“Claiming an Education”by Adrienne Rich
Speech delivered at the convocation of Douglass College, 1977.
For this convocation, I planned to separate my remarks into two parts: some thoughts about you, the women
students here, and some thoughts about us who teach in a women's college. But ultimately those two parts are indivisible.
If university education means anything beyond the processing of human beings into expected roles, through credit hours,
tests, and grades (and I believe that in a women's college especially it might mean much more), it implies an ethical and
intellectual contract between teacher and student. This contract must remain intuitive, dynamic, unwritten; but we must
turn to it again and again if learning is to be reclaimed from the depersonalizing and cheapening pressures of the
present-day academic scene.
The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that 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. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb "to
claim" is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. "To receive" is to come into
possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting
and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
One of the devastating weaknesses of university learning, of the store of knowledge and opinion that has been
handed down through academic training, has been its almost total erasure of women's experience and thought from the
curriculum, and its exclusion of women as members of the academic community. Today, with increasing numbers of
women students in nearly every branch of higher learning, we still see very few women in the upper levels of faculty and
administration in most institutions. Douglass College itself is a women's college in a university administered
overwhelmingly men, who in turn are answerable to the state legislature, again composed predominantly of men. But the
most, significant fact for you is that what you learn here, the very texts you read, the lectures you hear, the way your
studies are divided into categories and fragmented one from the other -- all this reflects, to a very large degree, neither
objective reality, nor an accurate picture of the past, nor a group of rigorously tested observations about human behavior.
What you can learn here (and I mean not only at Douglass but any college in any university) is how men have perceived
and organized their experience, their history, their ideas of social relationships, good and evil, sickness and health, etc.
When you read or hear about "great issues," "major texts," "the mainstream of Western thought," you are hearing about