Education Aspect In Ernest J. Gaines' Novel "a Lesson Before Dying"

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Education aspect in Ernest J. Gaines' Novel "A Lesson Before Dying"


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.

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 viceversa 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. (Clark; 151-167)

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.

The Teacher - Grant Wiggins

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 ...
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