Monday, December 1, 2014

The Literary Schools Where I Wish I Could Study

From the time I was a small child, books have provided me with my expectations, sometimes quite fantastic, of what a great school should be, and throughout my childhood, I dreamed of attending the great schools of literature. Of course, some of these blissful bastions of literary learning lose their luster when compared with brutal reality. James Hilton's worshipful story of a beloved boys' public school professor, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, has been tarnished, at least for me, by the horrifying revelations of the miseries endured by students at such schools by writers, and veterans of British public schools, George Orwell and C. S. Lewis. And though Charlotte Bronte's protagonist in The Professor holds himself up as a model of educational reform and erudition, I'm not sure I'd care for such a stern and unforgiving taskmaster. There are the schools of nightmares too: the terrifying Miss Trunchbull's penitentiary-like school where children get hurled into neighboring fields by their offending pigtails, in Roald Dahl's Matilda, for example. And while Miss Minchin's tony London boarding school in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess is quite pleasant if one has the wealth to pay for it, it quickly devolves into a sooty prison for Sara Crewe when her father dies leaving her penniless.

Spring Valley University, described in John O'Hara's Elizabeth Appleton, sounds like a fairly decent place to get a university degree, that is, if you are male, white, Protestant, and determined to chase the coeds (also called "suffragettes" and considered "undateable") off campus. Though hardly the stuff of nightmares at first glance, such a university experience is hardly what those of us who don't fit such narrow categories would call a positive educational experience. (For cinema and Broadway fans, Spring Valley is quite reminiscent in terms of its white-bread football culture and class snootiness of Tait College from Good News, though without its toe-tapping solutions to class struggle.) Like so many binge consumers of British literature and like Jude in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, I coveted a place at one of the great British universities, with their gorgeous Gothic chapels, centuries-old libraries, and chummy "rooms." Of course, the fantasy of such an education is again dependent on imagining oneself into the male, Protestant, and upper crusty shoes of your average Oxford don, at least until the surprisingly recent past - Cambridge went coed in 1948 and Oxford didn't begin to admit women on the same terms as men until the late 1970s.

But the dream of a really great college education is also a common trope in girls' literature, the signal of an emerging feminist consciousness. Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women desperately wants to join her best friend Laurie at Harvard (which, like Oxford, didn't admit women as full students until the late 1970s), but her quest for education culminates in the foundation of her own school, in Little Men. Though primarily a boys' school, Plumfield Estate School goes coed quite early, and one of its coeds, Nan, devotes herself to medical studies, eventually, in Jo's Boys, becoming a doctor. Plumfield is nothing like a traditional school - one of its primary aims is to foster independence and responsibility and thus the students are encouraged to start businesses, learn practical skills, keep pets and gardens, and found a natural history museum. In Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Lucy Snowe becomes a teacher at an exclusive girls' boarding school in a fictionalized Brussels and eventually becomes the headmistress of her own school. Much like Miss Minchin's exclusive school, this boarding school offers the best experiences to its richest students, but the curriculum, which includes languages, history, and less serious subjects, like theater, dance, and handicrafts, is varied and quite appealing.

Only a few decades later, authors were sending their female protagonists to college. In Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs, Judy narrates her years at college, offering a glimpse into the privileged world of a women's college in the early twentieth century. Aside from the downright luxurious dormitories, the college offers opportunities to make fast friendships (even, in this case, across classes), access to a wealth of reading material, and, most importantly, the kind of empowerment that allows Judy to become professionally ambitious. Similarly, L. M. Montgomery sent her beloved heroine Anne Shirley to college in Anne of the Island. In this book, the exceedingly ambitious Anne finally gets her chance to study literature in depth. She also sets up house in a romantic cottage with a girl friend (a fantasy indeed for anyone who has had a bad roommate experience) and reconciles her girlhood hopes with adult resolves.

Perhaps no literary schools are nearly as enticing as those where magic is taught, the preeminent example of course being Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Who wouldn't want to learn how to perform magic spells, from making objects fly and turning animals into water goblets to flying broomsticks? And for a private tutor, who better than Merlin, Albus Dumbledore's venerable forebear, in T. H. White's brilliant The Sword in the Stone? In White's quirky and very erudite rendition, Merlin is a rather crabby old codger, but a possessed of a brilliant mind, if little patience. His method of teaching the lessons of statesmanship is to turn the boy Arthur into a series of animals, exploring the universe from the point of view of a falcon, a fish, and a badger, among others. However, barring quite unexpected developments, I don't expect such educational experiences to become typical for any students; I do wish that more students had wider access to literature, literature that just might give them greater expectations of what education can offer them.

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