Sunday, January 20, 2013
Educating Rita and Adult Education
This is the draft of a paper I have due for a doctoral class.
1983’s Educating Rita, directed by Lewis Gilbert and starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, both chronicles one woman’s adventure through Britain’s Open University program and her progress in friendship with a jaded professor of literature, Frank Bryant. Susan White is a hairdresser, 26, married to an electrician and living in a working class area of a British city (the movie was filmed in Dublin but the setting is probably Birmingham or Manchester). Her husband Denny wants a baby and a satisfied wife, but Susan is not satisfied. She senses there is more to life and decides to get an education even though her family disapproves. The film tells the story of Susan’s journey and growth as an adult learner, from one of naiveté (she calls herself “Rita” after the popular feminist poet Rita Mae Brown, whose work she loves) and awe at the great learning of university types, to a greater understanding of herself and the role of education.
However, the film also exemplifies many theories about adult education and learning and at the same time pictures the ongoing struggles of adult educators and learners. Before delving into how the film relates to the typology of adult education, to Kegan’s and Mezirow’s view of adult learning, and to the current state of adult education, I would like to make a few personal comments about the film.
Educating Rita has long been a personal favorite of mine since I first saw it in the early ‘80s. Since I have a graduate degree in English, I can relate to Rita’s love of literature, to her struggle to learn to write about it in a scholarly manner, and to the pretentiousness that can surround the study of literature in a university. She loves to read but prefers potboilers to E.M. Forster. I can also relate to her fight to bridge the gaps between a working class background and a family that does not value higher education and her own desires. Dr. Frank Bryant, several years her senior, has lived in that rarified atmosphere for too long and wishes his students would stop obsessing about a line in Blake’s poetry and just go have fun on a pretty day.
Therefore, the film made a deep impression on me personally. Additionally, it is a worthy movie because, although almost thirty years old and set in England, it is not at all dated and not irrelevant to American culture. Likewise, it avoids the clichés of Hollywood. There is no sex; Frank and Susan/Rita do not fall in love; and the characters do not live happily ever after. Frank, because of his embarrassing alcoholism, is sent on “sabbatical” to teach in Australia for two years, and Susa/Rita passes her exams and now has more choices about what she can do with her life. However, Susan/Rita has paid the price; her husband has divorced her and is expecting a baby with his second wife, her friend has attempted suicide, and she almost loses Frank’s friendship because he doesn’t like the person she has become.
Also, a word about Britain’s Open University. In the film, Rita/Susan is shown watching a television show for one of her courses In 1983 that was the only real way to run a “massive open course,” since there was no Internet or even wide use of videotapes. She goes to see Frank weekly because he is her tutor. This is more along the line of how British universities are run, but Open University is for working adults and the tutorial hours are held in the evening. It waives traditional entrance requirements for adult learners. It was started in 1969 as an effort of the Labor Party. OU is still going strong, according to Wikipedia, with 250,000 students internationally; it is accredited in the U.S. by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. It uses a mixture of methods today for course delivery and includes research, graduate, and undergraduate divisions.
Merriam and Brockett (2007) present a chart showing the various typologies or reasons that adults engage in formal adult education programs. The first is named “liberal.” This category is distinguished from vocational or career programs, self-improvement, civic engagement, and emancipator purposes. In this case, liberal refers to liberal arts curriculum, knowledge of literature, the sciences, arts, history—what makes us human. Why does Rita/Susan want to take courses with Open University? It is clearly not for a better job, and she wants to study literature, not a field that will open career doors. She is not concerned about politics, either, or emancipation and social justice. She is unsatisfied with her life.
In one season, depressed from feeling acutely the class divide between herself and Frank and unable to attend a party because she knows she brought the wrong kind of wine, she joins her family and husband at a pub where everyone is singing a popular song. She turns to her mother who is starting to cry and asks her mother what’s wrong. “There must be a better song to sing,” replies her mother. This moment solidifies her desire to obtain whatever it is education—a liberal arts education—can provide: a better song, a better way of thinking about oneself, a better self-concept. This moment comes about the time that her husband is growing tired of her educational efforts and finds out that she is still taking birth control, even though she has lied about it to him. Soon her marriage will be over because of her desires for that better song.
