A reflection on education and inventing the selfLiterature Review
Every student has asked, probably frequently, “why do I need to know this?” A good response to this might be, “why do you need to know anything?” Or, more to the point, “what is education in the first place?”
It’s a contested question and everyone perhaps has their own answer to give it, but Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 immigrant novel, Bread Givers, offers an even more compelling answer. In fact, it offers two. And they are different enough, should we consider them closely.
The novel follows the melodramatic journey of young Sara Smolinski from destitute poverty and patriarchal religious oppression to earning an education and independence as a teacher in New York’s Lower East Side. The narrative has much to say about the “why?” of learning. But why should we consider, or rather re-consider, this novel now, nearly 100 years later?
In current times, education, like many other aspects of life, has become increasingly mechanical. Testing and other forms of assessment dominate our teaching practices. As a teacher myself, I see students trained to memorize and perform upon command, making learning more about imitating than becoming. One of my greatest fears is that by churning our students through these mechanical systems of accountability, we turn a blind eye when it comes to nurturing them as individuals. Instead, we train them to depend upon and look up to the authoritarian figures in their lives.
In many ways, our bureaucratic institutions of learning remind me of the vision of Moloch devouring workers’ bodies to feed the machine of commerce in Fritz Lang’s phenomenal silent film Metropolis. This image keeps me up at night.
Bread Givers offers me hope for something better.
For Sara, education has two very different ends. As a matter of fact, the divergent purposes are so distinct that we might actually be talking about two types of education all together.
First, there is the utilitarian, practical form of education. The Smolinski’s are extremely poor. Sara's father, the esteemed Reb Smolinski, is so rapturously caught up in the prestige of being an eminent Torah scholar that he simply refuses to work. For him working for money instead of studying Torah would be an affront to G-d and the community. Given this set of circumstances, Reb’s daughters must keep the house afloat — be the “burden bearers.” The work they find is degrading and brutal, but they are honor-bound to do it for the sake of the family.
Sara, the youngest, breaks away and seeks a life free of this poverty. Working her way first through night school, then college, she is able to lift herself out of a life of abject poverty by the sheer force of her tenacious will. She becomes a teacher and earns enough money to live a decent, even elegant life in the city where she grew up. In this way education serves a utilitarian, almost coldly practical purpose.
But if this is the ultimate good of Sara’s education, it would fall short of triumphant. Happily, the novel also idealizes a starkly different idea of education; something transformative, perhaps even spiritual.
Bread Givers makes much of Sara’s obsession with being alone. She prizes the solitude she finds in leaving behind her family and it is in these very spaces that, away from her past yet not quite arrived at her future, she comes into her own. Her solitude offers a radical break from the patterns of her former life, and she literally re-invents and forges a new identity of herself in her own imagination, which her formal schooling feeds.
One essential feature of this other type of education, this spiritual progress, is that it has no practical purpose that can be translated into money and material goods. It is instead material to feed that imagination in the quest of forging a self, free of the limitations of her past. Her learning is an all-consuming commitment, and inspired by a few committed teachers and mentors, she aims it at her very being.
At the other end of this process, when she is a teacher serving young students who are what she once was — Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side — the self she has crafted is the result of two opposing forms of education working in concert. She is materially secure now. Not only has her education been a successful financial investment but and she also profits from it. However, and more importantly, she sees beyond the limitations of materially-focused learning.
Observing the other teachers (who she sees as simply cashing a paycheck with their labor), she writes “Not one of the teachers around me had kept the glamour. They were just peddling their little bit of education for a living, the same as any pushcart peddler." Here we see the wisdom of her spiritual education bringing judgment down upon the utilitarian motivation of her practical education. These teachers who have lost “the glamour” live more comfortably than they once did, but they have not really escaped the trappings of their old lives. Their pushcarts are more elegant perhaps, but they are pushcarts nonetheless. They sell labor for wages, now no less than before.
Sara, conversely, has spawned a rich, purposeful new life from the marriage between her practical and spiritual educations. She has kept the glamour intact.
All of this reminds me of the tension created when we bring two other great works of Jewish literature into conversation.
