Hunger of Memory: But what about privilege?

Hunger of Memory book cover

Hunger of Memory

Richard Rodriguez


F870.M5 R62

When I started this blog, I had enough books to catch up that I’d forgotten some of the things I thought about Hunger of Memory. I read it partly because I was working with a class that was reading it, and partly because I knew that it was an important text that I hadn’t read before.

I did write about it on my other blog, along with my thoughts on Jaron Lanier’s ACRL keynote.  I found myself disturbed by Rodriguez’s childhood reverence toward books and education, and Lanier’s implication that we ought to preserve this reverence seemed hugely problematic to me.  Rodriguez himself does a good job of showing how this attitude toward education does not help students to learn. In his account, it becomes clear that his faith in the book-as-artifact precluded the possibility of thinking of himself as a writer or even as an active, responsive reader.

That wasn’t the only thing I thought about it.  Throughout the book, I found myself very frustrated with his arguments.

Before I go any further, let me say that most of his arguments have to do with the nature of education and his problems with bilingual education in particular. I’m not arguing for bilingual education in this space; I have not studied it and I’m not familiar with the best pedagogies for helping ESL elementary school students learn English and all the other things they need to learn. I am, however, arguing for not making the arguments against it that Rodriguez makes.

Rodriguez argues against bilingual education by invoking his own childhood. He makes a complicated argument about the relationship between language and private/public personas.  He describes the emotional difficulties of learning to speak English at school and gradually ceasing to speak Spanish at home.  He describes the cultural and emotional distance that developed between him and his family as he became immersed in a life of books with which, however, he could not truly engage for many years.   For Rodriguez, this is worth it, because by giving up Spanish he was able to participate in a larger discourse. Of course, he is the only person able to make that assessment of his own life. However, he wouldn’t agree with me on that score; rather, he claims that this is an “inevitable pain” (27) of childhood and that bilingual education should not be pursued because other children need to go through the same experience. As I read about Rodriguez’s experience, I found myself asking: how can you describe these painful separations, and at the same time argue that others must undergo the same thing, or else remain marginalized?

He does not explicitly acknowledge that human beings are reluctant to go through such a radical change.  How many people are willing to abandon intimate contact with their family in order to achieve better success at school?  Should they be? It seems more likely that most will choose their family instead—and who can blame them?

At the same time, he claims (somewhere I cannot easily locate) that for no child is the language of school the same as the language of the family, explaining the differences between public and private expression.  He expresses astonishment at the assumption of proponents of bilingual education that

One can become a public person while still remaining a private person. At the very same time one can be both! There need be no tension between the self in the crowd and the self apart from the crowd! … If the barrio or ghetto child can retain his separateness even while being publicly educated then it is almost possible to believe that there is no private cost to be paid for public success.  (34-35)

And here is where I become very frustrated.  He’s using his own experience, which he describes in several places as “socially disadvantaged” to argue that there is always a private cost for public success.  But there isn’t such a cost for all students. Students who are not socially disadvantaged, students with sufficient privilege, students who grow up speaking the language of the classroom and whose come home and discuss what they are learning with their families, pay no such price.  The students who have to pay this price are the ones who are already at a disadvantage.

By discussing the effects of privilege without acknowledging that privilege plays a role, Rodriguez makes it seem as if the success of education is all about the experiences of the individual student. So, while arguing that school is a necessary introduction to the public sphere, he is putting the emphasis on how it works, not for the public, but for an individual. On a larger scale, he is arguing for a system that rewards the small number of disadvantaged students who are willing to make the sacrifices he describes. It also rewards those who it is expected to reward, like the (white, English-as-a-first-language-speaking) people at the dinner party who consider him exotic.  It does not reward those who come from a background similar to his but cannot or do not want to make the sacrifices he made.


Filed under Literary thoughts

3 responses to “Hunger of Memory: But what about privilege?

  1. Huh. What an odd sounding book. I myself did my first six years of schooling in French when my primary language was English – in fact everything but school was in English. I don’t think in any way it disadvantaged me and I only wish that the bilingual education could have continued past that (school couldn’t afford to keep the program with the small number of students left in it). It is definitely a huge privilege for those whose first language is English to do schooling solely in English, seems shocking that he wouldn’t mention that… does sound like a really interesting read though.

  2. It’s good to hear from someone who’s actually been in such a program! It sounds like you enjoyed it, too 🙂

    It is definitely an interesting read. Actually, it’s assigned quite frequently in composition courses because in some ways it’s the Platonic example of a literacy narrative–a really thoughtful autobiography of himself as a reader and how his education changed him. But it makes me really itchy when he tries to apply his own experiences to everyone else.

  3. Pingback: My Brother: Honesty and Self-Care | onereadleaf

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