What Mme de Genlis Might Teach Us Today

What Mme de Genlis Might Teach Us Today

Lesley H. Walker, Indiana University South Bend

  1. I consider a human soul without Education like marble in the quarry which shows none of its inherent beauties, till the skill of the polisher fetches out the colours, makes the surface shine, and discovers every ornamental cloud, spot and vein that runs throughout the body of it. Education after the same manner when it works upon a noble mind draws out to view every latent virtue and perfection which without such help are never able to make their appearance.

    —Addison, epigraph to Adèle et Théodore (1784)

    [S]ervice-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience . . .

    —J. Elyler and D. E. Gilles (1999)

  2. I teach French at a regional campus in the upper Midwest where Spanish is becoming truly a second language in many of our local communities. In the last three years, I have had the pleasure and responsibility of being the chairperson of a multi-lingual language department, which has seen significant growth in our Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese courses. Given the expansion of these languages, it has been important to be especially creative with our offerings in French. As a consequence, I developed along with a colleague in the English department a course with a three-week overseas study component. Because I am also a scholar of eighteenth-century French literature, we decided to focus primarily on the early-modern period. Our initial idea was to spend ten days in London and as many in Paris and focus on the period between the great London fire of 1666 and end with Haussmann's renovation of Paris. Implicit to our original conception of the course was the belief that the students' "experience" in these two great cities would be significantly more "meaningful" than reading great literature in South Bend. Although we in fact planned to do both, we were nevertheless convinced that it would be our travels that would prove transformative.

  3. At the same time that we were planning this course, I was also finishing a manuscript on eighteenth-century French women writers and artists. In the book, I explore the pedagogical ambitions of writers who aimed to transform children and young adults into virtuous individuals who would contribute productively to their small communities. The parallel between this eighteenth-century project and my own struck me forcefully. Indeed, this fortuitous conjunction of my two roles—teacher and scholar—has given me the opportunity to reflect on my own pedagogical practices with the eye of a literary historian. I have already invoked the concept of "experience" as crucial to our conception of the course. Another term that I intend to unpack and investigate is the nearly clichéd notion that education can and should be "transformative." To do so, I want to juxtapose two very different types of reflections: a 1782 novel by Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis and modern-day theories of service and experiential learning. My goal is not only to trace the often unacknowledged origin of modern theories of pedagogy but also to explore the unsettling implications of pedagogies that seek to transform students into virtuous subjects or informed citizens.

  4. While present-day practitioners of "experiential learning" trace their lineage back to the neo-Marxist Paolo Freire or the American philosopher John Dewey, a student of eighteenth-century European, and especially French, culture would immediately recognize two familiar pedagogical concerns expressed in our opening epigraph, which gives a definition of service learning.[1] The emphasis on "action" and suspicion of mere "book learning" can be traced back to the Enlightenment critique of revealed truth: that is, skepticism of the Bible as the unique source of all truth. This belief that "real-life" or empirical experience is superior to the abstract acquisition of bookish knowledge was translated into pedagogical terms by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Emile (1761), the young man of the title does not begin reading until the age of twelve; in the meantime, he acquires a robust constitution while developing his five senses. For Rousseau, such physical engagement with the natural world supplies the foundation on which his moral subject or citizen is to be formed. Rousseau thus establishes a dialogical relationship between action in the world and reasonable reflection upon it. The second familiar gesture is the preoccupation with the "community" and the student's obligation to it. Eighteenth-century French pedagogical writings, many by women, stage the encounter between the child or young adult of means and a peasant family or community in need. The lesson being taught here resonates with present-day service learning theory. Both the giver and receiver are transformed by the generous act: the wealthy child learns to forgo frivolous baubles and silly games in order to a make a meaningful contribution to the welfare of her community; the lives of the less fortunate are materially improved. Despite apparent inequalities, both parties affirm a shared commitment to their community.

  5. I begin with a description of our London/Paris course, and then I sketch out the contours Madame de Genlis's pedagogical project as described in Adèle et Théodore. In comparing our "innovative" course to Genlis's novel, I will argue that the present-day concern to instill "values" and "civic engagement" in our students (our "millennials") through experiential learning has a longer history than most of its practitioners usually realize. This history dates back to the Enlightenment and not merely Jean-Jacques Rousseau but a host of women writers as well. In Adèle et Théodore, for instance, Genlis purposes two models for learning: one involves acquiring a large repertoire of historical, scientific, literary, and religious knowledge; the other seeks to discipline the passions. Such discipline provokes unease and discomfort. Yet it is precisely this distress that produces the virtuous subject in Madame de Genlis's fiction. I conclude with a comparison between her gothic-inflected pedagogical model and a proposal of my own.

