Forming that First Link: Dickens’s Place in the 21st-Century Classroom
When we first began to discuss the Charles Dickens Bicentennial here at Cambridge University Press, my initial feelings were oddly of guilt. While others discussed the upcoming celebrations, I thought back the time back in high school when an English teacher struggled with the wandering minds of a group of second semester seniors in an attempt to foster an interest in Great Expectations. I confess I may have been one of the worst offenders, yet nine years later I was surprising myself with my knowledge of Dickens. That teacher, Tim Burns, had left an impression. I reached out to Tim recently and he was kind enough to provide his perspective on the experience.
To Tim, and all the amazing High School English teachers: Thank you for your patience and your effort.
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There’s nothing like turning 200 to get people to sit up and notice you again. Such is the fortune of Charles Dickens, England’s most popular novelist for generations, whose bicentennial celebration has merited attention far and wide (well, at least in English teacher circles) and inspired a slew of new books, biographies, journal articles, and celebrations.
As awareness of the celebrations spread, I’m sure English teachers across the country who had not given old Boz a second thought traipsed down to storage closets to retrieve musty class sets of David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. These titles, once staples of the American high school curriculum, have frequently been supplanted in recent years with titles deemed more contemporary, more accessible, and more relevant to reading adolescents who increasingly process words at such alarming speed that sitting for the drawn-out descriptions of the Dickensian world would be a challenge.
But if Dickens enjoys somewhat of a resurgence this year, I hope it’s for more than a birthday victory lap before being relegated back to the dusky bookrooms. The traditional reasons for trotting out Dickens – he provides a careful study of what life was like in 19th-century England, his social consciousness and identification with the downtrodden makes his fiction meaningful today, “It’s a classic,” enough said – are all relevant, but the single best reason to re-engage in the business of teaching Dickens is far simpler: Charles Dickens got it.
Like only a handful of authors scattered throughout the literary landscape, Dickens presents a vision of the human creature that is rich, authentic, and sees far more into the human construction than merely fanciful characters in period costumes. Like Shakespeare, Dickens delivers with an insight into humanity borne not out of a position above, but a position among the very people he was writing about and in doing so he writes the story of all of us, with a clarity that is sometime uncomfortable, sometimes humorous, and almost always self-reflecting.
Take Pip from Great Expectations, for example, which is typically taught to ninth graders. For a good portion of the first part of the novel Pip seems to be between 12 and 15, and so the thinking is he will be relatable to students of the same age. My experience suggests that Pip becomes relatable and understandable in many ways only after the reader has gotten through the same stage himself or herself; the uncomfortable self-consciousness of Pip is only able to be analyzed by readers who will see that stage in their development, remember it in themselves, and be able to exclaim, ‘Ah, I remember how awkward that felt.’ It is, after all, the older Pip narrating who invokes the reader to “think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
There is no doubt that teaching Dickens to a 21st-century reader requires a certain effort on behalf of the teacher, who can scarcely assign the first fifty pages and think their charges will take to it with an appetite they have for a vampire or wizard boy or dystopian heroine fighting for her family. But with the proper context, the right amount of concentration on this part while skimming past that part, and a desire to get at the heart of what makes the characters in this Dickens world do and say and act as they do, many of Dickens novels can be “the first link” making a new generation of Dickens lovers out of 21st-century readers.
Tim Burns has been a high school and college English instructor for 28 years, the last 22 at Fayetteville-Manlius High School and Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. His presentations on Dickens include “The Three Bleak Houses of Our Mutual Friend” and “A Christmas Carol in its Social Context”. His other writings include “Language: The Hallmark of Poetry” in the Florida State English Journal, “Expanding Texts, Expanding Literacy: Teaching Film in the ELA Classroom” in the New York State English Record, and “Sula: A Novel of Intimacy and Identity” in The Fiction of Toni Morrison: Reading and Writing on Race, Culture, and Identity.