Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Published May 12, 2005

Book vs. street smarts Battle of wits sparks unexpected lessons in ‘Educating Rita'

CAROLE BARROWMAN Special to the Journal Sentinel Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

If you attend the Cornerstone Theater’s production of "Educating Rita," which opens Friday, think Ty Pennington but channel Plato. Although written decades before our culture’s current obsession with plastic surgeons and Dr. Phils, the play’s title could be "Extreme Makeover: the Enlightenment Edition."

Meet Frank, our first makeover contestant. Frank is a disillusioned English professor and a failed poet. He is divorced, lives with a former student and spends most of his waking hours cloistered in his office or clinging to a barstool. His life, like his whiskey, is on the rocks.

In fact, Frank, by his own admission, is "an appalling teacher," but "most of the time" it doesn’t matter because he has mostly "appalling students." Although after four pints of Guinness, Frank can "be as witty as Oscar Wilde," his poetry, his pedagogy and his life have lost their passion.
Now meet Rita, our second participant in this educational makeover. Rita is a 26-year-old student and a hairdresser who’s looking for more than perms and peroxide to change her life. She feels trapped in her social class, stifled by her marriage and sees a formal education as her way out of both. "I don’t want a baby yet," she laments. "I wanna discover meself first."

With swift pacing and sharp humor, "Educating Rita" presents a contest of wits between Frank with his traditional education, his book learning, on one side, and, Rita, with her street smarts and common sense savvy on the other. As each begins to respect what the other does and does not know, Rita recognizes that a real education is one that "you discover in your own terms," and Frank realizes that the hardest lesson to teach is the one you can’t predict but that you have to be prepared for.

My first teaching position was in a large Midwestern university where I was assigned a composition class of about 30 students, many of whom needed to pass in order to remain eligible for athletics. The stakes were as high for the students as they were for their teacher.

That long ago Monday morning did not come fast enough for me. I was so over prepared I could’ve taught with the chalk tied behind my back. I’ve since repressed many of the little details of this course, but I do remember a big one. I was in the middle of a particularly profound point about the nature of symbolism in William Faulkner’s "A Rose for Emily," when a young man in the front row raised his hand.

"Good," I remember thinking. "I’ll use his question to start the class discussion."

"Do you know," he said without any rancor, "you have a hair growing out of the mole on your face?"

This humbling experience taught me more about education than most of my graduate courses, and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten: Just because I was teaching did not mean my students were learning.

In "Educating Rita," Frank is teaching to the test, but Rita, like most of my students, is learning for life. The kind of makeover the students in my classes are experiencing is one that will free them from limitations, expand their choices and prepare them for more than the final round of "Jeopardy."
In his syndicated column, Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote, "there’s a huge undertow of worry in the country about how our kids are being educated and whether they’ll be able to find jobs in an increasingly flat world, where more Chinese, Indians and Russians than ever can connect, collaborate and compete with us."

From this perspective, the dichotomy "Educating Rita" sets up between the "real world" and the "academic world" is a false one. From where I teach, the most important thing a real education can give is the ability to know how to learn and how to keep on learning when you don’t have a teacher any more.

A dangerous view

Unlike Frank, most of us who teach do so because we can and not because we can’t do something else. Frank has forgotten this. His lecture notes go from his briefcase to his desk drawer and out again without any fresh ink in between. Late in the play, Frank describes the educated Rita as a monster of his making, comparing himself to Mary Shelley (even his name is an allusion to Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein); however, this is a dangerous view for a teacher to hold for it assumes the student was an empty vessel, passive in the learning process and just waiting to be created anew.
Rita, on the other hand, believes that when she has a "room full of books," knows "what clothes to wear, what wine to buy, what plays to see," she will be educated. This, too, can be a dangerously narrow view to hold for it confuses a real education with a kind of self-righteous intellectual consumerism.

In the end, Frank and Rita must confront their prejudices about literature and art and overcome their preconceived notions about education before they can truly learn and transform themselves. Are they successful? See the play and you be the judge.

What: Cornerstone Theatre Company’s "Educating Rita"
When: Opens 8 p.m. Friday; through May 29
Where: Brumder Mansion, 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Tickets: $20, $18, $12 student and seniors (matinees only). Call (414) 342-2951