Academia and Its (My) Discontents
Richard Miller discusses his students’ hostility towards Rodriguez’s rejection of his parents and, by extension, his ancestral culture. Miller suggests that his students rail against Rodriguez because they believe school should provide “know-how,” and should not bleed into their private lives and alter it. However, their anger towards Rodriguez, exemplified by words like “punk,” reveal a certain amount of defensiveness and a fear that after four years of academic training, they too will feel the same distancing. Miller writes, “And, at the same time, such responses voice a fear that schools do not, in fact, function in this isolated way, but rather produce (or reinforce) an estrangement from one’s past, an uncertainty about one’s place in the world, a resignation that what one must give up during the educational process can never be recovered” (135). As a student, one feels pressure from all sides. New ideas and new views learned in the classroom often make us confront or question received notions and traditions from our families or our cultural backgrounds.
I think these moments can be both frightening and thrilling. It is not mostly the texts we encounter that are responsible for the transformations we undergo but the institutional setting that is a sort of laboratory where a metamorphosis occurs. Within the classroom, we are trained to ask questions, respond in a certain way, make associations and distinctions, and parcel experience in a way that cannot easily be shared outside the institution. For instance, as I have moved through the institutions of the academy, I find that my present-tense conversations with my family are one-sided: they talk to me about their current events but I have trouble talking to them about mine. This shift is one that I first noticed as an undergraduate. I was sitting in the back of my parents’ car one day and I wanted to talk to them about the assassination of John Hamilton by Aaron Burr. I asked my parents, “Do you know who Aaron Burr was?” as a way to initiate the conversation. To be honest, I asked “Saben quien es Aaron Burr?” My father, without looking at me in the rear view mirror, turned to my mother and said, “Esta nena se cree que somos analfabetos.” (“This girl thinks we’re illiterate.”) For a split second, I found myself as the outsider and my father trying to close ranks with my mother against a perceived superiority complex on my part. From my perspective, I was engaging my immigrant parents in a bit of American history that, though commonly known to many, I had only recently discovered. In other words, I was trying to involve my parents in my life. However, this and future incidents taught me that I had to tread lightly when talking to my family about what I was doing at school.
What compounds the anxiety of alienation that many students feel is also the old trope that a humanities education, or that the “enlightenment” that one should receive, entails a process of seamless and joyous discovery. Harold Bloom advises the young student full of intellectual curiosity to “find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time’s tyranny. Pragmatically, that means, first find Shakespeare, and let him find you” (Bloom 22). For many students, finding Shakespeare only occurs through the mediation of devoted teachers and having Shakespeare find these students is not a complete blessing. Hence, Miller’s students express a very real anxiety about the encounters that await them in the back seats of their own parents’ cars.