If you’re still reading, let me again reiterate that my goal in writing hasn’t been to convince you to come to Petra or other schools like ours, but to encourage you to support the choice of others to do so. The goal is not to shut down good schools, but to provide parents with as many good educational options for their students as possible. You want this for your kids, I want this for mine, and I would guess that both of us are hopeful for everyone else’s kids as well.
So where do we go from here? My offer to grab coffee still stands, as I’m glad to interact and genuinely engage in the school choice discussion with you. Maybe you haven’t thought much about it and are looking for someone to listen and ask questions as you process. Maybe you have thought a lot about it and have ideas that you’d like to take for a test-drive without getting run off the road. I’d be up for either of those conversations.
The conversation I wouldn’t be up for is one that isn’t a conversation. As mentioned at the beginning of my letter, the narrative surrounding education seems to rarely allow for honest discussion between two people who want the best for their kids. Instead, we have allowed the debate to be hijacked by politicians on both sides of the aisle and a news media who delight in covering their reductionist talking points that don’t get at the complications beneath the considerations.
If National School Choice Week accomplishes anything each year, it brings up the questions of what parents’ goals are for their student(s) and their education, what those goals require in order to be met, and what options they have to meet them. Those are the conversations in which I’m interested – conversations about real options for parents and their students. Here’s a summary video created by EdChoice of four such possibilities:
One size does not fit all and there is no perfect school. These are two statements that, try as administrators might (and hate to admit), are truisms – obvious and accurate expressions not stating anything new. But what isn’t a truism is that the education of our kids has to stay the same – pedagogically, legislatively, financially – if we truly live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. For the sake of our children and our children’s children, let’s not cower to limits and fear.
Again, thanks for taking the time to read this letter. And thanks for seriously considering the possibilities of how education in America could work with more good choices for parents and the resources to support them.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2016, about 50.4 million students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools, with an additional 5.2 million students attending private elementary and secondary schools. The Home School Legal Defense Association reports that more than 2.3 million children – or 3 percent of the American student population – are educated in the home. That’s a total of just over 57 million PreK-12th grade students in our country, with families of 7.5 million of those having to pay twice – once as part of the subsidy for the education of the 50.4 million, and again for the education of their own kids.
But it’s more than just taxes and where they go that’s an issue in this debate. We should also talk about a number of other topics – class size, cost-effectiveness, and student success – characteristic of the school choice discussion.
I imagine your school is larger than Petra (we only have 215 K4-12th students), so between higher enrollment and accompanying federal, state, and local funding for it, your school may be able to provide more options in terms of class scheduling, electives, special needs programs, and athletic and arts opportunities. But with those options come larger class sizes to try to pay for them. The maximum class size allowed for Montana public schools is no more than 30 students per single grade classroom for middle school and high school. Ask any teacher and he or she will tell you that 30 kids is a lot for one teacher to handle, let alone teach.
In classrooms with enough space, I can make the argument that classes can reach a maximum of 18-20 and still function without detriment, but anything above this threshold is where key educational studies suggest class dynamics and instructional effectiveness devolve. What’s really interesting, though, is even with large class sizes, education at an average government school with larger class sizes is much more expensive than at an independent school with smaller class sizes. While I don’t know your school’s specific budget, the average annual spending per Montana public school student in 2014 was $11,017/student, which is roughly $4,000 more than what we charge parents per student per year at Petra. The difference, of course, is who’s paying for it – the government or the family.
Folks in Bozeman take pride in their schools, lauding them as the best government schools in the state; however, what often gets left out of the conversation is that Montana ranked 30th according to a national report released by Education Week in 2015 and was given a “C” average – the same as the one given our nation. Thus, in essence, Bozeman’s government schools are the best of the average. Of course, there are bright spots, like Montana’s Class of 2016 earning an ACT average composite score of 20.3, but our little class of eight Petra seniors last year earned a composite score of 28.0 – a 38% difference I wrote about back in September – which should make one wonder as to what more – not fewer – small, independent schools could accomplish if basic levels of funding (and the freedom for families to access and use them) were in place.
