Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Plus ca change: Joseph Andrews

In Henry Fielding's novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742), the eponymous hero and his mentor Parson Adams engage in a dispute about the merits and disadvantages of "public schools" (such as Eton, Harrow, or Westminster, what 21st-century Americans would call elite private boarding schools) and "private education" (which in eighteenth-century England meant the education of a small group of children in a domestic setting by a local clergyman or perhaps a parent).  Their discussion turns on the issue of what is known to today's homeschoolers as socialization.  Is the socialization, or initiation into the social codes and behaviors of a large community, provided by school beneficial or detrimental?  

Parson Adams is partial to a private education, since he offers that service to boys in his parish.  He takes a protective stance and believes the socialization learned in large boarding schools has a negative effect on boys' moral development.  "Public Schools are the Nurseries of all Vice and Immorality.  All the wicked Fellows whom I remember at University were bred at them. . . . Joseph, you may thank the Lord you were not bred at a public School, you would never have preserved your Virtue as you have."

Joseph, although privately educated himself, demurs, citing the views of his employer, Sir Thomas Booby.  Joseph and his employer make the familiar argument that children need to learn to navigate the school community as preparation for navigating society at large after completing school.  "It was his Opinion, and I have often heard him deliver it, that a Boy taken from a public School, and carried into the World, will learn more in one Year there, than one of a private education will learn in five.  He used to say, the School itself initiated him a great way, (I remember that was his very Expression) for great Schools are little Societies, where a Boy of any Observation may see in Epitome what he will afterwards find in the World at large."

"Hinc illae lachrymae [hence those tears], for that very Reason," replied Adams, "I prefer a private School, where Boys may be kept in Innocence and Ignorance: for... Who would not rather preserve the Purity of his Child, than wish him to attain the whole Circle of Arts and Sciences; which, by the bye, he may learn in the Classes of a private School?... A Lad may have as much Learning in a private as in a public Education."

Joseph points out "And... he may get as much Vice, witness several Country Gentlemen, who were educated within five Miles of their own Houses, and are as wicked as if they had known the World from their Infancy."

The discussion ends at an impasse; Fielding does not advocate one side of the question or the other, but highlights with typical Augustan balance both pros and cons of each mode of education.  Children are not automatically protected from vice by a domestic education, neither are they automatically learning less by not going to a large school.  We shouldn't complacently assume that the mode of education we happen to favor is actually superior.  Instead we have to be engaged actively as teachers, parents, and students to make our education yield the results we desire and to counteract its disadvantages.

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