What are some examples of the themes of public education and social hierarchy in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations?
The themes of education and hierarchy are combined especially well in one memorable scene of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. In this episode, Pip is being schooled at a small local establishment owned by the great-aunt of a teacher named Mr. Wopsle. The great-aunt is unhealthy and tired and therefore goes to bed a lot, doing so
in the society of youth who paid two pence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it.
The old woman’s status in the social hierarchy means that the students are in no position to complain about her behavior, and the clear implication – here and throughout the episode – is that they are not receiving an especially good education.
In fact, Mr. Wopsle himself is not an especially effective educator (to say the least):
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 other words, once every three months, Mr. Wopsle was supposed to make sure that the students had learned their lessons. Instead, he recites to them a speech from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Mr. Wopsle seems more interested in cultivating his skills as an actor or orator than in genuinely educating the young people for whom he is responsible. His position in the hierarchy of the school and his society, however, exempts him from any criticism or correction. Certainly his great-aunt will never fire him.
Also residing in the school is a girl named Biddy, the granddaughter of Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt. Pip notes at one point that
Much of my unassisted self, and more by the help of Biddy than of Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, I struggled through the alphabet as if it had been a bramble-bush; getting considerably worried and scratched by every letter.
In other words, it was Biddy and Pip, rather than the great-aunt or Mr. Wopsle, who had the most to do with Pip learning to read and write. Rather than the adults (highest in the hierarchy) assisting the children, the children assist themselves. Mr. Wopsle and his great-aunt have set themselves up as educators, although neither of them seems especially devoted to the task, let alone especially qualified. But they enjoy social status because of their self-assumed positions, and they make money from their students, even if they provide little in return.