    London and Paris in 2006

  6. Indiana University South Bend is part of the overall IU system that includes Bloomington and Indianapolis and six other campuses scattered throughout the state. Given that the IU system enrolls over a 100,000 students a year, it is no surprise that it has developed extensive overseas studies programs. When I first arrived on campus in the fall of 1997 as an assistant professor of French, I enthusiastically promoted a six-week, summer course in Paris that was organized through the Bloomington campus's Overseas Studies Office. Each year I had some success recruiting a couple of students with the time, money, and interest to study in the City of Lights. However, after receiving tenure, I became increasingly frustrated by the small number of our students who actually studied outside of the US. About that time, a colleague in English shared with me his desire to revive a moribund London based-overseas study program. I told him I too had been contemplating designing a course that would include a two-week Paris study component. We quickly saw the possibility for collaboration and applied for planning grants to go to London and Paris to work out the logistics. Once we had figured out the nitty-gritty of housing and general practicalities—how much money, how many weeks to stay in Europe, what to see—we turned our attention to the intellectual design of the course.

  7. IU South Bend is located in Northern Indiana, 90 miles east of Chicago, in a town that bears some resemblance to Detroit. As with her Michigan big sister, South Bend knew better days when the American automobile industry was in its heyday. Unlike the rest of the state, South Bend is a union town with a rickety but still effective Democratic machine. The majority of students who attend IU South Bend do so because someone in their family has convinced them that a college degree is important. They are persuaded that such an education will ensure the proverbial "good" job. Unlike typical students at flagship campuses or liberal arts colleges, our students do not have a strong desire to leave their families or local community; indeed, a large percentage of them live at home. Most assume that they will live, work, and raise families in the area. In general, they did not excel in high school, which is to say that they were solid but often uninspired students. While it is true that we have a large percentage of first generation college students, I think it would be inaccurate to say that our students are struggling with poverty-related issues.[2] Although they may not be wealthy, it is my guess that our students' families are simply very average in terms of American household income.

  8. After 10 years of teaching at IU South Bend, my impression is that what our students "lack"—if I may use an admittedly vexed term—is what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as "cultural capital." When they begin their college careers, they have little or no interest in politics or history, have probably not voted, do not read books, have rarely visited a museum, never seen a foreign film or traveled abroad. As a teacher and scholar devoted to the humanities, I view the acquisition of such "cultural capital" as vital to the education of the would-be "world citizen." Through experiencing, albeit vicariously, the struggles and successes of those who lived a long time ago—provided to us by history, literature, art, and whatever remains of material culture—we come to understand our own predicaments and values in a clearer and more critical light.

  9. In this spirit, my colleague Joseph Chaney and I designed a three-credit course that we called "On Becoming Modern in London and Paris." It covered the time period from the Great London Fire in 1666 to the modern redesign and urbanization of Paris by Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s. This period witnessed the rise of modern sensibilities, institutions, and practices that were given expression in literature, architecture, the fine arts, theater, and newspapers. In terms of the broadest academic goals, we intended to move beyond comparative literature to focus on issues of comparative culture, which was immensely facilitated by our presence in Europe. During our three-week preparation period in South Bend, we focused on the historical, literary, and artistic movements of this period. The class itself lasted for three hours and met three times a week. Due to the brevity of our preparation period, we used anthologies and textbooks with documents (e.g. Margaret C. Jacobs's The Enlightenment a Brief History with Documents) to convey our major themes. The students typically read about 50 to 75 pages per class—a play by Molière, an essay by Locke, or a few articles from the Tatler. The students wrote two short essays (2-3 pages) on a specific theme and took two essay tests on the historical material that we covered. Class time was devoted to discussions of the readings and lectures, often accompanied by Power Point presentations. They also had to decide on an oral presentation topic that interested them and that they wanted to pursue while abroad. They were instructed to gather materials for their presentations before leaving.

