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

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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In Chapter 7 of Great Expectations, Dickens satirizes the way in which public schools teach children nothing but charge them anyway. Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt keeps the village school, and she charges students twopence each week but promptly falls asleep during school hours. Mr. Wopsle, who has the room upstairs from the classroom, reads aloud in a frightening voice. He is supposed to test the students once during each quarter, but he instead recites Mark Anthony's oration over Caesar's dead body to them. 

Pip learns very little in this school. With Biddy's help, Pip "struggled through the alphabet as if it has been a bramble-bush" (page 44). Through Biddy's instruction (Biddy works at the general store owned by Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt), Pip begins to read, write, and cipher (do sums) in a very limited way. However, Pip has learned nothing from sitting in the village school, and thus Dickens satirizes the way in which public schools breed illiteracy and ignorance.

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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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