Although Rita/Susan’s quest for education center on the liberal typology, questions of identity and class are very important in the film and to the character’s development. Frank does not understand how the class divide defines his student at the beginning of the film. He finds Rita/Susan and her perspectives on literature fresh, funny, endearing, real. She tells him he looks like a “geriatric hippie,” and writes two-sentence essays that express her ideas in bare bones. He wants her to meet his friends, but she is reluctant. She knows she is not one of them. Her lack of education and access to typical university education are part of who she is, and she does not want to throw all of her past and identity away. Her desire for education is not about a hatred of her class and background, nor about desiring to be elitist; it is simply dissatisfaction with what she knows and with her future choices. From a dramatic standpoint this makes Rita/Susan more likeable, or course.
Many have called Educating Rita a version of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady (without the music), and in a sense it is, because that play is very much about class distinctions. In my twenty years of working with open access education in the South, especially teaching writing and speaking, I have experienced from students a reluctance to start talking and expressing themselves in a different way that might distance them from their families and friends. This reluctance does not stem from a laziness to learn but from a real fear in some cases that they will not fit in with those they love, and sometimes from a suspicion that I am trying to change them to be something they are not.
Educating Rita is also an exemplification of Kegan’s ideas on adult development and Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. At first, despite her desire for education, Rita/Susan is resistant to Frank’s criticism. She has her perspective and it is right; she doesn’t see that getting “educated” and learning demands perspective changes. At one point he tells her to rewrite an essay and she gives him a Nazi salute and marches away to do it. Over time, she becomes more dependent on his view point, and he has to discourage her from listening to his ideas too much. As she learns and others respect her opinions, she becomes too self-assured about her own opinions. She says that one of her classmates had the nerve to say one work by D. H. Lawrence was better than another. “I set him straight.” She knows more, but has not fully developed in perspective taking. By the end of the film and after some dramatic occurrences, Susan (she no longer calls herself Rita, a practice she calls “pretentious crap”) comes to realize her own autonomy and is in a stage of what Kegan calls “self-authoring.” She appreciates what Frank has taught her but does not “need” him anymore. He wants to need her and asks her to go to Australia, but she declines. They are friends and equals now.
Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning posits that adult learners begin with a disorienting dilemma. The disorienting dilemma is not just a problem; the term means that the learner encounters a situation for which his or her current internal resources or knowledge are not “working,” are insufficient. The external reality and the internal reality are not congruent, so the learner is now motivated forward to gain knowledge, reflect on new ideas alone and with others, and most importantly, try on or take on new perspectives. Just as the disorienting dilemma is not simply a problem, the learning is not just the new addition of facts or skills. Rita/Susan does not know when she starts Open University that this perspective change will happen to her, but eventually it does. In fact, her disorienting dilemma does not come at the beginning of the film. Whatever motivates her to want the liberal education available to her through OU, it is not because she feels that she is facing a situation where her internal resources are out of kilter. In fact, although fearful, she thinks she can handle the courses, largely because she doesn’t know how hard higher education can be. The disorienting dilemmas come, as they should in a work of drama, throughout the film, and it is these unforeseen obstacles that lead to her reflection and working through to a new perspective of herself, education, and others.
Finally, Educating Rita is, I believe, a fairly honest portrayal (as honest as a film can be) about adult education and adult learners. It is far more honest than those movies where the students ends up sleeping with the professor ten minutes after meeting him or her, or those films where all obstacles fall away and the student achieves complete mastery of his life and environment. She learns and grows and moves to a different stage of adulthood, but she is still herself, sassy and outspoken. Her great achievement, she says, is that she has choices, that options are open to her that were not before—personal and career. However, in this sense I think she is wrong. She has had choices all through the film, and has taken advantage of the opportunities given her to learn and grow. Choice is relative to the stage of life we are in; it is never absolute. She chooses to keep going in her education, which is the most important—how many adults begin an educational program and drop out because of low self-efficacy, life circumstances, or failures to perform to their own or others’ expectations? The film is honest about the struggles that women face, even today in the U.S. and definitely in other countries, about furthering their educations. The film is honest about class divides, and as the statistical information in Kasworm, et al and MB indicates, the ones most likely to avoid or stopout/dropout of adult education are those of lower socio-economic classes and lower educational levels.
Having worked with adult learners for many years, I see in Educating Rita an entertaining and truthful look at both learning theory and the lives of adult learners. For those new to adult education, I would recommend the film as a good starting place to understand their future clients.