  10. We spent 10 days in London and the same amount of time in Paris with the students. Once in Europe, the abstract discussion of absolute monarchy in France was given flesh as we walked through the halls of Versailles; the reality of the hoop skirt came to life as students tried them on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In essence, we physically retraced the intellectual work done in South Bend on foot, in boats, and on subway rides. From the royal palaces of London and Paris to the urbanized cities that would later emerge, the students quite literally experienced the process of modernization. Inasmuch as the weather permitted, we stuck closely to the chronology of events and periods as we visited various cultural sites such as the Globe Theater, the Greenwich Maritime Museum, the Victoria and Albert in London; Versailles, Musée Carnavalet, la Conciergerie, and l'Opéra Garnier in Paris. Before setting off each day, however, the students were given a question or a set of questions to reflect upon. They were to record these reflections in their journals. After each visit, we spent 60 to 90 minutes discussing what they had written and experienced.

  11. In addition to their journals and our discussions, each student did a 15 to 30 minute oral presentation in either London or Paris that was specifically related to a place in one of the two cities. Their chosen topics were: haunted London, Dickens's London, and the Bank of London; in Paris three chose historical figures—Madame Roland, a French Revolutionary figure who was guillotined; Madame Coudray, a midwife; and the painter Jacques-Louis David—and another did a presentation on the invention of the guillotine. By and large, their presentations were excellent: they were thoughtful, well-researched, and nicely presented. In London, for instance, one student conducted a guided tour of the Dickens Museum; in Paris, another described, on the steps of the Grand Trianon, eighteenth-century midwifery practices. She informed the group that Louis XV gave Madame Coudray a pension for having single-handedly improved obstetric practices in France.

  12. The journals were not graded per se. In their final paper, however, the students were asked to re-read their journal entries and select items that demonstrated well the course's themes. More specifically, they were instructed to choose six entries that exemplified how London and Paris became modern. For each century covered—seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth—they were asked to select a representative item for London and one for Paris and describe in what way these objects were exemplary. Their essays were due a week after our return.

    Madame de Genlis

  13. Born in 1746, Stéphanie Félicité Ducrest, a child of impoverished, provincial nobility, first captured the attention of Parisian high society with her skills as an exceptional harp player. By the age of fifteen, she was already considered a virtuoso. The composer Pellegrini dedicated one of his musical scores to her; the mathematician and Diderot's collaborator on the Encyclopédie, Jean d'Alembert, came to hear the young prodigy play; Jean-Philippe Rameau was a habitué at her concerts.[3] She continued her social ascent by marrying in 1763 Charles-Alexis Bruslart de Genlis, the younger son of the powerful Bruslart family, whose uncle was the minister of foreign affairs under Louis XV. She gave birth to two daughters, Caroline in 1765 and Pulchérie a year later. Her marriage gained her entry into the most elite royal circles; she would eventually link her fate to the house of Orleans as dame d'honneur to the duchess and later gouverneur to the royal princes.[4] In 1779, Genlis retired with great fanfare from le monde of the Palais-Royal to educate the infant daughters of the Duc de Chartres along with her own children at the convent of Bellechasse.

  14. In 1782, she was awarded the prestigious charge of gouverneur or head tutor to princes of blood. (The house of Orléans was the younger branch of the Bourbon dynasty and the Dukes of Orléans have served on several occasions as Regents of France; another Duke of Orléans, Madame de Genlis's pupil, Louis Philippe, would become King of France in 1830). While it was not uncommon for aristocratic boys to be cared for during their infancy and early childhood by women, it was unprecedented that a woman would oversee their education during their adolescence. The Duc de Chartres not only put Genlis in charge of his sons' learning, the traditional role of a preceptor, but also awarded her the more prestigious position of gouverneur, the person entrusted with a child's moral development. The unprecedented choice caused a scandal and produced many satirical libels that mercilessly ridiculed Genlis for seeking to do a man's job.[5] Genlis advocated a very modern education during a period when the curricula were largely composed of the traditional disciplines (classics, history and mythology). Her charges studied natural history, geography, physics and anatomy; they learned modern languages—Italian, English, and German, but not necessarily Latin or Greek—and manual trades. Music and theater likewise occupied a significant portion of her students' day. In 1789, under the tutelage of Genlis, Louis-Philippe, then seventeen, attended the debates of the Assemblée constituante, wore the uniform of the Garde nationale, and was reportedly delighted when the law of primogeniture was abolished.[6] While Genlis would later regret her Revolutionary zeal, she nevertheless supported and encouraged the Orléans princes to participate in its early phases.[7]

