are many literary techniques that Dickens uses that both overtly and inadvertently foster these character traits. In his exploration of education, as he describes how fictional children are being taught to see the world, Dickens encourages readers to become metacognitive, to think about their own thinking. For example, in order to actively critique the M’Choakumchild philosophy of teaching described in the text, the reader will establish her own position of partial or full disagreement with it. As Dickens uses sarcasm, or presents extreme points of view, the reader is encouraged to articulate his own philosophies (on the aesthetics of flowered carpets, for example). The parenting philosophies presented by Gradgrind are so extreme, it is almost impossible not to begin to mentally articulate personal views, in response, in opposition to them. As Dickens describes the curious behavior of curious characters, the reader is invited to consider her own responses to difficult people and painful situations. Finally, as Dickens presents the tragic world of Coketown, the reader is invited to formulate his own solutions to serious social problems.
I would argue that, while both Dickens and his readers understood what some industrial social problems were and some of the reasons why they might exist, neither had full answers as to how one might fix such problems. Thus, mysterious spaces (haunted by questions and non-answers) pepper the novel. It is in these spaces that reader is prompted to think critically about how they might personally respond to the terrifyingly absurd world of utility and industry. Indeed, this novel is more than a description of the struggle between the opposing forces of heart and mind. There is a third element here – a textual space marked by failure, frustration, and grief – where the reader is called upon to ask questions, to confront his own flawed assumptions, and to begin to devise solutions to the deep problems of the modern world.
The type of critical work the Dickens reader is invited to do is significant. In Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, Gerald Nosich argues that true critical thinking is thinking that addresses what he calls “authentic problems.” He clarifies this statement, asserting:
Real problems are often messy. They have loose ends. They are usually unclear: clarifying and refining them are part of thinking through them. They often have no single right answer. But there are wrong answers, even disastrous answers. (4)
Certainly, in a novel like Hard Times, Dickens is attempting to address what he sees as authentic problems. The novel openly declares the need for social reform, describing the worlds of the upper and working classes as poisoned and problematic. At first, Dickens inspires the reader to think about these problems in simple ways: as they decipher children’s rhymes (“There was an old woman, and what do you think? She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink; Victuals and drink were the whole of her diet, And yet this old woman would NEVER be quiet” [18]), wade through circus slang terms (“Nine oils, Merrylegs, missing tips, garters, banners, Ponging” [23], goosed, a Cackler!), follow dialogue spoken with an accent or lisp (“Thquire! […] Your thervant! Thithith a bad piethe of bithnith, thith ith” [27]), and unlock characters’ clever, private messages and/or jokes to one another (for example, the complex posturings and forms of flattery between Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby). Yet the challenge for the reader becomes more serious as Dickens writes line after line of ideas that the reader knows to be both absurd… and popularly promoted. (Of the Hands: “…that these same people were a bad lot altogether, gentlemen; that do what you would for them they were never thankful for it, gentlemen; that they were restless, gentlemen; that they never knew what they wanted…” [18].)
The production of the novel itself, which appeared in 20 different issues of Household Words between April and August of 1854, forced readers to predict conclusions, imagine consequences, and consider complex social issues during the time that they waited for the next novel installment. The novel was not illustrated: another factor that adds to the work required of the reader. Although modern readers can read the text “all at once,” and can even choose to watch films that retell the story, I would argue that the book still calls for a specific type of active reading. Few problems in the novel are resolved; indeed, at the end of the work, even the characters’ futures remain uncertain, and the reader is left to puzzle out what happens to everyone. Notably, within the novel itself, Dickens encourages the reader to formulate her own emotional and intellectual responses to literature. In “Chapter 8: Never Wonder,” he writes,
There was a library in Coketown, to which general access was easy. Mr. Gradgrind greatly tormented his mind about what the people read in this library […]. It was a disheartening circumstance, but a melancholy fact, that even these readers persisted in wondering. They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women! (37)
Here, the mark of the good reader seems to involve the development of empathy with fictional characters and thus with humanity; however, the word “wonder” (as it appears twice in this example and also in the title of the chapter) is also key. The good reader is inspired not just to feel but to think. The word “wonder” also seems to describe a specific type of thinking: novel thinking, “out of the box” thinking, thinking that asks questions.
In Hard Times, the readers’ work of deep thought is similar to the work of the acrobat, work that Mr. Bounderby falsely describes as “being idle” (20). Both the thinker and the acrobat appear graceful and easy, but their dance is quite complex. It requires practice, and it can be painful. Nevertheless, both have the power to draw crowds, inspire, and astonish. Early in the novel, the old circus hand, Mr. Sleary, pronounces his “philosophy” on how the world works, one eye rolling about in his head, the other fixed on the person with whom he is conversing (30-31). In order to develop their own “philosophy,” the reader must also cultivate a “rolling eye.” As she reads Hard Times, she must also simultaneously, continually look around her. She must also look inward, seeking her own answers.
