Rosa and the Role of Female Education in the Early Republic

David Lawrimore
Idaho State University

 

I taught Rosa, Or American Genius and Education in “Survey of American Literature: Beginnings to 1860,” a sophomore-level course designed primarily for English majors as well as majors in our secondary English education program. Overall, students were especially receptive to this text compared to other early American novels I’ve taught in the past. I attribute this to the thread of mystery that runs throughout the plot—something that kept them more engaged than a standard seduction narrative—as well as the satire of newspapers, gossip, and other social elements that students found immediately relatable. Online responses and class discussion included a variety of topics relevant to the study of early American literature: race, gender, education, print culture, gossip, canonization, and others. However, the topic that received the most traction—likely due to the wealth of English education majors in the course—was the interaction between gender and education.

We read and discussed Rosa over three 50-minute class periods during the middle of a unit on post-revolutionary American literature. We read the text after Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes” and before selections from Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. Rosa fit well between these two texts, as they all are deeply interested in the role of womanhood and education in the early national period. In fact, Rosa’s consideration of education is, in many ways, a foil to Murray’s arguments about female education. Students had just read Murray’s arguments for the inherent intellectual equality of women as well as their need to be educated in topics beyond the domestic sphere. Thus, they were poised to compare these points to those topics addressed in Rosa.

In the initial discussion of Rosa’s opening chapters, I asked students to compare the novel and Murray’s essay, and they were quick to point out a number of similarities. In one online response, for example, a student noted the “feminist leanings” of the author, mentioning both Mrs. Charmion’s mental acuity as well as women’s roles as moral guardians. After this initial discussion, I worked to create some space between the novel and Murray’s essay by asking students to compare Murray’s thoughts on the role of education to the role of education in Rosa. Specifically, I called students’ attention to the following quote from Rosa:

Education is the legitimate conservator of good morals. Not, however, that branch of it alone which goes to the banishment of ignorance, and the introduction of science and the arts; for experience has woefully taught us, that knowledge is no precautionary guard against vice and crime. It is parental, domestic education, which is the fortress of virtue, and which may be pronounced almost impregnable to the assaults of vice. (17)

This quote helped students recognize some of the differences between Murray and Rosa, as well as to refine our class’s consideration of the role of education more generally. Students noted that Murray’s suggested “curriculum” (geography, astronomy, natural philosophy) was perhaps more in line with what Rosa calls “science and arts,” and that Rosa advocates for a different, moral “curriculum.”  This distinction helpfully opened up a parallel discussion in which the class debated the role of education and whether the job of educators is to teach “knowledge” or to offer a “domestic education” that instills morality in their students.

The comparison between “knowledge” and “domestic education” continued in later classes. In particular, students bristled at the description of Mrs. Charmion’s education of Rosa in Chapter VI, where Charmion “inculcates” in Rosa the way to be an agreeable woman who easily “attracted a crowd of suitors” (58-9). Students pointed out the problematic nature of this “moral education.” One student noted how this education was simply how to be a “better wife.” And, relatedly, another pointed out that it is clear that this is a particularly “female education,” that men would never have to be taught such things.

Indeed, by the time students had finished reading Rosa, there was a general consensus that the work approached education in a manner different from Murray. In order to solidify this point, I asked students to consider the work’s subtitle: “American Genius and Education.” By this point we had a solid conception of the education in Rosa as domestic, moral, and specifically feminine. We thus returned to the text to better understand “genius.” We accomplished this through a description of the only person identified as a “genius” in the text, Richard. Specifically, I asked students to consider Richards’ essay “On the Art of Thinking” (27-8) and the narrator’s description of Richard in Chapter V. Using these portions of the text, students were quick to point out the inequality in the term, especially upon revisiting the following quote: “for it is not true, (however flattering the conceit my be to the mass of mankind,) that nature, in regard to intellect, has created all men equal…” (28). Moreover, they noted that Richard’s first education was an “accumulation of knowledge,” more similar to the “arts and sciences” than to moral education. Thus, students were poised to discuss the inherent differences between education and genius, and one student asked if any of the women in the novel could be considered a genius. Ultimately, this question reached to the heart of the comparison between Rosa and “On the Equality of the Sexes,” and opened up a space to more broadly discuss the limitations of women’s roles as moral guardians in the early republic, where women were empowered but only in a limited capacity.

In sum, Rosa has the potential to be a particularly engaging and generative addition to an early American literature survey course. It is particularly fruitful as a companion piece to Judith Sargent Murray’s “On the Equality of the Sexes,” for they both open up a lively debate about the place of education and women in the early republic. Moreover, it helped my class, comprised of a large number of education majors, to think about their role as future teachers, especially whether or not it is the job of teachers to instill a “moral” education in their students.