  15. At the same time that Genlis was managing the education of some dozen children, she was also writing prodigiously. Between the dates of 1779-1792, four volumes of her plays were published, along with numerous pedagogical tracts, pamphlets, and articles. In 1781, she began work on Adèle et Théodore, a 1200-page epistolary novel, that was republished numerous times late into the nineteenth century, as well as being translated into English, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. In 1782, because of this literary renown, d'Alembert, then director of the Académie française, invited her to become a member of his august institution with the proviso that she stop criticizing the philosophes. Genlis turned him down.[8] Before turning to my analysis of the novel, however, I leap forward to the twenty-first century to describe my pedagogical project in order to better contrast it with Genlis's.

    Cours de vertu expérimentale

  16. Because our IU South Bend students were novice travelers and, consequently, had little to no experience with large cities, we spent a good deal of time discussing how to navigate these large cosmopolitan centers. The course was thus not only focused on the acquisition of knowledge about early-modern London and Paris but it also was designed to transform the students as individuals. By learning to negotiate these two great cities (eventually on their own), we were convinced that this experience would alter their lives. They would no longer be as closely bound to their state, their tight-knit families, and regional perspectives. Joe and I were implicitly making a case that these cosmopolitan cultures would transform our students in positive and important ways. Despite the recent post-colonial critique of the privileging of the métropole, we were firmly committed to the idea that kids from the ubiquitous American suburbs do have something to learn from city folks who live in other countries. Ours is of course an old ambition. Indeed, the goal of a humanistic education was once articulated as a "broadening of horizons" or, more recently, such an education is meant to instill "critical thinking" in order to create informed world citizens. In any event, a humanistic education is not only concerned with the acquisition of knowledge or skill sets, but it seeks to transform the student in a profound sense, often with the intent of making him or her into a contributing member of a community.

  17. Such was also Madame de Genlis's intent when she wrote Adèle et Théodore. The novel's epigraph spells out in no uncertain terms Genlis's pedagogical and aesthetic ambitions when she compares a teacher's work to that of a sculptor:

    I consider a human soul without Education like marble in the quarry which shows none of its inherent beauties, till the skill of the polisher fetches out the colours, makes the surface shine, and discovers every ornamental cloud, spot and vein that runs throughout the body of it. Education after the same manner when it works upon a noble mind draws out to view every latent virtue and perfection which without such help are never able to make their appearance. (Epigraph, Adèle et Théodore)
    Quoting approvingly from Addison's Spectator, Genlis locates her project squarely within eighteenth-century debates about children and the role of education. The metaphor of marble implies two interconnected ideas: first, departing from Lockean belief, a child is not a blank slate upon which anything might be written; second, crucial to the child's development is the skilled polisher or teacher. The educator's role is not to create ex nihilo a perfectly educated being but, rather, to tease out the child's potential; help shape the naturally occurring virtues while enjoining the development of any vices. Moreover, it takes the sculptor's vision and arduous labor to bring to light the latent talents that lie dormant in the young child's soul. To accomplish this task, Madame de Genlis imagines an extraordinary pedagogical apparatus that takes advantage of every opportunity; any seemingly idle moment is put to good use. She places the mother-pedagogue, Madame d'Almane, at the helm of this vast and ambitious enterprise.
  18. The manor house or château to which the Almane family retires has been specifically designed for the purpose of educating Adèle and Théodore. Religious, literary, historical, and scientific scenes are woven and painted on tapestries ornamenting every wall, staircase, and gallery of the home. In a truly encyclopedic fashion, the disposition of these various wall hangings symbolically organizes and categorizes knowledge for the children. By walking through the house and observing these tapestries, the children acquire a grand outline of world history without ever opening a book. Not only do they learn world history but they also learn their cardinal directions and world geography thanks to a set of maps that are hung along the château's staircases—the lower floors represent south and upper ones are north. The Almane children are thus enveloped in a total pedagogical environment; not a nook or cranny exists in the Château that does not serve some sort of illustrative educational purpose.

