"Educating Rita"

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenwriter: Willy Russell
Released: 1983
With Julie Walters, Michael Caine, and others

Rita (Julie Walters) is a twenty-six years old hairdresser from Liverpool who has decided to get an education. Not the sort of education that would get her just a better job or more pay, but an education that would open up for her a whole new world--a liberal education. Rita wants to be a different person, and live an altogether different sort of life than she has been living so far.
She enrolls in the Open University, a government program that allows non-traditional students to get the kind of higher education that used to be reserved more or less for the offspring of the upper classes, and mainly for male students at that. "Educating Rita" describes the trials and transformations that the young hairdresser has to go through to develop from a person with hardly any formal schooling at all into a student who passes her university exams with ease and distinction. In the course of telling this story, the film also suggests what the ultimate purpose of a liberal education may be.

The story is presented in the form of a comedy, a comedy that revolves around the personal and pedagogical relationship between Rita and her main tutor, Dr. Frank Bryant (Michael Caine). Frank Bryant teaches comparative literature, and it is his job to prepare Rita for her exams. Unfortunately, Frank Bryant has lost all enthusiasm for his academic field and its related teaching duties. He loathes most of his regular students, and the main function of the rows of classical works that still fill the bookshelves in his office is to hide the whiskey bottles without which he is not able to get through the day and the semesters anymore. When he teaches his regular classes he is frequently drunk, and in response to a student's complaint that students are not learning much about literature in Bryant's class, the burned-out teacher gruffly advises: "Look, the sun is shining, and you're young. What are you doing in here? Why don't you all go out and do something? Why don't you go and make love--or something?"

Frank Bryant is a disenchanted intellectual who has no real use anymore for literature, culture, or the life of the mind. Introducing working people in particular to the world of higher education seems utterly pointless to him. When he finds himself assigned as the primary tutor for Rita he remarks to a fellow-instructor: "Why a grown adult wants to come to this place after putting in a hard day's work is totally beyond me." He himself would much rather go to a pub than spend the evening instructing some disadvantaged student.

When Rita appears at Frank's office for their first tutorial session, however, the two take a sort of liking to each other. Rita is bright, vivacious, charming, and good looking to boot. "Why didn't you walk in here twenty years ago?" Frank exclaims. He is twice her age and looks somewhat disheveled (like a "geriatric hippie," as Rita puts it), but he impresses his new student by his irreverent humor and easy-going manner. Trying to deflate her respect for his seemingly impressive academic accomplishments, he says: "I am afraid, Rita, that you will find that there is much less to me than meets the eye." To which Rita replies: "See, y' can say dead clever things like that, can't y? I wish I could talk like that. It's brilliant." In spite of Frank's initial attempt to excuse himself from his assignment and to repair to a pub, he eventually gives in to Rita' s pleading and agrees to be her instructor.
Frank wants to know why Rita has "suddenly" decided to get an education. She has a secure job, after all, and there is no pressure on her to enroll in a program of higher education. Rita answers that her desire is not sudden: "I've been realizin' for ages that I was, y' know, slightly out of step. I'm twenty-six. I should have had a baby by now; everyone expects it. I'm sure me husband thinks I'm sterile. He was moanin' all the time, y' know, 'Come off the pill, let's have a baby.' I told him I'd come off it, just to shut him up. But I'm still on it. See, I don't wanna baby yet. I wanna discover myself first. Do you understand that?"

Frank says that he understands, but he is never quite convinced that he is doing the right thing in turning Rita into the kind of person who is acceptable to and approved by the academic world. He fears that too much of her original charming personality will be destroyed in the process. The comical paradox of the situation is that Rita desires exactly what Frank does not value anymore: the clever speech of academics, the culture and tastes of the upper classes, and an escape from the trivia of down-to-earth life into a realm of ideas that seem more significant than the preoccupations of ordinary people. The things that Frank appreciates these days, Rita already has in overabundance: spontaneous feelings, a unique personality, and a solid grounding in the unpretentious world of basic work and simple pleasures. While in the coming weeks and months he succeeds in teaching Rita how to read and analyze literature in a scholarly way, and to express her insights in well-argued essays, Frank never loses the nagging feeling that he is deforming Rita as much as he is educating her. What slowly emerges as a result of his tutorials, as far as he is concerned, is not Rita' s true self, but a pretentious mask and façade that may be desirable for a certain class of people, but that are hardly worth the sacrifices that Rita is making in order to acquire them.

