Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol after a visit to Field Lane Ragged School, which offered free classes to children “too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place.” Written in the last quarter of 1843 to draw attention to child poverty, Dickens’s classic sold six thousand copies by Christmas.
Founders of the Ragged School movement aimed to subdue the influences of ignorance, sin, thievery, child prostitution, and the rise of working class radicalism. They described their schools as “formed exclusively for children raggedly clothed.”
Social class remains a subtext of educational policy debates, from property-tax-based funding to university tuition and student loans. The goal of individual empowerment competes with that of creating a docile workforce, a fact well known to the American slaveholders who criminalized teaching a slave to read.
Dickens wasn’t an uncritical admirer of Ragged Schools; he found their quarters too miserable and their curriculum insufficiently secular. But he promoted their educational mission. He said in a speech in 1844, “If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education—comprehensive liberal education—is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.”
God bless us, every one!
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.