In what ways does Austen address education in the story, and what generalizations can you make about her view of education—especially for young women?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Jane Austen's initial version of Pride and Prejudice was called First Impressions which suggests a personal approach; a subjective opinion; whereas the final title, Pride and Prejudice refers to a more social and moral standpoint which invites questions about the social and political situation of the time, including the position of men and women, their rights to education and their expectations of just what that education would help them achieve. Austen makes it clear, from the beginning, that there are certain boundaries, established historically, which categorize men and women and their childhood education is governed by their potential for growth in social circles. It would be pointless to educate a girl in certain professions as she would have no use for those skills in her adult life because, 

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." 

This often quoted line speaks to Austen's dislike for accepted social conventions and women's dependence on marriage to establish themselves. It is not so much then, a man in pursuit of a wife but a woman in need of a husband. The fact that, it seems that social standing and money are enough to secure a future and protect the upper classes from their own prejudices, creating a right that they can enjoy, and an expectation of privilege and an education which suits this position, will be highlighted throughout the novel.  

 A "gentleman's education" differed enormously from the practical and, often religiously- based, education of girls and the fact that an "accomplished" woman must have " "a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages," speaks to Austen's need to highlight the unfairness of this custom. The dismissal of a woman's opinion is clear:  “A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment."

The contrasting views and responses of Elizabeth and Charlotte reveal the disparity between Charlotte's practical view of the future and Elizabeth's idealized version; Elizabeth having a far more educated view but, according to Charlotte, a ridiculous notion, of what they can expect. " It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life," is Charlotte's way of accepting her lot and being thankful for her position. Elizabeth knows that they both deserve so much more.  

Darcy, on discussing the education of women, reminds Bingley that,"she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading." He is the "proudest, most disagreeable man in the world," and yet he is able to see through the social constructs that define women; hence, his attraction to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, though, Elizabeth and Darcy are the exception and Austen does suggest that most women would accept the unhappy existence of Charlotte or the apparently fortunate marriage of Jane.

To further accentuate the distinction between educated men and women, Austen uses Collins who cannot accept Elizabeth's words and her gentle but decisive refusal, her being, "a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart," because it makes no sense to him, in terms of his understanding of what constitutes female identity. Elizabeth needs her father's intervention to make Collins understand that it is not an example of "coquetry," and Elizabeth's way of trying to assert herself before acquiescing.

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