Jane Austen and Dialogical Possibilities

“We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.” - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

The Incident: I was reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with my grade 12 classroom in a ministry-approved Islamic School housed in one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the city. It was a year in which the boys outnumbered the girls 4-1 and the racialized students formed 80% of the student body. Most of the students were members of the diaspora and many had been struggling academically for a number of years. I fully knew that they weren’t reading the novel and were relying on online summaries to keep up with the content. At the same time, I’d been taking a graduate class on literary criticism for which I read Edward Said’s “Jane Austen and Empire” (1993). The next day, with my class, I went “off” on the novel with the ideas that Said had filled my head with the night before. As I talked about the problems with

Imperialist literature, my students told me about their problems and the problems of their parents and their grandparents which had surfaced as a result of their experiences under colonialism. The stories they told were incredible and the discussion that followed was deep and meaningful. As the class was about to be dismissed, one student put up his hand and asked me: “Why the hell then are you making us read Pride and Prejudice?” I offered some lame tongue-in-cheek comment about my own colonized mind thinking that “traditional” canonical works were the ones most worthy of study and that they alone offered the key to moral insights and the means to the good and virtuous life. But I realized immediately how wrong it was to make them read Austen even if I had put her on the syllabus in the first place because she is one of my personal favourites.

I thought of this incident while reading Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, especially in reflecting on his insistence that dialogical exchanges are the pathway to working towards the liberation of the oppressed. Friere argues that leaders (or teachers!) who do not act dialogically, but rather insist on imposing their decisions (like my choice of Jane Austen), do not “lead/teach” the people under their care -they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: rather, they oppress. I wondered if I (as a teacher of “marginalized” students teaching an imperialist novel and not allowing my students the chance to really and critically engage with my decision to put it on the syllabus in the first place) was acting in a manner that would most help my students towards the type of critical literacy that I purported to wanting to engender in them. Because dialogical exchanges (much like the conversation that reading Said brought about) are about opening up the conversation to a multiplicity of voices and opinions, they have the ability to foster the spirit of cooperation. The meshing together of new ideas and voices that emerge from true dialogical exchanges can enrich cultural synthesis much more so than a Spark notes reading of a novel assigned by a teacher because she likes it based on her own training in British literature and what is “traditional” to an education canon! Friere states that the dialogical is in contrast to the monological - those sorts of one-way dictates of speech that use conquest and cultural invasion to “divide and rule” and unless we dialogue with the oppressed, we dehumanize them and ourselves and re-inscribe over and over again the conditions of oppression. His thought makes me question how I do things in my classroom and even if I do not completely disregard certain texts like Pride and Prejudice, I will nurture the possibilities for dialogical practices that make critical thinking and literacy an ongoing exercise in anti-oppressiveness.

References

Austen, J. (1984). Pride and prejudice. New York: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Said, E. W. (1993). Culture and imperialism. New York: Knopf.

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