Despite my wishes to the contrary, classical education is not for everybody. Not every student can meet the basic standards of our curriculum, which is why we are sometimes (though very rarely) forced to deny or revoke admission. Colleges and universities – even those that are publicly funded – must make these same kinds of decisions to preserve the integrity of their courses of study.
Likewise, not all parents believe or want their children to learn about our Christian religious beliefs; however, because we’re the only K4-12th grade Christian school in the Gallatin Valley with open enrollment, non-believing families are welcome to enroll with us anyway. Several choose to do so because their kids are challenged to think at a level they had not experienced elsewhere, and they as a family feel cared for by our school staff and administration. From the first conversation with a family, we are clear and up front as to what we teach. Parents don’t have to believe or agree with any of it to enroll their kids at Petra; all we ask is they understand why we teach it and not seek to undermine the fact that we do.
Again, for the reasons just listed, our school is not for everyone, but neither is yours. Despite your administrator’s wishes to the contrary, progressive government education is an acquired taste for some, and a conscientious non-option for others. Not all parents want teachers forced to comply with the Department of Education’s Common Core curriculum, teaching their kids spelling without phonics or mathematics without memorizing basic math facts. Some parents are leery of their kids being taught subjects like literature or history apart from their overarching worldview (Christian or otherwise), and many think that redundant testing limits the measure of a student’s education to only that which is empirical at the expense of the evaluation of character and virtue that used to define education in this country 150 years ago.
Nor do these parents like the idea that a government school comes with government strings attached. Inherent to this concern is the reality that, though the majority of administration and teachers who might work with their students at your school are good and loving people, their hands are often tied by the system of which they are forced to be a part – curricularly, pedagogically, and spiritually. Teachers who claim faith – regardless of what it is – are forbidden to engage with students in a meaningful way, lest they be fired, which could be argued is an impeding of one’s freedom of speech. These are legitimate concerns, and while they may not be yours, they are others’.
For this reason, I’m not asking you to enroll your kids at Petra Academy (though I wouldn’t be a good Headmaster unless I offered to talk with you if you’re interested). But I am asking you to consider why those who do should have the same opportunity and support to send their kids to Petra that you have to send your kids to your school.
Despite the efforts to prolong the myth, education is not neutral; as a classical Christian school, Petra’s certainly isn’t, and as a government school, neither is your school. With curriculum, faculty, administration, and families all in the mix, there can simply be no question that the education provided by a school – any school – is going to be biased; the question for every parent is, “What is that bias and is that what I want for my kids?” If it is, great, but if not, a parent should be free to explore other options.
Fine, politicians and pundits say, but they’re not going to pay for them. In fact, parents who “opt out” of the government school system (as if ever given the choice to “opt in”) still have to support the school they’re leaving with their taxes in addition to paying for whatever “other” education they want. The argument, of course, goes that tax payer money cannot be used to fund religious schools, but any belief system – even and especially the one that ostensibly espouses non-belief – is a faith system itself with traditions, tenets, and trust in something. Whatever the object of that trust – whether secular humanism’s reverence of man or scientism’s adoration of the objective – there is as much faith present in your school as there is in mine.
In a society like our ours that aspires to pluralism, this is fine; however, educational funding should not be offered to one family while withheld from another under the false dichotomy of religious or non-religious schooling. If the state and federal governments insist on collecting taxes for the purpose of education, then fund all the parents instead of only some of the schools. Let the parents – not the politicians – decide where their kids would best learn and make it easier for them to get there.
Did you know that, according to the American Federation for Children, 70 percent of Americans support school choice, with support even higher among growing demographic groups such as Hispanic voters (76%) and millennial voters (75%)? In addition, did you know that choice improves all schools? In “A Win-Win Solution,” published by EdChoice in 2016, 31 of 33 studies show that student outcomes in traditional public schools improve where school choice is introduced.