  19. When writing the director's report for the London/Paris program after returning to South Bend, it struck me that we too had designed a "total" pedagogical apparatus for our students. Our visits to museums, cultural institutions, architectural sites, and theaters served to enliven, enrich, and complicate the students' understanding of the past and its culture. For instance, the Musée des Invalides preserves one of Napoléon's horses. One student commented on its smallish stature particularly when compared to the monumental portraits we had seen of the Emperor à cheval in the Louvre. This simple observation opened the door to several interesting queries: how Bonaparte was mythologized; what role did horses play in the Napoléonic wars; what was the average height of people in the early nineteenth century? Some of these questions could actually be answered in the museum itself—the scores of fully restored and reconstituted uniforms on display offered significant evidence of size and weight—others would require more research and reflection. But my point is that, as Genlis theorized, we also envisioned that our students would absorb these cultural lessons effortlessly thanks to this dynamic process of walking the city streets or examining Admiral Nelson's coat that still bears the powder marks of the shot that killed him. In effect, we had turned London and Paris into a kind of monumental version of the Almanes' country estate.

  20. In the novel, the quotidian activities of the Almane family are as orchestrated as the manor house. The day begins with going to mass at nine o'clock, then a walk, followed later in the morning by lessons. Adèle is made to read, memorize, and discuss short tales written by her mother. After a family lunch, the children are allowed to "play" in the garden where they are taught lessons in botany, agriculture, and geometry. The afternoon is devoted to writing and drawing, while music and math lessons occupy Adèle and her mother until dinner. The day ends at nine. This extraordinary organization of space, time, and imagination is intended to capture a child's "natural" proclivities without boring her or forcing her to partake of activities beyond her years. For instance, the children do not "study" but rather they occupy themselves with various games and toys. Madame d'Almane writes: "The word study is almost never spoken during the day; however, there is not an instant which is not usefully employed by them, and assuredly, more perfectly happy children do not exist anywhere."[9] Following Rousseau's lead in Emile, Madame de Genlis adopts his principle of "inactive education" whereby the child intuits and deduces knowledge on his/her own. The child is thus "free" to develop "naturally," unhindered by age-old prejudice and outmoded traditions. However, this apparent freedom is in fact entirely manufactured by the pedagogue. For both Rousseau and Genlis, the child's "discoveries" are choreographed, even scripted, in advance by his/her caregiver.

  21. Again, I want to highlight the similarities between our practices and those prescribed by Genlis. As already mentioned, our days in London and Paris with the students were extremely full; from sun-up to sun-down, they were visiting significant cultural sites, writing, reflecting, and discussing. Moreover, in keeping with the eighteenth-century didactic novel tradition, our discussions were always framed in terms of a dialogue. When discussing intellectual and moral matters with Adèle, Madame d'Almane always frames the lesson as dialogue. Another woman author, Emilie d'Epinay, also wrote her 1782 pedagogical novel, Conversations d'Emilie, as a series of conversations, preferring this dialogical form to the more straightforward didactic approach.[10] Similarly, our students went to the various museums and cultural sites in London and Paris armed with a set of questions that we asked them to reflect on. When the group reconvened later in the day, they each commented on what they had seen and tried to relate their experience (and earlier readings) to our questions. At the Victoria and Albert museum, for instance, we asked them to reflect on how "Britishness" was staged by the museum; at Versailles, we requested that they attempt to compare the Château to Hampton Court, paying particular attention to the use of spectacle and seeing and being seen in the French example. These discussions routinely lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. Clearly Joe and I subscribed to an experiential model of learning, which depends on seeing and doing; we were also reluctant to impart vast amount of information to the students, preferring more dialogical modes of discovery.

