As made obvious by the title, Educating Rita is a play about teaching and learning. In her pursuit to secure an education, Rita enrolls in Open University, a public institution that enables her to sign up for tutoring sessions with Frank even though she isn’t a matriculating student at the university where he teaches. When she begins her sessions, she must face the ins and outs of institutionalized education, where she discovers there are sets of rules and customs surrounding the learning process. At first, she balks at these customs, instead following her own instincts when it comes to writing essays and answering questions. In turn, Frank recognizes her intelligence and tries to encourage her creativity while simultaneously training her to adhere to the standard requirements of institutionalized education. However, because he himself has grown weary and suspicious of the value of such an education, he finds it increasingly difficult to teach her the prescribed methods of academia, instead urging her to remain true to herself. As Frank reveals his misgivings about higher education, Russell highlights the difference between standardized teaching practices and experiential education, ultimately suggesting that sometimes there’s more to be learned outside of school than within its confines.
For her first assignment, Rita writes a piece of literary criticism about her favorite book, Rubyfruit Jungle. When she turns it in, she’s surprised by the feedback she receives. Frank tells her, “The thing is, it was an appreciation and erm, a reasonably structured outline of the plot. But you’ve made no attempt to explore whatever themes there are or how character is portrayed and developed or what kind of narrative is being employed. In short, you haven’t really brought any criticism to bear.” Hearing this, Rita insists that she doesn’t want to criticize her favorite novel, but Frank explains to her that in academia, there is a difference between “analytical criticism” and “being critical in a censorious way.” This conversation marks the beginning of Rita’s initiation to the hallmarks of standardized education, where there are certain expectations a person must meet in order to receive passing grades or, on a deeper level, respect as an intellectual.
Before long, Rita begins to understand that in order to succeed in academia, she’ll have to adhere its various conventions and expectations. However, this understanding doesn’t necessarily mean she’s immediately capable of writing in this style. When she gives Frank an essay about Macbeth, for example, the piece lacks the kind of objectivity that exam graders look for when giving test scores. Despite this, though, Frank hesitates to frame her work as badly rendered. This is because he has his own misgivings about the narrow-minded approach championed by higher education. “It’s a totally honest, passionate account of your reaction to a play,” he tells her, even as she urges him to give her his harshest critique of her writing. “It’s an unashamedly emotional statement about a particular experience.” Although he admits that her essay would be “worthless” when it comes to passing exams, he insists that “in its own terms” it is “wonderful.” This attitude denotes his belief that the “worth” of a person’s thoughts and ideas doesn’t necessarily align with academia’s narrow conception of what is and what isn’t valuable. Instead of training Rita to blindly follow the standards of higher education, Frank encourages her to see the merits of her own unconventional approach.
Frank encourages Rita’s unique intellectual process because he doesn’t think institutionalized education employs the best techniques when it comes to fostering creativity and free thinking. This is evident in a conversation he has with Rita in the play’s second scene. Rita explains to him that she was once on a fieldtrip as a little girl, where she saw a beautiful, exotic bird. As she stared at it, though, one of her classmates warned her not to say anything about it because the teacher would inevitably make them write an essay about the creature if she announced its presence. “That’s what they do wrong in schools,” Rita tells Frank, “they get y’ goin’ and then y’ all havin’ a great time talkin’ about somethin’ that’s dead interestin’ but the next thing is they wanna turn it into a lesson.” Frank can’t contain his agreement, shouting, “Yes! It’s what we do, Rita; we pluck birds from the sky and nail them down to learn how they fly.” By saying this, Frank frames academic study and the general approach of institutionalized education as needlessly analytical, stuffy, and blind to beauty and curiosity. In order to “learn how [birds] fly,” he says, teachers want to “pluck them from the sky and nail them down,” thus ruining their otherwise majestic splendor. This, it seems, is what he worries he might do to Rita, whose untrained ideas are “wonderful” even as they exist outside the academy’s serious and stifling set of expectations.
According to Frank, the trappings of institutionalized education can sometimes suppress a student’s curiosity and open-mindedness. As such, he advocates for experiential education, or an approach to learning that values the process of discovery. Although the university focuses on outcomes and final results (wanting students to write answers in a specific style and punishing them for straying from convention), Frank urges Rita to benefit from the very process of learning itself. “You’ll have a much better understanding of something if you discover it in your own terms,” he tells her, thereby emboldening her to value her own approach. In turn, Russell implies that recognizing the limits of institutionalized education might enable students to actually make use of their own experiences in the world, thereby allowing the wonders of everyday life to lead to intellectual development and academic growth.
Institutionalized Education vs. Experiential Education ThemeTracker
Institutionalized Education vs. Experiential Education Quotes in Educating Rita
I’ll make a bargain with you, yes? I’ll teach you everything I know…but if I do that then you must promise never to come back here…because there’s nothing here for you! You see I never…I didn’t want to teach this course in the first place; allowed myself to be talked into it. But I knew it was wrong and seeing you only confirms my suspicion. My dear, it’s not your fault, just the luck of the draw that you got assigned to me; but get me you did. And the thing is, between you, me and the walls, I’m really rather an appalling teacher. Most of the time that doesn’t really matter—appalling teaching is quite in order when most of my students are themselves fairly appalling. And the others manage to get by despite me. But you, young woman, you are quite, quite different, you are seeking a very great deal indeed; and I’m afraid I cannot provide it. Everything I know—and you must listen to this—is that I know absolutely nothing.
Rita: See, if I’d started takin’ school seriously then I would have had to become different from my mates; an’ that’s not allowed.
Frank: Not allowed by whom?
Rita: By y’ mates, y’ family, by everyone. So y’ never admit that school could be anythin’ other than useless an’ irrelevant. An’ what you’ve really got to be into are things like music an’ clothes and getting’ pissed an’ coppin’ off an’ all that kind of stuff. Not that I didn’t go along with it because I did. But at the same time, there was always somethin’ tappin’ away in my head, tryin’ to tell me I might have got it all wrong. But I’d just put the music back on or buy another dress an’ stop worryin’. ’Cos there’s always something that can make y’ forget. An’ so y’ keep on goin’, tellin’ y’self that life is great—there’s always another club to go to, a new feller to be chasin’, a laugh an’ a joke with the girls. Till one day, you just stop an’ own up to yourself. Y’ say, ‘Is this it? Is this the absolute maximum that I can expect from this livin’ lark?’ An’ that’s the really big moment that is. Because that is when you’ve got to decide whether it’s gonna be another change of dress or a change in yourself.
Look, there’s a way of answering examination questions that is…expected. It’s a sort of accepted ritual. It’s a game, with rules. And you have to observe those rules. Poets can ignore those rules; poets can break every rule in the book; poets are not trying to pass examinations. But Rita, you are. And therefore you must observe the rules.
Rita (angrily): What d’ y’ mean be careful? I can look after myself. Just ’cos I’m learnin’, just ’cos I can do it now an’ read what I wanna read an’ understand without havin’ to come runnin’ to you every five minutes y’ start tellin’ me to be careful. (She paces about.)
Frank: Because—because I care for you—I want you to care for yourself.
Rita: Tch. (She goes right up to Frank. After a pause.) I—I care for you, Frank…But you’ve got to—to leave me alone a bit. I’m not an idiot now, Frank—I don’t need you to hold me hand as much…I can—I can do things on me own more now…And I’m careful. I know what I’m doin’. Just don’t—don’t keep treatin’ me as though I’m the same as when I first walked in here.