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February 23, 2012

Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore recently deployed Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure in his argument about why Les Ebdon should not be appointed director of the Office for Fair Access.

The reflections of another great Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens, on poverty, education and aspiration - preoccupations he shared with Hardy - were the subject of a blog post by Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University.

On his Vice-Chancellor's Blog, Professor Schwartz explains how Dickens - whose bicentenary is celebrated this year - can aid our understanding of higher education.

"As befits a man who worked as a journalist...Dickens managed to spark a minor media controversy in his birthday week with England's schools minister Nick Gibb declaring that every school leaver should have read at least one Dickens novel," Professor Schwartz writes. "A professor at London University's Institute of Education, John Bangs (a Dickensian name if ever there was), demurred, claiming that Gibb's notion...' is the kind of top-down, tunnel-visioned approach we could do without'."

Seemingly, Mr Gibb was reacting to the view of his boss, education secretary Michael Gove, that 11-year-olds should be expected to read 50 books a year, an issue Professor Schwartz also blogged about.

Returning to the Gibb-Bangs difference of opinion on Dickens, it reminded Professor Schwartz of an essay in which George Orwell encourages the reading of Dickens. "Orwell's essay is no pan-egyric," he notes, explaining how Orwell knows that Dickens "can be platitudinous, and has a penchant for a deus ex machina..."

"Still...what Orwell perceives most that in every page of Dickens's work 'one can see a consciousness that society is wrong somewhere at the root' - and that root is not 'society' itself but in human nature," Professor Schwartz continues.

"Part of Dickens's prescription for society's ills was education, but not just any education. He made a distinction between wisdom of the head, and wisdom of the heart. Thomas Gradgrind, the notorious headmaster in Hard Times, favoured the former, what today would be called skill-based education: '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.'

"Dickens parodied Gradgrind and rejected the idea that it is possible to '[educate] the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections'."

Professor Schwartz echoes this notion, concluding that "higher education must focus on the heart as well as the head. If there are some authors university graduates should be familiar with - as I argue...that there are - then Dickens and Orwell must surely be among them. They matter today perhaps more than ever.

"Education was in the beginning, and remains today, moral - to help to make people wiser, to act in more noble ways, to help to make our world a better place.

"Dickens reveals this to us in his brilliant fiction and he will continue to do so for generations to come."

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