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Introduction: something about the way we live now.

I. The Allegory of the Circus

Charles Dickens's Hard Times is not a novel that typically springs to mind in the context of discussions of education in utopia or dystopia. But maybe it should be. Hard Times stages a fierce debate between utopic and dystopic visions of nineteenth-century Britain and the future that it prepares its children for. On one side: Mr. Gradgrind and his school, with a sclerotic curriculum of "Facts, facts, facts" that hardens the heart and the mind and stamps out any spark of imagination. Gradgrind "manufactures," like identical widgets, model citizens in the form of the apathetic Bitzer. On the other side: Mr. Sleary and his traveling circus, with an endlessly inventive but also skills-oriented curriculum. The circus regards the associative knowledge that imagination makes possible as more valuable than the discrete facts and supposedly objective truths that rationality provides. Learning takes place in the heart, in the ring, and on the road, not in the rigid rows of seats in a dull classroom devoid of amusements or free spaces. Gradgrind's school turns out--like sticks of furniture--automatons that will be ideal cogs in the economic machinery. But the success of the circus depends both on highly trained performers and on the ongoing spontaneity and creativity that the rational faculty alone cannot provide.

Thus for the class of children spared the factory life, namely, the Gradgrind children, this curriculum that forbids curiosity and wonder--"Never wonder" is one of the schoolmaster's tenets--this "'model education" turns out otherwise. In addition to the cold-blooded Bitzer, we follow the feckless Tom Gradgrind into crime and exile and the yearning Louisa into depression and solitude relieved only by the faithful Sissy Jupe, a circus child taken in hand by the Gradgrind household. By the end of the novel, the model of "calculation" that makes it possible to decide that some people, or some lands, or even the earth itself, are "expendable" in the face of positive gains in profit or power has been fundamentally destroyed, and another kind of calculation is proposed by Mr. Sleary, who saves the wretched Tom from criminal trial:

"It theemth to prethent two thingth to a perthon, don't it, Thquire?'" said Mr Sleary, musing as he looked down into the depths of his brandy and water: "one, that there ith a love in the world, not all Thelf-interetht after all, but thomething very different; t'other, that it hath a way of ith own of calculating or not calculating, whith thomehow or another ith at leatht ath hard to give a name to, ath the wayth of the dogth ith!"

Mr Gradgrind looked out of window, and made no reply. Mr Sleary emptied his glass and recalled the ladies.

"... Thquire, thake handth, firtht and latht! Don't be croth with uth poor vagabondth. People mutht be amuthed. They can't be alwayth a learning, nor yet they can't be alwayth a working, they an't made for it. You mutht have uth, Thquire. Do the withe thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht of uth; not the wurtht!" (Dickens 1851)

Shake hands, first and last--rather than raise children "by hand" (or the force thereof). Dickens's brilliance, of course, is recognizing that an education that reflects the ideological "'value" of facts alone, of self-interest, of calculation and profit, and of social conformity and obedience produces precisely the "worst of us" that destroys so many lives--from the factory workers' to the Gradgrinds'--in a radically heartless industrial-capitalist society. Without the wisdom of creativity, play, sympathy, empathy, or kindness--that is to say, "the best of us"--we reap what we sow, to pick up the organic trope that structures the novel. The fruit of that educational labor is a "product," rather than a person: the worst of us. In Hard Times, the ideal education takes place in the nomadic classroom of the vagabonds, not in the repressive educational factories of the Masters of Industry. That education requires discipline (it is not easy to entertain a crowd standing on a moving horse), logic, and of course imagination. Education is work but the play of ideas and sympathies should be a primary goal. Dickens's allegory of the circus stands as a counter-narrative to the allegory of the cave, as a trope for knowing and discovering reality.

