Sheila Cordner traces a tradition of literary resistance to dominant pedagogies in nineteenth-century Britain, recovering an overlooked chapter in the history of thought about education. This book considers an influential group of writers—all excluded from Oxford and Cambridge because of their class or gender—who argue extensively for the value of learning outside of schools altogether. From just beyond the walls of elite universities, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing used their position as outsiders as well as their intimate knowledge of British universities through brothers, fathers, and friends, to satirize rote learning in schools for the working classes as well as the education offered by elite colleges. Cordner analyzes how predominant educational rhetoric, intended to celebrate England’s progress while simultaneously controlling the spread of knowledge to the masses, gets recast not only by the four primary authors in this book but also by insiders of universities, who fault schools for their emphasis on memorization. Drawing upon working-men’s club reports, student guides, and educational pamphlets, as well as recent work on nineteenth-century theories of reading, Cordner unveils a broader cultural movement that embraced the freedom of learning on one’s own.

Connections to Contemporary Education

·      Higher education is seeing a resurgence of the culture of learning on one’s own with students pursuing an education through self-directed online courses, MOOCs, and study abroad programs.

·      Universities today try to cultivate a diversity of learning styles through experiential learning, study abroad, service learning, and other high impact teaching practices. Although we often consider this to be a new trend in education, the nineteenth-century writers who were excluded from universities—and the culture of “cram” that came along with them—celebrated these multi-modal learning practices. They anticipate contemporary educational theory that values multiple learning styles and active learning.   

·      Cordner’s book traces the steady resistance to the advent of standardized testing and “cram”; in many ways, this nineteenth-century story forecasts the many critiques of what we would now call “teaching to the test.”


The author conducted extensive research at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, as well as at the first women’s colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. The book includes rare material such as the satirical publication about Oxford that Jane Austen’s brothers founded; the poetry and memoirs of the first women’s college students at the University of Cambridge, who turn the tables on the men who previously excluded them; and materials from the National Home Reading Union, which offered an annual summer program offering courses to individuals pursuing an education on their own.