Why is this last statistic the case? Because no one school can meet all the needs of each and every student; Petra can’t, and your school can’t, either, as evidenced by the fact that we have families from your school who come to ours (and at times, vice versa). This is not anyone’s fault, but it is everyone’s problem, the solving of which requires more – not fewer – options for families.
(Held every January, this week is National School Choice Week, which shines a spotlight on effective education options for every child. Independently planned by a diverse coalition of individuals, schools and organizations, NSCW features thousands of special events across the country. The Week is a nonpartisan and nonpolitical public awareness effort. Petra Academy acknowledges National School Choice Week – except for the dance, which is silly – and this letter from Mr. Dunham is part of that participation.)
Dear Sir or Madam,
We probably don’t know one another (though I’d be glad to amend that fact with a cup of coffee and a conversation), but I’m guessing a well-meaning friend forwarded this to you with the goal of starting, continuing, or finishing a discussion. While I don’t mean to meddle, it seems I already have, so in the absence of a proper introduction, perhaps we can follow the age-old advice of the parent/teacher conference: I won’t believe half of what I’ve heard about you if you won’t believe half of what you’ve heard about me.
I’m assuming you have kids of some sort – young ones, older ones, maybe even grandkids – and I’m assuming you love and care for them as deeply as I care for mine (four daughters, ages 18, 16, 14, and 13). Our love for our kids is what we share, followed closely by our sense of responsibility for them and their well being; thus, we have more in common as parents, adults, and human beings than the narrative concerning education often allows.
I know your kids are enrolled in a school, and I know there are reasons for your decision as to which, where, and why. Because no school is perfect, I’m sure there are things you like about your school and things you dislike about it; this is also true of most of the parents whose children attend Petra Academy, the school I lead. Because you’re involved, I hope you’ve taken the opportunity to voice your support of teachers and administration, as well as to offer your caring feedback, as both are invaluable (particularly when the former accompanies the latter).
While it can sometimes seem difficult to nail down what is right and wrong in the world, I know you believe there’s a difference between the two and want your kids to be able to tell the difference as well. I also know you want your kids to learn – the facts of math and the scientific method, truths from history, beauty in literature and languages, potential of computers and technology, joy in music, drama, and art, and competition in athletics – maybe because you (if you’re like me) don’t feel you learned enough about many of these when we were their ages.
Learning, of course, is what it’s all about, but not just learning that informs with knowledge; we want for our kids learning what transforms with wisdom how they see themselves, others, and the so-called “real” world. And, if we’re honest, we want the flavor of our children’s education to mirror our own vision of “the good life” because, let’s face it, we make choices not only out of what we know but out of what we love, just as our kids will.
Since today is MLK Day, it seems good – particularly in a state and town almost 90% Caucasian – to pause to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s.
While a federal holiday, MLK Day does not seem all that big a deal here in Montana. True, Montana State University is canceling classes and their Diversity Awareness Office is sponsoring a reception and art display in King’s honor, but even Bozeman Public Schools are in class today with this calendar caveat: “With the approval of this calendar, the Board of Trustees, in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day (January 16, 2017), is directing that all teachers (K-5) and all social studies teachers (6-12) take action in the classroom to recognize and celebrate the principles for which Martin Luther King stood.”
As in previous years, Petra Academy is also in session today. Petra has never taken MLK Day off, and there’s rationale for that decision: a majority of parents (at least those not employed by the government) have to work anyway, and – for better or for worse – most students are probably not going to participate (with or without parents) in MLK receptions or services on their own when there are ski slopes and sledding hills in the vicinity. Thus, we have landed where Bozeman Public Schools has in leaving MLK Day to teachers to include as it makes sense within their curriculum and day. (Thankfully, because of presentations like the one 7th grade Humanities teacher Libby Kueneke gave to our entire Secondary at Lyceum last week, I think we do as good a job as anyone.)