II. Its Own Way of Calculating: "Making the Best of Us"

The questions Dickens asks in 1851 remain with us, and perhaps they must always remain. Hard Times thinks about who gets educated, who does not, and what difference that makes; it thinks, in other words, about poverty, class, and social mobility. The novel considers where one is educated, the very spaces in which "real learning" can or should take place. It asks why we educate, what the goal of education is and what it should be. In the novel's stark contrasts of educative models, we are asked to realize how those models both create and reflect who "we are" as a community--and as individual members of that community. But of course it also asks an even more basic question: What makes us human? What make us "more humane" and less? And once we think we know, can we transform a human into that better being?

Utopian narratives thus characteristically address the topic of education. As Ken Roemer points out in his study of nineteenth-century American utopias, education is a primary concern of many nineteenth- and, later, twentieth-century utopian authors, who were critical of contemporary formal education. While universal education was a principle they lauded, according to Roemer, "[they] linked nineteenth-century education with the unjust and senseless nineteenth-century economics and religion that widened the gap between the rich and the poor and perpetuated a meaningless body of knowledge.... [L]ike the obsolete religious creeds, the schools were out of touch with the real world" (1976, 119). In novels, in political manifestos or treatises describing ideal states or commonwealths, in philosophical discourses, education is fundamental to the character of community. Its method may be explicitly laid out as a set of principles or implicitly in the descriptions of learning by children and adults alike. From another direction, of course, the animation of education and a "'better society" appears in educational manifestos, from conduct books to Machiavelli's The Prince (1532) to Rousseau's Emile (1762) to Skinner's Walden Two (1948) and bell hooks's Teaching to Transgress (1994).

In one sense, all of these texts, whether speculative novels or educational handbooks, share the goal of producing, cultivating, creating, or shaping (the choice of the verb can be critical), not simply a "better" human being but a better citizen. This utopian imperative, and the ways in which it is achieved and not achieved, to what ends and with what results, underlies the plot of so many narratives, the principles and pedagogies of so many educational "systems." This goal catalyzes consideration of utopia and education because it clarifies the ways in which the concept of utopia "itself" can be, and is, conceived as a form of education. While a particular utopia may be heuristic or telic, to adopt Ruth Levitas's terminology, recent utopian theory stresses process over telos, with a focus on "greater pluralism, provisionality and reflectivity" (1990, 38) and not on the perfection of some end state. Erin McKenna's excellent book, The Task of Utopia (2001), embraces a "process model as metatheory" as critical for achieving an end, for both education and utopia, that is not as Levitas says an achieved telos but a creative advance: "Without more of a focus on developing people immersed in critical intelligence, and so able to adapt to future changes without becoming dogmatic and manipulative, there is still little potential for growth and little chance that the people will move experience forward in a satisfying and fulfilling way'" (McKenna 2001, 164).

As the reading of Hard Times above suggests, utopian literary texts can illustrate the differences between static and progressive models of education, and how these educational models reflect social structuring, extremely well. Thomas More's seminal Utopia itself offers a description of the uses of education, uses that are both narrow and broad. All citizens of Utopus receive primary education to attain a general knowledge and prepare them with the capacity to participate in what we now call "lifelong learning": "There are but few in any town that are so wholly excused from labour as to give themselves entirely up to their studies, these being only such persons as discover from their childhood an extraordinary capacity and disposition for letters; yet their children, and a great part of the nation, both men and women, are taught to spend those hours in which they are not obliged to work in reading: and this they do through the whole progress of life" (More 1532). The emphasis is on the obligation of the citizen to work, yet there is a presumption that reading and attending public lectures keep the intellect active, and aware at the very least what there is to know and how that knowledge affects the commonwealth and its citizens. Education is valued insofar as it is useful and delivered in such a way as to preserve enough curiosity to encourage ongoing informal learning. More's vision does not seem, however, "progressive" in any sense we would recognize, and why should it be? As ur-Utopians, the kind of ongoing learning they enjoy need not be transformative, only engaging. If social integration is understood to be, everywhere, one of the functions of education, and society is deemed to be "'perfect," such indoctrination is benign and to be hoped for. End-state models of utopia encourage, even demand, conservative "habits of mind" that even when they do not "result in dogmatism.., and violence" do result in passivity (McKenna 2001, 161). These are the habits of mind commonly called "common sense," as Dickens observed.