Rita' s progress in her academic education does not come easy. The main obstacles she faces come from her working class background and her husband Denny. Denny has very traditional ideas about the social role of a good woman. He does not only fail to support her educational efforts, but even obstructs them wherever he can. He feels--not without reason--that he is slowly losing control over his wife, and he bitterly accuses her of thinking that he and her family are "not good enough" for her anymore. Rita s father sides with her husband. For one thing, he nastily chides her for not having produced any grandchildren for him. Indeed, almost everything in her environment seems to conspire to keep her where, according to conventional wisdom, she belongs. The smoldering marital crisis comes to a head when Denny discovers that Rita is still on the pill. In a rage he burns her papers and books, and eventually he confronts her with the ultimatum of either "packing in" her studies for good, or of being kicked out of her home and marriage.

Rita decides to continue with her education, but it takes all her strength and courage to cope with the consequences. Her scholarly work is still far from adequate, and she still feels like an inferior stranger among regular students and the academic crowd. On the other hand she has already moved too far away from her old environment to be able to return to it. Once drawn into the orbit of such writers as Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov, she cannot get too excited anymore about such things as sampling different brands of beer in the corner pub, or happily singing along with the tunes of the jukebox. Having moved out of her old world, and not having arrived yet in a new one, Rita feels alone and at a loss. As she explains to Frank: "I can't talk to the people I live with anymore. An' I can't talk to the likes of them [the academic crowd], because I can't learn the language. I'm a half-caste."

By making an utterly determined effort, however, Rita finally improves the quality of her academic work to such a degree that Frank can rank it on a par with the work of the regular students. Other students are beginning to respect and admire her opinions in literary matters. Rita also moves in with Trish, a cultured young woman who introduces her to people who listen to classical music, read and discusses serious books, and sport the sort of clothing and entertainment that distinguish them from ordinary folks. And when Rita comes back from summer school in London, Frank finds that she has made much more progress than he had expected. Other teachers take an interest in her, and she has gained an independence of judgment that allows her to converse freely about topics that used to intimidate her by their strangeness and complexity. Nobody doubts that she will pass her exams, and most people would agree that Rita has achieved what she had set out to achieve: she has acquired an education.

Yet, something is not right with what she has achieved. While Rita revels in her accomplishments and newly found self-confidence, Frank is visibly unhappy with what Rita has turned into. "What does it profit a man if he gaineth the whole of literature, but loses his soul?" he rhetorically wonders on a couple of occasions. When Frank, somewhat drunk, openly expresses his skepticism about the ultimate value of Rita' s new state of mind, however, she blows up at him: "I'll tell you what you can't bear, Mr. Self-Pitying Piss Artist. What you can't bear is that I am educated now. What's up, Frank, don't y' like me now that the little girl's grown up, now that y' can no longer bounce me on daddy's knee an' watch me stare back in wide-eyed wonder at everything he has to say? I'm educated, I've got what you have an' y' don't like it because you'd rather see me as the peasant I once was. … I don't need you anymore. I've got a room full of books. I know what clothes to wear, what wine to buy, what plays to see, what papers and books to read. I can do without you." "Is that all you wanted? Have you come all this way for so very, very little?" Frank replies. "Oh it's little to you, isn't it? It's little to you who squanders every opportunity and mocks and takes it all for granted," Rita shoots back. She is not about to see the culture disparaged for the attainment of which she has expended so much effort. But Frank continues to chide her: "Found a culture, have you, Rita? Found a better song to sing, have you? No--you have found a different song, that's all. And on your lips it's shrill and hollow and tuneless. Oh, Rita, Rita…"

Rita, to be sure, has good reasons for being weary of Frank's remarks, for Frank has been deteriorating at almost the same rate as Rita progressed with her education. His bouts of drunkenness have increased in number and intensity, and he has displayed signs of a petty and immature jealousy as Rita became intellectually more independent and socially more curious about other people. As with her ex-husband before, the issue of control has clearly become a problematic issue in Rita' s relationship with her teacher. Nevertheless, Frank's admonitions are more justified than Rita can see at the moment. And it is indeed the less than impeccable conduct of Frank that gives substance to the dim view that he takes of higher education. For Frank himself is a primary illustration for the fact that an academic education in itself may mean little or nothing. Frank's command of words and literature, his ability to participate in the cultural life of society, and his position at the university are indeed little more than a hollow façade, a façade that masks a dismaying and profound emptiness in his actual life.

