A Little Education Has Come A Long Way
My daughter, who is in second grade this year, loves going to school. While art is, hands down, her favorite subject of all time, science is a very close second, followed by math. Needless to say, her father and I are ecstatic. Not only do we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have a fantastic girl who looks forward to going to school and learning every day, but we’re lucky enough to have a wonderful public school system in our small town that utilizes the H.O.T. Program, or “Higher Order of Learning”.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the H.O.T. Program, a H.O.T. School concentrates on integrating the arts into daily scholastic disciplines in order to create an art-rich environment that motivates students to make connections between and among subject areas and ideas. So, in other words, Elizabeth has gym classes that combine music and movement, art classes that focus on what she and her peers are learning in English, and music classes that incorporate mathematics. It’s truly an amazing program, and one that the kids definitely react to in a very positive way.
As wonderful and progressive as my daughter’s learning experience is, though, things were very different for girls in Jane Austen’s time. For example, while such things as public schools (called “grammar” schools) did exist, enrollment was offered only to boys. Originally founded by patrons who wanted to teach Greek and Latin (but not much else) to local boys in towns such as Eton and Harrow, the public schools did eventually extend admittance to boys of wealth and privilege as well; but, by doing so, caused an irreparable shift from the public venue to that of a more private and elitist one.
Girls did not have such options. Although the daughters of the wealthy were sent to boarding schools and seminaries, much like their brothers, the majority of girls were schooled at home by a hired governess or tutor, or instructed in the arts by various masters and taken to museums, the theatre, and the symphony in order to cultivate and refine their musical and visual tastes. Those who were not of the higher classes and did not have access to these luxuries were often taught more domestic tasks that would be useful in the home, such as sewing and cooking.
While genteel young men and young women were expected to be fluent in French and familiar with the classics of the era, far less was expected from a young woman’s academic agenda than that of a gentleman’s. While a gentleman studied science and mathematics (in addition to the aforementioned), a lady did not. Instead, she was instructed in the art of painting tables, embroidering cushions, singing, and playing an instrument, such as the pianoforte or the harp, with some degree of taste and a great deal of assurance.
Unlike a gentleman, who was free to pursue any occupation that pleased him, including none if he had the means to do so, a gentlewoman’s sole employment was to find a husband. Her education not only reflected that, but also prepared her for it. Any talents she had were believed to give her an advantage in attracting a man’s interest, and in being of service to him in Society once they were married. For instance, a woman’s ability to play and sing would be viewed as quite useful, as the phonograph and radio did not exist in the regency period. Her sweet voice and nimble fingers would entertain her husband’s guests, and in this way prove her an asset to him.
I also find it very interesting that one of many accomplishments of a refined young lady, according to one source, was the ability to write a “good, long, informative letter”. I would have to concur, though, considering the post often took days, and sometimes weeks to travel from one part of the country to another. I can imagine waiting for such a length of time to receive a letter from a friend or relation, only to discover once it arrived that it contained a dull account of the weather, or the neighbor’s poultry being gobbled up by a fox. How disappointing!
Even still, I’m thankful that my own daughter is receiving an education that girls in Jane Austen’s day only dreamed of. I’m also very happy to say that, while she can’t play and sing quite so well yet, and her letters, thus far, have been a little on the short side, they have been very interesting, indeed. Not bad for a girl of seven years. Not bad at all.
Thank you so much for reading!