But Dickens knew well that "common" does not mean "universal." In his hard times, "common sense" means nothing of the sort to those in the working classes and serves to mystify and maintain social injustices of many kinds. This is not hard to do when human beings are objectified, in his time or any time, as merely functional workers, reduced to "hands" in the factory--though with, Bounderby grouses, those inconvenient mouths and stomachs still attached, not to mention hearts, all of which are irrelevant and in fact counterproductive to the contemporary capitalist enterprise. The "disruption and transgression of the normative and conceptual frameworks of everyday experience" (Levitas 1990, 39), represented so brilliantly in the sensibility of the circus people, are the results furthest from the minds of a Gradgrind and a Bounderby. A pedagogy of play, connoting the priority of imagination and skill over rote learning, creates the far more hardworking and coherent community of the circus.

A generation later, William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) clearly picks up Dickens's dual goals of social integration and communal integrity, through more playful models of education. Protagonist William Guest remarks on the absence of "boy-farms which I had been used to call schools" (Morris 1993, chap. 5, "Children on the Road," 66), yet he remains dismayed by the lack of a "system of teaching," a state of affairs he later compares with "[letting] your children run wild and [not teaching] them anything; ... in short that you have so refined your education, that now you have none" (Morris 1993, 97). His companion Dick corrects him, describing the new Londoners' educational "system" as an asystemic "mental education, the teaching of their minds.'" There is "'no use forcing peoples' tastes" (Morris 1993, 68), and both children and adults are left to educate themselves more or less according to their interests and the skills they have either aptitude for or need of. The Old Grumbler, who had lived through "the revolution against the capitalist age," reminds Guest of the former "system" of forcing children into schooling "whatever their varying faculties and dispositions" and "with like disregard to facts, to be subjected to a certain conventional course of 'learning.'" This institution he compares--following Dickens perhaps?--with a "mill": "Those only would avoid being crushed by it who would have the spirit of rebellion strong in them. Fortunately most children have had that at all times, or I do not know that we should ever have reached our present positions" (Morris 1993, 97). The "systematized robbery" of industrial capitalism, he concludes, means that "real education was impossible for anybody. The whole theory of their so-called education was that it was necessary to shove a little information into a child, even if it were by means of torture, and accompanied by twaddle which it was well known was of no use, or else he would lack information lifelong; the hurry of poverty forbade anything else. All that is past.... In this as in other matters we have become wealthy: we can afford to give ourselves time to grow" (Morris 1993, 98). In William Morris's vision of the future, a "real" education means not only physical and mental development but also a socially just education, designed to create a just society. The metaphor for education is again organic rather than industrial, and "real education" suggests a "different kind of calculation" about students and about their expected role as citizens later: "In this ... we have become wealthy: we can afford to give ourselves time to grow."' Education is not a systematic practice so much as a space and a time--a process.

Between More and Morris is Mary Wollstonecraft, for whom being a woman can be as detrimental to a "real education" as being poor or (in a parallel she recognized and controversially exploited) nonwhite. It is not just a question of "What knowledge?" but "Whose knowledge?" and "'For whose benefit?" Through active educational training women are rendered "more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and consequently, more useless members of society." If the "most perfect education ... is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart," as well as the "'exercise of reason" (Wollstonecraft 1992, 102), then the characteristic--indeed sanctioned--denial of this balanced education is not only against morality but against reason. A child, a family, a community, a state--none of these can develop ideally or function viably when much of the population is unequipped with sufficient intellectual, emotional, and moral training to participate. It can be no wonder (though Gradgrind enjoins his pupils, "Never wonder!") that women are inferior students, Wollstonecraft argues, inferior partners in life, inferior parents, and inferior citizens, when they are prepared to he nothing much more than ornamental.

