Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces Education

By John Kennedy Toole

Education

"Ignatius graduated smart."

"Graduated smart," Ignatius repeated with some pique. "Please define your terms. Exactly what do you mean by 'graduated smart'?" (1.272-273)

What Mrs. Reilly means, as Ignatius knows, is that Ignatius did very well in school but isn't doing so well with the rest of his life. He is smart in terms of knowing who Boethius is, but in every other way (including physical mass) he is kind of dense.

"Mrs. Levy is a brilliant, educated woman. She's taken a correspondence course in psychology." (3.119)

The joke here is that a correspondence course in psychology isn't much of a guarantee of brilliance and education. We learn later that Mrs. Levy didn't pass her correspondence course (they wouldn't even give her an "F").

"I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one." (5.184)

Ignatius is saying he's too smart, and the quality of his mind is too unique, for him to deal with normal people. Though, of course, the truth is he mingles with lots of people—and in fact, his inertia means that at the end of the novel he's on the front page of the paper for mingling with criminals, pornographers, and the dregs of New Orleans society. (Though many of those dregs, the novel suggests, are actually considerably more pleasant than Ignatius.)

As a lecturer Dr. Talc was renowned for the facile and sarcastic wit and easily digested generalizations that made him popular among the girl students and helped to conceal his lack of knowledge about almost everything in general and British history in particular. (5.203)

Dr. Talc is really only in the novel so that we can read cutting remarks about him. Those remarks (like this one) are pretty funny, though.

If George wanted her to have a book, he could get it for her himself. Lana wasn't about to buy a book, even a used one. (7.165)

It's not clear whether Lana won't buy a book because she's so tight-fisted, or whether she has something in particular against books. Either way, it's surely meant to be a joke that she puts no value at all on books, and yet her major money-making scheme is based on using a book in an innovative, not to mention X-rated, way.

Lana started to plan the ensemble with the globe, the chalk, and the book. If the thing had commercial possibilities, it should be done with a certain finesse and quality. She envisioned several arrangements that would combine grace and obscenity. There was no need to be too raw. After all, she was appealing to kids. (7.169)

Books, the novel suggests, are good mostly as props; they help you put together an appealing appearance, even if they're largely useless in themselves.

"With all his education, mind you. Selling weenies out on the street in the broad daylight." (7.219)

We urge you to imagine Mrs. Reilly saying "weenies" with her harsh Yat accent, each word a nasal explosion tearing out your eardrum. For Lana, a book adds class to the pornography; for Mrs. Reilly, Ignatius's learning makes his commercial efforts more humiliating. Either way, education is a function of class and a marker of classiness (or the lack thereof.)

You could tell by the way that he talked, though, that he had gone to school a long time. That was probably what was wrong with him. George had been wise enough to get out of school as soon as possible. He didn't want to end up like that guy. (11.260)

Y'all need to be careful reading this learning guide—too much smarts and you'll end up like Ignatius. The horror, right? Anyway, George has a naïve, sincere anti-intellectualism, and he actually seems to pity Ignatius. From George's perspective (and perhaps from the novel's) Ignatius isn't incapable and slothful despite his education; he's incapable and slothful because of it.

"If I go to college I wouldn be draggin no meat wagon around sellin people a lotta garbage and s***."

[…]

"Just as I suspected," Ignatius said angrily. "In other words, you want to become totally bourgeois. You people have all been brainwashed. I imagine that you'd like to become a success or something equally vile." (11.374-377)

Jones thinks education can be used to move up the social ladder; you go to college in order to get a better job. Ignatius rejects that idea adamantly; his education has taught him to avoid success, and indeed any work. He fails because he has learned in school that failure is best (which is more or less what George suspects in the previous quote).

"For everything nice I ever done for you, I just get kicked around. I want to be treated nice by somebody before I die. You learnt everything, Ignatius, except how to be a human being." 

"It's not your fate to be well treated," Ignatius cried. "You're an overt masochist. Nice treatment will confuse and destroy you." (13.198)

Mrs. Reilly tells Ignatius that he never learned how to be kind. Ignatius responds with mean-spirited intellectual gobbledygook, which seems to more or less prove Mrs. Reilly's point.

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