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Why future leaders should read Jane Austen

Today’s guest contributor is Dr. Colleen Sheehan of Arizona State University. Dr. Sheehan reminds us that there is much political sense and a great deal of civic sensibility found in the novels of Jane Austen. Sheehan seems comfortable suggesting that Austen has more political insights than the vast majority of today’s pundits–if only they would take up the novels and read.  

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen said that “from politics, it was an easy step to silence.” 

This line from Northanger Abbey is as true today as it was in Jane Austen’s time.  People tend to feel uncomfortable and clam up when topics like politics and religion are introduced in social settings.  It is easier to stay quiet and hope the topic will pass without confrontation or dispute. 

But Jane Austen is all about challenging each of us to confront our own beliefs about right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad.  

Her novels are full of characters who make these judgments.  As readers, we too are challenged to make these judgments for ourselves, as soundly and fairly as we possibly can. 

These questions form the core of politics, about how human beings should live their lives and treat one another.  

In her novels Austen displays “the most thorough knowledge of human nature” by way of “the liveliest effusions of wit and humor” conveyed in “the best chosen language.”  

She shows us human excellence and failing, human decency and wickedness, human happiness and misery – knowledge indispensable to those who envision themselves practitioners of the art of politics.  

Colleen Sheehan is Director of Graduate Studies, School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) at Arizona State University. Beginning Fall 2020, SCETL is launching its new M.A. Program in Classical Liberal Education and Leadership.  

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