  22. While Adèle's and Théodore's intellectual education is orchestrated as a nearly effortless acquisition of knowledge, their moral education, although equally pre-arranged, is by contrast brought about through the painful enactment of mini psycho-dramas. Their moral education is implemented via a series of tests or épreuve that the Baronne d'Almane refers to as her cours de vertu expérimentale. An example of one such experiment, which might be called "Curiosity," will suffice to demonstrate the Baronne's method. With the assistance of Miss Bridget, Adèle's English governess, Madame d'Almane devises an épreuve to test Adèle's trustworthiness and judgment by tempting her with a secret. Miss Bridget tells the nine year old Adèle that she has secretly married Danville, the children's Italian painting tutor. Miss Bridget extracts Adèle's word of honor that she will not reveal the secret to anyone, not even her mother. A day or so later, while out for their daily stroll, her mother inquires about Adèle's pensive silence. Caught between two contradictory demands, keeping her word and keeping nothing from her mother, she half-confesses her secret. As punishment, the Baronne allows her daughter to fret for a week without knowing whether or not Miss Bridget had been informed of her betrayal. Madame d'Almane relates to her friend Madame de Limours: "I left her for a week in a cruel uncertainty for a personality as impatient and curious as hers."[11] Adèle eventually learns that her desire to know a secret had overcome her and, like all passions, had caused her to forget her principles. Thus, the "cruel uncertainty" inflicted by her mother proves salutary in the end. While the content of the various lessons changes throughout the novel, the method and outcome remain as constant as in any good scientific experiment. The basic plot runs as follows: Adèle commits an initial error of judgment but, upon reflection, soon understands her mistake, repents, and thereby repairs her fault. The child's suffering is thus instrumentalized as a pedagogical tool to be used judiciously in her moral education.

  23. In addition to the epistolary account of Adèle's and Théodore's education, the novel is replete with stories of unhappy families. One such subplot relates the gothic adventures of the Duchesse de C*** whom the Almane family encounters, predictably, in Italy. Elsewhere I have argued that Adèle's moral education resembles the lessons learned by the novel's terrorized gothic heroine.[12] In other words, the pain inflicted on Adèle by her mother's multiple épreuves mirrors, albeit in miniature, the psychological terror suffered by the Duchesse de C***. Like the gothic heroine, Adèle is faced with the possibility of losing something that matters greatly to her; in the novel, it is her mother's love and esteem. The Duchesse de C***, confined to a subterranean vault, is deprived of her baby daughter for nine long years. It is through such suffering that both characters are transformed into exemplary figures. In this respect, Genlis's Enlightenment pedagogy can be seen to harness a type of suffering and even terror in its quest to produce virtuous, reasonable, and happy adults who make significant contributions to their communities.

    Transformative Learning

  24. Higher Education seems increasingly skeptical of "mere" classroom learning. Innovative teachers are striving to give their students more "real-life" experience while university administrators are encouraging such efforts by offering students a variety of internships and practicums. According to the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse website, more than 12 percent of faculty surveyed in a 2001 study were offering service-learning courses and 9 percent of the institutions required a service-learning course to graduate (NSLC website). It would be safe to presume that these numbers have only increased over the last few years. Indeed, at institutions that are primarily devoted to teaching, "experiential learning" has become something of a rage. For instance, students in sociology at my university participate in practicums in which they do hands-on work in the community and are then asked to write reflection papers on poverty, women and child abuse, HIV/AIDS, immigration problems, the deleterious affects of drugs and alcohol, and so forth. In so doing, they achieve the stated goals of a service-learning class that seeks to combine "service tasks with structured opportunities that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge content" (NSLC Website). It is no longer enough to read about social problems, but students must be made to "bear witness" to their reality and are asked to engage in some type of activity to help to ameliorate the difficulty.

  25. A similar ethos animates an early scene in Adèle et Théodore; the Baronne d'Almane recounts an event that illustrates her daughter's fine sensibilities and budding moral virtue. Adèle and Miss Bridget are out strolling one afternoon and happen upon a charming, young peasant mother with babe in arms. The young woman is overcome by fatigue, having spent most of the day walking, and sits dejected and pale by the roadside. Adèle immediately offers up her carriage to the beleaguered mother and child to return them to their dwelling. That evening the peasant father comes to the Château to thank Adèle for her kindness, prompting the Almane family to return the visit the next day. The depiction of this charming peasant family could be right out of a Fragonard painting—so young, hardworking, and content with their lot in life. After determining that these country folk are truly among the deserving poor, the Almanes give them six acres of pasture, cows, chickens, clothing, bedding, and furniture. The vignette ends with Adèle happily helping two seamstresses make new clothes for this "charming" peasant family.

