Parental aspirations: a pair of literary examples

Parental aspirations are a powerful influence on educational achievement. They must also have some effect on what kinds of job young people want to do, though I’m not sure what the research shows on this. We do know from Ingrid Schoon’s analysis of cohort data that girls’ aspirations are higher than boys, at all levels of socio-economic status. (Schoon also shows that for the generation born in 1970 the class gap in aspirations is wider than is was for those born 12 years earlier; once again we have trends in gender and class pointing in different directions.)

I have been looking generally for passages from literature whic illustrate the Paula Principle.   On parental aspirations, Geoorge Eliot as so often provides a fine example:

“The little ‘un takes after my side now: she’s twice as ‘cute as Tom her brother.  Too ‘cute for a woman, I’m afraid.  It’s no mischief much while she’s a little ‘un,  but an over ’cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep – she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that.”

This is Mr Tulliver on his daughter Maggie,  in The Mill on the Floss.  Mr Tulliver is a benevolent character who genuinely cares for his daughter.  But he cannot conceive of her gaining anything from learning more.  The consequence is that  cloddish Tom gets sent to private tuition, against his own will and needs as well as at excessive cost to the Tulliver household budget, whilst Maggie, headstrong but evidently intelligent and bookish, gets no formal education at all.

This is quite a well-known scene.  But I recently came across Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, which chronicles the experience of a girl who leaves her native West Indies to work as an au pair with a white family in the US,  with four blond children.  It’s an unusual and affecting (though to  my eyes also rather sour) story of her search for identity. Her relationship with her mother is highly problematic, and here is one reason why:

“I was an only child until I was 9 years old, and then inthe space of 5 years my mother had 3 male children; each time a new child was bron, my mother and father announced to each other with great seriousness that the new child would go to university in England and study to become a doctor or lawyer or someone who would occupy an important and influential position in society.  I did not mind my father saying these things…My father did not know me at all. I did not expect him to imagine a life for me filled with excitement and triumph. But my mother knew me as well as she knew herself’  I, at the time, even thought of us as identical; and whenever I saw her eyes fill up with tears at the thought of how proud she would be at some deed her sons had accomplished I felt a sword go through my heart, for there was no acccompanyng scenario in which she was me, her only identical offspring, in a remotely similar situation.”

This is a powerful account, which partly explains why Lucy leaves her school, country and all her networks behind, as well as her family.    It also illustrates how education and migration are closely linked in many parts of the world.  In Lucy’s case, her unsupported aspirations drive her west, in contrast to her male siblings who are expected (rightly or not) to go east.

It makes me wonder whether mothers or fathers are more influential in shaping the aspirations of girls and boys, and whether the effect is as strong on occupations as it is on education.  We should also know more about grandparents’ influence on their grandchildren’s aspirations and achievements.  Some excellent analysis – again of longitudinal data, this time from 3 cohorts (1946 as well as 1958 and 1970)  – by Tak Wing Chan of Oxford University shows how strong the influence of the Generation 1 is on the class position of Generation 3.   This is surely becoming stronger, as people live longer, and as the older generation exhibits bigger inequalities of wealth.


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