Frank used to write and publish poetry. His work was well received, and a good number of readers still think highly of it. Rita and Trish praise it as witty, profound, and brilliant. But Frank has nothing but contempt for it: "This clever, pyrotechnical pile of self-conscious allusions is worthless, talentless shit…" For a while he had tried to save in himself the feeling of creating significant work by consuming increasing amounts of alcohol, but by the time of his encounter with Rita he has lost all faith with regard to the value of his, or anybody else's, artistic endeavors. In his mind, education and culture are not expressions of a higher or deeper wisdom anymore, but pretentious exercises in futility. In spite of the high regard in which official society seems to hold education and culture, he cannot find any compelling reasons to support them. He simply does not know anymore why they should be so important, or why they should be more esteemed than the working class culture from which Rita struggled to free herself. Their supposed value may in the end be nothing but a prejudice. That is what he tried to tell Rita at the time when he suggested that she had better find another teacher for herself: "Everything I know--and you must listen to this--is that I know absolutely nothing."

What happens to Rita's friend Trish also casts doubt on the value of education. Trish is an enthusiast of high culture. When Rita first introduces herself to her as a possible room-mate, sounds of a Mahler symphony are blasting through the apartment, and Trish keeps exclaiming admiringly: "Wouldn't you die without Mahler?" Trish was the one who brought Rita together with people who "talked about important things"--classical music, theatre, and all the events that constitute a cultured life. But one day Rita finds Trish unconscious in their apartment: her friend has tried to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. After Trish is brought back to life at the hospital, Rita asks her: "Why?" Trish explains that she always seemed to feel alive when classical music was playing, or when poetry was being read. But whenever the music or the poetry stopped, "there was just me. And that is not enough." In the end Trish's education was as much a mere façade for her inner emptiness as it was for that of Frank. The enthusiastic celebration of such things as classical music or poetry by itself did not really provide her with a genuine and fulfilling life. In the midst of her educated companions and their cultured life she still felt disappointed and deprived.

Rita has to learn at the end of the movie that the culture and education that she has acquired with the help of people like Frank and Trish does not necessarily amount to the rich new existence that she had hoped for when she enrolled in the Open University. She has to understand that the life of cultured people may not be a real life at all, but rather a sort of substitute life--a series of preoccupations and activities without any deeper or meaningful purpose. Rita' s over-all education, in other words, consists of two parts. The first part is the learning of all the things that cultured people are expected to be in command of: articulate speech, knowledge of classic literature and music, important quotations and literary allusions, and so forth. The second part is recognizing that all this may mean little in itself, that a learned academic may essentially be as lost or impoverished a person as anyone without any formal schooling. Only after acquiring her academic training and recognizing its potential meaninglessness has Rita become a true graduate.

In one of their last conversations Rita acknowledges that Frank had been right when he seemingly belittled her academic accomplishments: "You think that I just ended up with a load of quotes and empty phrases; an' I did. I was so hungry. I wanted it all so much that I didn't want it to be questioned. I told y' I was stupid." After thinking things over, however, and after having had a chance to take a closer look at the actual lives of people like Frank and Trish, she can see now that higher learning has to be questioned, and that seriously questioning it is an indispensable part of any liberal education worthy its name.

It is one of the subtle ironies of "Educating Rita" that quite generally the film seems to say much more against education than for it. At first sight, of course, the film is the success story of a young woman who overcomes all sorts of obstacles and who triumphs in the end by passing her academic exams with distinction. (Hollywood blurb writers routinely describe such uplift stories as "triumphs of the human spirit.") "Educating Rita," however, avoids such hackneyed optimism by emphasizing not only Rita' s success, but also the possible hollowness of the education and culture into which the young woman has worked her way.

A skeptical view of Rita' s academic accomplishment is persistently alluded to throughout the film, not only by the noteworthy unhappiness of Frank's and Trish's lives, but also by the theme of false appearances that runs through the entire story. The rows of classic books that hide Frank's whiskey bottles are introduced early on as an important and revealing leitmotif. The motif suggests that quite generally not everything is well behind the grand facades of the neo-classical buildings that dominate the campus of the University--that there really is "much less than meets the eye." Repeatedly we are shown the prominent wall of the auditorium inside which students attend lectures and take their exams, a wall that appears to be solid masonry, but which is in fact painted wood into which hidden doors have been cut. Fitting into such a tromp l'oeul decor, the two colleagues with whom Frank has personal relationships are not only somewhat pompous philistines, but they also try to deceive their friend by carrying on an amorous affair behind his back. Indeed, Rita herself may be said to partake in the culture of false fronts by assuming the name "Rita"--after Rita Mae Brown, the author of Ruby Fruit Jungle whom she greatly admires at the time of her enrollment in the Open University. Rita' s original name is Susan, and she eventually returns to that name once she comes to feel that her name change was an unworthy pretense. All the little deceptions and pretenses presented in the film are but so many hints at the possibility or even likelihood that the world of education and culture may not be nearly as sound and worthy as it is generally taken to be.

