Educational outliers: exclusion as innovation in nineteenth-century British literature
Cordner, Sheila Connors
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This dissertation traces a genealogy of literary resistance to dominant pedagogies in nineteenth-century Britain. Although politicians, religious leaders, and literary authors celebrated the expansion of schools for people outside of privileged classes, a persistent tradition of writers registers the loss of non-institutional forms of learning. Excluded from Oxford and Cambridge because of their class or gender, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Woolf use their position outside of educational institutions to critique rote learning at universities for the elite as well as utilitarian schools for the masses. Hardy describes the "mental limitations" of Angel's Cambridge-educated brothers in Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), for example, mocking them as "such unimpeachable models as are turned out yearly by the lathe of systematic tuition." The radicalism of educational outliers emerges when read alongside educational pamphlets, working-men's club reports, college newspapers, and parliamentary debates. Educational outliers investigate the role that literature plays in un-teaching readers. They model alternative pedagogies centered on active learning instead of rote memorization. With Mansfield Park (1814), Austen inaugurates this tradition; at a time when proclamations on women's education proliferated, she offers novels as anti-treatises that constantly disrupt the reading experience instead of offering simplistic truths, forcing us to rely on our own judgment to make sense of the disorder that characterizes her model of self-education. Several decades later in her "novel-poem" Aurora Leigh (1856), Barrett Browning instructs us in a "headlong," empathic reading of her text as part of her experiential learning approach for women of different classes that stresses reform from within. Writing after more working-class schools had opened, Hardy tests the novel's capacity to un-teach assumptions about categories like "autodidact" itself and rewrites the celebratory self-made man's narrative by placing the reader in the position from which to weigh the positives and negatives of self-education. In the early twentieth century, Woolf imagines an education that "unfixes" students from their rigid class mindset in her "essay-novel" The Pargiters. Educational outliers' innovations ultimately prompt us to think about what outsiders' perspectives might be helpful today.
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