An Education is more a self-indulgent character study wrapped in a memoir than a gripping narrative, but its central question is an interesting one: What is an education, and what’s the point of earning one anyway?
Jenny is one of those teens so gifted that her choices and future are entirely in the care of self-appointed responsible adults, and just as preternaturally poised and self-confident as we generally choose to remember our adolescent selves. Her teachers and nervously middle-class parents push her toward Oxford (encouragement many bright girls of the time would likely have envied), but exactly what she or they expect to come of it is a mystery. Worse, her parents’ rigid repression proves to be only a flimsy shield protecting deep insecurity and social isolation – they epitomise the cliché that truly respectable people don’t have to work at it – and they are more susceptible than their young daughter to the charms of an obvious conman who brings a glimmer of novelty and respect to their drab lives. Because she keeps up her grades while melting effortlessly into David’s world of spiv glamour, jazz clubs and auctions and minor larceny, they offer no resistance to unchaperoned weekends across Europe. In fact, they’re pleased when he proposes to their 17-year-old daughter, and advise her to abandon the collegiate plans they’ve spent their lives planning – after all, why bother with Oxford when she’s already found a wealthy husband?
There’s little conflict in the narrative, and it doesn’t even inspire the anticipatory dread a modern audience would be expected to feel at what would now be considered paedophilia. The older man, while a criminal and schoolgirl fetishist, is a bit creepy but clearly not a rapist. Her parents and friends know who she’s with and where and are impressed rather than punitive. The ages when a woman would be “ruined” by a sexual affair are passing, and those few who voice that opinion are patently ridiculous.
Jenny’s brief engagement to her paramour is only a speed bump – she’s able to return to her studies with a newly kindled academic passion and does, in fact, get into Oxford, where she pretends to be naive – because, after all, she’s getting a good education so that she can be whomever she wants, and “prematurely jaded pseudo-sophisticate” is no longer to her taste. Much of her new enthusiasm for had work is inspired by a visit to a former teacher’s quite awesome spinster apartment, a space full of intellectual adventure, funded by the secure paycheck that allows a woman to be and be with whoever she has the guts to pursue. Has Jenny truly found who she wants to be, or is she merely following someone else down another attractive path?
What is an education, and why bother to get one? Middle-class girls today are expected to have more to their future than “teacher, wife, or civil service,” but it’s still a worthwhile question rarely contemplated before the middle of an expensive course of study. Why not leap directly from girl to woman, especially when your culture offers no definitive threshold between childhood and adulthood? And is a degree or two still primarily a bulwark against the fickleness of male partners?
My inadequate answer: if you’ve got the motivation to learn without external prodding (and the patience to suffer through demoralising teachers and fellow students to get to the excellent ones), further education is the opportunity to take on adult responsibilities and pleasures in chunks, and enjoy a much greater variety of both. And at the end, hopefully, you won’t expect anyone else to give or deny you a weekend in Paris.