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Omnibus | 7 Minutes

Helping Boys Love Jane Austen

Written by Ty Fischer
Helping Boys Love Jane Austen

In this two-part post, we are going to discuss two complex topics. These topics will consist of two tasks that seem impossible for many classical educators:

We will contemplate how we can help high school guys love books about relationships and help high school girls love books about war.

We have a tall task in front of us because there is a natural reaction, could we say revulsion, of one sex for what is attractive to the other. We also have to overcome the general high school irrational tendency to embrace individualism by ensconcing oneself in a group—in this case, two groups called “boys” and “girls”—that has and should have a deep and natural cohesion. In short, we have to overcome both pride and prejudice.

Admittedly, the task is tall, but we must recognize the high stakes. Failing to crest this hill can make for the kind of a narrow person whose enjoyments are limited to those of their sex. Classical education aims at more. Christianity requires that we husbands and wives have an understanding of what they are modeling (Ephesians 5) and that husbands are to live with their wives in an “understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7). (Interestingly, the same injunction is not aimed at wives, possibly because they already have their husbands figured out!)

Here are three tactics to help you as a classical Christian educator to help boys love Jane Austen’s work. I have chosen Austen because I love her books, and she is one of the most demanding writers ever. She writes astoundingly femininely and does not apologize for her requirements. I believe that her works, more certainly than any others penned in the last 400 years, will be read until the end of the world.

Tactic 1: Understanding the Fun of Understanding the Superpower

Austen’s writing is excellent and demanding because she expects you to see the inference of what she is saying—or not saying. There is a logic puzzle in the words on the page and the spaces between the words and the lines. This sort of puzzle can be frustrating for young men. It can be frustrating for old husbands as well. It is best to know that when your wife responds to the question, “How was your day?” with the words, “Why don’t you tell me how my day was?” you can carefully tread because you have done something wrong. Understanding inference is the key to understanding the meaning of the text, and, interestingly, it is also vital to know that the correct response to your wife’s rejoinder above is, “Honey, I’m sorry.” Understanding inference will seem like magic to some young men, but understanding that Mr. Elton might be praising the artists or the object being painted helps young men get the first needed assistance in understanding the glorious inscrutable beings with whom they walk the halls and who, by drips and drabs, have been becoming more interesting lately.

One way to do this is to separate the class around the Omnibus discussion table or join a homeschool group to read Austen. I used to have the boys and girls facing each other. We would read a passage, and then I would ask them, “What does this paragraph mean?” Every female hand would spring to life; some would wave a trembling hand, and others would wave both hands. The boys often stare at the book, recognizing that something big must be happening but that they have no clue what it is. I would then call on one of the girls who would volcanically erupt, laying out the different inferences to draw and the connected meaning. After that, I would say, “Yes, that is what she is saying?” At this point, I remember one young man looking down at his book as if it were filled with magic incantations, closing it, and pushing it away as if it were something dangerous, mysterious, and almost frightening. (Sort of like the first time I tried to understand matrix problems in math.) That is the time to dive in. I would pause to talk with the guys about how the text is saying more than it is saying. I would also spend some time telling them that if they put in the work to understand Austen words, they would have something like the Rosetta Stone to understand the girls they would meet in the future. This seed might not bear immediate fruit, but trust me, this is a seed that will eventually be one that young men will want to water. Also, as a side benefit, some young men will gain more respect for their female classmates because of this exercise.

Tactic 2: Real Men Read Jane Austen

I have lived a life surrounded by powerful women. My grandmother was a legendary terror in our small town. She died at 92, and it took 45 minutes of waiting in line to be able to view her casket. Someone at the viewing exclaimed, “Isn’t this incredible!” I responded, “Well, not really; half of these people are here just to make sure that she is dead because they are scared of her.” My mother carried on this gene. Before school security, she would periodically walk into one of my public school high school classes unannounced and observe the class. (My teachers “loved” this, which diminished my coolness, but she did not care.) I married up and married an extremely competent wife. If you are doing the Veritas Press curriculum, she is likely the writer or editor of many pieces of literature. She is also the best grammar school teacher alive. She is one of the most creative people ever made, and she is so competitive that we have often returned injured from “jogging” or even Fussball. We have raised four strong daughters. Strong, however, should not necessarily mean masculine. The Proverbs 31 woman is not out bench pressing her husband, but she might be out-earning him (vineyards are expensive). This strength so threatens him that he laughs his way to the bank and sits among the elders at the gate with a peaceful heart. Strong women are gloriously “terrible as an army with banners” (Song of Solomon 6:4).

Still, it is hard for the young man to accept this fact by listening to the young ladies tell them about their strengths. This point is where you might need an excellent male teacher or a pastor to come in and talk with the class about why he loves Jane Austen’s books. Please choose a man to come in who is not frilly, bubbly, or too aesthetically adept. You need to find a linebacker or a hockey player who loves Austen—the sort of person that the boyish boys in your class will want to grow up to be. His love will permit them to love Austen and not feel odd about it. He can also roll his eyes at silly comments from boys, exasperation that infers—and they will catch this one—that he is doubtful whether this boy will ever earn his respect. He must aim to convince them that his love for Austen makes him a man’s man—not some compromise he embraced to become more androgynous.

Tactic 3: Treat the Witnesses as Hostile Liars

You are likely to have some young men who will say that their eyes are burning because they dislike Austen so much. Encourage them, but also ignore them. They need Austen. They need to have some, albeit small, understanding of women. They need to contemplate the joys of a relationship with a woman that will be the most rewarding relationship of their lives outside of their connection to Christ.

This tactic might seem harsh, but recognize the following truths. Young men don’t understand very much. They particularly don’t understand the interconnectedness of relationships. Some of them can hardly walk the halls without running into people. I considered putting a few of them in these big inflatable balls to protect the other students and the windows of our school. Also, remember that if they did like or understand Austen, they could not tell you for fear of losing their “man card” at recess. (If you can get some alpha males to admit they like Austen, you can flip this.) Finally, call their bluff by having an event, like an English Country Dance or an elegant meal. Pair them off with each other, and switch this pairing a few times during the evening. Suppose you can have dinner with the older high school students there; that would be all the better. The older boys will help the younger ones to lose the awkwardness of being a real man and caring for the young ladies. If you have a dance, do some training. Have the older students mix with the younger ones. I once remember a ninth-grade boy who got to dance with one of the most beautiful senior girls. His feet did not touch the ground, and I was afraid he would pass out because I was pretty confident that he did not breathe.

Teachers and parents, don’t lose heart. Young men need this. They will be glad you ignored their complaints. They will be moved by other men who love Austen, and they will be able to use the skills gained in Austen to better understand the young ladies in their classes and, Lord willing, learn to respect the insights and abilities that God has given to many of them.