Gary Day

September 5, 2003

Whatever your age, an education now entails learning how to do something, rather than finding your own voice.

I saw Educating Rita again recently and thought, you couldn't make a film like that now, unless you called it Training Rita - but that doesn't have the quite the same ring, does it?

Here was a woman dissatisfied with her lot, not materially but mentally. She looked at her friends and family clustered round a table in the local pub, singing an old song. It could be one of the film's more sentimental moments, a cosy image of a working-class community, until Rita sees her mother crying and asks her why. The old girl's reply is something to the effect that she can't stand the song, "never could", and we are suddenly distanced from the cigarette smoke, the boozy camaraderie and the sprawl of the extended family.

That's the moment Rita decides she wants to hum a different tune. She thinks there must be more to life than pregnancy, hairdressing or even being a meter maid. Could literature be the answer?

"Yeah, right," snorts her husband, who prefers a Black&Decker to William Blake. Without a drill, no shelf for your Chekhov. He has a point. But he goes too far when he discovers Rita's contraceptives and burns her books.

Undeterred, she continues with the course, waving aside her tutor's worries that she may lose her own voice by learning to speak in the accents of criticism. Educating Rita is a wonderful film: moving, passionate and funny. And the debate about the pleasures and pitfalls of study is evenly handled; one minute I was shouting encouragement to Frank, her tutor, the next I was thumping the sofa in support of Rita. But it's also a sad film because it marks the end of a tradition. After Educating Rita , there can be no more stories about the working class longing for education.

That was a feature of the 1950s, and the film is full of echoes from the period: Richard Hoggart's scholarship boy and Beatie in Arnold Wesker's Roots , who is the prototype of the woman who finds her own voice. Even Frank's drunken lecture is straight out of Lucky Jim .

The film came out in 1983 at a time when working-class culture was coming under the cosh of Thatcherism: anti-union legislation, the sale of council houses, the assault on the welfare state and the worship of greed. But it took a Labour government to abolish grants and introduce tuition fees.

Without financial support, mature women of today are more likely to do a Shirley Valentine than a Rita, preferring a Greek island to an overcrowded seminar room. And who can blame them? Better to find yourself in the sun than to be robbed of your rights in Britain.

If the working class come to university now - and, as we know from the statistics, it's a big if - they are likely to encounter a culture where the most important word is "training". The assumption is that unless you've been trained to do it, you can't do it. And that goes for the staff as well, who must be trained in everything from how to answer the telephone to the proper way to queue for the photocopier.

But there's one thing they've forgotten, and I'm not talking about the correct way to sit in your chair (although I'm sure alarm bells would be ringing in Health and Safety if they could see how I spin round in mine).

No, I mean what is the etiquette when you recognise a colleague coming towards you down a long corridor? You both know you've seen each other, but you're too far away to speak. You can't keep looking at each other, yet you don't want to appear to be ignoring each other either by casting your eyes aside. Raising a hand in greeting could be misinterpreted, especially if one of you is short-sighted.

Please, trainers everywhere, what is to be done about this? Why has such an common occurrence of academic life, one that has the potential to destabilise sound working relationships, been so neglected?

As for the students, our job is not to help them find their own voice, it's to help them to meet the module outcomes. Sensible of Samuel Beckett's observation that "what is terrible is to have thought", we only train them to perform. Crumbs, if we suggested that "erring man" be taught "to spurn the rage of gain", Barclaycard would be in serious trouble. And so could managers if they aren't educated about the treachery of language.

A colleague was asked to devise a BA in lifelong learning studies for all the Ritas out there. Since universities can't function without acronyms, he was told to come up with one. He jokingly suggested Balls. It passed through two committees and that is now its official name.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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