The Topic of Education in Ernest J. Gaines' Novel "A Lesson Before Dying"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 15 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Different aspects of education

3. The Teacher - Grant Wiggins
3.1 Academic Education at University
3.2 Wiggins’ Role as a Teacher

4. A Disillusioned Teacher: Matthew Antoine

5. The School
5.1 The School Inspector

6. The Value of Education

7. Mental Slavery and Education


1. Introduction

„‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers’” (Gaines 192). With this quotation the protagonist Grant Wiggins summarizes the general idea many whites had on academic education for black people in the 1940s.

The title of Ernest J. Gaines’ book A Lesson Before Dying already alludes to the fact that education is one of the main themes of the novel. In this essay, I want to analyze the different aspects of education that are represented in his work. I will concentrate on the subject of formal education and would like to pose the question if it is a way out of „mental“ slavery for African-American people.

In the novel, three characters are described who represent formal education: Grant Wiggins as the school teacher and the only black person with a university degree in the community, the school superintendent and the episode of his school inspection and Matthew Antoine, Wiggins’ former teacher. Another important area to examine is the school itself and how it is depicted by the author.

2. Different aspects of education

In order to clarify the whole subject it is necessary to make a distinction between formal education and character education. Gaines deals with both aspects in his work. On the one hand, one of the protagonists is Grant Wiggins, who is presented in his function as a school teacher in the small black community. On the other hand, he is expected to teach Jefferson, the young man sentenced to death, how to become a man which actually has nothing to do with formal education, but represents a formation of character and personality. In the course of the novel, the two characters develop a teacher – student relationship which functions vice-versa as both learn different things from each other.

Jefferson has only a very basic academic education as the reader can deduce from his diary entries which are written in a vernacular language with grammatical and spelling mistakes, whereas Wiggins is an academically educated teacher who gives a very clear account of the preceding events. Already in these two characterizations the two different aspects of education are portrayed. One of the main issues raised by the novel is the difference and also the value of education in all its aspects. In this respect, this paper is based on a more universal understanding of the expression ‘education’. It can mean both, academic education or training and development of personality, identity and character. As mentioned above, I will deal with the subject of academic education which does not imply that the novel qualifies for this kind of education as superior to the other. One can find many arguments that are contrary to this the case.

3. The Teacher - Grant Wiggins

3.1 Academic Education at University

Apart from his girlfriend, Wiggins is the only character in the novel with a university education. A flashback is used to describe a conversation with his former school teacher when he – still studying - summarizes the objectives of the training as a teacher: „They tell me how to succeed in the South as a colored man. They tell me about reading, writing, and arithmetic. I need to know about life“ (Gaines 65). At this point, he already doubts that he can learn something about life at university, apart from the necessary knowledge and academic skills. This opinion will intensify in the course of the next years and the reader recognizes that a kind of resignation about the profession as a teacher has taken a hold of him during the years to follow.

„I was too educated for Henri Pichot; he had no use for me at all anymore“ (Gaines 21). This remark shows clearly Wiggins’ ambiguity towards his own academic education and the education system in general. In fact, it even has particular disadvantages when dealing with members of the white community. The thought shows his increasingly cynical attitude towards the conditions of life and the education system in the South. On the one hand, he has accumulated knowledge at university, on the other hand, he wonders if it is of any use in order to improve the realities of life for the pupils or to help them develop independence and integrity as individuals and members of the black community. It is even questionable, whether his academic education has helped him to achieve any personal happiness, since he progressively doubts his own role. Community life has lost meaning for him, indeed, he „[…] is disconnected from members of his community because his values have become very different from theirs. […] He reminds readers of Gaines’s earlier characters […] whose education – formal or otherwise – makes it impossible for them to inhabit the world they once knew.“ (Babb, p. 254).

In chapter 12 he recalls an episode at the university in which he attended a lecture on literature given by an Irishman who gives a talk on the story Ivy Day in the Committee Room by James Joyce. „Regardless of race, regardless of class, that story was universal, he said.“ (Gaines 89). Wiggins reads the book but does not understand its universal meaning: „It was not until years later that I saw what he meant. […] I had never really listened to what was being said.“ (Gaines 90). He only gains a deeper insight into the meaning when he relates this short story to everyday life in the community. When he finally listens carefully to the old men talking about their heroes who have a symbolic meaning for them, he starts to realize the message of the story. „It is not until he is able to balance his old world with the new one opened to him through his formal education that he sees the possibility for enacting real change.“ (Babb 256). The step to a deeper understanding was evidently in front of him and always accessible, but he just could not make the step while still being captured inside the process of merely accumulating academic knowledge. The conclusion is that this knowledge is useless as long as one can not transfer and relate these insights to everyday life. His realization that there is a connection between the ordinary, the obvious and seemingly trivial and academic education is a decisive move.

In this respect, there is no doubt left that his academic education was not only about acquiring knowledge and skills, but also a way to develop more personal insights to life, just as Wiggins wanted it from the very beginning. One of life’s ironies is that this realization dawns on him years after he had left university.

In the character of the community’s preacher Wiggins has to face another challenge. The dialogue between them underlines one more time the two different aspects of education in the novel:

„You think you educated?“ „I went to college.“ „But what did you learn?“ „To teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, Reverend.“ „What did you learn about your own people? […] No, you not educated, boy,“ he said, shaking his head. „You far from being educated. You learned your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself.“ (Gaines 215)

Their argument also stresses the underlying conflict between education and religion or faith. The preacher presents faith and the hope for a better world in the hereafter for the black people as a means to help them endure the status quo. In contrast to this belief, Wiggins’ character symbolizes the doubt, but also a completely different point of view – the attitude that education can be a way out of a miserable situation, the necessity to face reality, to stop lying in order to be able to change something. Nevertheless, Wiggins does not really engage in this argument since he is still too unsure about his opinions. Besides, he recognizes about the importance of religion for all other members of the black community. However, Karl Marx’s famous quotation that religion is the opiate of the people can be applied to this argument, as Wiggins is in opposition to religion as a tranquilizing and paralyzing factor for the black community that can obstruct reforms and change.



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University of Paderborn – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
Novel Lesson Before Dying Education



Title: The Topic of Education in Ernest J. Gaines' Novel "A Lesson Before Dying"