I Cannot Play the Pianoforte

“There was a great emphasis on universal literacy in the early colonial era of the 17th century” http://colonialquills.blogspot.com/2011/06/literacy-in-colonial-america.html

In any effort to promote literacy, there is another question that comes up.  Whose literacy?   Who gets to define it?  As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who first described critical pedagogy said, “Who says that this accent or that this way of thinking is the cultivated one?  If there is one which is cultivated this is because there is one which is not.  Do you see it’s impossible to think of language without thinking of ideology and power?”  Ideology matters when we define literacy.  This hit home for me seeing an extreme example in a recent NPR history article titled “18 Rules of Behavior for young ladies in 1831.”  Charles Varle wrote in 1831 that his list came in part from “the most celebrated books on Ladies education.”   Here are a few: “Consult only your own relations,” “form no friendship with men,” “trust no female acquaintance, i.e, make no confidant of any one,” “Be not too often seen in public,” and “never be afraid of blushing.”  I don’t really think I need to make any commentary of what I think of these “rules.”  (Take a wild guess on that one.)  The open question is would I be considered literate under this system?  I don’t speak Latin or French.  I don’t paint or play “pianoforte.”  I study biology, but I don’t use that much gross anatomy or species identification which would have been the basics in the natural sciences of the day.  And I don’t exactly stay home with no friends either.  Under this ideology would people like me (read women…) be able to prove ourselves?  As Paulo Freire put it, could we “articulate [our] voices and [our] speech in the struggle against injustice”?  I think the answer is, and was, no.  Not really.  Putting it in this oversimplified context helps me tackle it for myself.  What would enable a teacher living under this norm support my voice?   At the heart of critical pedagogy is an idea – give me the power to question this “norm.”  Again to quote Paulo Freire, “No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why?”  The idea is to let people talk and teach who may not be literate by a given standard (like most of us by the 1830s standard), but highly literate in another.  In the case of women in the 1800s, I imagine this began to happen when school became mandatory and more women were hired as teachers in response to the advocacy of Catharine Beecher.

Basically there are two approaches to trying to help people out.  The first to help directly, and the second to ask real and legitimate questions about a person’s priorities and the primary barriers to these.   There are times and places for both of these (For example, I am thinking of the International Justice Mission which works to free modern slaves and prosecute modern human traffickers.  There comes a point where a victim of human trafficking doesn’t need someone to ask them about the barriers to freedom.  Prosecuting a human trafficker is a really good first step.  You can’t stop there, but you do need to start there.)  One group that I think needs a strong support system in the U.S. is ex-prisoners.  I love way the one writing professor, Stephanie Bower at the University of Southern California, lead her class.  Instead of having students get online and research statistics about ex-prisoners, or feed a superiority complex by asking students to write about how they “made a difference” after some three-hour service project, she invited a panel of people recently released from the prison system to come and tell their stories.  I would love to get to sit in on that class.

I can think of times I have tried so hard to do something I forgot to listen.  I’m sure Charles Varle, the man who wrote the “Rules of behavior for young ladies,” thought he was being helpful.  Maybe we shouldn’t to hard on him.  Sometimes we think we are being helpful too.

5 thoughts on “I Cannot Play the Pianoforte”

  1. One of my undergraduate majors was in Spanish, and your post made me think of some linguistics classes I took. It’s very interesting to think about what is considered “correct” when it comes to dialects. On the one hand, some sort of standard is good so that we can all communicate and understand each other. On the other, should we really be encouraging people to change the way they talk, when their speech is often a product of their culture and heritage? For example, a Southern or Appalachian accent is often undesirable, especially in academia, because it is not regarded as “proper English.” There are now many efforts to preserve various local dialects as well as native or pidgin languages, as people are beginning to realize their value. Thanks for the post!

    1. Awesome! Paulo Freire’s quote on language and this comment make me think of one of my all time favorite TED talks. Check it out!


      It is a celebration of her heritage and the three different ways to talk. Every language has standards and normals.

      Language is so central to culture. When people try to completely standardize language, we are essential telling those different to give up their culture.

  2. Wow, your post has really gotten me thinking. So much of what our standard of learning is defined and measured by others. As a teenager, I recall hearing so much that I needed to participate in activities, sports, or take particular classes because it would “look good on my record”. I know what that means and the intentions of those commenting to me, but now I see how it was others’ interpretation of what would be good for me or helpful for me. While I have had piano lessons in the distant past and could only plink about on the keys now, I would say I fail with those standards of education. Nevertheless, all the education which I have paid for and sought after, coupled with the life experiences I’ve had enhancing my education I would consider myself an educated woman. Regardless of what anyone else may say!

  3. I always find it fascinating to see what was common or accepted during different eras, or what was deemed socially acceptable. We can look back on history and be critical, so I appreciate the comment about thinking we are helpful because this is what we can take away for the future. I also agree that lived experience trumps formal education in most instances.

    It will be interesting to see what people will think was pejorative in the future when reflecting on our present.

  4. I really like your post and it certainly makes me glad I didn’t grow up in the 1830’s! Something I remember noticing when I was in K-12 school was the contradictory messages of “Do all of these things that we tell you to do because we say so” and “Think critically and challenge the world!” In my average-to-pretty-good public school, both of these messages were pretty strong. Of course, many of the things we were “supposed to do” were actually helpful (like not running in the halls and listening in class), but some existed just because they were the “right” or “acceptable” things to do or ways to be, and I always wondered, who was it that got to decide what was “acceptable,” anyway? I think it’s a crucial part of education to encourage students to challenge these social norms, or else they won’t change!

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