But is it enough? I shared a few thoughts here last July lamenting the past summer’s spree of shootings and the continued racial tension in our country, but those were just words, just as anything we teach would be. And yet, because we still believe in words and the power they can hold, I find myself here again writing six months later, asking us to engage with our children today in discussing Dr. King and his work. God used this particular man (and others) to bring about needed change in our country, and our kids – especially our Montana kids – need to know and understand more about the awful and angry discrimination then and there in the South, so they can apply solutions to situations like the one happening in Whitefish here and now in the North.
One of my favorite Scriptural emphases to teach is the Christian foundation for racial reconciliation as lived out by the early Church in the book of Acts. One cannot read about the cross-cultural linguistic understanding given by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 or the Apostles ensuring the care of both the Hellenist and Hebrew widows in Acts 6 or Peter and John witnessing the coming of the Spirit to the Gentiles in Samaria in Acts 8 or Peter’s vision and interaction with Cornelius and the Caesarian Gentiles in Acts 10 (to name just a few) without recognizing God’s heart for unity among his people. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28-29 sum up how we in the Church are to view one another: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
As an heir according to the promise, Dr. King knew and built upon this Christian foundation of reconciliation; in fact, he would have had no message without it (it’s definitely there in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but for an even more pronounced biblical dependence, listen to “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and try to imagine it having the same impact without its Scriptural references).
The point is this: it’s good to honor Dr. King with this day in January, and the best way we can do so is by honoring the Gospel he appealed to as the foundation of any freedom, equality, and unity we could have. Start with yourself and your kids, then reach out, befriend, and care for those who look different from you and see what God does.
It just may be enough.
Late last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with a Petra alumna on the tail end of her Christmas break home from college. Rachel and I talked for well over an hour, and I enjoyed learning more about her years at Petra (which were before mine), as well as her current studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA.
During our conversation and in the midst of several far-reaching topics, I asked Rachel when, from her perspective, a good time might be to begin having a Petra “homecoming” of sorts. As we tossed around the pros and cons of the different seasons of the year, she made a comment that struck me:
“We’d have to make sure to invite the teachers from those years. After all, they’re what make Petra, Petra.”
She’s right, of course. Rachel’s comment was a good reminder of the contributions of those who have taught before us, as well as of those who are here right now. Nevertheless (and as life goes), we anticipate more turnover than usual in our faculty – particularly in our elementary grades – next year, but it’s all for the best of reasons: family.
To keep you in the loop, I’d like to make you aware of the faculty vacancies coming and ask for your prayers and help to find the “best of the best” to fill them:
Three of our staff (4th grade teacher Melissa Denison, 5th grade teacher Jennifer Skinner, and 10th and 11th grade teacher Ashley Schreibeis) are expecting – Ashley in February, Jennifer in March, and Melissa in June – and planning to stay home with their babies once they are born. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get all three back when their kids are ready for Petra, but until then, we are excited for their news.
Second grade teacher Katie Elder will not be returning next year, as she and her family will be moving to Bend, OR, to be closer to family. And 1st grade teacher Jean Snyder will be retiring at the end of this year after 11 years at Petra to be a full-time grandmother. Both Katie and Jean have been anchors for us, and we’ll miss them.
There’s no question that these are all big changes that affect four grades – 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th – but all of them are legitimate ones for all the best of reasons. As I like to tell staff and families in the midst of transitions like this, roles change but relationships don’t have to; yes, such anticipated departures will be bittersweet, but that’s exactly how we want them to be (after all, who cries over a place and people you won’t be sad to leave?).
After talking with Elementary Principal Mark Christofferson (who is not pregnant, nor moving, nor retiring), we’ve posted our open position listings. If you know a teacher – preferably with classical Christian teaching experience – who might be interested in joining our faculty at an elementary level, please encourage them to apply for a position. We’re looking for the best of the best as we begin interviewing prospective staff in March, so spread the word and let us know of any candidates we should pursue.
And pray for these precious ladies – Melissa, Jennifer, Ashley, Katie, and Jean – as God lead them on a path somewhat different from ours, either for a time or indefinitely. Pray that God would provide comfort in the midst of the pending transitions, and that even now He would be preparing a place and people for them to love and enjoy as they have here. We’ll miss them, are grateful for their combined years of contribution to our school, and will wish them the best when it’s time to say, “shalom chaverim” – “peace…until we meet again.”