The purpose of this essay is twofold. First, I wish to invite scholars to view Dickens’s work as a piece that inspires critical thinking on the part of the reader. But next, and just as importantly, I want to present this particular work of literature as part of a bridge that can and should be built between scholars, students, universities, and the public. As noted just this spring in The Nation:
[T]he liberal arts, as we know, are dying. All the political and parental pressure is pushing in the other direction, toward the “practical,” narrowly conceived: the instrumental, the utilitarian, the immediately negotiable. Colleges and universities are moving away from the liberal arts toward professional, technical and vocational training. […]Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. (Deresiewicz)
The Dickensian echoes within this current cultural analysis are evocative. It appears that Americans, and especially those of us involved in higher education, are in the midst of our own “hard times.” Fortunately, literature helps us to think more deeply, to recognize our own intellectual and emotional impediments, and to consider how we might fix the authentic problems of our world. When read in the way that I have proposed above, one can see Hard Times not only as a book that bravely engages with the struggles of the past but one that, if actively read in universities today, might prompt modern students to consider how industry, capitalism, and utilitarianism threaten their own historical moment.
At the end of her essay on Hard Times, Martha C. Nussbaum discusses how Hard Times has influenced her work with the World Institute for Development Economics Research, a “research institute connected with the United Nations University, whose aim is to explore broader interdisciplinary approaches to the economic problems of the developing world” (243). Nussbaum describes how her interest in Dickens’s text led her (as a member of a group of economists and philosophers) to design and promote a new “quality of life measurement” for developing countries, one that is “based on a notion of human functioning and human capability, rather than on either opulence or utility” (244). Although, as a literary scholar, I am moved by Nussbaum’s discussion of Dickens and the novel form, as both a teacher and a member of an academic community, I am more fascinated by how reading this particular novel has influenced Nussbaum’s international work. As Michael Bérubé has noted, “you don’t know the meaning of a mass-cultural artifact until you find out what those masses of people actually do with it” (Chronicle Online). Attention to this facet of reading literature – to its potential to inspire habits and practices that promote critical engagement with the problems of the real world – may be one way that the humanities might meaningfully articulate their purpose and value to those outside the university.
The call to add a cultural component to the ways that literary scholars address texts is not unfamiliar; in his piece, “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” Michael Bérubé looks back to “the late 1980s and early 1990s” when many felt that “cultural studies would fan out across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, inducing them to become at once more self-critical and more open to public engagement” (The Chronicle Review). Bérubé concludes that this effort has failed. I am not sure if this is true; in turn, at this moment, I am not calling for a renewed focus on Cultural Studies, which, according to Bérubé, at its best, “analyzes the social foundations of intellectual labor” (The Chronicle Review). What I would like to note is the historical approval (and excitement) that many academics felt for a holistic mode of study that looked critically at texts and that also recognized those texts as a meaningful part of culture. If Bérubé is correct, if the Cultural Studies movement has not taken hold in the way that academics once imagined it would, perhaps we should rethink how we address the “cultural” component of literary analysis.
Cultural Studies has much to offer as one attempts to understand a text, its historical moment, and its internal conflicts; in contrast, our focus here, on the field of Critical Thinking, offers us ways to understand how living readers read and use texts. In the past it has seemed obvious, perhaps even unworthy of note, to claim that books influence and inspire their readers. Nevertheless, both in the context of the “Great Recession” and in the context of the new world of electronic texts (tweets, Facebook status updates, blogs, chatroom dialogues) that are rising up around the modern reader, it seems useful to investigate and articulate how the act of reading literature cultivates particular, meaningful, and yes, even marketable, skill sets.
As Amanda Hiner noted at the 2011 CEA Conference, “The courses required by the English major are uniquely suited to produce the habits, practices, dispositions and mental strategies of the engaged, creative, critical thinker; they naturally train students in those areas of reflective intelligence which can be learned through practice; they confront students with consistently rich content; and they ask students to master the sophisticated mental practices of synthesis, evaluation, interpretation, argument, and analysis.” Despite popular claims like those made by Frank Donoghue, Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University and author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, who asserts that “the humanities simply don’t have a place in the emergent curriculum of the 21st century,” I would argue that the study of literature has something valuable, applicable – and quantifiable – to offer the modern individual. That “something” is training in the art of critical thinking.
And what about Charles Dickens? As I noted above, I think Hard Times is special. As readers explore a variety of unfolding epistimologies, they are driven to confront their own perplexing, lived reality. Indeed, this text is written in such a way that it does more than prompt students (and international scholars like Nussbaum) to think about the problems of industry, education, and unhappiness; through a specific narrative technique, it forces them to begin to formulate their own solutions to them.
Dr. Casey A. Cothran is an Assistant Professor of English at Winthrop University. Her work has appeared in the Wilkie Collins Society Journal (2002), the Victorians Institute Journal (2006), Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies (2006), Working Papers in Irish Studies (2007, 2009), and in the book collection New Woman Writers: Authority and the Body (eds. Melissa Purdue and Stacey Floyd, 2009). Cothran also has published an article on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (see Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text, ed. Cynthia Whitney Hallett, 2005).
Works Cited
Bérubé, Michael. “What’s the Matter With Cultural Studies?” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 September 2009. Web. 14 October 2011.
Deresiewicz, William. “Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education.” The Nation. 4 May 2011. Web. 9 June 2011.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York, Dover Publications, 2001. Print.
Donoghue, Frank. “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.
Hiner, Amanda.”Critical Thinking Application in the Literature Classroom.” CEA Conference. March 2011.
Kearns, Katherine. “A Tropology of Realism in Hard Times.” ELH. Winter 59:4 (1992): 857-81. Print.
Nosich, Gerald. Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2012. Print.
Nussbaum, Martha, "The Literary Imagination." Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995. 222 - 246. Print.