Claiming an Education: Adrienne Rich’s Spectacular 1977 Commencement Address
“Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions.”
By Maria Popova
In September of 1977, months before the publication of her exquisite Dream of a Common Language and exactly two decades before becoming the first and so far only person to refuse the prestigious National Medal of Arts in an act of remarkable political courage, Adrienne Rich stood before the graduating women at Douglass College and delivered one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time. The speech, titled “Claiming an Education,” was eventually reprinted in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library) — the same magnificent compendium of Rich’s writing that also gave us her timelessly beautiful exploration of how relationships refine our truths.
What does it mean to “claim” an education, exactly? Like time, which is not something we make but something we find, Rich begins by arguing that education requires an element of active personal initiative:
The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Rich considers the gendered nature of academia’s substance, a lament that seems dated only if we choose to remain blind to the hidden currents still sweeping society. She captures this with devastating succinctness:
One of the devastating weaknesses of university learning, of the store of knowledge and opinion that has been handed down through academic training, has been its almost total erasure of women’s experience and thought from the curriculum… What you can learn [in college] is how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history, their ideas of social relationships, good and evil, sickness and health, etc. When you read or hear about “great issues,” “major texts,” “the mainstream of Western thought,” you are hearing about what men, above all white men, in their male subjectivity, have decided is important.
And yet Rich is careful to counter any misperception that taking more “women’s studies” courses is the solution to this cultural imbalance:
While I think that any [student] has everything to gain by investigating and enrolling in women’s studies courses, I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women’s studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves. Our upbringing as women has so often told us that this should come second to our relationships and responsibilities to other people…
Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions — predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work, marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation… It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”; not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others — parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children — that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons.
Enacting this responsibility to ourselves, Rich argues, is how we can begin to imagine immensities and a choice monumental stakes:
The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.
Too often, all of us fail to teach the most important thing, which is that clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing are all necessary for intellectual freedom, and that these require hard work. Sometimes, perhaps in discouragement with a culture which is both antiintellectual and antiwoman, we may resign ourselves to low expectations for our students before we have given them half a chance to become more thoughtful, expressive human beings. We need to take to heart the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet, a thinking woman, and a feminist, who wrote in 1845 of her impatience with studies which cultivate a “passive recipiency” in the mind, and asserted that “women want to be made to think actively: their apprehension is quicker than that of men, but their defect lies for the most part in the logical faculty and in the higher mental activities.” Note that she implies a defect which can be remedied by intellectual training; not an inborn lack of ability.
Returning to the central notion that education is something we claim rather than receive, Rich turns to the student’s own responsibility in the equation — an assertion essential to the education and empowerment of women, but also one whose foundation applies to all genders across all fields of personal growth:
The contract on the student’s part involves that you demand to be taken seriously so that you can also go on taking yourself seriously. This means seeking out criticism, recognizing that the most affirming thing anyone can do for you is demand that you push yourself further, show you the range of what you can do…
It means assuming your share of responsibility for what happens in the classroom, because that affects the quality of your daily life here. It means that the student sees herself engaged with her teachers in an active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to the belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college — if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will no longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.
More of Rich’s inextinguishable mind can be found between the covers of On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Sample it further with Rich on the dignity of love, then complement this particular gem with more spectacular commencement addresses, including Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.
Published May 21, 2014