Rodriguez sees his entrance into the education system as the defining moment of his life—so important, in fact, that the subtitle of his memoir is The Education of Richard Rodriguez. To Rodriguez, education is a process that radically changes people, whether they recognize this fact or not. As a self-proclaimed “scholarship boy,” Rodriguez feels intensely aware of the personal changes demanded by his education—and he seems willing to make these changes in order to become “an educated man.” Yet Rodriguez ultimately leaves the world of higher education disappointed; his depressing portrait of academia casts a shadow over his generally positive depiction of education.
Early in his life Rodriguez demonstrates a love of reading. He is attracted to the “possibility of fellowship between a reader and a writer,” and comes to enjoy “the lonely good company of books.” However, he admits that his motivation for reading was not always pure or even beneficial. As a youth, Rodriguez faced his family’s suspicion of his reading. Though he finds “a mysterious comfort” in the ritual of reading, his mother’s constant question, “What do you see in your books?,” makes him feel like he must find a more legitimate reason for reading than mere pleasure. As a result, he recalls asking his teachers for “the names of important books,” since he saw books not as vessels for ideas, but as the utilitarian keys that would unlock his academic success and make him truly “educated.” Rodriguez read books like The Republic merely so he could say that he had read them—he didn’t understand these books, nor did he realize that understanding them was important.
As an adult, after encountering a book by Richard Hoggart called The Uses of Literacy, Rodriguez begins to identify his youthful behavior with that of a “scholarship boy.” He realizes that instead of approaching books with a point of view, he has been reading books in order to gain a point of view. Like the archetypical scholarship boy, Rodriguez writes, he has become “a great mimic; a collector of thoughts, not a thinker.” Though he has achieved great success—graduating from Stanford, becoming a Fulbright scholar, receiving offers of teaching positions from prestigious universities—Rodriguez insists that he is fundamentally a bad student because his thoughts aren’t original. He begins to experience anxiety about his place in the world of academia, and his guilt is exacerbated by his worry that he has only received these opportunities due to affirmative action.
Rodriguez identifies himself as an ambitious person, but his negative descriptions of the life of a scholar-professor raise the question of whether his ambition of achieving academic success has been misplaced. Describing his year as a Fulbright scholar in the U.K., Rodriguez talks often of the loneliness of scholars. He begins to wonder if anyone besides his supervisor will ever read his dissertation and even to question whether being an academic counts as an act of social withdrawal of the kind he so abhors (an act he also describes as prioritizing private identity over public identity). Little by little, it becomes clear that the world of academia is not satisfying to Rodriguez. This is perhaps surprising, given that his description of his fellow scholars toiling away in the British Museum—silent strangers, united by an unspoken respect for the written word—almost perfectly parallels his earlier, laudatory description of the Catholic Church. Like the Church, the university is an institution that mediates between public and private life—yet Rodriguez seems deeply dissatisfied in this setting. Ultimately he rejects academic life altogether, abandoning the teaching jobs he has been offered to focus exclusively on his writing.
Rodriguez’s portrait of education is thus a confusing one. He asserts that his primary education was the greatest turning point of his life, and he is deeply grateful for the opportunities it afforded him. However, as his choice to leave academia demonstrates, he could never feel quite at home in the world of higher education. To make sense of this, it is important to note that affirmative action was the last straw for Rodriguez in academia, perhaps because it made him feel that he didn’t belong. Rodriguez’s beloved Catholic school education insisted that he develop a public identity that was similar to his white, Anglophone peers, which thereby inserted him into a community. In academia, however, he was deeply uncomfortable that he was seen, first and foremost, as a representative of a race to which he does not feel connected. Ultimately, then, it seems that Rodriguez values education insofar as it inserts him into a community of shared ideas and values. Academia, with its focus on his racial identity, could never make him feel at home.
Education, Ambition, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Education, Ambition, and Belonging Quotes in Hunger of Memory
Aztec ruins hold no special interest for me. I do not search Mexican graveyards for ties to unnamable ancestors. I assume I retain certain features of gesture and mood derived from buried lives. I also speak Spanish today. And read García Lorca and García Márquez at my leisure. But what consolation can that fact bring against the knowledge that my mother and father have never heard of García Lorca or García Márquez?
Language has been the great subject of my life. In college and graduate school, I was registered as an “English major.” But well before then, from my first day of school, I was a student of language. Obsessed by the way it determined my public identity. The way it permits me here to describe myself, writing…
The odd truth is that my first-grade classmates could have become bilingual, in the conventional sense of that word, more easily than I. Had they been taught (as upper-middle-class children are often taught early) a second language like Spanish or French, they could have regarded it simply as that: another public language. In my case such bilingualism could not have been so quickly achieved. What I did not believe was that I could speak a single public language.
Behind this screen there gleams an astonishing promise: One can become a public person while still remaining a private person. At the very same time one can be both! There need be no tension between the self in the crowd and the self apart from the crowd! Who would not want to believe such an idea? Who can be surprised that the scheme has won the support of many middle-class Americans?
Months later, two weeks of Christmas vacation: The first hours home were the hardest. (“What’s new?”) My parents and I sat in the kitchen for a conversation. (But, lacking the same words to develop our sentences and to shape our interests, what was there to say? What could I tell them of the term paper I had just finished on the “universality of Shakespeare’s appeal”?)
Here is no fabulous hero, no idealized scholar-worker. The scholarship boy does not straddle, cannot reconcile, the two great opposing cultures of his life. His success is unromantic and plain. He sits in the classroom and offers those sitting beside him no calming reassurance about their own lives.
Negatively (for that is how this idea first occurred to me): My need to think so much and so abstractly about my parents and our relationship was in itself an indication of my long education. … And yet, positively: The ability to consider experience so abstractly allowed me to shape into desire what would otherwise have remained indefinite, meaningless longing in the British Museum.
At such times I suspected that education was making me effeminate. The odd thing, however, was that I did not judge my classmates so harshly. Nor did I consider my male teachers in high school effeminate. It was only myself I judged against some shadowy, mythical Mexican laborer—dark like me, yet very different.
In my bedroom were books by poets and novelists—books that I loved—in which male writers published feelings the men in my family never revealed or acknowledged in words. And it seemed to me that there was something unmanly about my attachment to literature. Even today, when so much about the myth of the macho no longer concerns me, I cannot altogether evade such notions.
That is only to say that my complexion assumes its significance from the context of my life. My skin, in itself, means nothing. I stress the point because I know there are people who would label me “disadvantaged” because of my color. They make the same mistake I made as a boy, when I thought a disadvantaged life was circumscribed by particular occupations. … But I was not one of los pobres. What made me different from them was an attitude of mind, my imagination of myself.
Academics would have violated their generation’s ideal of openness if they had said that their schools couldn’t accommodate disadvantaged Americans. To have acknowledged the truth about their schools, moreover, academics would have had to acknowledge their own position of privilege. And that would have been difficult. The middle-class academy does not deeply impress on students or teachers a sense of social advantage. The campus has become a place for “making it” rather than a place for those who, relatively speaking, “have it made.”
All those faraway childhood mornings in Sacramento, walking together to school, [my siblings and I] talked but never mentioned a thing about what concerned us so much: the great event of our schooling, the change it forced on our lives. Years passed. Silence grew thicker, less penetrable. We grew older without ever speaking to each other about any of it. Intimacy grooved our voices in familiar notes; familiarity defined the limits of what could be said. Until we became adults. And now we see each other most years at noisy family gatherings where there is no place to stop the conversation, no right moment to turn the heads of listeners, no way to essay this, my voice.