In Bernard Malamud’s classic short story “A Summer’s Reading,” we follow loafer George Stoyanovich as he makes the transition from a feckless youth to maturing man through the process of reading “worthwhile” books. To deflect criticism about his drifting, ambitionless life, George tells an older neighborhood man, Mr. Cattanzara, that he has decided to spend the summer reading 100 books from the library, to help in his education. To his poor, working class, immigrant neighbors, this makes George a sensation and a hero. Eventually, Mr. Cattanzara deduces George’s lie, yet decides to cover it up and tell the community that George has accomplished the great feat. With the pressure off, George inexplicably runs to the library and pulls 100 books off the shelves to read, in one of the most abrupt and enigmatic conclusions in American literature.
The point of the story is that George is entirely freed from the concept of “use” in his education. Given that his mentor has already given him full credit for the learning, there is nothing tangible to be gained in pursuing it; there’s nothing left to cash in. All that is left is the opportunity to become. This vision of education is utterly spiritual and completely divorced from utilitarian purpose. Education is magic for George, a currency unto itself with no regard for “the real world.” It is glamour, in Yezierska’s language.
Now let’s consider Franz Kafka, who, to no one’s surprise, puts a coldly material spin on the same story. In his short story “A Report to An Academy,” we hear an account of the most remarkable education in literature, straight from the mouth of its subject. Red Peter, the former ape, recounts his initiation into the world of learned men to a gallery of scholars. In sublimely eloquent language, Red Peter describes his journey from the beginning as an ape captured in Africa by a zoo to his status as a learned performer on the vaudeville stage.
His education, as Peter specifically notes, is not motivated by any sense of “freedom,” but rather the existential desire for “a way out.” Squeezed into a cage at the beginning of his transport, the ape discovers that by imitating his rude captors’ drinking and spitting, he was offered slightly more comfortable accommodation; they gave him a bigger cage, as much for them as him. They found his imitations entertaining, and this was an opportunity for Peter to improve his conditions.
This is the first and last lesson that Red Peter learns. He extends this practice of pleasing authority figures through imitation, and he learns to speak and read as he remarkably becomes a human in the process. But each step was only to provide himself with more room to move; never was he truly free. Even his acquisition of high human language was motivated not by some intrinsic desire to become human, but because the vaudeville stage is a more comfortable prison than the zoo. In spite of all appearances, his legendary education provides only a more comfortable cage.
Kafka’s strictly material view of education in society maps nicely on to those teachers that Sara encounters – the push-cart educators. They have not transcended the cage they were born into but have merely made it a little roomier for themselves.
That being said, what are we to do with the lessons that Sara Smolinski teaches us in Bread Givers?
I would argue that education in our time has become nightmarishly materialistic in precisely the way that Kafka describes Red Peter’s world. The ends that our institutions envision for our students are not transcendent. Our systems of prescribed learning outcomes and data-driven assessments have no interest in helping individuals flourish by feeding their imaginations about what they might want to become tomorrow. They, more closely, resemble a series of bureaucratic checkpoints that dictate the comfort of our students’ future cages. What Yezierska provides is hope. Not the naive idealism that the bureaucrats, assessors, and burgomeisters of education will vanish. As long as there are institutions of education and as long as education is seen as a commodity, someone will be calculating efficiencies and keeping statistics for some agency or another
Sara’s own education, within the mechanical institution she works her way through, bears the marks of an intrinsic motivation to better herself, for nobody’s sake but her own. In this way, her journey resembles that of George Stoyanovich. In other words, the immaterial and transcendent is carried through the material and utilitarian. Her goal as she walks that fragile line is to “keep the glamour.”
In the end, Sara voluntarily decides to bear the burden of her aging, helpless father by taking him into her home. The woman she became through her educational journey found a way to forgive the injustices of her upbringing and the religious terror her father brought down upon her and her sisters. In this way, though not outwardly religious, she perfects her father’s religion. Her humanity has likewise been perfected through her education and she uses that achievement to serve others. First the students who look just like she once did, then the father who was the source of struggle in the first place.
Working in the machinery of education, she maintains the transcendent experience of learning, smuggling in the light of humanity along the way. This is an inspiration to all of us who teach, and a glamorous way out, indeed.
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