Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Principled Life of Language

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard RodriguezHunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez 
by Richard Rodriguez

“The boy who first entered a classroom barely able to speak English, twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum. Thus with one sentence I can summarize my academic career. It will be harder to summarize what sort of life connects the boy to the man.”  ― Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory

Richard Rodriguez is a man whose education bifurcated his life into a private life and a public life. In the public sphere he was driven to obtain an education that has led him to become one of the most interesting essayists of our time. His description of his inner life, especially his reading life is one of many exceptional aspects of this book. His liberation from the private sphere into the public, where he has become a literary light for others, was made possible in part by this reading life; a life driven by a compulsion to become part of the "public sphere" that was centered in the culture apart from his family. This was a part of his life that I personally identified with and believe that many individuals who love the reading life will also.

In this memoir he explores his own coming-of-age in an America that challenged him to understand what it is to be a Mexican American and what it is to be a Catholic in America. At the heart of the memoir is Rodríguez’s recognition that his is a position of alienation, a position that he accepts with resignation and regret. As the title of this collection of autobiographical pieces suggests, he remembers his early childhood with nostalgia, while acknowledging that his coming-of-age has resulted in his displacement from that simple, secure life.

Another center for his autobiography is language and the importance of it in his life. He did not speak English until he started to go to school and even then it was difficult for him to learn the language for it was not spoken at home. One exciting moment in his education occurred when three nuns from his grade school visited his home and encouraged his parents to support their children's English language skills. Although they were indifferent speakers of English, his parents from that point forward asked their children, Richard and his brother and sisters, to speak English each evening. Richard, through this practice and his own diligence in reading and writing, would go on to major in English in college eventually doing postgraduate work in Renaissance Studies.

He shares the hard work that all this entailed and his critical reaction to the growth of bi-lingual education. His courage in developing and maintaining an independent voice for his beliefs in this regard also help to make his story unique. In his view bilingual education prevents children from learning the public language that will be their passport to success in the public world, and he uses his own experience—being a bilingual child who was educated without bilingual education as it was introduced into the American school system in the 1960’s—as an example.

Rodríguez offers himself as another example in criticizing affirmative action programs. Turning down offers to teach at various post secondary educational institutions that he believed wanted to hire him simply because he was Latino, Rodríguez began what has been his persistent criticism of affirmative action policies in America. His uncompromising position in this matter led him to leave academia and pursue his writing skills as a journalist and essayist.  His devotion to education in language and life helped him develop the voice that he shares in his journalistic and readable prose style.

I first encountered his voice while watching the News Hour on PBS where he was an essayist for many years. The style he demonstrated there is present on every page of his autobiography. I would highly recommend this for anyone interested in the development of a humane intellectual.


View all my reviews

4 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Rodriguez sounds like an intriguing character who is well worth reading. It sounds like he exhibits an enthusiasm for learning and for education. I rend to be drawn to such thinkers.

James said...

Brian,
Thanks for your observation. I share your interest in reading about learning and education. Rodriguez's memoir is inspirational.

Parrish Lantern said...


From what you've written he reminds me of Alberto Manguel, that love of Logos & the need to communicate it.

James said...

Gary,
Thanks for your comment. You've made an interesting connection as there certainly are similarities.