  26. Despite the insistence on "real-life" experience, both the novel and the social science model of service learning encourage what literary scholars would term the aesthetics of sympathetic identification.[13] In the same manner that Adèle learned to identify with the peasant family, so the student-participant in a service-learning course comes to understand and sympathize with the hardships endured by certain, generally less privileged, groups within her community. Like Adèle, the student is then spurred on to perform some type of ameliorative task to address a specific social problem. To be sure, this is an important quality to cultivate. However, despite the emphasis on reciprocity found in service-learning literature and in Genlis's novel, it is clear that the cultural and economic privilege of the would-be student volunteer and Adèle are never put into question. Even as the "core element of service-learning" is understood as mutually transformative, the language used to describe the two parties—"the provider" and "the recipient"—inscribes a hierarchical relationship that is never fundamentally questioned.[14] At the end of the day, Adèle retreats to her Château and the service-learning student returns home to a cozy dorm room or her parents' house in the suburbs.

  27. In essence, the novel presents two different types of knowledge: one might be described as the rational acquisition of information while the other relates to a mastery of the passions—Genlis's cour de vertu expérimentale. Although Adèle acquires a great deal of knowledge of history, languages, and so forth throughout the novel, her ethical transformation only occurs when something of consequence may be lost. Indeed, it is Adèle's suffering through a host of personal trials that "transforms" her into the ethical female subject at the end of Genlis's novel. The model of ethical transformation here is more akin to what can be found in female-authored gothic fiction. The literary critic Emma J. Clery argues, for instance, that the gothic heroine comes to understand that what appeared at first as benign Providence is in fact patriarchy, irrational and capricious, masquerading as a divinity.[15] To the extent that the heroine actually loses her cultural privilege and suffers herself the prejudices of foreign lands, she comes to understand the precarious and arbitrary nature of her own social status. Such is the dark knowledge learned by the gothic heroine.

  28. Although it might strike the reader as somewhat fanciful, it seems to me that the estrangement that the gothic heroine suffers can be productively compared to what the student traveler may endure. At stake for the student is the privilege of being a "native" in a linguistic, geographical, and cultural sense. The student abroad, far away from friends and family, speaking a language not fully mastered, may encounter any manner of prejudice and disagreeable treatment. When our students travel abroad, they risk becoming themselves the suffering other—the foreigner, whose access to cultural privilege is seriously circumscribed. In contrast to a student in a service-learning course, the pain that this student experiences will truly be her own. Like the gothic heroine who suffers from the arbitrary and irrational whims of some cruel-hearted husband or distant relative while abandoned in a foreign country, the student traveler is likewise disoriented and dispossessed of her cultural privilege. Like the gothic heroine, she too proves plucky and learns to navigate these strange and unfamiliar lands. The student too shall return safe and sound from her travels but, like the gothic heroine, she shall never again be so certain about the world she inhabits or her "rightful" place in it. My point is simple: instead of imagining what it would be like to be "dispossessed" of our middle-class comforts and verities, the student-traveler actually is. I would argue, finally, that dispossession, however temporary, can be profoundly transformative.

  29. By way of a conclusion, I want to return to Genlis's epigraph wherein she compares the teacher to a sculptor, and suggest that this might not be a bad analogy for our enterprise. The idea that a teacher is like an artist who molds, shapes, and forms a student has a certain appeal; yet at the same time, it is also disturbing to imagine one's students as inert and stone-like—or worse yet, ourselves as mad puppeteers who put students in harm's way for their moral improvement. Indeed, beneath the idealistic belief in education as a means to create communities or democracy peopled by ethical individuals who care deeply about their neighbors and fellow citizens lurks the pedagogical method—the sculptor wielding her chisel. In Adèle et Théodore, Genlis champions a recognizably progressive educational project and, at the same time, lays bare its darker implications. Even when the student is apparently "observing," "participating," or "learning" from a real-life experience, the lesson that he or she "should" glean is always already "pre-scripted" by the educator. A student who works in a homeless shelter, for example, might reflect on the systematic causes of chronic homelessness and then write a paper on the lack of mental health care for the indigent in her county. A student paper, however, that declared the homeless lazy and deserving of their plight would not be well received. This double-vision, bequeathed to us by Enlightenment pedagogues such as Rousseau and Genlis, captures the idealism of the humanistic project and, at the same time, it reminds us that our own commitments are not free from entanglements with ideology, authority, and dreams of mastery.