Probably each of us has a favorite hero or heroine in the Old Testament. Were we to have a show of hands, I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few votes cast in favor of King David. Most everyone who reads the two books of Samuel finds something to admire in the son of Jesse, whether we look on him primarily as a pattern of courage, of magnanimity, of personal devotion or humble penitence. And that’s as should be; David’s fine qualities are not far to seek.
But for my own part, I would say that the Old Testament figure I most admire is David’s comparatively uncelebrated friend, Jonathan. I doubt whether it would be possible to name a more selfless character among the biblical patriarchs. Jonathan’s character is not presented by the author of I Samuel in any considerable detail, but we are told enough about him to recognize that he had, above all things, a capacity to deny himself. It never appears that he was tempted to envy David the honors he had received from men or from God. He knew that God had chosen David to supplant Saul as king of Israel, but we are not told that any ambition Jonathan might have previously entertained left him with any feelings of bitterness or resentment towards God or God’s anointed.
This long act of self-denial might not be so impressive had Jonathan been a character of less vigorous temperament than he in fact was. A naturally passive or unassertive man, himself the son of a king, might be expected to bear in good part the revelation that he would never wear the crown himself. But we know full well that Jonathan was not by nature so acquiescent. He possessed in notable degree exactly the martial virtues that a king of those times was expected to have. There was in him nothing of the malingerer.
We read in the fourteenth chapter of I Samuel that Jonathan had the sort of reckless valor that delights to find itself in a contest with all odds against it. Far from being inert and lifeless, Jonathan was a hero of the Homeric type, and can easily be imagined in the company of Hector or Diomedes. Such a character could never be merely a foil to David; he was truly worthy to stand beside him, which makes his willingness to bow to God’s will in this matter all the more admirable. He knew the part that fortune had left him to play and played it without hesitation or complaint.
Jonathan also leaves us a fine example of a man who never made an idol of one good or one blessing to the exclusion of all others. He maintained always in his conduct a sense of the proportion of things, and an understanding of what his duties were to Saul and David respectively. He never abandoned David when circumstances made him an enemy of Jonathan’s father; neither did Jonathan abandon his father when Saul’s insecurity and failing sanity drove him to outlaw his son’s best friend. A baser character might easily have turned aside from a friend in distress or a parent abandoning himself to poor judgment, but Jonathan was not given to betrayals of this kind. To break faith and betray a sacred trust was not in his nature.
So what should we learn from Jonathan? For one thing, his life is proof that it is useless to resent the absence of gifts we have not been given. This is difficult for most of us, I expect, in various ways, because who would not wish to have at his command Mr. Valeriano’s excellent Swiftian wit, Mr. Denison’s knowledge of the dramatic arts, Mrs. DeGroot’s impeccable organizational skills, or Miss Owens’ command of the violin? It is naturally easier to be jealous of or irrationally despise our neighbor’s talent, but Jonathan’s case proves that there is a more graceful response, one that I admit doesn’t come to me at all naturally but which I would commend to all of us enthusiastically nonetheless.
Prideful assertion and self-advertisement come to men and women almost reflexively, and for those of us whose singular fortune it is to live in what might be labeled “The Age of the Endless Sales Pitch,” the temptation is certainly not made easier to bear. Jonathan might profitably be taken as a model for those of us who must constantly fight within ourselves the allurements of egotism, for he recognized what each of us must recognize, namely, that our gifts are not the only ones worthy of celebration and that the roles assigned us in God’s great drama are in all probability more nearly resemble that of Shakespeare’s gravedigger than that of Hamlet.
Jonathan’s self-forgetfulness deserves a place in our memory. And we are promised that this self-forgetfulness will not lose its reward: for as Christ said, the one who loses his life shall find it.
(This is Part 2 of Miss Owens’ post on Charles Dickens. Click here to read Part 1.)
