Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ambitious Anne

I've been immersed in Anne of Green Gables lately, reading it aloud to N. (he loved it!) and discussing it (and many of the other "Anne" books, and some scholarly articles, and a biography called Looking for Anne of Green Gables) with my book club.  As a group of high-achieving women who are either professors or affiliated with academia, we talked a lot about how influential the depiction of Anne's academic success was for us as child-readers.  We remember being inspired by her to study hard.  Anne is the smartest girl in school, and lauded for it.  How appealing and even comforting this was for us in schools where we would never be popular because we were smart!  And we remember the vague feeling of disappointment we had when reading the later books as Anne's ambition seems to dissipate with her achievement of the B.A. degree.  We understood, even as young readers, that this was almost inevitable given the time period in which the books were written, but it was nonetheless hard to justify the disappearance of Anne's drive to achieve.

On rereading the "Anne" books now as an adult, I found myself taking a slightly different view of Anne's education and ambition.  I was struck by how much of her desire to achieve in the Avonlea school was primarily for the sake of winning top honors and besting Gilbert.  While this competitiveness is certainly productive for Anne, I believe strongly now in cultivating internal motivation for learning and achievement instead.  For example, N. recently won second place in a piano competition and although he is proud of this, he has repeatedly said (unprompted!) that he doesn't care about the prize but just wants to make good music (and he really means this, which I am just thrilled by).  I don't believe Anne has such internal motivation; she doesn't study for wisdom or pursue knowledge for its own sake.  In the first book, Anne's intense studying for admission to Queen's is simply depicted as gruelling; it doesn't have any positive impact on her, but rather damages her health such that she needs a summer of outdoor frolic to recover.  Learning is entirely divorced from real life for her.  Similarly, at Queen's there is almost nothing to narrate because her studying is primarily a means to an end (winning a scholarship to Redmond College; making Matthew and Marilla proud) rather than an opportunity to develop as a person.

But when Anne gives up the Redmond scholarship to stay home with Marilla, she gets off the honors-and-achievement treadmill and learns through life experience.  She gains immense wisdom through the trials of teaching in the Avonlea school, and she plans to home-school herself: "Besides, I mean to study at home here and take a little college course all by myself," she explains to Marilla.  And to Mrs. Lynde's relief at her giving up college, Anne replies, "But I'm going to study Latin and Greek just the same, Mrs. Lynde,... I'm going to take my Arts course right here at Green Gables, and study everything that I would at college."  (There's not much reference, however, in Anne of Avonlea of her independent study; it's not clear to what extent she carries through with this plan once she is busy with teaching).  Whether she studies much Latin or not, the life experience and wisdom she gains in her two years of teaching in Avonlea strikingly changes her approach to learning.  Eventually given the opportunity to attend Redmond College after all, Anne is no longer motivated only by external honors but recognizes the inherent value of deep study.  Upon hearing that she will attend college, Mr. Harrison remarks,"I s'pose you'll be scooping up all the honors that are lying round loose at Redmond."
"I may try for one or two of them," confessed Anne, "but I don't care so much for things like that as I did two years ago. What I want to get out of my college course is some knowledge of the best way of living life and doing the most and best with it. I want to learn to understand and help other people and myself."

Mr. Harrison nodded.

"That's the idea exactly. That's what college ought to be for, instead of for turning out a lot of B.A.'s, so chock full of book-learning and vanity that there ain't room for anything else. You're all right. College won't be able to do you much harm, I reckon."

Anne articulates here the ideal of the Liberal Arts.  According to the Liberal Arts model, college does not provide vocational training for a specific job, but gives you knowledge that will help you find your vocation, your answer to the crucial question: what is "the best way of living life and doing the most and best with it?"

My own ambitions as a young person to accomplish a certain kind of academic and career success rendered Anne's redefinition of achievement here illegible to me when I first read the series.  Instead of seeing in the later books Anne's disappointing diminishment into a wife and mother as I once did (in part due to a shift in narrative focus in the later books; the adventures of Anne's children were far more interesting to me as a young reader than the grown-up Anne), I recognize now that Anne ably fulfills the ambitions that she brings to college through her eventual roles of wife, mother, and friend.  And I admire her achievements in those roles much more now than I did as a young reader.      

"I'd like to add some beauty to life," said Anne dreamily. "I don't exactly want to make people know more. . .though I know that is the noblest ambition. . .but I'd love to make them have a pleasanter time because of me. . .to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn't been born."

"I think you're fulfilling that ambition every day," said Gilbert admiringly.


april said...

Thanks for posting this. I have not thought about those books for many years. I think a reading again would suit me.

Megan D. Neal said...

Yes, what you said! I too gained more insight and appreciation into that aspect of Anne after I became a mother. (It would make for a great live discussion in a book group setting.)
When I read this, I thought of a a brief discussion I had with my oldest daughter the other day after she made disparaging remarks about her younger sister's lack of knowledge in a certain area. Gaining wisdom means more than just gaining knowledge (especially if that knowledge is gained for the wrong reasons.) If you can't interact with people in a kind, considerate, compassionate manner, what has your knowledge ultimately gained you?

sarah said...

Love this, absolutely love it.