“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.”
With these words, poet and scholar Adrienne Rich addressed new university students in 1977. “‘To receive,” Rich explained, “is to come into possession of; to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true” while “‘to claim’ is: to take as the rightful owner.” The difference, she said, is between being acted upon and being active.
Claim your education. You’ll notice that she didn’t say “claim your degree.” Where I grew up, not many people got to go to college. In my rural Indiana graduating class, fewer than 10 percent of us went to college; most of us were the first ones in our families.
The folks back home were very proud of us and sent us off to learn skills, get a degree, get a job, and take care of ourselves and our families, all of which are important. I know this sounds familiar to some of you. At EIU, we are proud to serve so many students for whom this is familiar. Your degree is important. But there’s something else you can get at EIU that is even more important: claim your education.
Education gives knowledge and knowledge, they say, is power. I mean social power—the ability to move through a variety of places and populations with ease and dignity; the ability to access goods and services that are available in our society, without fear or abuse. That’s power. When we hear “knowledge is power,” we often think that gaining more knowledge gets us more power. We often forget to think that the inverse is true. A quick story to demonstrate:
Several years ago, I was honored to sit on the Board of Directors of a national organization. I was invited because of my scholarly work—my knowledge. The Board meets in the Washington, D.C., region twice a year at a very nice hotel. People on the Board included doctors, lawyers, film producers, and this farm girl from Indiana. The first night of my first meeting, there was a dinner in the fancy hotel—with a full, formal place setting. The kind that lets you know that someone else gets paid to do these dishes. Now, in my home, if there were five forks on the table, there were five people eating, but I’m OK. I know what to do—I just watch someone else and do what they do. I was seated next to Nancy, the executive director of this organization—someone who regularly met with several presidents—and she had questions for me about my work, my knowledge. We talked and talked, and I was getting really thirsty. Two water glasses the same distance from my plate. To my left is Nancy and to my right is a lawyer who is talking about the time she argued before the Supreme Court. And I’m waiting for one of them to take a drink of water, so I can tell which glass is mine. They’re both drinking wine.
When I can’t stand it anymore, when it feels like I’m about to cough sawdust on the table, I interrupt Nancy. “Nancy,” I whisper, “is this your water or mine?” She throws up her hands and says, “hell, I don’t know, Jeannie. I’ve been waiting for you to take a drink.” It turns out Nancy is a miner’s daughter from Montana. Her upbringing and mine were very similar.
Knowledge is power. The knowledge that Nancy and I were able to get through our university educations gave us access to more power than our parents and grandparents had, not because we were better or smarter than they were, but because we had access to knowledge. Knowledge is power and power, in turn, is knowledge. Think about that glass of water; it represents the ways knowledge has traditionally and historically been controlled by those in power.
Consider this: Historically, the wealthy, the landowners, the most powerful studied philosophy and ethics while those who worked for them learned the rules. Historically, the most powerful studied politics while those who worked for them thought about who to vote for (if they were allowed to vote). Historically, the most powerful studied economics while those who worked for them learned to keep a budget and ring up a sale. More social power, more privilege meant more access to knowledge. Historically.
Today, public universities like EIU exist, in part, to promote democracy, equity through those classes we call “general education”—you know, those classes you are required to take that aren’t part of your major. These courses make the knowledge of the powerful available to those who have always worked for the powerful, they make the knowledge of the powerful available to people like me and Nancy and some of you.
That’s why it’s not enough for you to be here to receive, to learn skills, get a degree, get a job, and take care of yourselves and your families, all of which are important. “You will do much better,” Adrienne Rich said—and I say we all will do much better—if you “think of being here to claim [your education],” to claim knowledge as your right, your access to power.
Claim knowledge. It’s not easy. It’s not meant to be. Rich told students in 1977 that claiming your education means “respect[ing] and us[ing] your own brains and instincts” and “grappling with hard work.” It means re-reading that assignment, even if you aren’t interested in it, until you understand it; revising that essay until it’s clear; refiguring that equation until the mathematical formula makes sense to you. It’s kind of like, at the very end of your workout, doing five extra pushups. Sometimes it feels like you just can’t, but you try, and when you do, you make yourself stronger.
Claim power. I’d like to tell you that everyone will be supportive and helpful as you claim your education. I can’t. Power, you see, resists change. Fear works to keep us all in our place. Those with the most power often don’t like it when those who’ve always worked for them start gaining knowledge. We can see this right here, where the budget decisions of those in power make it harder for us to help as you claim your education and make it harder for many of you to be here at all. And I just heard our governor on Wednesday talking about cutting higher education budgets by 30 percent. Power resists change.
Many people, some on our campus, are going to try to sell you that degree instead of an education. They are going to tell you that your time here will be easier, your life better if you focus on learning skills, getting a degree, getting a job, and taking care of yourselves and your families, all of which are important. But we know, don’t we, that life is not easier for those with less power.
What these folks won’t tell you, what they may even be too afraid to admit, is that education is not an either/or proposition—not either practical or empowering, not either a degree or knowledge. It’s both. If we have any hope of changing the power structure, it must be both. You must claim both. And you must be able to count on your best educators to support you every step of the way, to help you push toward practicality and empowerment, degree and knowledge.
Do it. We’re right here with you. Claim your education. Claim knowledge as your right. Claim power for your future. Claim your EIU.
Related Story: EIU Faculty Laureate Advocates Laying Claim to Education