An Education

Last night, we saw the new Nick Hornby movie An Education, starring newcomer Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, and Emma Thompson. It is a departure from Hornby's other screenplays, like About a Boy and High Fidelity because this films focuses on a young woman coming of age too quickly rather than men experiencing delayed adolescence. First off, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. The acting was superb across the board. Probably my favorite performance was Rosamund Pike who plays the "dumb blonde" with such subtle complexity.

The movie takes place in suburban London during the early 6os and follows 16-year-old Jenny (Mulligan) as she tries to finish high school (at an all-girls college prep school of course) and earn her acceptance into Oxford to study English. Her plans are derailed when she meets and falls in love with David (Sarsgaard), a charming 35-year-old man, whose sophistication, wealth, and status allure Jenny much more than her fruitless Latin studies. David introduces Jenny to hip jazz clubs, fancy cigarette brands, art auctions, and even Paris. She feels free from the expectations and limitations of her parents, her school, and her pre-women's-lib culture. As her education in the "school of life" begins to overshadow her traditional education, Jenny begins to become increasingly lost in the adult world, disdaining the childhood world of her peers and family. I won't give away anything else, but the themes are certainly very interesting to me given my own egalitarian leanings and my current job teaching 16-year-olds at a college prep school.

At one point in the movie, the school's headmistress (Thompson) basically tells Jenny that even though school is boring, she needs to get an education. Jenny responds by questioning why. Why should she be bored now just to get an education that will only allow her to become a teacher or service worker, boring jobs to her. Is she just supposed to be bored forever? This moment in the movie really struck me profoundly. As someone who teaches girls that are often bored with school, it seems a legitimate question. What is the point? Unfortunately because the headmistress has not really experienced life outside of her "bored" existence, she cannot really come up with a satisfying answer for Jenny. It isn't until Jenny sees that perhaps she has misjudged her English teacher (who she believes is living a "dead" life), that she comes to understand the value of an education.

In some ways, the movie's conclusion is too simple. We learn that the best things in life do not come easily or quickly without serious compromises, that we should be satisfied that we can have what we want if we work hard and have patience. But I am left wondering how an adult can really adequately communicate that to a 16-year-old girl who feels devalued, bored, and inspired only by glamour and young love. Jenny reminds me of so many of my own students, whose situations are certainly better now in the new millenium than the early 60s, but who also struggle to see the relevance of Jane Eyre to their lives (a book Jenny and my students both study). They are often bored and only find enjoyment in their boyfriends, in popular culture, and in the romantic worlds in their dreams. Why would they believe me when I tell them that an education is the only way they can get what they want in life? There is still a glass ceiling, still people who think a woman is at her best when taken care of by a man, still people who live exciting lives by compromising their moral values and taking the easy way. These forces still assault the value of an education in the eyes of a naive 16-year-old girl, especially the smart ones like Jenny.

If there is something about the movie that disturbs me, it is the fact that Jenny doesn't realize this until she has made many mistakes she regrets. I suppose the "school of life" really does teach us the most profound lessons, but as a teacher, I hope that I can prevent my students from making bad choices. In that sense, I become too similar to Jenny's overbearing father (Molina) who worries only about her future and has no sense of who she is in the present, nor her dreams and desires. Perhaps my students must make mistakes in order to see the value of a life well lived, the value of a strong education, and the value of their childhood innocence too.

Anyway, I highly recommend An Education, especially for high school teachers like myself. It has given me much to consider. I hope that if a student asks me, "What's the point? Am I just supposed to be bored for the rest of my life?" that I can answer her more honestly and effectively than Jenny's advisors.

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