Jane Austen and the Mock Turtle


I like to read treatises and how-to books on education. But I also enjoy distilling educational theory out of books that have nothing to do with education. It fascinates me, for instance, to hear the Mock Turtle’s summation of the subjects offered at his school: Reeling and Writhing, Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision, Mystery (ancient and modern) with Seaography, Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils, Laughing and Grief, as well as Dancing the Lobster Quadrille. That’s Lewis Carroll’s whimsical but accurate summation of the typical education of his day (for boys. You’ll notice that in the same chapter Alice carefully mentions her French, but earlier as she tries to think how to address a mouse in The Pool of Tears, she can remember the vocative only from her brother’s Latin Grammar).

It’s a curriculum that modern classical educators in the U.S. are trying to revive. Here in Italy, whatever other complaints there may be about the school system (and no, I’m not sending my kids to Italian schools any more than I’m sending them to American schools), my husband’s coworkers all at least took Latin or Greek in high school. In fact, Italy has always been at the forefront of Classical Education. You’ll notice in The Taming of the Shrew (set in Padua) that Baptista, to distract his daughter Bianca from her suitors, engages the services of two tutors (who turn out to be the suitors in disguise); one for music and mathematics (preserving the traditional Ancient Greek identification of the two) and the other for Latin and Greek. In Climbing Parnassus, my new favorite book on education, Tracy Lee Simmons paints a similar picture of the rich education available to both boys and girls (of means) in 15th Century Italy. It was this same education, transported to Britain shortly after, that prevailed there virtually unchanged (and was later exported to America) for three hundred years, until the end of the Long Nineteenth Century.

The English, though, were a bit behind the Italians when it came to equality of education. To read what young women were expected to learn in England at the time, we can turn to Jane Austen. A few months ago, I happened to pick up a lovely complete edition of her novels at a thrift store in Ireland for three euros, and I must say it made a welcome change from Thomas Hardy, who seems to be the favorite author in Ireland. Austen’s books are all peppered with references to female education. In fact, Pride and Prejudice could be profitably read as a treatise on the proper education and upbringing of young ladies.

Aside from the lessons on the importance of moral education implicit in the story of the Bennets’ disastrous parenting style, we have the famous conversation in which the “accomplished woman” is defined. In fact, we have three successive definitions, offered respectively by Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, and finally Darcy. By the time Darcy offers his, the bar has been set so high for accomplished women that Elizabeth is “surprised at [his] knowing any.”

Let’s take a look at these different ideas of women’s education. Mr. Bingley (always easily pleased) is content with the merely decorative woman who can quietly “paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses.” Miss Bingley in turn eagerly lists her own carefully acquired accomplishments of “music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages [i.e. French, German and Italian],” as well as the all-important “certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions.” For her, and the society of the day, the point of all these pursuits (which Austen continually ridicules as likely to be given up as soon as a woman marries) is to catch a husband. Not until Darcy speaks do we hear something a trifle more academic: “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

The genius of my favorite 19th century educator, Charlotte Mason, is that at her school she effectively took this list of accomplishments for women and combined it with the traditional classical curriculum that created the educated men of the day. But she also added something more–the conscious cultivation of proper moral habits whose lack is so evident in the Bennet household. The result was a happy synthesis (offered equally to both boys and girls) that developed a cultured, well-informed, well-rounded person of high moral character.

Charlotte’s junior-high-aged students studied the following: Old Testament, New Testament, Plutarch, Arithmetic, Geometry, Dictation, Recitation, Geography, Botany, Physiology, Natural History, German, French, Italian, Latin, Writing, English Grammar, English History, French History, Literature, Singing (in multiple languages), and Physical Education. I am not joking. This is taken verbatim off of a weekly schedule from a class in her school. Their education would also have included drawing and painting, handicrafts, and studies of composers and artists. Greek would have been added in high school, along with Geology, Astronomy, and European history. (And don’t worry, they were only in school for four hours per day.)

My goals and methods are in the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s, and the curriculum I am using is basically the same as hers. I want both my daughter and my son to be educated AND accomplished. I want them to to be fluent in other languages so that they can learn from and communicate with not only the Classical authors but also with people they meet all over the world. I want them to grow up equipped not only with the mathematics and science and technology skills to be competitive in our global economy, but also with the ability to appreciate (and create) music, art and literature that will enrich their own and others’ lives. And I want them to understand that it is not how much they know, but how well they apply their knowledge to make the world a better place that matters. Is this too high to aim? I think not. Of course there will be ups and downs, good days and bad, but it is an ideal that has been attained before in previous centuries, and I firmly believe can be attained again. In the words of Charlotte Mason, “Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.”