Outta the Way Dummy: Examining the Importance of Educational Reform in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthurs Court

Unlike the future utopia that Edward Bellamy created in Looking Backward, in which he sought to fix perceived social problems of the late 19th century, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court instead looks to highlight the positive aspects of the United States in 1889 by placing all that knowledge in the time of King Arthur.  Twain’s Yankee protagonist, Hank Morgan, brings new technology and ideas into the 6th century and shows the power of education and critical thought in the formation of what he views as a proper society.

The Yankee introduces all sorts of modern technology into Arthur’s time, but it seems to me that the underlying idea is the importance of education towards the creation of these new inventions.  When the Yankee first finds himself at Arthur’s round table he observes that for the most part these people’s days are filled with violent adventures and that they will unquestioningly believe almost anything that is told to them, without a second thought as to the accuracy or truth behind the story.  The Yankee says that, “brains were not needed in a society like that, and, indeed would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled its symmetry-perhaps rendered its existence impossible” (14).  The Yankee’s goal is, in fact, to render this society’s existence impossible.  He plans to do this through educational reform, which was a topic in Twain’s time as well.

In 1870 half the nation’s children had no formal education whatsoever.  Educational reform began around the time that Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee, Massachusetts being the first state to have mandatory schooling for children ages 6-10 in 1890. (ushist.org)  The importance of education to Twain can be seen in a number of instances throughout the book, promoting the idea that intelligence and achievement, not birth right, should be the gauge for success in any given society.  The Yankee constructed various factories and sent out agents to find bright young minds to fill the buildings and train them in specific industries.  This is very much in line with the land-grant colleges that were created around the same time that specialized in industries such as agriculture and engineering (Wikipedia).  The creation of such institutions allowed for upward mobility of the middle classes, which is exactly the thought process present in A Connecticut Yankee. Rather than a society in which those who have inherited privilege through birth right lead the way, intelligence and achievement are given priority.

In focusing on pedagogical ideals, Twain could very well have been influenced by the idea of pragmatism, popularized by William James and continued by other educational reformers such as John Dewey.  Pragmatism said that schools should produce citizens who were good critical thinkers, “rejecting claims of absolute certainty and accepting the provisionality of all knowledge” (Oxford Companion to U.S. History, 618).  Merlin, who believes his own non-scientific nonsense, is the personification of the dangers of a world without these ideals.  More than a couple times the Yankee says that Merlin is not a wizard but simply a liar, as all his great feats are performed when no one else was around to see them.  His stories are accepted as true without any questioning on the part of the listeners.  When the Yankee is able to show Merlin to be a fool on several occasions, it illustrates the power of critical thinking.  As the Yankee is able to perform real, visible “magic”, he shows the power that science can hold.  He uses his knowledge of astronomy to save his own life first by somehow remembering exactly when the solar eclipse would be 1,300 hundred years before his time.  Granted this is a little ridiculous, but so is the fact that he fell asleep and woke up in the 6th century so let us not get too hung up on the details.  When the Yankee brings water back to the well in the Valley of Holiness, he uses his knowledge of engineering to manufacture a water pump and knowledge of chemistry to add some showmanship to his “miracle” by shooting off rockets, calling them the “fires of hell” which he has expelled.

The majority of the book could be used as a selling point for the old idea that “Knowledge is Power”.  The Yankee is able to put himself in a position of power in a society that does not ordinarily allow for upward mobility through knowledge and his own education.  Once in power he is able to secure for this world a number of technological advances that were possible only through education and the scientific process.  His creation of newspapers was made possible and viable by introducing the printing press and, more importantly, teaching the nation to read. The ability to read means having the ability to share ideas with people who are not directly in front of you.  It allows for the passage of knowledge long distances and among all types of people.  If even the poorest, most common folk have education enough to read, then they have available opportunities that otherwise would not have existed.  National, mandatory education was in its infancy during the writing of this book and of the many points Twain looks to make by juxtaposing the two very different times, I think perhaps the necessity of a good education available to everyone is maybe the most important.


“Land Grant University”. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, November 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.


ushistory.org. “Education”. U.S. History Online Textbook, 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.


Boyer, Paul S. ed. Oxford Companion to U.S. History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.  Print.

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