Poverty, and the disgraceful workhouses, were societal ills about which Dickens cared strongly. It was a problem that had affected him personally, and quite powerfully. When he was about 11 years old, his father became deeply indebted; though the family was lower middle class and shouldn’t have needed to worry about money, Dickens ended up suffering for his father’s incapability to spend within the family’s means. When his father was incarcerated in debtors’ prison, Dickens had to leave his school, move to a new location near his father’s prison, pawn his books, and go to work in a blacking factory: a place that produced shoe black. He earned 5-6 shillings a week. It was difficult, distasteful, and enormously embarrassing work for Dickens. In fact, he later said that his time in the blacking factory, working to pay off his father’s debts, left him psychologically damaged. Not long after this, the entire family moved into the debtor’s prison with his father. From that time onward, the plight of the poor and needy was ever on Dickens’ mind.
And so it was in the 1840s that Charles Dickens found himself nonplussed with the quality of help given to the British poor and needy. He toyed with writing a pamphlet for distribution, urging the better off to take notice of the needs around them and to give to those in poverty and destitution; to fight the demons of Ignorance and Want (personified later in A Christmas Carol). Yet he wasn’t entirely sold on the concept of pamphlet distribution. Then he visited Manchester, a northern region of England that had experienced massive population growth due to booming cotton industry. In the early 1700s about 10,000 people lived in Manchester. By 1850, 400,000 lived there, with most of the growth occurring from 1800 onward as population numbers doubled every few decades. The jobs paid well, if you could get one and keep one. And it wasn’t uncommon for many children to labor just as strenuously as adults. Dickens’s heart was moved by the state of common welfare in Manchester; it was there he found his inspiration to write not a pamphlet, but a novel expressing the same moral calling.
A Christmas Carol at its fundamental level is a call to all people (but for Dickens, specifically British people) to help those in need, and in this it represents a significant humanitarian addition to Christmas. Today we associate Christmas season with requests for funding from non-profits, or with Santa bell-ringers outside of stores, collecting money for the Salvation Army. But Christmas wasn’t always linked with humanitarian aid, with the call to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We can thank Dickens for that in part. Early in the story, Scrooge’s nephew Fred reprimands his uncle for refusing good things that don’t turn a profit, reminding him that the good might not always be profitable, in the sense that Scrooge cares about anyway, and yet the good is still good. Perhaps we can’t always put a price tag on “good”—and perhaps doing good might actually cost us something. But the message Dickens hopes we see is that not doing good costs us even more; and that the good act of giving, looking out for our neighbors, gleans us much more than a profit margin. This is a message that cuts against the grain of our American culture that wants us to give, but only if we end up giving the best gift and people know we one-upped them—our American culture that wants us to spend all of our money of expensive, trendy presents so that charity work gets the left-overs—our American culture that bedazzles us with sales and must-haves and whispers of “they’ll love this so you must buy it.” What’s profitable, and what is good?
Scrooge begins a miser, an old man who’s built his fortune partly by refusing to share it with anyone. But he doesn’t end that way. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a story of redemption and rescue; grace comes, from the outside, to work an inner change. Light and life and hope and charity intervene, but not without a good dose of painful honesty and difficult self-reflection. In order to be rescued, Scrooge must face his past, look honestly at his present, and ponder the future of a life unchanged. It’s a call Dickens makes to each of us.
Dickens’ contemporaries heard this call: in 1844 charitable giving spiked in Britain; in 1874 Robert Louis Stevenson declared he would give generously after reading the book; after reading A Christmas Carol, Thomas Carlyle invited guests over for not one, but two Christmas dinners; an American factory owner in 1867 closed his factory for Christmas and sent a turkey to the home of every employee, and in the early 1900s the Queen of Norway sent gifts to the crippled children in London, signed “with Tiny Tim’s love.”
So as we enjoy A Christmas Carol, we should consider what the takeaway is for us. Does Dickens have anything to say about American consumerism and the needs of the impoverished? What kind of futures are we building for ourselves in the way we spend Christmas? The needs are many. May we meet at least a few.
