I am a great fan of the later novels of Charles Dickens—Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, but 40 years ago, when I read Hard Times, the fable seemed so overdone as to be far-fetched. When I picked up this 1854 novel again last week, however, I discovered that these days, its critique seems hardly over the top at all. Hard Times is Dickens’ critique of inequality in a mid-19th century English mill town, of authoritarian schools that drill utilitarian economic theory, and of the social Darwinist ethic that celebrates the individual and the success of the self-made man. Bounderby, Dickens’ bullying One Percenter, like Donald Trump, creates a fictitious story of a humble origin as a means of promoting the myth of his rise on his own merits. And Thomas Gradgrind, the proprietor of the novel’s school, prefigures his modern counterpart, Eva Moskowitz.
As I watched the video on the NY Times website last Friday of a teacher at one of the “no-excuses” Success Academy Charter Schools run by Eva Moskowitz—this particular school in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, I thought of Thomas Gradgrind’s school. The video exposes a first grade teacher berating and insulting a girl who has become confused while trying to explain her math paper after the teacher has demanded that the child present her work to the class. When the six-year-old is unable to describe her work, the teacher grabs the child’s paper, rips it in pieces, and humiliates the little girl in front of her classmates.
Dickens’ second chapter, titled “Murdering the Innocents,” begins with a definition of utilitarian education, the children described as “little pitchers… who were to be filled so full of facts.” Never mind their hearts. “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic… Indeed… he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed.”
Kate Taylor’s investigative report for the NY Times appears with the video. Eva Moskowitz is reported to persist in denying that the practices shown in the video are systemic across Success Academy charter schools. Moskowitz says the video documents a momentary lapse by the teacher, Charlotte Dial. “But,” writes Taylor, “interviews with 20 current and former Success teachers suggest that while Ms. Dial’s behavior might be extreme, much of it is not uncommon within the network.” “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across,'” says one former teacher. “Five of the teachers interviewed… described leaders at multiple Success schools and a Success supervisor in the teacher training program that the network runs with Touro College endorsing the practice of ripping up work if it was deemed not to reflect sufficient effort. The purpose, they said, was to get students’ attention and demonstrate urgency. At some schools, there was even a term for it.” “It was ‘rip and redo’…”
To demonstrate just how far the practices of the teacher in the video diverge from what is considered acceptable pedagogy today, the NY Times publishes commentary from several professors in college programs that prepare teachers.
Politico NY reports that this year as criticism of her no-excuses charter chain has grown, Moskowitz has stepped up efforts to manage public relations: “Success has switched public relations companies several times over the last year in an attempt to tamp down critical coverage of the network. On Friday, the influential PR firm Mercury announced that it would now be representing Success, a pivot from the internal communications team that has handled the network’s media requests for roughly a year.”
Several weeks ago in the NY Times, Kate Taylor published Eva Moskowitz’s own description of the philosophy of education that is the driving force behind her Success Academy chain of schools : “Ms. Moskowitz… said that her approach was based on ‘a different view of children’ from that of the larger culture, which she described as seeking to shield children from any negative feelings. She argued that the desire to protect children led Americans to resist setting high academic standards, because doing so would lead to some children falling short. Of Success’s approach, she said: ‘We find in schooling that kids are resilient. You know, they sometimes get upset when they don’t do well, and many people think that’s a tragedy. But… Olympic athletes, when they don’t do well, they sometimes cry. It’s not the end of the world.’”
There is one striking difference between Thomas Gradgrind’s school in Dickens’ novel and Moskowitz’s charters that exemplify today’s version of the cram school. Gradgrind enrolls his own children, Louisa and Tom, at his school, and the novel’s plot unfolds as Gradgrind learns personally and painfully about the consequences of his philosophy of education. In New York City today, however, neither Eva Moskowitz nor the wealthy hedge fund managers who make up her board, nor her contributors, nor the supporters of the powerful lobby that has secured for her schools enormous public financial support from Albany enroll their children in Success Academy Charter Schools.
In 2012, here is what Business Insider published about Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, the neighborhood that houses the charter school featured in last week’s video: “The Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, now a part of the greater BoCoCa revitalization, is one of the most sought after neighborhoods in all of New York City. And unsurprisingly, it’s also one of the richest urban neighborhoods in all of America.” Cobble Hill, eighth in the U.S. in Higley’s List of High Income Neighborhoods, boasts a median household income of $128,123. Of its 2,423 households, 0.90 percent are Black, 4.30 percent are Asian, 5.80 percent are Hispanic, and 86.00 percent are Non-Hispanic white.
It is clear in the video that appeared last Friday that Cobble Hill’s Success Academy is a school for other people’s children. Although Cobble Hill is a gentrifying (or already gentrified) neighborhood in Brooklyn, every one of the children who appears in the video is African American.