One might want to object to the film's negative characterization of culture and higher education by pointing out that not all educated or cultured people are as burned out or troubled as Frank and Trish, or as pompous and hollow as some of the other academics that appear in the story. One might want to say that an education can be misused as a screen for an otherwise empty life, but that it can also be put to some authentic and profitable use. And if Frank's poetry is indeed as bad as he says it is (the viewer of the movie never gets to hear any of it), that does not necessarily mean that all poetry or all culture would be of such dubious value. The film's persistent focus on false pretenses and hollow facades, in other words, may encourage a facile over-generalization.

It is important to see, however, that Frank's disenchantment with education and culture represents more than some sort of personal failure. His critical attitude toward his academic environment is, in fact, nothing less than a necessary philosophical challenge to certain widely held assumptions. It is no coincidence that Frank speaks like Socrates when he warns Rita that he does not have anything to teach her: "Everything I know … is that I know absolutely nothing." It was Socrates who first introduced to the West the idea that all basic assumptions ought to be questioned, and that such questioning has to start with a humble admission of one's own ignorance. "I know that I do not know" stands as a central piece of Socratic wisdom--in contrast to the smug self-confidence with which most people take their commonly held assumptions for granted. Halfway cultured people keep thinking that high culture is good, and educators keep telling students that a liberal education is a most worthy goal to strive for. Frank wonders whether that is really the case. Unlike his more complacent colleagues, he does not take the truth of these assumptions to be self-evident. On the contrary, he sees a good number of reasons for doubt--and thus for philosophical inquiries.

Frank focuses on the problem by pointing out, for example, a difference that he sees between "poetry" and "literature." In Willy Russell's stage play "Educating Rita," on which the movie is based, Frank tells Rita: "Instead of writing poetry I spent--oh--years trying to create literature." And he declares categorically: "Poets shouldn't believe in literature." What he means is that genuine poetry is an expression of real life, not an attempt to impress a literary establishment. Genuine poetry is a response to problems and conditions that involve all important and pressing aspects of human existence. When poetry is truly creative it devises not just new and clever ways of saying things, but provides the reader with new visions, with new ways of understanding the entirety of life. Poetry, as Frank sees it, is not just sophisticated rhetoric, but a deep inspiration that affects our passions, our knowledge, and everything we do in the world. Literature, by contrast, is merely a cultural institution, a domain in which academic specialists concentrate on the primarily formal and aesthetic aspects of the expressions of life. Within culture as an institution there is an inevitable tendency to focus more on the forms of expression than on what is expressed; questions of form become more important than content. When the Bible, for example, becomes mere literature, it loses most of its power to offend or inspire; when Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or King's letter from the Birmingham jail become specimens of fine speaking or writing, political struggles and real suffering recede into the background. For cultural establishments literature and high art become their own purpose, and the classes that support the institutionalized arts are not moved anymore by the disturbing questions and events that once inspired great works, but function more as expert consumers who delight in the aesthetic texture of things.

This is not to say that it is always wrong to be concerned with form. There have been times and situations when the explicit pursuit of the aesthetic was an important and meaningful project. Militant aesthetes like Oscar Wilde or radical "formalists" like Wassily Kandinsky had important points to make. Nevertheless, there is a clear danger that art for art's sake and culture for culture's sake degenerate into variations of vapid entertainment that are ultimately as pointless as they are narrow-minded. It is this sort of institutionalized aestheticism, this sort of isolation of culture from the whole of life that Frank dislikes when he says that real poets should not believe in literature, and when he remarks that "there is more wit in the telephone book, and probably more insight," than in his cleverly crafted and highly cultured verse. If by his instructions he had achieved nothing more than the transformation of Rita from a traditional working class woman into a sophisticated consumer of refined culture goods, he could not but conclude that he had not only alienated her from her true self, but had also disconnected her from the depth and truth of real life.

