Who Needs Student Debt When You Can Get Together for a ‘Conversation’?

The 19th-Century Women Who Educated Themselves Outside the Ivory Tower Offer Inspiration for Learning Today

Skyrocketing costs and decreasing returns on investment—not to mention the intellectual and cultural wars taking over campuses—have put higher education in turmoil. Searching for relief, writer Emily R. Zarevich turns to the 19th-century “Conversations” organized by journalist Margaret Fuller (pictured above). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

On a dark, chilly evening in November 1839, a woman in Boston, Massachusetts, convened a party at her friend’s house. That might seem an unremarkable event, but this was not a high-society tea party or wine-tippling book club. It was a bold social experiment. The hostess was the 29-year-old journalist Margaret Fuller, and the guest list was composed of the most finely tuned minds she could collect—minds that nevertheless, by virtue of being women, were barred from attending university. Safely concealed from the prying outside world by the guise of innocent domesticity, they were taking their education into their own hands. They were about to have a “Conversation,” with Fuller leading the way in the informal role of instructor.

Maybe more of us should be having such conversations. With fall approaching, thousands of high-school seniors are in the throes of the fraught “college search,” an anxiety-ridden affair that, for many, culminates in years of astronomical debt. Between the rising cost of higher education, the “devaluation” of degrees, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s shakeup of education—not to mention the culture wars over critical race theory and free speech—there is rising interest in finding other ways to prepare oneself for a rewarding professional and intellectual life. The resourcefulness of Margaret Fuller and her acquaintances—and the accomplishments that followed their budget-friendly, self-engineered education—show us that the foundations of a fulfilling life and career can be built on curiosity and willpower rather than loans.

The premise of a Fuller “Conversation” was simple: anything that wasn’t stale tea party table talk was permitted. There would be no petty gossip, no complaints about children or servants, no exchanging of recipes or sewing tips. And unlike the salons of the time, there would be no men to impress. Instead, the curriculum was an in-depth discussion on fine art, literature, science, politics, or mythology—with corresponding homework in between these two-hour weekly meetings. At the sixth conversation, the women discussed wisdom and the mechanics of art; for the seventh, they wrote, shared, and critiqued their own essays on beauty.

Though a degree is still necessary for certain jobs, it’s not essential for developing an original, critical, and respectful mind. There are always opportunities for full, rewarding, and meaningful conversations. Getting together to debate Sartre or new developments in gender politics can be done in any time period, in any available setting—tuition-free.

By 1839, Fuller had already made a name for herself as a writer, with publications in distinguished journals such as the North American Review and the Western Messenger. She was trained in the classics, talented as a critic, translated German Romantic literature into English, and was so outstandingly bright that regardless of her gender, she was hailed as something of an authority on anything highbrow. Yet she understood that it wasn’t mere writing talent that had afforded her the rare privilege of a professional life. Fuller had benefited from an extensive education and access to the reading materials and intellectual social circles she needed to cultivate her mind for a productive life, and she wanted to share the additional elements of good connections and directed study with others. She’d worked as a teacher already, having served at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School in Boston in 1836 and at Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1837, and the role came as naturally to her as the instinct to combine it with that of an author.

Still, the Conversations had their adversaries: privileged, bookish men who felt threatened by this clever female innovation—which made their prestigious and expensive university educations suddenly not so special anymore. Historian Charles Capper writes that they tried to conceal their obvious sexism behind religious objection—they were “scandalized” by the women’s discussion of Transcendental critiques of Christianity.

The Conversations continued until April 1844. Though only a five-year enterprise, they left a lasting mark, including forming the base material for Fuller’s 1845 feminist treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century. There, she laid out her stern commentaries on the inequalities between the sexes and what needed to be done to remedy them for society’s benefit. The intrepid  educational reformist Peabody, whose home was the site of the discussions, went on to find the first English-language kindergarten in the U.S., in 1860. Sophia Ripley, a fellow feminist and philosopher, went on to become a primary school teacher at a progressive academy, and Caroline Sturgis Tappan, an ambitious Transcendentalist artist, published poetry and children’s books.

The Conversations have also served as a source of inspiration for factions of frustrated women who came after Fuller. Lara D. Burnett of the University of California claims that Fuller’s Conversations serve as the early model for the current phenomenon of podcasts, a technological platform through which creatives in pairs or groups can explore and discuss their niche interests vocally (an especially useful means of expression for modern-day women who are still being barred and/or systematically discouraged from mounting traditional podiums). It’s an equal, open space, where all women are free to participate as either speakers or listeners and can hope to be taken seriously. “Conversations allowed Fuller to be a kind of professor, and allowed her subscribers to participate in a kind of university course, without vetting by those who were determined to marginalize female intellectual work,” Burnett astutely observes. “Similarly, podcasts can, without any gatekeeping, make available to their producers and their listeners the conversational practices of the seminar room.”

Today, women can and do attend university, but the bittersweet reality is that not everyone can afford to partake. In this modern context, underground education is once again prevailing.  One example is the Dark Academia movement, a clothing and lifestyle culture born on TikTok that embraces the aesthetic of a 19th-century academic with some worldly flair. But it doesn’t end at looks. Dark academia appeals most to teenagers who are dissatisfied with their current education, defeated by higher education’s price tag, and have discovered the joys and benefits of self-directed study.

Though a degree is still necessary for certain jobs, it’s not essential for developing an original, critical, and respectful mind. There are always opportunities for full, rewarding, and meaningful conversations. Getting together to debate Sartre or new developments in gender politics can be done in any time period, in any available setting—tuition-free. And whether you do it on Zoom or at a friend’s place, stop and listen for Fuller’s voice, broadcasting through from a long-gone era.

Emily R. Zarevich is a writer from Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Her work can be found at Jstor Daily, Inspire the Mind, Early Bird Books, and The Queen’s Quarterly, among others.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey | SECONDARY EDITOR: Sarah Rothbard


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