Who is Thomas Gradgrind?

Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A caricature. An embodied attitude. An idiom, sir, a handy tool for writers on education to reach for and to bring whistling down upon the heads of their adversaries. Gradgrindery! Gradgrindian!

“Give me your definition of Thomas Gradgrind.” (Writer thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.) “Writer number one possessed of no facts in reference to one of the commonest of educational epithets! Bitzer, your definition of Thomas Gradgrind.”

“Industrialist and educational reformer. Inflexibly utilitarian. Obsessed with Facts. Opponent of imagination.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.


The trouble, too often, with a piece of satire that’s congealed into an idiom is that we treat it lazily. In the case of Thomas Gradgrind, we take him — and take his collaborators in the famous Chapter 2 of Hard Times — too readily at their own assessment: enemies of Fancy; inculcators of Facts and of Useful Knowledge. The narrator seems to accept this assessment, and the lazy reader does as well — to the extent that “Gradgrindian” has come to refer to all education that is vocational, that’s focussed on discrete, concrete lumps of information, and that is suspicious of the discursive and imaginative.

To see Thomas Gradgrind that way, though, is to blunt the satire. Let’s look at his first encounter with a couple of Facts. A child’s name is Sissy. His response? “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.” Sissy’s father “belongs to the horse-riding”. Or, in Mr Gradgrind’s terms, “He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier and horsebreaker”. This ought to warn us what to expect, and when we come to Bitzer’s “definition” of a horse, we meet the same phenomenon:

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive…”

Sorry, Bitzer, but those aren’t Facts: they’re jargon. That, in fact, is the point.

Let’s give Thomas Gradgrind the credit of assuming that he wants Facts: he strives to grasp them and he strives to build a pattern of education around them; but what the poor oaf doesn’t know is the difference between facts and words. He’s hypnotised by the idea that a Fact worthy to appear in Education must be respectable: it must dress itself up in Latin and accessorise itself with mathematics. Lest Bitzer’s dental catalogue isn’t enough to make that point (hey, it’s Dickens; you were perhaps expecting subtlety?), we get it again from the official gentleman:

“You must use,” said the gentleman, “for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact.”

And again, of course, it isn’t. Even Leibniz knew better than to think his Universal Characteristic had actually arrived; by the nineteenth century, anybody capable of “proof and demonstration” would spot the absurdity of the gentleman’s demand. Like Gradgrind, the gentleman from the government is a clown, without enough education himself to understand the standard to which he’s trying to hold others. And of course, as readers we register this: it’s what makes the whole set-piece comical. We can see that the Gradgrind experiment is doomed to failure — not for the reason the narrator suggests (liable as this experiment is to “maim and distort” the imagination), but because the dross that it teaches as Facts, detached from reality by jargon and detached from each other by an absurd theory of reasoning, simply can’t be of any utility to anyone.

That’s why we need to reclaim this particular piece of satire from our own lazy usage. Today, Mr Gradgrind would not be talking about Facts, nor demanding Latinate costumes for them — though I suspect he would still be unreasonably impressed by mathematical figures and catalogues of teeth. He would be demanding — and his descendants are demanding — Transferable Skills, Relevant Experience, even Knowledge Exchange. The official gentleman would be assessing teachers’ performance to the third decimal place. He would be demanding that the students demonstrate their Teamwork and their Training for Employability, and with exactly the same result as before — except that rather than determining “that “No, sir!” was always the right answer to this gentleman”, students can easily determine that “Yes, sir!” is now the right answer. This chorus is just as strong, and the response is just as completely ritual.

Thomas Gradgrind and his likes are honest. They genuinely believe that education should benefit its recipients and help to build a better society around them. They genuinely think, in every age, that they have found the key to this. And, poor boobies, in every age they miss the point with crashing inevitability: they succumb to jargon; they tremble with superstitious dread before the shrine of numbers; and they train students to do whatever pleases the official gentleman, which is always something shallower and easier than thinking. Thomas Gradgrind is not the threat that utility presents to pure thought; he is the threat that futility presents to any thought at all.

That, if you like, sir, is a Fact.

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One Response to Who is Thomas Gradgrind?

  1. Pingback: Comment is sacred, but facts are free? | New-cleckit dominie

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