The Socratic disposition to radically test and question all commonly accepted assumptions pertains not only to specific phenomena like cultural establishments, but ultimately also to life as such. The matter comes up when Rita has her first real experience with serious drama. She finds herself so moved by seeing Shakespeare's Macbeth that she has to tell Frank about it during an impromptu visit. In Russell's play (unfortunately not in the film) she does not only relate her excitement, but also recites a key passage of the tragedy, a passage that reveals a philosophical dimension in Macbeth's desperate thoughts:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

The philosophical importance of these words lies in their suggestion that the entirety of life may not be as grounded, meaningful, and important as it is commonly assumed to be. People may be passionately involved with each other and in their various pursuits, but if looked at from afar all their urgent pronouncements and activities may not have any more significance than the ephemeral performances of actors on a very temporary stage. Beyond this stage there may not be anything but a great nothingness, a nothingness that comes into view for Macbeth when he approaches the end of his tragic career. It also comes into view for the viewer of Shakespeare's drama, and that is one of the reasons why Rita' s experience of Macbeth is a crucial part of her education. Macbeth' s despairing vision puts human existence into philosophical perspective. It presents life as something that is not simply to be lived, busily and thoughtlessly, but as something that needs to be wondered at and examined. It needs to be made sense of in the way Socrates tried to make sense of it by his persistent questioning. Rita is brought into this philosophical frame of mind by vividly experiencing Macbeth's haunting vision. By having a glimpse of an overwhelming nothingness she can see how deep a mind has to go before it can hope to make sense of anything.

The idea of education that emerges from the film is one that emphasizes wonder, doubt, and critical investigation: Radical and insisting questioning is ultimately not something negative and destructive, but the very precondition of a true life. No creativity or advancement would be possible without skepticism and denial. Culture and education themselves would stagnate and degenerate unless subversive minds were allowed to do their work. Civilization would turn into dogmatic and repressive barbarism unless its very foundations were called into question—repeatedly, passionately, and with utter sincerity. Negation, as Hegel so famously advertised in his philosophy of dialectics, is the indispensable precondition for anything positive.

There is, of course, no negation without something that can be negated; an empty mind is not capable of any significant doubt. Rita had to acquire a great deal of learning before she could even begin to raise serious questions about anything. Education is the necessary precondition of its own deconstruction. Still, the film's main emphasis is on raising doubts, on overcoming established conditions, and on the hope of finding new ground. It celebrates leaving behind, the dying of the old, and the forging of a new self out of the fragments of discarded worlds. It leaves the viewer and the protagonists of the film cheerfully facing a creative void.

At the end of "Educating Rita" Frank is sent to Australia; his conduct at the University is not tolerated any longer. Australia was, of course, the former penal colony where England sent her convicts, mostly victims of the social conditions that racked the kingdom's lower classes at the time. Frank's reassignment is a comical encore of those earlier exiles. His exile and demotion, however, is entirely alright with him. It is a welcome way of saying good-bye to the worn-out culture for which he has no more use, and it accords with his fondness of the working-class culture that he finds more genuine than the world of the academics against which his drunken bouts are in part a rebellion. Australia is a New World. Proposing to Rita that she go with him to this new beginning, he points out that "in Australia everything is only just starting, while in England everything is ending." It would be the ideal completion of Rita' s education if she left everything behind, her limiting old working class life as well as her newly acquired bourgeois culture. It would be a radical new start.

Rita declines the invitation, but in essence she embraces the same idea: a new kind of existence that lies beyond the old forms of life. By having overcome the limitations of her old world through education, and by recognizing the limitations of what she has acquired at the University, she finds herself in the same situation as Frank: in some sort of existential Australia where "everything is only just starting." She has choices to make, and it is her having grown beyond the old forms of life that gives her the freedom to make these choices. This in the end is the essence of her education, and the essence of any liberal education as such: the knowledge-based ability to step back from all forms of life, the capability to deliberate freely, and then to embark on a course of action that does not grow out of established patterns and unexamined impulses, but out of critical reflection and informed decisions. What Rita thanks Frank for at the end, and what has made him a "good teacher" during all her trials, is that he has helped her to get into this position: "You have given me a choice." Education, in other words, is liberation. It is the emancipation of a person from a state of being a mere extension of a given environment to an active agent who can choose who she or he will be: a potential creator of his or her own world.

From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies

Mill: Culture and the Satisfied Pig

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