In David Copperfield, Dickens champions the importance of a liberal and moral education by drawing from personal experiences and creating starkly contrasting caricatures to exemplify his beliefs and views. Prior to 1870, there were no rules or laws governing school syllabus or teacher conduct. Hence, many schools taught by forcing the students to recite mindlessly from books, discouraging students bright childish imaginations, consequently turning them into little parrots and small calculating machines. Dickens most wholeheartedly deplores this method of teaching, instead encouraging an education that focuses on developing pupils values and morals and teaching them the necessary skills their adult life.
David is first educated informally at home. He learns the alphabet at [his mothers] knee and reads to Peggotty from the Crocodile book, developing his imagination we went into the water and put sharp pieces of timber down their throats. Dickens clearly approves of this sort of education and David says in retrospect that memories of this time recall no feeling of disgust or reluctance [he] walked along a path of flowers. Dickens contrasts the daily drudgery and misery of his education after Claras remarriage; David is betrayed by his own nervousness in front of the dominating Murdstones, upsetting his mother and lowering his self-esteem the more stupid I get. This negative reaction again shows Dickens encouragement of a very different form of education. David is not stupid and it is only the strict and stifling circumstances that make him feel this way. Dickens encourages the reader to feel that if the Murdstones were more liberal and generous in their education of David, the results would be significantly different.
Dickens views on education are conveyed best through the contrast he draws between Betsey Trotwoods firmness and Mr Murdstones. Murdstones firmness overwhelms David, whereas Betseys firmness lays a sound moral foundation for his freedom never be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid these three vices and I can always be hopeful of you. Davids epic journey from London to Dover and his emancipation from the imprisonment of the Murdstone and Grinby factory shows the consequences of these educational methods in a more literal way; David is literally escaping the moral, physical and financial imprisonment of the factory for the freedom to explore and develop his interests.
Dickens further emphasises Davids imprisonment and freedom by the decision-making power he is given by Betsey and Murdstone. Murdstone gives David no choices; he is sent to boarding school, to the factory and the Micawbers without consent. Murdstone gives David no credit and no choice in what happens to him. Miss Betsey on the other hand never forces anything upon David, beyond her sound moral rules. She helps him to choose his school, where he will live and where he will work. Betsey gives David the freedom to explore and develop his interests. This final product of each school shows the benefits of a liberal education. If David had not left the factory, he would have remained nothing more than a bottle cleaner for the rest of his life. With Betsey however, David has the choice and freedom to become whatever he wants.
Dickens uses Uriah Heep to stress the importance of education for life. From the education he receives at the Charity School, he is taught no other way to advance in life besides being devious and deceitful. Dora too, demonstrates the problems of a life without sufficient preparation. From birth, she was expected to be nothing more than a pretty little wife and when she grew up, she is incapable of managing the house and Dickens makes it clear that she is nothing more than a pretty object.
The two schools David attends are also diametrically opposed. Creakle is a ruthless bully, harassing those younger and weaker than himself. He runs Salem House for this very reason, and not because he has any improve the students future chances. Dr Strongs school, however, is as different from Mr. Creakle’s as good is from evil. Dr Strong is a generous character, the idol of the whole school, which he runs to help the boys, not himself. He gives the boys the choice to do what they like and respects them as people, unlike Creakle who barely recognises their existence.
Dr Strong believes in the honour and good faith of the boys, and [has] an avowed intention to rely on their possession of those qualities unless they proved themselves unworthy of it. Creakle, however treats all the boys with immediate suspicion. When he first meets David, he takes him by the ear and threatens him. Dickens again emphasises the importance of good morals as a starting point for an education, using the same MurdstoneTrotwood comparison between Creakle and Strong. Dr Strongs liberal method worked wonders and [David] learnt with a good will, desiring to do it credit whereas, at Salem House, the students were too much troubled and knocked about to learn.
Dickens also contrasts the environments of both schools. At Salem House, David never feels completely at ease. He vigilantly watches Creakles eye during class, always fearful. Even at night, the boys are fearful of Mr Creakle who is often prowling about the passage, ready to beat the boys for disorderly conduct. The fact that David was an exception to the general body [at Salem House], insomuch that [he] steadily pick[ed] up some crumbs of knowledge is Dickens strongest argument against this type of school. At Dr Strongs, however, David is completely comfortable; he describes the pleasant surroundings and the Doctors habits.
Dickens held firm beliefs about important elements of a good education. He attended a strict school run by the most ignorant worst tempered [man] and from his experiences concluded that there is not likely to be much learnt in a school carried on by sheer cruelty. Dickens recognises the importance of a liberal and moral education where the student is free to do what he wants and is encouraged to build a firm moral base for the rest of his life.