Visions of education in later feminist utopias typically are central to the new society, critical even for survival. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915), education is, as in Morris's News from Nowhere, typically a form of play; but the women's description of education suggests a more disciplined form:

Our theory [of education] is this. Here is a young human being. The mind is as natural a thing as the body, a thing that grows, a thing to use and to enjoy. We seek to nourish, to stimulate, to exercise the mind of a child as we do the body.... Our general plan is this: In the matter of feeding the mind, of furnishing information, we use our best powers to meet the natural appetite of a healthy young brain; not to overfeed it, to provide such amount and variety of impressions as seem most welcome to each child. That is the easiest part. The other division is in arranging a properly graduated series of exercises which will best develop each mind; the common faculties we all have, and most carefully, the especial faculties some of us have.... We are at work, slowly and carefully, developing our whole people along these lines. It is glorious work--splendid! (Gilman 1979, chap. 9, 106)

Van recalls the "'forcible feeding" of the mind we call education" (Gilman 1979, 96), and "the cheerless claim that the human mind was no better than in its earliest period of savagery, only better informed." In Herland, the work of education is toward constant and lifelong improvement. The children, he realizes, "'never knew they were being educated. They did not dream that in this association of hilarious experiment and achievement they were laying the foundation for that close beautiful group feeling into which they grew so firmly with the years." This is an education "'for citizenship" (Gilman 1979, 108-9), Van concludes--but with the understanding, by now, that an entirely different conception of citizenship defines this nation. Not only is the country of Herland conceived as a web of familial connection, but even the children--or especially the children--are conceived of as "citizens": "They [children] were People, too, from the first; the most precious part of the nation" (Gilman 1979, 101). As one of the Herlanders puts it, the "product" of educational work is not "'private" property but public.

Later feminist authors would follow along the lines of Gilman. In Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1985), for instance, education trains Mattapoisett children of the twenty-first century for a citizenship of inclusion, based on "a net of connecting": in Mattapoisett "we educate the senses, the imagination, the social being, the muscles, the nervous system, the intuition, the sense of beauty--as well as memory and intellect" (1985, 132). This education for citizenship acknowledges the physical, intellectual, and creative parts of our "human-being" and recognizes uniqueness, diversity, and difference. Yet the novel also cautions against an updated version of Hard Times's nightmare. In the novel's alternate future, a multicorp world of richies and duds, of Gildinas and her fellow sex workers (with "'no more mental capacity than a genetically improved ape" and "cosmetically fixed for sex use"), of Cashes and his fellow enhanced corporate drones, and of seven-foot-tall supercops designed with "nothing inessential. Pure, functional, reliable. We embody the ideal.... None of us has ever been disloyal to the multi that now owns us" (Piercy 1985, 299). Here, there is no discussion of education and no need; in this brave new world, citizens are ranked and programmed, and it is assumed that at each level of social ranking, individuals know what they need to know and no more.

Feminist authors have on occasion sounded a warning note against misusing education in their visions of a feminist utopia--and indeed it is the manipulation of education that most obviously reflects the dystopic elements of these visionary societies. With the nightmares of both world wars invading much of her waking life, Katherine Burdekin turns the tables in her 1930s speculative novels. The End of This Day's Business (1935) imagines a female-dominant Britain of the future, free of war and social discord thanks to a deliberate social engineering away from hierarchy and its violences. In rooting out all possible expressions of patriarchal ideology to eliminate the "sex-shame" that kept women reduced to a "moral slavery" (Burdekin 1989, 90), the women of the future in turn impose their own kind of slavery:

You must understand that the subjection of men by women was not an accidental and not-understood thing, like the subjection of women through religious uncleanness, nor was it an emotional or sudden thing like the resubjection of women carried out by the Fascists; it was a cold, logical and slow process, passed from Mother to daughter, and spreading over some two hundred and fifty years.... [Women] had decided in their cold, slow, logical way that they could never be really safe until the men could no longer remember the great male civilizations of the past. So they changed the old education laws, and taught the boys and girls differently. There were certain things boys were not allowed to learn. Latin was forbidden to them. The women wanted a secret language. (Burdekin 1989, 94)

Because men no longer had social power, they "could not make the women teach boys, nor could they stop them teaching girls," and quickly enough a "state of extreme psychic enfeeblement" was attained (Burdekin 1989, 94). All fruits of "male civilization," from books and literature to art, were forgotten to them, until one mother realizes the injustice done to her son and all the males of their society.

