How to Solve Problems with Books: Voices of Industrialism

by Abigail Droge
Published March 22, 2019

As a retrospective on the Winter Quarter, I’d like to share a series of lesson plans from “How to Solve Problems with Books.” These activities and conversations moved us through our assignment sequence (Research Memo, Advice from the Victorians, and Creating a Five-Year Plan) and helped us to structure a dialogue between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. I break down the lesson plans by author to demonstrate specific ways in which Victorian texts can speak to our present moment. Pertinent to the advocacy goals of WhatEvery1Says, our conversations, mediated through the voices of the Victorians, often turned to a collective reflection on collegiate education and the role, accessibility, promise, and limitations of the humanities.

Thomas Carlyle: Signs of Our Times

One of our first texts for the quarter was Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay “Signs of the Times,” a crucial early diagnosis of the industrial nineteenth-century as the “Mechanical Age.” In class, I organized the students into small groups and had each group 1) pick a passage, 2) comment on what remains true in the twenty-first century and what has changed, and 3) think about how we might characterize the present moment to write our own “Signs of the Times.” The ensuing conversation focused productively on the relative balance of the spiritual and the material – two key factors for Carlyle – in our own society and in the nineteenth century. Of particular interest was the way in which students saw this relationship manifesting in their own educations, including the economic pressures that students often feel to choose majors that will lead to well-paying jobs, rather than choosing majors as a form of self-fulfillment. Carlyle thus opened the door for us to talk about the position of a humanities class within the complex economic, social, and cultural fabric of our own times.

John Ruskin and William Morris: Loving What You Do

Our discussion of John Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic” and William Morris’s “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” hinged on the idea of enjoying what you do. For both Ruskin and Morris, taking pleasure in labor and having creative ownership over one’s work is a key ingredient for human dignity and self-expression. I asked students about this idea in the context of their own educations: do you enjoy what you study on a daily basis? Is that an important rubric for you in choosing a major? Continuing our discussion of Carlyle, students saw the goals of education as torn between making money versus pursuing a passion, and they recognized clearly that there are different expectations for different cultural and socio-economic communities. To study what you love is a privilege in many cases, whereas to study what will give you a stable career is a necessity. As a class, we then asked what it would take for our current education system to help people to do work that they enjoy, as an explicit goal. This led us to the poignant conclusion, still drawing from Ruskin and Morris, that the economic and social foundation must be in place first before artistry and pleasure can be a part of everyone’s work. It is not enough to say to the individual, “Follow your dream” or “Study what makes you happy”; rather, we must find systemic ways to make those dreams and that happiness attainable.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Manifesto in Different Keys

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I assigned The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels alongside Dr. King’s “Economic and Social Bill of Rights,” a lesser-known piece from his late-career focus, the Poor People’s Campaign. I presented Marx/Engels and King as two different responses to the same problem of poverty and class difference. Whereas The Communist Manifesto advocates for a violent assertion of mass equality through the revolutionary overthrow of existing governments, King’s is the voice of peace and reform, offering ways to work within a system to change it nonviolently. King’s piece resonated strongly with students, and, though fifty years old, felt for many as though it could have been written today. The “Economic and Social Bill of Rights” therefore provided a helpful historical mediator for us between the present of 2019 and the nineteenth century. Starting with King gave us a way to explore Marx and Engels as well, drawing out comparisons between the approach, tone, style, and politics of each piece.

Charles Dickens: Fictions of Coketown

One of the most powerful discussions that we had this quarter about Hard Times centered on Dickens’s concept of the “fictions of Coketown.” Coketown is the name of the novel’s industrial metropolis and its “fictions” are a series of erroneous beliefs sustained by its wealthy inhabitants in order to preserve the status quo, such as that anyone can be rich if they try hard enough, that regulation of business practices will result in societal havoc, and that poor factory employees are capable of malicious crimes. In class, we read each passage aloud in which the phrase “fiction of Coketown” appears, we paraphrased each “fiction” as a group, and we talked through how the narrative as a whole ultimately overturns each fiction, which led us to further passages. I then arranged the class into small groups and asked students to discuss how these fictions play out today, particularly in relation to our broad team categories of Climate Change, Economic Inequality, and Education Reform. Teams brainstormed what social fictions and limiting beliefs they see around them in the twenty-first century, and we made lists of these on the board, beside those from Dickens. The resulting conversation was both deep and wide-ranging. Students particularly resonated with the following passage:

“This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it?” (Dickens, Hard Times, Book 2, Chapter 1)

Drawing from work in other classes, particularly in the social sciences, students recognized in this language the common formulation of the “bootstraps myth” of the American Dream, which often has great potency in the context of a college education (“study hard and you’ll have a better life”). The challenge of a conversation like this is to help students to recognize systemic inequalities, while still remaining positive about their own prospects. A key focus for us, ultimately, was the role that literary fictions can play in combating and complicating social fictions: studying literature can allow us to identify narratives that we see in the society around us, can help us to understand how such narratives are sustained, as well as how they might be used for good or ill, and can guide us in changing the story ourselves.

Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot: Revolution versus Reform

As we neared the end of Gaskell’s North and South, I assigned George Eliot’s “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt” as a companion piece, which led us to a productive week’s discussion about the relative social impact of revolution versus reform. Eliot’s “Address” was written as a follow-up essay to her own industrial novel, Felix Holt, in the context of the Second Reform Bill of 1867, which expanded the franchise in England to many new working-class voters. Both Eliot and Gaskell are often taken as relatively conservative Victorian voices in the spectrum of political possibility. Though their novels do include important radical elements, most often focused through the lens of gender and centering on strong-voiced, self-willed heroines, both North and South and the “Address to Working Men” ultimately advocate for reform rather than revolution on the level of class, proposing social changes that would be palatable to a middle-class readership and that privilege individual sympathy and cross-class dialogue over mass political action. As we unpacked the inner logics of Eliot’s and Gaskell’s texts, we asked, most fundamentally, “Is this good advice?” This question helped us to broach a conversation about activism in the twenty-first century, as students considered the efficacy, benefits, and limitations of slow change. The positions of art and of a university education were, once again, a focus. Eliot, through Felix, advocates against “hasty measures” that might jeopardize the “security” of the “treasure of knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling, and manners, great memories and the interpretation of great records, which is carried on from the minds of one generation to the minds of another” (and which has historically been the province of the rich). The “treasure,” in other words, sounds an awful lot like a liberal arts education. My students recognized a tension in this passage; on the one hand, “poetry” and “manners” seem elitist and expendable when faced with the bare survivalist need to get a job with your degree. To privilege the “treasure” is also, for Eliot, to privilege “the classes who hold the treasures of knowledge.” But there is still a deep attractiveness to the collegiate ideal, namely, that such knowledge and such passion are worth preserving, institutionally, for the enjoyment of generations to come. This recognition led us into a discussion of the accessibility and political power of the arts and humanities more generally, both in the nineteenth century and today.

Oscar Wilde: How Do You Solve a Problem with a Book?

On the first day of class, I handed out index cards to each student and asked everyone to meditate on the title of our class. What does it mean to solve a problem with a book? I asked students to share responses with the larger group and then I collected all of the index cards. Towards the end of the quarter, I handed the cards back and asked students to revisit their original impressions. Had their perceptions changed in any way based on our class discussions and assignments? I planned the conversation to coincide with our final readings for the quarter: selections from Oscar Wilde. Wilde is a key figure of Aestheticism, a late nineteenth-century artistic movement most often associated with the phrase “Art for Art’s sake” – the idea that art’s beauty is more important than its usefulness. Wilde’s writing (including the “Preface” to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The Possibilities of the Useful,” Wilde’s 1891 letter to Bernulf Clegg, and “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,”) allowed us to examine the socially-engaged premise of our class and to consider different modes of interacting with art, such as application vs. appreciation. The question of “how do we solve a problem with a book” can therefore modulate into a more fundamental question: “Should we solve problems with books at all?” The spectrum of answers to this question, both in Wilde’s own work and among my students’ views, provided a rich conversation through which to consider the whole of our work for the quarter.

Advice from the Victorians: Everybody on the Dance Floor

One of our most successful classes was the day that our second assignment, “Advice from the Victorians,” was due (in which students impersonated Victorian figures – real people or fictional characters – responding to twenty-first-century issues). I asked students to bring in hard copies of their assignments and we structured the class around three questions: 1) Reflect on your teammates’ impersonations and the strategies they used. 2) Think about how your Board of Advisors might get along with each other. What conversations would they have? 3) Start thinking about Part 1 of your Five-Year Plan: How would you respond to the advice from your Victorians? Students had time for small group discussion first with their teams and then had the opportunity to share their impersonations and ideas with the full class, oscillating between their own voices and those of the Victorians. Everyone had a chance to speak, and we were also able to discuss how the assignment affected their reading process. Students who chose fictional characters felt more invested in that character as they continued the novels, and students who chose authors commented that they felt a greater understanding of that author’s style and thought process, now that they had tried to do it themselves. All in all, asking students to imagine how the Victorians might interact with each other (even in fantastical relationships, such as how a fictional character would talk to a real historical figure) was a fun way to encourage students to engage both with the Victorians and with their classmates. The activity also showcased the unique lens that a literature class can bring to a historical conversation.

From these conversations and others throughout the quarter, I have learned immeasurably from my students. As I think back, what most impressed me was my students’ readiness to reflect on their own experiences in conjunction with Victorian literature, and, relatedly, their quickness to break down binaries in favor of continuum. When we talked about Carlyle, it wasn’t just “money” vs “morals” – with Wilde, not a simple either/or of “appreciation” vs “application” – but, rather, a whole host of possibilities between the poles. If the Victorians – the voices of industrialism – can teach us anything, it is perhaps that navigating our way through smoke and fog necessitates a careful attention to detail, to nuance, to emotion, to ethics, and, most of all, to art. Growing from the experiences of a century, flawed as it was, that saw the birth of most of the industries and institutions that still govern our lives, the Victorians’ belief in the humanities should strongly motivate our own.

With thanks to my students and to all the teachers who have inspired me along the way!


This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Uses of Literature: How to Solve Problems with Books.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!