Education occupies an important role in North and South. The Hales would not have left their native Helstone if Mr. Hale’s studies had not raised religious doubts; if Thornton, the manufacturer, had not desired tutelage to address his educational gaps, then the Hales wouldn’t likely have moved to Milton. Yet, throughout the story, tension exists as to the proper role of learning. While some dismiss learning as a self-indulgent distraction, others see its value as determined by its ends. Through this tension, Gaskell argues that learning and education should not be ends in themselves, but should be targeted to the needs of the present day, benefiting learned and unlearned alike.
Some characters disparage learning itself as useless and even harmful. When Margaret and her father call on Mrs. Thornton, the latter expresses skepticism about her son’s renewed study of the classics. “Classics may do very well for men who loiter away their lives in the country or in colleges,” she pointedly huffs, “but Milton men ought to have their thoughts and powers absorbed in the work of today.” With these remarks, she implies that Mr. Hale’s background has been self-indulgent, and she elevates “work,” not ideas, as relevant for society. Ever loyal to Mrs. Hale, Dixon, the Hales’ servant, complains that Mr. Hale should have taken better care of his wife instead of “always reading, reading, thinking, thinking. See what it has brought him to! Many a one who never reads nor thinks either, gets to be Rector, and Dean...” Like Mrs. Thornton, Dixon views learning in instrumental terms; if all Mr. Hale’s reading did not advance his career, she thinks, then it served no purpose, and even caused harm to his dependents.
Most characters, however, see a valid place for learning, but argue that it’s misused when it is wrongly deployed, or insufficiently married to action. When Higgins recalls his former employer, Hamper, rudely recommending a book of economic theory to him as a way of silencing Higgins’ complaints, Mr. Hale suggests that, regardless of the attitude with which it was offered, the book would nevertheless have told Higgins the truth. Higgins responds that, regardless of its truthfulness, the book is gibberish to him if it’s in a form he’s unable to receive: “I’m not one who [thinks] truth can be shaped out in words, all neat and clean, as th’ men at th’ foundry cut out sheet-iron … Folk who sets up to doctor th’ world wi’ their truth, [must] suit different for different minds.” In Higgins’s view, theoretical learning may have its place. Unless it is expressed in a way that’s accessible to its intended recipients, however, it might as well be a foreign language.
When Mr. Hale’s Oxford friend, Mr. Bell, visits Milton, Thornton and Bell argue about the relevance of study. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Thornton argues, “we do not look upon life as a time for enjoyment, but as a time for action and exertion … It is fine when the study of the past leads to a prophecy of the future. But to men groping in new circumstances, it would be finer if the words of experience could direct us how to act in what concerns us most intimately and immediately…” Unlike his mother, Thornton sees value in classical study, or else he would not have hired Mr. Hale to help him fill the gaps in his education. However, he disagrees with the scholarly Bell that the past should be studied for its own sake. Study is not something to be enjoyed at leisure, in his view; it must rather be pressed into service in grappling with the concerns of the day.
After Mr. Hale’s death, Henry Lennox muses to Bell that there had been no need for Hale to give up his position as Helstone rector. “These country clergymen live such isolated lives,” he claims, “that they are very apt to disturb themselves with imaginary doubts as to the articles of faith, and throw up certain opportunities of doing good for very uncertain fancies of their own.” His remarks are haughtily dismissive of Hale’s crisis of conscience, as well as the good done by the Hales in Milton. However, his attitude is in keeping with Gaskell’s point that isolated study can become detached from daily realities, failing to serve those who might benefit from it.
When she visits Helstone at the end of the story, even Margaret concludes that Mr. Hale’s old study in the rectory “had conduced … to the formation of a character more fitted for thought than action.” But Hepworth, Hale’s less bookish successor, is portrayed ambivalently as well. “Even during the composition of his most orthodox sermons,” the rector watched out his newly-built window so that he might “[sally] out after his parishioners, who had need of quick legs if they could take refuge in the ‘Jolly Forester’ before the teetotal Vicar had arrested them.” If anything, Gaskell suggests, the proactive Hepworth could stand to cultivate more of his predecessor’s meditative frame. Gaskell upholds the value of thought and learning, but they must always be anchored to the needs of everyday life, answerable to human beings.
Education Quotes in North and South
“As I was a-saying, sir, I reckon yo’d not ha’ much belief in yo’ if yo’ lived here,—if you’d been bred here. I ax your pardon if I use wrong words; but what I mean by belief just now, is a-thinking on sayings and maxims and promises made by folk yo’ never saw, about the things and the life yo’ never saw, nor no one else…There’s many and many a one wiser, and scores better learned than I am around me,—folk who’ve had time to think on these things,—while my time has had to be gi’en up to getting my bread.”
“If we do not reverence the past as you do in Oxford, it is because we want something which can apply to the present more directly. It is fine when the study of the past leads to a prophecy of the future. But to men groping in new circumstances, it would be finer if the words of experience [from history] could direct us how to act in what concerns us most intimately and immediately; which is full of difficulties that must be encountered; and upon the mode in which they are met and conquered—not merely pushed aside for the time—depends our future. Out of the wisdom of the past, help us over the present. But no! People can speak of Utopia much more easily than of the next day’s duty; and yet when that duty is all done by others, who so ready to cry, ‘Fie, for shame!’”
“But the truth is, these country clergymen live such isolated lives—isolated, I mean, from all intercourse with men of equal cultivation with themselves, by whose minds they might regulate their own, and discover when they were going either too fast or too slow—that they are very apt to disturb themselves with imaginary doubts as to the articles of faith, and throw up certain opportunities of doing good for very uncertain fancies of their own.”
After visiting with Margaret in London, Henry and Mr. Bell chat about the struggles the Hale family has endured in recent years. Henry remarks that he’s heard from Mr. Hale’s successor, Hepworth, that Hale need not have abandoned his position as rector over a few nagging doubts. Henry argues that “country clergymen” become so morbidly consumed by their own ideas that they make mountains out of theological molehills, and overreact about small things. They have no neighbors of similar education, so they have few opportunities to test and refine their thinking against others. The result is that they become disproportionately fixated on certain pet ideas and sometimes do what Mr. Hale did, walking away from a potentially fruitful ministry for no good reason. While Mr. Hale himself had warned of the risk of stagnation in country life, Henry’s claim is presumptuous—assuming that Hale’s doubts were insignificant, and that his heartbreaking choice to leave Helstone need not have been made. It also lines up with the bias, seen elsewhere in the novel, that concrete, measurable action is to be preferred to thought.