The Thinking 

One Woman Who Never Went to College

October 12, 2012


A picture of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra

HISTORY is filled with bright and cultured women who never went to college. Jane Austen, to cite one example, had no formal schooling after the age of eleven. Austen was born in December of 1775. According to the Wikipedia entry on her life:

In 1783, according to family tradition, Jane and Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs. Ann Cawley and they moved with her to Southampton later in the year. Both girls caught typhus and Jane nearly died.[24] Austen was subsequently educated at home, until leaving for boarding school with her sister Cassandra early in 1785. The school curriculum probably included some French, spelling, needlework, dancing and music and, perhaps, drama. By December 1786, Jane and Cassandra had returned home because the Austens could not afford to send both of their daughters to school.[25]

Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and her brothers James and Henry.  [26] George Austen apparently gave his daughters unfettered access to his large and varied library, was tolerant of Austen’s sometimes risqué experiments in writing, and provided both sisters with expensive paper and other materials for their writing and drawing.[27] According to Park Honan, a biographer of Austen, life in the Austen home was lived in “an open, amused, easy intellectual atmosphere” where the ideas of those with whom the Austens might disagree politically or socially were considered and discussed.[28]

Strange, that Austen’s father saw to her education. As we know, from reading Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and many other feminists, fathers back then, for all intents and purposes, hated their daughters and wanted to keep them as stupid as possible.

One wonders what kind of person Austen would be if she had been born 18 or 20 years ago and was an English major taking courses in textual analysis at an Ivy League school today. Instead of wandering through a private library, content to follow her own way through Shakespeare, Milton and Sophocles, with the loving supervision of her father, she would be grinding out papers on interspecies dialogue or great African authors or on the role of women in ancient Chinese poetry. And even Jane might be getting drunk on weekends or having naked trysts in library stairwells. After all, human beings can only rise so much above their circumstances.

Poor Jane. She would never be able to probe her great, God-given subject: the tension between the sexes. She would be relentlessly informed that the sexes don’t exist. How then can there be tension between them? There is now only tension between the age when the sexes were believed to exist and the age, enlightened and liberated, when they do not exist. Issue closed. What more can one say?

Jane would be silenced.

Perhaps she would be one more bit of walking proof that spending $200,000 on a fancy education can, however much it may equip you for the job market, actually make you dumber.

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