Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenwriter: Willy Russell
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 find...
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... 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 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 form 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.
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