Study Guide

The Confidence-Man Education

By Herman Melville


When characters in The Confidence-Man meet up here and there on the ship, they nearly immediately fall into philosophical debates or semi-formal disputations. Real talk: you can't be part of those debates and disputations if you're not educated.

What's a disputation, by the way? Disputations were assignments schoolchildren earning a classical education would have to complete. They were basically argumentative essays that these kids would have to be prepared to recite on command. That's a very specific skill. And guess what? In this novel's world, once you've got that skill, you've entered at least one kind of old boy's club. Education is a class issue.

Melville also examines the most important aspect of education: the ability to change your nature through training. This is a thought as old as (and rooted in) humanism. In this novel, education is the way up, and it's the way forward.

Questions About Education

  1. Who is the most educated character? Who is the most intelligent?
  2. Do any other characters learn throughout the course of the novel? If so, how do they learn, and what do they learn?
  3. Does this novel consider education a right?
  4. What are some pitfalls of a bad education, as suggested in the text?

Chew on This

Melville doesn't value traditional education.

For Melville, education is necessary for morality to flourish.