A Fresh Look at “Claiming an Education”

The latest raging debates about women’s place in our society feel disorienting and dangerous to a lot of people.  To some of us who came of age a half-century ago, when we stepped into the women’s movement at the same time we entered womanhood itself, there’s now a sense of having come adrift.  Things we thought were safe and solid are eroding; we’re pitched back into the storm, gasping at its renewed and familiar fury. For me, one way to battle this sensation is to lay hold of old anchors: the books that first helped me make sense of my place as a woman, an activist, a teacher.  I had to reach to a high, dusty shelf to find my old favorite, but there it was: On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.   

Published forty years ago, this is a collection of essays by the poet and feminist theorist Adrienne Rich. (No relation: my only acquaintance with her is as a faithful reader.) In my vintage copy, the most dog-eared section is the piece called  “Claiming an Education,” the text of a convocation speech Rich gave at Douglass College in 1977. I used to give copies of this essay to high school graduates heading off for women’s colleges, hoping it might encourage or inspire or at least provoke them to think. That was years ago, though. I hadn’t read it for a long time.  

In her speech, Adrienne Rich addressed the assembled undergraduates, all women, with insistent emphasis:  “You cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves as being here to claim one.”  She went on to cite a dictionary definition of claim as “to take as rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction,” and one for receive that included “to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true.”  She added her own distinction: “The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.”

In 2018, that last assertion feels dispiriting: all these decades later, it still rings all too true. Forty years ago, I believed that we were working toward a world that would be less lethal to women.  I no longer suffer from the optimism I felt then. In this sense, reading the essay now is a grim confirmation, of both persistent patterns and the continuing need for struggle. The current climate for women requires us to keep working toward that better world, however far off it may still be.  I’m reminded of Václav Havel’s dictum: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” The work toward greater justice for women still makes sense to me, discouraging as it can be at times.  

From another perspective, though, reading “Claiming an Education” in 2018 has lifted my spirits.  Adrienne Rich’s challenge to college students—that they become agents of their own education rather than passive vessels—has a new resonance all these decades later.  I can hear it as the intended appeal to undergraduate women in 1977, but can also transpose its essential message into a challenge for all learners at all levels today.   

Adrienne Rich’s speech identified an “essential experience that you owe yourselves… the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves.” This means, she went on, “refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”   Further, it means that “you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions… bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work.” Today, the call for an individual claim to engaged and rigorous learning echoes everywhere; it’s at the core of visions for K-12 educational transformation, from state agencies to influential foundations to field-based organizations such as UP for Learning.  Through this lens, the impassioned oratory of “Claiming an Education” looks something like the blueprint for reform in Vermont’s Act 77, with its emphasis on personalized, learner-centered education that equips students to shape their own pathways and meet high standards.

At UP for Learning, our commitment to this kind of education includes a belief in the power of youth-adult partnership.  Adrienne Rich spoke to this, too, framing it as a “pledge of mutual seriousness.” When you as a student have assumed responsibility for your learning, she said, “the second part of the contract” is that “you have the right to expect your faculty to take you seriously.”  When the relationship is established on those terms, the student is “engaged with her teachers in an active, ongoing struggle for a real education.”   

While our language at UP may be less embattled, this description shows a welcome alignment with our vision for purposeful learning in partnership.  A fiercely engaged learning experience remains essential for girls and women as they stake their claims for parity in a society that’s still too often dismissive.  It’s also, we at UP would argue, a critical experience for all learners—from those marginalized by myriad forms of discrimination to those whose relative privilege has allowed them to coast along in school, “bluffing” without serious commitment.  

There’s evidence, in Vermont and all over the country, that engaged, student-centered learning in partnership with adults is more than an experimental model; it’s becoming a movement. Despite backlash, defunding, and various forms of dilution and sabotage, the movement is holding on.  It’s growing deeper, more authentic, and more liberating. I feel heartened by the possibility that a far broader application of Adrienne Rich’s precepts for quality education may be underway here in the 21stcentury.  I will dare to be hopeful.  

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Rich, Adrienne. “Claiming an Education” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978.  W.W. Norton & Co. 1978.

Havel, Václav.  Disturbing the Peace. 1986, tr. Engl. 1990.

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Martha Jane Rich, October 2018

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