This sex-reversal scenario was rewritten sixty years later, in Sherri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988), with Burdekin's Dictatorship of Women replaced by Tepper's Councilwomen. While there are differences in the ruling women's strategies for reducing men, one strategy is common to both: the denial to men of any education beyond what is necessary. The warriors' suspicion that women "know something" they are not saying is the background to the novel's crisis--and as in the Burdekin novel, the ruling women know that when it comes to maintaining social control, even a little education is a dangerous thing. Whether a Connie Ramos or a Louisa Gradgrind, a "reduced" Burdekin male or a Women's Country warrior, a paid worker or a slave, individuals in Utopia (or utopian texts) must "claim an education," to use Adrienne Rich's injunction, to be free.

III. Educational Spaces for an Emerging World

Given the pervasive spatial tropes throughout the utopian tradition, it is not surprising that we received numerous essays proposing education as itself a "'utopian space," in both literal and figurative senses. To begin the cluster of essays, Nathaniel Coleman's "Utopic Pedagogies: Alternatives to Degenerate Architecture" considers the marked absence of the very concept of Utopia in standard architecture education, a curious negligence given the kinds of social, political, and ethical questions that both the theory and the practice of architecture involve. What might students in advanced architecture curricula gain from conceptualizing the theory and practice of architecture in terms of utopian theory and practice? Moreover, what might attention to utopic pedagogies--the content and the forms of teaching in order to embody utopian practice--contribute to a student's thinking about and learning about how to practice architecture? How might a more self-reflexive, dynamic way of teaching contribute to more nuanced thinking about where architecture is "going," its potentialities in addressing contemporary and future "possibilities for habitation"? How have we, can we, might we, build for the best of all possible worlds--or at least better ones?

Tyson Lewis's essay extends Coleman's interest in space and form, utopia, and utopian pedagogy in "The Architecture of Potentiality: Weak Utopianism and Educational Space in the Work of Giorgio Agamben.'" Lewis teases out the "'inherently educational dimension" of Giorgio Agamben's notion of utopia as constant emergence, and, thus, as radical potentiality, not concrete and perfect achievement. In other words, a process model of utopia is privileged over an end-state model in Agamben's notion of a "weak" utopianism. Lewis attends not just to tropes of spatiality but also to temporality in Agamben's work, considering the philosopher's notion of a "collective potentiality" that partakes of both space and time. Educating for utopian desire or hope is therefore certainly not "just content"; it is also form----or rather, formation, emergence. It must therefore be always a mode of learning that "takes place" as an action, temporally and spatially, but resists rooting itself in that place and moment. Agamben calls educative action "studious play," an action both intentional and inventive that cultivates the "potentiality of thought itself.'" And studious play constitutes, in itself, a space of education--even in a literal sense. The essay concludes by considering the actual architecture of school classrooms and the introduction of a "free space" that might consist only of a classroom nook or "notch" where traditional logics of teaching and learning can be suspended. This space, in whatever form it takes, is "'oriented toward a future yet to come," reflects a principle of "suspense," and can create among students a sense of curiosity, wonder: utopian imagining. This scheme represents a model of "bottom-up" education, challenging "'top-down" imperatives of the state to develop an educational system that serves its own utopian interests and insists that they are the interests of all. A truly "transformative" education is more likely to develop from "the ground up," addressing problems within a local context of diverse interests, needs, and solutions.

