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Becoming Educated

In the Romantic Era, novels of education became a major theme of literature, often referred to as Bildungsroman. One of the ways of considering such novels is that they are about being built up into adulthood, rather than about becoming educated per se. The difference is very real. Building up is an entirely positive enterprise, which more or less assumes that rubble has been cleared away to allow solid foundations.

“Education,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin, ex and ducere, meaning “to lead out.” Being lead out of something has an inherently negative base of removing what is insufficient, sweeping away rubble, as preparation for laying a proper foundation. 

The Education of Henry Adams is a classic novel of education in that Adams is at pains to tell us how much he had imbibed by osmosis from his prestigious family and Bostonian society. Moving to provincial, transient, and at times  barbaric Washington, D.C. becomes basic to an education that sweeps rubble away.

In a lighter vein, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man can be interpreted as a multiple-education story, Marian the Librarian being led out of a general deprecation of men (and an equally general provincial intellectualism) and Harold Hill being led out of scheming salesmanship and fly-by-night technique. In the process, River City is not so much educated as it is built up, given a boys’ band which by implication is seminal to the great Midwestern tradition of marching bands. This tradition historically has culminated in the half-time shows of the Big Ten, many of which have top-ranking schools of music.