Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Every Knowledge Has an End: The Cultural Production of the Educated Woman

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Every Knowledge Has an End: The Cultural Production of the Educated Woman

Article excerpt

While the feminization of "Knowledge as Its Own End" has arguably served deleterious material ends, this process has been a "production of the educated woman" even as she has been a product of this process.

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As its title suggests, my essay both is and is not about nineteenth-century prose. On the one hand, I seek to demythotogize the discourse of liberal knowledge so memorably articulated in the nineteenth-century prose of John Henry Newman: compared with Newman's claim that "[k]nowledge is capable of being its own end" (77), I propose that every knowledge has an end. On the other hand, I attend to this discourse because it is much bigger than its representation in the nineteenth century. Liberal knowledge has been represented--anciently, in the nineteenth century, and in our own century as well--in contrast to the pursuit of material gain. When Aristotle spoke of it, liberal knowledge was pursued by free men, and one end served by it was to reinforce the distinction between these men and the slaves who pursued mechanical knowledge. When Newman spoke of it, liberal knowledge was pursued by upper-class men at the university, and one end served by it was to establish a cultural superiority for this class in the face of the threat of financial superiority from a rising merchant class. It is in this cultural context that women first gained entrance to higher education in Victorian Britain. Since higher education was widely understood to be unfeminine, advocates for women's education understandably argued that the pursuit of liberal knowledge would pose no threat to a domestic ideology that sought to insulate women from work for pay--though one of the major motivations for the higher education of women was in fact their need for paid work. In the nineteenth century, then, one end served by the liberal knowledge pursued by women was to reinforce this domestic ideology. In the twentieth century, as liberal knowledge has increasingly become a feminized bailiwick in the university curriculum, and as the disparity in pay between those who pursue liberal knowledge and those who pursue useful knowledge continues to increase, another end served by liberal knowledge is to maintain this disciplinary and gendered economic disparity. One sense of my subtitle, then, is that "the educated woman" has been "produced" over the past century or so by ancient cultural discourses over which she has exerted a limited agency. Nevertheless, construing "the cultural production of the educated woman" in this way ignores the fact that no discourse is so universal or so internally consistent as to be unassailable, and that individuals do speak and negotiate among the various discourses through which their cultural positions are established. My thesis, then, is that the process by which women have come to dominate the liberal arts in the university has been a process partly of their own making. No simple matter of "hailing" by the dominant ideology (Althusser 173-77), this process has been a "production of the educated woman," even as she has been a production of this process. Ultimately, the process may be productive in the favorable sense, not only for women (whether professional academics or not), but for professional academics of both sexes who must find new ways to justify the pursuit of "liberal knowledge" in a contemporary atmosphere of increasing skepticism about knowledge that does not turn a profit.

My argument progresses like so. First, I show how Newman, while completely ignoring a nascent campaign for women's higher education that was developing under his very nose, provides in The Idea of a University powerful terms around which the educated woman was produced in the nineteenth century and later. From there I turn to Newman's fifth discourse, "Knowledge Its Own End," to show how the historically aristocratic distinction between liberal knowledge on the one hand and useful knowledge on the other reflects the Victorian distinction between domestic femininity on the one hand and masculine work for pay on the other--an analogy that was not lost on early advocates for women's higher education, as I go on to show. …

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