Many factors go into Ragged Dick’s eventual rise from living on the streets of New York and shining shoes to the middle-class respectability he enjoys by story’s end: his wardrobe, the lucky opportunities he encounters, the social networking he enjoys at church. Yet, nothing is as important as the work Dick puts into educating himself. Alger repeatedly has his successful characters espouse the value of being able to read and write, and he makes it nearly impossible for his literate characters to fail. More than this, he makes that education seem relatively easy to achieve. Learning to read and write takes persistence and dedication, but it’s ultimately so easy in the novel that it can be done in cramped quarters and dim light, while exhausted, and with someone who is only vaguely qualified as a tutor. In this way, lack of education becomes the one thing that separates the industrious poor from their equally industrious counterparts in the middle and upper classes.
The value of education is underscored when Dick makes his first bank deposit. When the teller asks Dick if he can write, the narrator notes that “our hero” grew “a little embarrassed,” and responded, “Have I got to do any writing?” He then signs his name into a book of the bank’s deposits only after “a hard effort.” This moment makes a distinct connection between education and success; anyone seeking the services of a bank would be assumed to be able to read and write, and this moment undoubtedly contributes to Dick’s desire to pursue literacy.
Fosdick’s choice of “textbook” in teaching Dick to read—that is, newspapers—provides just one example of how easily such education might be achieved. Newspapers were ubiquitous at the end of the nineteenth century—their quantity and price both brought down heavily by technological advances in paper making. Indeed, papers were so cheap and plentiful that the job of selling them was often left to homeless boys, as Dick himself, a former newsboy, proves. This kind of throwaway materiality would have made it possible for a boy such as Dick, or any one at all, to legally obtain a discarded newspaper for free. From there, Dick requires only slight tutoring from Fosdick—himself not well educated—in order to learn how to read. This investment in a tutor does cost Dick some money, but it’s only because he’s being quite generous with his friend. It’s clear that Fosdick would have done the job for far less. Regardless, the money is less than what Dick previously spent on such luxuries as the theater or cigars.
Even without Dick’s fortunate access to Fosdick as tutor, Alger makes it clear that Dick had options for advancing his education through night school. Both Frank and Fosdick suggest this avenue to Dick. However, neither makes it clear whether such institutions charged tuition, and Dick himself, in considering night school, seems to ignore this important question. Instead, he focuses on the possible feelings of embarrassment he might experience while going to such a school, where he imagines everyone will be better educated than he is. Because of the lack of regard for the cost of night school, the audience is meant to conclude that such education is either free or highly affordable.
Of course, Dick ultimately decides against night school and instead furthers his education at Sunday School with Mr. Greyson, another entirely free institution for learning. Because of its religious underpinnings, Sunday School wouldn’t offer the same variety of classes to Dick that the night school program might, like arithmetic. However, it would improve his reading ability, as well as provide him with the social capital afforded by a knowledge of the bible. Such knowledge would likely make him far more desirable for employers looking for upstanding young men to take on work.
Because of Alger’s claims that education is so easily achievable, poverty becomes almost inexcusable—it becomes a choice. This requires an odd conceit, however. It must be noted that Dick works something like a 9-5 job, rising in the morning to greet businessmen on their way to work and going home after they do. To miss these opportunities in the name of learning how to read would mean sacrificing hours in which Dick might make money for the sake of education—be it through night school, tutoring, or Sunday School. This would still be a choice, granted, but a much harder one.
The Value of Education ThemeTracker
The Value of Education Quotes in Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks
“Did you ever read the Bible?” asked Frank, who had some idea of the neglected state of Dick’s education.
“No,” said Dick. “I’ve heard it’s a good book, but I never read one. I ain’t much on readin’. It makes my head ache.”
I’ll make a bargain with you. I can’t read much more’n a pig; and my writin’ looks like hens’ tracks. I don’t want to grow up knowin’ no more’n a four-year-old boy. If you’ll teach me readin’ and writin’ evenin’s, you shall sleep in my room every night.
Dick read this letter with much satisfaction. It is always pleasant to be remembered, and Dick had so few friends that it was more to him than to boys who are better provided. Again, he felt a new sense of importance in having a letter addressed to him. It was the first letter he had ever received. If it had been sent to him a year before, he would not have been able to read it. But now, thanks to Fosdick's instructions, he could not only read writing, but he could write a very good hand himself.
I've give up sleepin' in boxes, and old wagons, findin' it didn't agree with my constitution. I've hired a room in Mott Street, and have got a private tooter,
who rooms with me and looks after my studies in the evenin'. Mott Street ain't very fashionable; but my manshun on Fifth Avenoo isn't finished yet, and I'm afraid it won't be till I'm a gray-haired veteran. I've got a hundred dollars towards it, which I've saved from my earnin's. I haven't forgot what you and your uncle said to me, and I'm trying to grow up 'spectable.
“…you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name, and think of yourself now as—”
“Richard Hunter, Esq.” said our hero, smiling.
“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.