Book Review: Cordner, Sheila. Education in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Exclusion as Innovation

By Kate Holterhoff, Georgia Institute of Technology

Only several books have been published on the history of education in nineteenth-century Britain. One thread of this inquiry has been the rise in disciplinarity in the Arts and Sciences following the Enlightenment. Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente’s edited volume Disciplinarity at the fin de siècle (Princeton UP, 2002) and more recently Jon Klancher’s Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences (Cambridge UP, 2014) have underscored the importance of determining how and why educational institutions evolve. Other scholars have taken up the issue of how education impacted the biographies of particular individuals, such as Sara Atwood’s Ruskin’s Educational Ideals (Ashgate, 2011). Meanwhile, the more concerted studies of Victorian pedagogy, particularly as they relate to women and the lower classes, include Laura Green’s Educating Women (Ohio UP, 2001), Christina De Bellaigue’s Educating Women (Oxford UP, 2007), and Elizabeth Gargano’s Reading Victorian Schoolrooms (Routledge, 2008), have all explored the Victorians’ habits of learning. Sheila Cordner’s book, Education in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Exclusion as Innovation (Routledge, 2016), fits most comfortably in this last category, but its broad implications touch on all of these threads in unexpected and illuminating ways.

Professor Cordner of Boston University contributes to the corpus of scholarship concerning the rise of institutionalized education by studying the tradition of “educational outliers,” by which she means individuals who, owing to their social class or gender, were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge. Focusing on nineteenth-century novelists, ENCBL “tells the story of how these writers…imagined alternatives to educational systems” (1). According to Cordner, outliers share three major concerns. First, they aim to create universally accessible pedagogies; second, they satirize pedagogies of rote memorization; and third, they emphasize the cultivation of empathy (1). Cordner makes the case that individuals excluded from the academy owing to their gender and class adopted radical pedagogies in order to educate themselves. By rejecting Whiggish narratives about the age’s essentially democratic and reformist spirit, with the rise of colleges for both women and working men, Cordner draws a nuanced picture of the past that suggests exclusion was more common than equality, and self-betterment was necessary and sometimes preferable to the Oxbridge culture of “cramming” for exams.

The scope of Cordner’s monograph encompasses the nineteenth-century in its entirety. Arranged by author and major moments in education reform, the chapters of ENCBL move readers from the early nineteenth century, with Jane Austen, through the middle of the period, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to the fin de siècle, with George Gissing. Cordner argues that Austen’s ironical fictions use plot and style to “unteach” readers the morally suspect lessons they learned through rote memorization. Next, she studies Browning’s Aurora Leigh, explaining that while the eponymous heroine unteaches herself all of the lessons of femininity propounded by conduct manuals, the character Marian permits Browning to explore the educational experience of the working class by drawing parallels between factory labor and rote memorization. Cordner traces Thomas Hardy’s deliberate rejection of Oxbridge in order to embrace his ideal of autodidacticism—an attitude that appears in his several self-educated characters such as Jude Fawley and Angel Clare. Next, Cordner explains how Gissing’s fraught experience with education, his expulsion from Owens College and his tutoring work in Boston and Chicago, appears in his fictions by way of the promotion of an individualized and democratic pedagogy. The concluding chapter of ENCBL exposes the legacy of educational outliers in higher education today. Using Virginia Woolf’s own identification on the margins of the academy, as well as a discussion of the first women’s college writers, Cordner argues that the outliers continue to exist and still respond to the models established by some of the nineteenth-century’s most prominent cultural voices.

Although Cordner focuses almost entirely on the realist mode, the decision to include Browning’s “novel poem” unshackles her study of British fiction from a rigidly single-mode framework. Each chapter provides an in-depth summary of the education of these canonical authors—a perennially fascinating section of literary biography—at the same time it also provides structure and meaning to these histories within the context of educational outliers. For instance, Cordner exposes how Thomas Hardy’s conscientious rejection of an Oxbridge education was intertwined with his decision to embrace the ideal promoted by publications like The Popular Educator, which encouraged audiences “not to focus on memorizing facts but to think critically about what they read” (64). Uniquely, ENCBL also incorporates two primary sources taken from the history of education as appendices. Firstly, an excerpt from The Loiterer, a periodical created by Jane Austen’s brothers while at university, recounts the youthful missteps of a now debt-ridden and remorseful rector. The second appendix is an excerpt from the popular science periodical The  Educator, and specifically a physiology lesson about the body. In addition to their historical interest, these primary source examples add useful and concrete textual evidence to support Cordner’s overarching claims.

ENCBL looks hard at the paths individuals excluded from Oxbridge took to achieve their intellectual and professional goals. For instance, Cordner’s insight into the complex and important role of reading illuminates the topic of educational history in unexpected ways, and is at its freshest when clarifying how nineteenth-century students encountered the act of reading. Specialists interested in the role of educational institutions in nineteenth-century Britain, and the novelists and poets who struggled against them, will find much to interest them in Cordner’s book. Likewise, scholars focused on the biography and context surrounding some of the era’s most significant and enduring figures will take much from this study. ENCBL is a lucid exploration of pedagogy writ large, and yet this study shines when discussing the intersections between nineteenth-century culture and the arts. Scholars concerned with the history and dissemination of science will find Cordner’s research less appealing. Cordner seems to have purposely positioned the “knowledge of applied science,” as Thomas Henry Huxley termed it in “Science and Culture” (1880), on the margins (and often in the footnotes) of her research. Considering the fact that Matthew Arnold is a touchstone in ENCBL, perhaps the complaints of Huxley and his fellows against Oxbridge-trained classical scholars are best left alone. The role of applied science is simply too complex and nuanced to undertake beside the important issues of exams and cramming.

I learned much about the history of education from Cordner’s lucid and erudite monograph. In fact, I found myself frequently blindsided by her novel and compelling interpretations of well-known nineteenth-century texts. I suspect that ENCBL will come to exert a considerable influence on the field of education and disciplinary studies.