“Around the time of Oliver’s ninth birthday, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, removes Oliver from the baby farm and puts him to work picking oakum at the main workhouse. Oliver, who toils with very little food, remains in the workhouse for six months. One day, the desperately hungry boys decide to draw lots; the loser must ask for another portion of gruel.” Wikipedia
From time to time, it’s suggested that the school curriculum is too left wing and that we should go back to the “classics”. John Howard was particularly concerned that we no longer studied Dickens. So for your consideration, I offer this excerpt from “Oliver Twist”.
For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled in “the house” who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be “farmed,” or, in other words, that he should be despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.
Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air.
Of course, Oliver Twist fails to realise that the Age of Entitlement is over.
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.
“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”
Not only is Oliver failing to understand that he’s not entitled to more, he fails to see that he’s not entitled to any. If he wants food, what’s he doing in the orphanage? Personal responsibility and all that…
But some of Dickens is far from appropriate for today’s youth. Take the old idea of the workhouse, which. of course, is very much an outdated one. For those of you whose history is rusty, the workhouses were where those unable to support themselves were forced to go for accomodation and support. Life in the workhouse was meant to be harsh in order to deter all but the most destitute from using it. It was rather like a work-for-the-dole scheme except that – in the those days of entitlement – they actually provided you with a roof over your head. We don’t want today’s unemployed expecting luxuries like that.
However, many of Dickens’ tales will be ok with a rewrite. For example, in “A Christmas Carol” when Scrooge is shown the scene at Bob Crachet’s table by Christmas Future and notices that there’s a place missing, well, obviously, he’ll understand that with the abolition of penalty rates, there’ll be no problem in asking Bob to work on Christmas Day.
Of course, not all the concepts from Dickens’ time have no potential application today. For example, the “Bastardy Clause” in the Poor Law effectively made children the responsibility of the mother until they were sixteen. If she were unable to support them, she would have to enter the workhouse. Perhaps, we could apply this principal now – but only in relation to single mothers, of course – and raise the age to thirty, thus removing a large number of people from the dole.
Yep, with so much I’m sure that we can find a place for Dickens in the curriculum. I think I’ll leave the last word to John Howard who said in 2006
“…we also understand that there’s high-quality literature and there’s rubbish.”
Unfortunately, nobody has since asked him if he considered the Liberal “Our Plan. Real Solutions for All Australians” high-quality literature, or whether it’s part of the latter category. Or, indeed, whether he considers the coming publication: “Zombiechoices – dead, buried and cremated, but still it rises!” one of the classic works of fiction this century.