How does Dickens satirize public education in Chapter 7 of Great Expectations?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As a social commentator of Victorian society, Dickens was very concerned about the plight of the poor. In Chapter Vii, he satirizes public education as being completely neglectful of these poor people. For instance, Joe Gargery is illiterate because his drunkard father refused him an education and there was no one to intercede for him. And, Pip's meager education comes from an evening school supposedly taught by Biddy's great-aunt. However, as "a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity," she falls asleep instead of teaching, and it is left to little Biddy to instruct Pip on how to perform his arithmetic problems.

Furthermore, the children are never tested on what they learn:

There was a fiction that Mr. Wopsle "examined" the scholars once a quarter.  What he did on those occasions was to turn up his cuffs, stick up his hair, and give us Mark Antony's oration over the body of Caesar.

In short, the "school" which Pip attends is a travesty of a site of education. Pointing to the ridiculousness of what he terms satirically the "Educational Institution" Dickens writes, 

Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, besides keeping this Educational Institution, kept in the same room—a little general shop.

Thus, Pip, "in a purblind groping way," learns to read, write, and cipher, "on the very smallest scale" through his own efforts and with limited aid from little Biddy, an orphan like himself.


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