An Education: Questioning Gender in Higher Learning



An Education is a great film with a mediocre ending. It builds us up for a grand finale—for perhaps a final confrontation after a surprising climax—only to end with a gentle simmer on its way to the credits. Yet it’s hard to be too critical of either the director or the screenwriter’s choices—Lone Scherfig and Nick Hornby, respectively—when you realize that the story is based on a memoir of Lynn Barber, a now successful British journalist who currently writes for The Observer, but who also has worked for Penthouse, Sunday Express, Independent on Sunday, and Vanity Fair. How can one really expect a Hollywood ending to a true story? Nevertheless, the film asks many invaluable questions—not just about one woman’s particular life lesson, but also in regards to the history of women’s higher education and to the consequent choices available to all women.


It is a film that forces us to remember a time—1960s London—when women, at least those of privilege, had few professional options; where greater education was sought for the purpose of becoming a better housewife and mother, or, if one so desired, a teacher or a nurse. It was a time when power, in such terms, could be gleaned from one's husband, but not from oneself. Our main character, Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan, grapples with these decisions as she prepares for Oxford. By pushing her toward a life of extensive studying and extracurricular activities, her father has encouraged her to achieve greatness. Yet, just as she is about to take her A-levels, she becomes engaged to her endearingly mature and cultured boyfriend, played by Peter Saarsgard. The school’s headmistress, played by Emma Thompson, as well as her teacher, played by Olivia Williams, try to convince her to stay in school, but Jenny has other plans. She is effectively faced with the decision between marriage and Oxford, leading us to the central question of An Education:  what’s the point of an education when your career opportunities are limited to begin with?


For someone who spent her college years theorizing in circles, only to find herself wondering what kind of job she could do with a Women and Gender Studies degree, it is easy to imagine why someone would pursue education for the sake of self-betterment. Yet there is a certain type of agency that one gains from employment. Studies have shown that high labor force participation rates of females lead to greater respect for women, as equity is earned through their increased economic contributions to the family unit. Moreover, women tend to allocate the bulk of their income to health care and education for their children. Nevertheless, a dilemma soon develops. The more time women allocate to work, the less time they have to accomplish domestic labor, which traditionally has and still falls to women. Eventually, women carry a double burden for the sake of access to greater opportunity and, in terms of Amartya Sen, access to greater freedoms.


While women now have more employment opportunities, as is evident by Lynn Barber’s post-Oxford success as a journalist, questions about women’s roles in the workforce and in the home still remain an issue. Many intelligent and competent women—particularly those who have the privilege to do so—forfeit their careers to raise families, such as my paternal grandmother. Fortunately for women living in England, where our story takes place, the government helps to alleviate the double burden by providing more comprehensive support for new mothers. Whereas women in the United States only have access to three months of maternity leave, British women are given one year. Consequently, children spend less time in day care. Yet, what happens to a woman’s chances of promotion at work when she has been away for three months or a year? Moreover, extended maternity leave still does not solve the problem of a greater domestic responsibility of women. The only way this can be truly solved is by redefining gender roles.


More than fifty years later, we still do not have the answers to all of the questions raised in An Education. Women, after having achieved greater access to professional opportunities, still grapple with the decision to pursue either careers, or domesticity, or both. Regardless, I think of all the amazing women who attended my own women’s college during a similar era—Gloria Steinem, Sylvia Plaith, Betty Friedan, Julia Childs, Madeleine L’Engle—and I wonder who they would have become without their tertiary education. Consequently, I highly recommend the film, not only for asking great questions, but also for providing an altogether engaging experience, complete with superb acting and interesting storyline. Okay, so maybe the ending is not very dramatic and perhaps borderline mediocre, but at least it demonstrates the value of her final decision. All in all, it’s definitely worth seeing.