Themes in Literature

Literary Education


It is no surprise that education, which affects the relationship between the individual and society, should figure as a perennial theme in literature from the ancient classics of Greece and Rome to contemporary literature. The shadow of the Dark Ages is said to have lifted only after the ancient classics were rediscovered in the wake of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the dispersal of its famous libraries that housed these books. Education is not always delivered through the same channels, nor does it always serve the same purposes, and it is not always a positive force. However, its ability to shape society is undeniable. Plato’s The Republic offers two models of education, one for warrior rulers and the other a more philosophical approach for the philosopher ruler, given through the pedagogical example and allegory of the cave. In this allegory, Plato describes a group of people who have been imprisoned in a cave all their lives.

They see shadows of things passing in front of them and believe the shadows to be reality. The philosopher is like a prisoner freed from the cave who understands now the true reality of things. The highest goal of this form of education is knowledge of the good, and it is only through this that Plato’s enlightened philosopher rulers can rule a utopian community. Similarly, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince is focused on the education of the sovereign or political leader of a state in the art of good governance through a strategic deployment of force and guile. Machiavelli uses the metaphors of the lion and the fox to underscore the strength, nobility, slyness, and shrewdness needed to retain power and triumph over one’s rivals. During the Renaissance, education found literary expression in the form of conduct books. The Renaissance was a golden age for the proliferation of conduct and etiquette books, which were an important aspect in the achievement of a well-rounded individual, especially in a feudal world where manners reflected the person. Unlike practical books that taught the martial arts or educated one in the sciences and arts, these books had a strong moral dimension that sought to inculcate ethical virtues and produce the ideal gentleman or gentlewoman. Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528) is a prescriptive treatise on the ideal courtier and outlines the essential virtues that he should embody. Narrated through an engaging series of imaginary conversations between the real-life courtiers to the duke of Urbino, Castiglione’s speakers discuss qualities of noble behavior—namely, discretion, decorum, nonchalance and gracefulness—as well as wider questions, such as the duties of a good government and the true nature of love.

Castiglione’s literary skill and sharp psychological insights make this guide to manners both an entertaining and a definitive glimpse into the ideals and debates of Renaissance life. Advice and conduct books targeted at women were an especially popular genre in 19th-century England and America. These guidebooks recommended a broad education for women that also included French, drawing, sewing, and the ability to sing or play a musical instrument. They emphasized the importance of a sweet demeanor and courteous tongue, of good humor and wit. Jane Austen’s heroines, for example, embody the lightness of spirit and wit that all women could aspire to if they wanted to snare a suitable man. In America, Emily Thornwell’s The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility (New York, 1857) was aimed at white women, The College of Life, or Practical Self-Educator [sic], a Manual of Self-Improvement for the Colored Race, shows that rules for good wifehood were proposed for both white and African-American middle-class women. Writings on education such as John Milton’s Tract on Education and Free Expression (1644), and John Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) reflect the intense debates on education in the 17th and 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786), and her later A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a radical political and educational treatise. She critiques Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view on women’s education and argues that women are not naturally submissive and dependent creatures and that if they exercised their rationality through a good education, they could be equal partners of men. In emphasizing rationality in women, Wollstonecraft was extending the basic ideas of Enlightenment philosophy to women. Rousseau’s Émile, or On Education (1762) was the precursor of the education novel. In Émile, Rousseau advocates a system of education that would enable the natural man to survive corrupt society.

Divided into five books, the novel traces Émile’s education from childhood to maturity. The first three books focus on childhood; the last two examine Émile’s youth and domestic and civil life as he falls in love with Sophie. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–96) is a novel of upbringing and education and tells the story of Wilhelm’s disillusionment with bourgeois life as he apprentices himself to the mysterious Tower Society comprising enlightened aristocrats who will guide him towards his true calling. In Plots of Enlightenment: Education and Novel in Eighteenth Century England (1999), Richard A. Barney argues that the conjunction of the early novel with theories of education reflects the cultural developments of the 18th century. He states that “educational theory during the late 17th and 18th century formed an indispensable source for the novel’s narrative form and its often contradictory representation of individual social identity” (2). Education is an important theme in Victorian fiction, not just through the bildungsroman, or coming of age novel, but also in the form of a critique of methods of education, of corporal punishment, and of inhumane boarding schools such as those portrayed in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).

The harsh and inhumane conditions of Lowood, the boarding school that Jane is dispatched to after she rebels against Mrs. Reed, reflect the desperate conditions of many real schools in England at that time. The hypocrisy of Brocklehurst, who lives a life of luxury while preaching the values of a Spartan life for the girls at Lowood highlights the hypocrisy of the moneyed patrons of many of these so-called charitable educational institutions run for the poor. The bildungsroman, or “novel of formation,” is essentially a novel of education as it traces the journey of a character from childhood to adulthood through education and the life experiences that he or she has. Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849–50) Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), and Great Expectations (1860–61) are all novels that tell stories of rags to riches made possible through education and wealthy benefactors, but they also count the tragic toll in loss of friendships and self included in this process. In Dombey and Son (1846– 48), Dickens offers a critique of the emphasis on acquiring classical languages in schools as a passport to university admission and upward social mobility. The force-feeding of the boys is communicated through the aptly named Mr. Feeder’s method of instruction: “They knew no rest from the pursuit of strong-hearted verbs, savage noun-substantives, inflexible syntactic passages, and ghosts of exercises that appeared to them in their dreams” (11).Contemporary cultural theorists recognize the vital relationship between power, knowledge, and cultural development. Literature as an expression and constituent of culture plays an integral role in the perpetuation of certain power relations, whether they are of class, caste, or gender relations. In Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid unmasks this colonial mission through the examination of colonial institutions such as the convent schools of various missionary orders.

In particular, she excoriates the soft propaganda of British colonial rule through the widespread teaching of William Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils.” Generations of students from Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean have memorized “Daffodils” as the very epitome of romantic imagination and cultured sensibility, despite never having set sight on a daffodil. The daffodil only grows in temperate zones and is foreign to the tropical climes of these colonized places. If literature functions as a hegemonic tool to shape the sensibility of the colonized, it also functions as a counter-hegemonic tool by inspiring writings of resistance through the ideals of liberty, equality, and the brotherhood of man as set out in the works of Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx. Much of postcolonial literature embodies this ambivalent function of education, as in Tsi Tsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), in which the character Tambu aspires to wealth and status through education, but this very education becomes a culturally alienating force where she loses touch with her roots and family. Learning, knowledge, and culture are closely allied to literature, and consequently education and literature share a symbiotic relationship.

By extension, adjectives such as literate, educated, cultured, and learned are synonyms of each other and reflect a conglomerate of desired attributes that are centered in and expressed through literature. Both education and literature work hand in hand as powerful transformative tools that can shape minds and hearts and in turn effect change for the better.

See also Adams Henry: Education of Henry Adams, The; Amis, Kingsley: Lucky Jim; Bradbury, Ray: Fahrenheit 451; Byron, George Gordon Byron, Lord: Don Juan; Emerson, Ralph Waldo: “American Scholar, The”; Haley, Alex, and Malcolm X: Autobiography of Malcolm X, The; Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World; Lawrence, D. H.: Rainbow, The; Plath, Sylvia: Bell Jar, The; Shaw, George Bernard: Pygmalion; Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein; Smith, Betty: Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A; Walker, Alice: Color Purple, The; Washington, Booker T.: Up from Slavery.

4 thoughts on “Literary Education

  1. Things to do this weekend: Check out what literary and library events are happening in Hawaii on this week’s Book…

  2. Not looking forward to this wack ass british literature class! We need to just watch a movie or something

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