by Tim Middleton
Thirty-seven years ago, the film Educating Rita gained a number of nominations for Oscars in telling the powerful story of a twenty-something working-class hairdresser called Rita who was seeking to find more to life. She saw her escape route through education. She was looking for upward mobility as a means of escaping from the trappings of her dull and materialistic life, and she saw education as being the means to such an end. As a result, she enrolled at an open university for evening classes.
At the same time, however, it transpired that her tutor sought an escape from his own prison, that very world of academia into which Rita sought an entrance; even academia was found to be dull and depriving. It was through Rita, his pupil, that he eventually found the courage to change, even if the only way he could leave was through being transferred overseas on account of his drinking problem.
The very world of formal education, which Rita believed had all the answers, was portrayed as being inadequate and inappropriate, as being hollow and disappointing. Cynically, the tutor described education in these terms: “It’s what we do, Rita; we pluck birds from the sky and nail them down to learn how they fly.” It was all wrong for, as one critic put it, “teachers are too quick to squelch enthusiasm and curiosity by forcing their students to think in the narrow-minded ways deemed worthwhile by academia”. The education being offered there was sterile, cynical, uncaring, cold, dry and lifeless, like the bird plucked from the sky. In effect, education plucked people like Rita from their backgrounds, nailed them down and tried to explain what they were doing wrong.
Rita sought change but clearly not that sort of change.
Here in Zimbabwe we are much more concerned about educating Tari than Rita. Interestingly, though, the themes of the 1983 film are as relevant and important to us today. Parents still look to education to bring upward mobility for our children, to bring about change. In many ways, we are also obsessed by academia and formal education without realising that such an obsession is hollow and depriving. Too much of our education can be narrow-minded and conformist.
One such Tari, one of Zimbabwe’s poets, Tari Mtetwa, touches on the theme of education in his poem, The Old School. He described how his education took place “under the cool of the tree” where “his unfailing teacher blew away my wrongs and whispered corrections” and led “from class to class to my graduation”. His education was limited and simple but it had relevance, though some will certainly see it as dull and monotonous. Many parents today, therefore, will look to education as the be-all-and-end-all, as the Holy Grail, as the answer to all problems. If only our child can do well in academia, we think, everything will be fine — except it will not!
In our world of educating Tari, we continue to search for the way, rightly, that Tari and his like can approach the future with hope. Rita had initially thought that education would bring about change, realising as she did, only too well, (without the help of education) that change did not come through going to the hairdresser or buying new clothes, or getting a degree. “If you wanna change y’ have to do it from the inside, don’t y’? Know like I’m doin’…tryin’ to do.” She thought education would bring change, but it did not. What education actually brought was choice and in that regard, choice brings opportunity. Opportunity is what should be sought, not education per se. Education, if that is all it is, brings disappointment. To obsess over success in education is to oppress and suppress the wings of the child.
We must not be beguiled into thinking that education by itself is the answer to our children’s difficulties or indeed this country’s difficulties. There are plenty of educated people who have not brought about the change that is desired by all. Education has failed us, if that is what we have looked for. However, as one critic has put it: “The idea of education that emerges from the film is one that emphasises wonder, doubt, and critical investigation: Radical and insisting questioning is ultimately not something negative and destructive, but the very precondition of a true life.” That is the education we must offer.
Educating Tari in the right way will bring more than Oscars. It will bring choice and, for sure, a hope for the future, in name as well as in deed.
Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.