If you’re like me, you might take A Christmas Carol as a fixture of Christmas—one that is so familiar that likely it doesn’t gain much deep consideration. The tale of a miserly old man whose evening is startlingly interrupted by four ghosts who intervene to rescue him from his curmudgeonly and parsimonious ways is straightforward enough, the message fairly unobscured; after all, Dickens wasn’t interested in wrapping up the moral of the story in layers of symbolism.
But sometimes what is familiar is the least examined. Take the title, for example—A Christmas Carol. Some versions of Dickens’ story include singing, but not all Christmas Carols include, well, carols. Dickens didn’t even publish it intending it to be sung; he published it as a book. So why did he entitle it A Christmas Carol? Well, in actuality he entitled the book something other than just the innocuous A Christmas Carol: really, the novella is entitled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Now, Charles Dickens knew how to turn a penny; he had made himself a fair amount of money as a writer and had a good business sense. So certainly his title has something to do with marketability. Who, perusing the books for sale amid other wares, wouldn’t have his eye caught by a Ghost Story of Christmas? Or, for that matter, a Christmas Carol in prose? In 1843, the year Dickens published Christmas Carol, Christmas carols were well-entrenched in English Christmas celebrations. Classics such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” had been around since the 1700s. “Silent Night” had just been penned in 1818, and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” was practically hot off the presses, being written in 1833 (although the lyrics are said to date back to the 1400s). So clearly Dickens was relying on a catchy title to capture the attention of book buyers. (His strategy, and his enduring story, worked: the book has never been out of print since its first printing in 1843.)
And, interestingly enough, because the work was entitled A Christmas Carol, he didn’t pen it in chapters, but instead, mirroring choral music structure, he divided his book into staves (the plural of staff, the system of lines and spaces onto which we write notes). It’s as if he wants us to think of the story being sung to us, or even as if we are all carolers, singing the ghost story to each other, participating in it, investing ourselves in its message. Now what’s interesting about many of the Christmas carols Dickens knew (and that we still sing today) is that they often take deep truth and express it in layered verses; each verse takes us deeper into the truths about God, or our condition, or the circumstances surrounding and significance of Christ’s birth. Perhaps this is what Charles Dickens had in mind when he decided to title his novella in a way that echoed familiar carols.
If that’s the case, then why did he choose this means? Why write a book, a story, that echoes Christmas carols in structure, depth, and even title? What was he after? Primarily, Dickens hoped to motivate readers to do more to help the poor in Britain—this is why men come around to Scrooge’s shop, collecting money for the poor (and are soundly rebuffed by Scrooge’s “Bah, Humbug!” and query about workhouses and prisons), why there are beggars on the streets, why Tiny Tim’s life is in jeopardy as his family struggles to make ends meet with paltry wages. But in order to fully appreciate these elements of the story and Dickens’ objective, we need to understand a little about Dickens’ context.
The Industrial Revolution had been underway in England since the late 18th century, so at least one if not two generations of British families had seen their situations change drastically because of the many innovations—some for the better, but many for the worst. As labor became mechanized, laborers became scarcer. And as industry moved away from the countryside and into the cities, people flocked to the cities. But there they found often hardship, lack of employment, crowded living conditions, and sometimes even destitution. Add to that a few bad harvests and mass unemployment following the end of the wars with Napoleon (defeated finally in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo), and England was facing an enormous crisis.
Old ways of helping the poor were simply unsustainable. By 1834 British Parliament passed the New Poor Law, which legislated a new way to deal with the poor: rather than merely offering them assistance as they needed it, the British system would now require impoverished people to earn help, in the workhouses. The poor and destitute had to seek help by applying to the workhouses, a place to live as well as work. Though the law was intended to keep able-bodied workers at their jobs and homes, as you might imagine, many critics of this law saw it merely as a way to penalize the poor rather than help them.
(This is Part 1 of Miss Owens’ post on Charles Dickens. Click here to read Part 2.)