How Do You Teach Beauty?

Monica Potts chimes in on Jane Austen:

It's always been hard to be an Austen acolyte in America. I think, in college, many people discover that Austen was a feminist social satirist. Before that, most people probably dismiss her as a romance writer who is obsessed with women, their beaus, and so, so many walks. There's always an undercurrent of misogyny in dismissing her books as lady fare. But there aren't many people who know what a fantastic stylist she was, and I'm not sure forcing high school students to read Pride and Prejudice will ever solve that problem.

There's some commentary in the earlier thread noting that Austen was often dismissed because she was writing "lady-books." I'm wholly unfamiliar with this dynamic, mostly because I'm only vaguely acquainted with the canon. 

I'm sure I encountered Pride and Prejudice at Howard in one of my survey classes. I haven't looked at my transcript in a while, but I'm pretty sure I failed my Brit Lit classes, and my American lit classes. I didn't fail them for any lack of ability. I just kind of didn't care. The only thing I encountered in any of my survey lit classes in college that grabbed me, was this:

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. 

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist...

I saw that and thought, "Yes. This is why I despise school. This is why I need to leave right now" I lacked the courage to act on that original thought, and so I spent another two years floundering. Despite knowing that I should have left sooner, I'm still, as long-time readers know, obsessed with the question of whether things could have gone differently. Could I somehow have spared myself the absurdity of discovering at 35, what so many others discovered in high school or college?

I think I was put off by the whole notion of a syllabus, the sense that there was this list of "great works" which I needed to be familiar with because...And that was the problem with me, I never heard the "because."  Looking back now, I wish someone had have told me, "You should tackle this list because it's composed of, in my mind, some of the most beautiful assemblies of words ever committed to the page."  

It's not like I wasn't reading. I read Gatsby on my own. I read The Sound and The Fury on my own (though I wish I hadn't.) I read Moby Dick on my own. Ragtime on my own. "London" on my own. Thinking back on what compelled me, all I have is various people who I respected essentially saying, "This is beautiful, and you might like it because you like beautiful things."

This is not a post about how you "fix" higher education. This not a post about the constant travails of "young black males." I am not, in this instance, particularly concerned with the "achievement gap." What happened between me and school is something particular which may, or may not, have broader application. 

But I do wonder what might have happened if, instead of droning on and on about recognizing  foreshadowing and allegory, someone had said, this is the work of a fantastic stylist. I do wonder what might have happened if Jane Austen had been more than just another name on a "need to know" list.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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