Through Dee, “Everyday Use” explores how education affects the lives of people who come from uneducated communities, considering the benefits of an education as well as the tradeoffs.
Alice Walker clearly believes that education can be, in certain ways, helpful to individuals. For one, education can empower people financially and therefore materially. Dee’s education rewards her with the “nice things” she has desired since she was a child: gold earrings, a camera, sunglasses. The benefits of education also extend beyond just material ones: education helps Dee transform socially and spiritually. For example, Dee’s education helps her overcome her resentment towards her past and family. Mama credits Dee’s education with the change in her attitude toward Maggie, whom she previously hated. Not only does Dee’s education heal some of her personal relationships, but it also gives her the ability to challenge social norms. In particular, Mama credits Dee’s education with her questioning of and resistance to racism. An example of this is Dee’s newfound identity as “Wangero,” which she sees as a way of subverting racist history, and is forged through her knowledge and study of African culture.
But despite these clear benefits, Walker’s attitude towards education is not uniformly positive. On the contrary, Walker suggests many ways in which Dee’s education, and education in general, might be harmful or ineffective in helping other people. While Dee believes that her embrace of her African roots and the African name “Wangero” is a form of resistance to racism, her new-found identity comes across as a self-indulgent, intellectual exercise when contrasted with her family’s daily experience of violent, oppressive racism. Dee’s personal liberation does little to help elevate her community—her new style of African dress, for example, cannot stop white men from poisoning the neighbor’s cows, as Mama notes happened just recently. So while Dee has perhaps empowered herself, her actions have done little to change racist conditions for other African-Americans. (Of course, this is also a commentary on Dee herself as much as education as a whole.)
But not only does Walker suggest that Dee’s education might be ineffective in enacting meaningful change, she also implies that Dee’s education, in some ways, actively harms her family. Mama describes Dee’s attitude towards her family after she becomes educated as a form of violence and oppression in itself. According to Mama, Dee was “forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon [herself and Maggie], sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice…burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know.” Through her education, Dee has developed the tools to hurt her family and make them feel inferior to her. Walker even connects Dee’s education to the fire that burned down their house. When she uses the word “burn,” Walker seems to hint that Dee and her education traumatize her mother and sister just like the fire did.
The fact that Dee’s education does not help her family, but rather harms them, contradicts the expected cliché that talented individuals inevitably escape poverty and then their success bolsters their community and family. Walker, by inverting this expectation, seems to be writing against it, implying that educating only select individuals is rarely effective in elevating entire communities.
In contrast to her cynicism towards formal education, Walker presents an alternative system of knowledge: understanding. She clearly evokes the distinction between the two systems during the argument over the quilts, when Dee repeatedly states that her family does not “understand” the value of the quilts, the best way to use them, and their heritage. This assertion is highly ironic, of course, because Dee is clearly the one who cannot grasp what real heritage means. By repeating the word “understand,” Walker draws attention to the difference between understanding and formal education. She implies that, while formal education may be more valued in society, it cannot make up for an inability to connect and empathize with others. To Walker, understanding is a system of knowledge that people like Mama can possess, regardless of their level of formal education. She seems to believe that without understanding, even highly educated people will suffer from massive blind spots in their ability to form meaningful, healthy relationships.
Education Quotes in Everyday Use
She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.