And so in the third essay, "Democratic/Utopian Education," Dan Sabia surveys the long-standing attention in democratic society to educating for a citizenry that is more than simply informed but also critical and intellectually flexible. Education for a democratic citizenry should be committed to imparting the skills (in persuasion, debate, reasoning, cooperation, negotiation, etc.) needed for active participation in "the development of democratic virtues and commitments.'" Tracing out one line of American educational theory and practice, Sabia thinks about what it means to "democratize the school," in order to train students as empowered, active citizens in a participatory democracy. Such models are in other words a kind of "experiential" learning in politics, civics, and ethics. In leveling authority, a variety of progressive teaching forms of focuses not only on the individual learning but on "'forms of cooperative learning that emphasize the involvement of students in negotiation of tasks, methods, and solutions to problems," an empowering of students that aims to draw them into collective/collaborative learning processes while developing their individuality and independence." These models of education are programmatic but progressive; at least, the political nature of any educational curricula and institutions is acknowledged, and students respond to a critical pedagogy that cultivates political consciousness and encourages critique and active dissent. If these goals are rarely achieved in "real-life" instances, Sabia concludes, in no small part due to resistances reflecting deeply embedded ideological stasis, they can stand as the aspirations of an ongoing utopian project of progressive democracy.

All three essays, in this utopia and education cluster point toward the need to regard educational spaces as always emerging. And in that sense, an "'educational system" aligning with the contemporary notion of utopian pr0cess can be expressed as educational scenarios that stage continuously evolving notions of what education for the future might look like. To swing back to this introduction's turn to the literary, I would argue that such literary examples are themselves educational scenarios: First, they are themselves "spaces" for freer thinking, "studious play"--at the same as the narratives themselves also explore the ramifications and challenges of adopting any particular educational method or system; second, they are meditations on the relationship between education, "systematic" or otherwise, and the utopian community or state; and third, each text, as it is read, is an instantiation of the studious play and the process of utopian thinking in each one of us.


Brooks, David. "Time to Change the Cookie-Cutter Approach to School." Seattle Times, July 8, 2012. Available at opinion/2018623754_brooks09.html.

Burdekin, Katherine. The End of This Day's Business. 1935. Ed. Daphne Patai. New York: Feminist Press, 1989.

Butler, Samuel. Erewhon. 1872. Available at

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 1851. Available at hardtimes/.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-Paper, Herland, and Selected Writings. 1915. Ed. Denise Knight. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.

hooks, bell [Gloria Watkins]. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press; Hemel Hempstead, England: Philip Alan, 1990.

McKenna, Erin. The Task of Utopia. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. 1532. Available at

Morris, William. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. 1890. Ed. Clive Wilmer. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett Books, 1985.

Roemer, Kenneth. Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopian Writings, 1888-1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1976.

Tepper, Sheri S. The Gate to Women's Country. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792. Ed. Miriam Brody. New York: Penguin USA, 1992.


(1.) On the other hand, Butler's Erewhonians develop their own "common sense," as the traveler ironically observed:

I sometimes wondered how it was that the mischief done was not more clearly perceptible, and that the young men and women grew up as sensible and goodly as they did, in spite of the attempts almost deliberately made to warp and stunt their growth. Some doubtless received damage, from which they suffered to their life's end; but many seemed little or none the worse, and some, almost the better.... And yet perhaps, after all, it is better |or a country that its seats of learning should do more to suppress mental growth than to encourage it.... No doubt the marvellous development of journalism in England, as also the fact that our seats of learning aim rather at fostering mediocrity than anything higher, is due to our subconscious recognition of the fact that it is even more necessary to check exuberance of mental development than to encourage it. There can be no doubt that this is what our academic bodies do, and they do it the more effectually because they do it only subconsciously. They think they are advancing healthy mental assimilation and digestion, whereas in reality they are little better than cancer in the stomach. (1872, chap. 22, "The Colleges of Unreason [continued]").
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Title Annotation:Utopia & Education
Author:Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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