Educating Rita

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Educating Rita

"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 lived 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 essence 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 teacher, 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 facade 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 her 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 a crowd that listens to classical music, reads and discusses serious books, and sports
the sort of clothing and entertainment that distinguish them from ordinary working class
people. 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 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 facade, a facade 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 culture. When Rita first introduces herself to her as a possible
room-mate, sounds of a Gustav 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 cultural 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 facade 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 hopelessly 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
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