1 "Hard Times" was first published as a serial in a magazine, beginning in 1854.
2 "Hard Times" opens with a comic yet frightening lecture on the purpose of education. Significantly, the speech is not made by the schoolmaster, but by a businessman who underlines each point on the schoolmaster's sleeve, giving the impression that he is lecturing the instructor more than the students. It's appropriate that business interests dictate what the school should be doing, because the schoolmaster himself, we will find in the next chapter, is an insignificance, a worker whose job is to mold the students to the specifications of the industrialist in this factory-like school.
3 The image of the students as vessels to be filled makes it clear that they are expected to be passive receptacles of "facts poured into them until they were full to the brim" rather than active learners. Note also the description of the room, which we will hear more of later. Dickens calls it a "vault" -- in other words, a safe in which a rich man locks up his possessions for use at a later time, as these children are being locked away until they are ready for employment in the factory. The vault is "plain, bare, monontonous," much like the education offered the children.
4 No one ever accused Dickens of subtlety in his portrayal of social ills. The title of the chapter, "Murdering the Innocents," is a harsh statement of Dickens' assessment of this souless, fact based system of education. The children aren't being killed bodily; their bodies will be needed to toil in the factories. Only the innocent part of them is being murdered, so that innocence and imagination never get in the way of their acceptance of the harsh realities of the dreary lives they are soon to face.
5 Dickens loves to give his characters the names they deserve. The term "gradgrind" refers to a student who grinds out his schoolwork diligently but mindlessly. Clearly Gradgrind's ideas about education are modeled after his own narrow gifts.
6 Dickens employs two powerful images in this paragraph to illustrate the destructive nature of Gradgrind's brand of schooling. In the first, Gradgrind is portrayed as a weapon firing facts whose purpose is to "blow [the children] clean out of the regions of childhood." Dickens makes the weapon a cannon rather than a pistol or rifle to make the assault that much more brutal. In the second, Gradgrind is a machine -- a "galvanizing apparatus" -- and the children are partially assembled products who are having one part, their "tender young imaginations" replaced by another, a "grim mechanical substitute."
7 Once again, Dickens emphasizes how much this style of education depersonalizes the children by giving them numbers. When at the end of Chapter 1 he referred to the children as vessels "then and there arranged in order," he must have been referring to this numbering system.
8 Sissy Jupe's father is part of the traveling circus in town for a short while. Obviously, Gradgrind hates everything the circus stands for, with all its fun and frivolity. It's a nice touch that Gradgrind refuses to allow Sissy to proclaim her father's true profession, which Gradgrind finds objectionable, so he reshapes it into a more respectable form. As a man of facts, Gradgrind should deal with the world as it is, but he feels the need to reorder any facts he finds distasteful. Dickens uses every opportunity to poke holes in the facades of this pompous hypocrite and his associates.
9 Now we see the entire arrangement of the room. Boys are on one side and girls on the other, and the floor slopes down toward the teacher's podium, auditorium style. Though Dickens doesn't give us an exact number of students, we can assume there are at least 40, since Sissy is "girl number 20." Often, classrooms employing the Monitorial (also called Lancasterian) educational system which we see here had as many as 100 students, with some of the older students acting as "monitors" who are responsible for teaching the younger students and maintaining discipline. One of the Monitorial system's selling points was its efficiency, allowing one schoolmaster to teach a large number of students. It was education on the factory model, making it perfectly suited to emphasize Dickens' idea of the inhumanity of the factory cities springing up in England.
10 Actually, no one would have any idea what a horse is from this lifeless, factual description. Gradgrind's pronouncement of Sissy's ignorance about horses, based on her inability mouth a textbook definition, is a jab at this fact-based style of education. Being born and bred in a circus environment and the daughter of a horseman, she is probably more knowledgable about the animal than anyone else in the room, Gradgrind included.
11 The discussion of the proper use of ornamentation sounds ridiculous enough that we might imagine that Dickens invented the issue to lampoon the speakers. But this obsession with the literal was part of one school of criticism of the time, which held that you shouldn't ornament walls, floors, or furniture with objects that did not literally belong there.
12 The meaning of the teacher's name hardly needs to be noted, unless you read it over too quickly. It deserves to be sounded out completely.
13 The metaphor Dickens uses to describe the schoolmaster's training is brilliant and rich with meaning. The schoolmaster is one of 140 identical, interchangable teachers created in a teacher education factory. They are all "turned" on the same educational lathe to exact specifications, with no variation whatever, "like so many pianoforte legs." The teachers, in other words, are relatively insignificant blocks of wood shaped to prop up a complex musical instrument, which, we can infer, is society.
Picturing society as a piano begs a question. Since a piano is meant to be played, preferably by a skilled musician, who is that musician? Dickens doesn't answer this question directly, but here is an interpretation fitting the philosophical underpinnings of this chapter. This piano which, like society, is a delicate and complex instrument made of many carefully manufactured parts, is created to be played by such master musicians as Gradgrind and other elite members of the country's power structure. It is the teacher's job, as a leg holding up the piano, to elevate society to just the right height (and no higher!) so that the "artists" may sit down and play it comfortably and efficiently.
14 A heady warning ends this chapter. Even if we felt it were desirable to kill fancy in children and make them souless drones to fill the factories, is it possible, or will we just "maim" and "distort" children's imaginations into twisted, dangerous forms? This thought ends Dickens' visit to the schoolroom in the novel.
15 I've included a fragment of Chapter 3 even though we have left the schoolroom for good, because it completes the scene. We learn a bit more about Gradgrind's views on education and the way he raises his children.