  30. As Higher Education clamors ever more loudly for relevance, as fields with so-called practical applications balloon, it is important that we as humanities instructors articulate our own pedagogical theories; and that we argue for their significance to the establishment of a more just and equitable global community. Finally, I have argued that our ambitious predecessors, forgotten by so many of today's experts, can help us in this urgent endeavor.


[1] "Learn and Serve America's National Service-Learning Clearinghouse," posted by Learn and Serve Clearinghouse, © 2005-2008, viewed 10 December 2007, http://servicelearning.org. Hereafter the website will appear parenthetically within the body of my essay as NSLC.

[2] If poverty is measured by the percentage of students who in high school would have received government subsidized lunches, for instance, the majority of our students would not be in this group.

[3] Gabriel de Broglie, Madame de Genlis. Paris: Perrin, 1985: 30-31.

[4] The Duc de Chartres is the eldest son of the Duc d'Orleans; Chartres became the Duc d'Orléans upon his father's death in 1785. During the Revolution, as with many aristocrats, he changed his name to Philippe Egalité. Egalité voted in January of 1793 with the Montagnards to guillotine his cousin, King Louis XVI. Egalité was guillotined during the Terror in November of 1793.

[5] Broglie points out that Chartres's choice was very provocative in that he essentially gave his children a "mixed" education, boys and girls alike: an interesting sort of progressivism (Broglie, 114-115).

[6] Broglie cites Helena Williams who wrote about the prince: "un prince démocrate, c'est en soi quelque chose d'assez extraordinaire" (a democratic prince is in itself something rather extraordinary). (Broglie, 190).

[7] While it's true that she would regret her early enthusiasm, it's also true that she was very much in favor of the reforms promised by the early phases of the Revolution. In her published account of the Princes' education, she defends their support of the new consititution: "Ils l'ont aimée [la Nouvelle Constitution] d'eux-mêmes, parce que l'éducation qu'ils ont reçue, leur avoit appris à plaindre le Peuple opprimé, à détester le pouvoir arbitraire & tous les abus de l'ancien Régime..." (emphasis hers)(They came to love the New Constitution on their own due to the education they received, they learned to pity oppressed people, to detest arbitary power, and all the abuses of the ancien régime). Madame de Sillery-Brulart, Leçons d'une Gouvernante A Ses Elèves ou Fragmens d'un Journal, qui a été fait pour l'Education des Enfans de Monsieur d'Orléans. Paris: Onfroy, Libraire, rue, 1791.16.

[8] See Ann L. Schroder, "Going Public Against the Academy in 1784: Mme de Genlis Speaks Out on Gender Bias," Eighteenth-Century Studies 32 (Spring 1999): 376-382.

[9] Genlis, Stéphanie-Félicité de. Adèle et Théodore ou Lettres sur L'éducation, 4 vols. Paris: Maradan, 1801. 1: 85. (My translation). "Le mot étude n'est Presque jamais prononcé dans la journée; cependant, il n'y a pas un instant qui ne leur soit protfitable, et certainement il n'existe point d'enfants plus parfaitement heureux."

[10] For those unfamiliar with Emilie d'Epinay's novel, it is a set of dialogues between a mother and daughter. They begin when the daughter, Emilie, is about six years old and continue until she is ready to be married. What the eighteenth-century public appreciated about the work was its attention to the various stages of childhood development. In 1782 it won the first Montyon prize awarded by the Académie française for the most useful book of the year. Madame de Genlis also competed for this prize and was exceedingly disappointed when she lost.

[11] Genlis, Adèle et Théodore. 2:66 (my translation). "Je la laissai pendant huit jours dans une incertitude cruelle pour un caractère aussi impatient et aussi curieux que le sien."

[12] Walker, Lesley H. "Strategies of Terror in Writings by Madame de Genlis," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 23: 2 (Fall 2004): 213-236.

[13] This identification with the suffering other is a staple of eighteenth-century literature: from Manon Lescaut to Clarissa to Les Liaisons dangereuses, readers have been asked to identify with the beleaguered heroine.

[14] The full quotation reads: "Whatever the setting the core element of service-learning is always the intent that both providers and recipients find the experience beneficial, even transforming." NSLC website.

[15] See, for example, Emma J. Clery's recent study, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762 to 1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, especially pages 106-114.