Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Jane Austen's theory of education

I've been reading Pride and Prejudice out loud to my son, and last night I was happy to find that Austen's theory of education is similar to my own.  In chapter 29 she presents her thinking in the form of a dialogue between Lady Catherine de Bourgh, one of Austen's great monsters, and the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, who is always right except about men.

Here is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, prefiguring Dickens's Gradgrind: "Nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it."

And here is Lizzy Bennet defending, in the great tradition of Franklin, Douglass, Malcolm X and Stephen Krashen, her reading-based education: "We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary."

Novelists are biased, no doubt, but it is striking how often they portray education as coming entirely out of independent reading.  The only counterexample I can think of offhand is something John Updike said once--something like, "I read what I was assigned and thought myself the better for it."  But Updike was probably being contrarian.

Update on Updike: I was wrong; I just looked it up (the internet is amazing), and even in the passage I was thinking of, Updike, too, makes the case for self-selected reading in childhood and adolescence.  Updike was a very erudite guy, and did extremely well academically (top of his class in English at Harvard, for whatever that's worth), but his preparation seems to have been largely pleasure reading:

"I read books of humor by Thurber and Benchley and Wodehouse and Frank Sullivan and E. B. White, and mystery novels by Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner and John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.  This diet pretty well took me up to Harvard, where I read what they told me, and was much the better for it."
     -- John Updike, Self Consiousness, page 109

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