While rereading Frankenstein recently, I couldn’t help but think Mary Shelley was offering us a critique of education. There is a proper and an improper way to learn. If the former, all is well. If the latter, you create an unnatural monster that ruins your life and terrorizes communities. Just look at how Shelley describes the protagonist’s, Victor’s, interaction with his knowledgeable professor at university:
The next morning I delivered my letters of introduction and paid a visit to some of the principal professors. Chance—or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my reluctant steps from my father’s door—led me first to M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy. He was an uncouth man, but deeply imbued in the secrets of his science. He asked me several questions concerning my progress in the different branches of science appertaining to natural philosophy. I replied carelessly, and partly in contempt, mentioned the names of my alchemists as the principal authors I had studied. The professor stared. “Have you,” he said, “really spent your time in studying such nonsense?”
So, at this point Victor has been alerted to the possibility that the books he has been reading on his own–in the absence of a proper teacher–are in fact the wrong books or “nonsense.” It goes on:
I replied in the affirmative. “Every minute,” continued M. Krempe with warmth, “every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”
Here, it’s interesting to note that M. Krempe is critiquing not only the book’s Victor has read, but also his home and parents. (His dad did warn him about the books he was reading, but alas.) Shortly thereafter, Victor goes on.
I returned home not disappointed, for I have said that I had long considered those authors useless whom the professor reprobated; but I returned not at all the more inclined to recur to these studies in any shape. M. Krempe was a little squat man with a gruff voice and a repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favour of his pursuits. In rather a too philosophical and connected a strain, perhaps, I have given an account of the conclusions I had come to concerning them in my early years. As a child I had not been content with the results promised by the modern professors of natural science. With a confusion of ideas only to be accounted for by my extreme youth and my want of a guide on such matters, I had retrod the steps of knowledge along the paths of time and exchanged the discoveries of recent inquirers for the dreams of forgotten alchemists. Besides, I had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand; but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.
I love that term “confusion of ideas,” because Victor is actually con-fusing ideas: the ancient alchemy of the “wrong” books he reads with the modern techniques of science. The result is monstrous, and a warning to those of us who teach and parent today.