twist on the usual American success story that looks at success from another angle and, contrary to the usual tale, seems to consider its achievement a form of wastage. Very much Tolstoyan in implications, the author tells about straining to reach the pinnacle of academic success, achieving that, and then finding himself regretting the huge chasm that resulted between himself and his boyhood past, between himself and his culture, and between himself and his family. Ultimately, as Tolstoy's stories indicate, simple peasant and untutored existence gives the greatest joy. The climb up the academic ladder becomes increasingly lonely until one ends up in a "quiet reading room in the British museum" in this case writing a dissertation on some remote theme that will never be read by others and surrounded by equally dour and seemingly frustrated individuals.
This is the author's one argument: that academic success may not bring the expected joy, that success does not equal happiness, and that being out of touch with the joys and innocence of childhood may be more troubling than finally reaching the top of the ivory ladder and finding oneself in a secluded lonely position.
The other argument is of the limitations of specialization: that specialty consists of rote learning, of imitation and that it is the 'scholarship boy's habit to swallow book after book in the endeavor to encompass all knowledge, but, by doing so, little of significance is ultimately achieved. He may be able to memorize and accurately paraphrase the content of volumes of material but 'scholarship' excludes originality and innovation of thought. Originality is the end-all and most important component of education -- in fact it is education -- and as long as this component is missing, the 'scholarship' product can claim only partial success.
Rodriguez' writing moves the reader -- at least it moved me. Some may dispute the validity of his first argument, that of immigrant child missing out by education, but each individual has his or her particular experience that he is entitled to and happening to him alone, the experience is, therefore, valid. This nostalgia for his old life and compunction for his loss comes across vividly in Rodriguez' autobiography illustrated by both tone and substance.
Over and again, he eludes to the fact that people would remark how proud his parents must be of him (e.g. 547) and he sandwiches these allusions with observations that his school and studies were increasingly alienating him from his childish obsessions and birth culture.
In a way, and this is how many may choose to read it, he seems to blame American culture for deliberately making him into something other than what was natural and best for him. His parents, naive and well-meaning as they were, arduously attempted to communicate with their increasingly difficult to understand child and endeavored to convert him into the 'American dream' of their new culture so that he could obtain what they could not. The American dream educated him and with the praise of teachers and the encouragement of other icons of that culture (such as the retired professor) poured meaningless substance into his head -- meaningless for he was persuaded to swallow it rather than contemplate it - until as he states ' he 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." (542)
The silence: this tells it all. He dwells on that silence and loneliness. The loneliness, the solitariness, the solitude of night after night coming back to 'my bed-sitter' (552), and this -- and the bitterness is evident -- he describes how he later grew to hate and how he yearned for the passionate life that he enjoyed so little. He eludes to boyhood memories as contrast: "laughing intimate voices, Bounding up the front steps of the porch. A sudden embrace inside the door" (552). This was the kind of life that he considered more important than dull academia. And he therefore transferred to teaching. Contrast plays a great part in this essay as means to make his point: the contrast between his later years and ante-academic experience. The contrast between his chattering students and the distant boy that he had become. And, most of all, the contrast between his studiousness and sophistication and the simplicity and wholesomeness of his parents.
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." Could he not have done more with his life years ago by involving himself -- or being taught to involve himself in the frivolous atmosphere of kids his age, played with them, learned from them, joined them in their lessons and scrapes, involved himself with his parents, and growing up, still educated, but transferring to some practical subject where he would live with others instead of remaining apart. Rodriguez seems to think so and he tells us so implicitly until we feel the loneliness emanating from his very words.
Contrast is one rhetorical strategy that vivifies this position:
With his family, the boy has the intense pleasure of intimacy... lavish emotions texture home life. Then, at school the instruction bids him to trust lonely reason primarily. Immediate needs set the pace of his parents' lives. From his mother father the boy learns to trust spontaneity and nonrational ways of knowing. Then, at school there is mental calm. Teachers emphasize the value of a reflective ness that opens a space between thinking and immediate action (543).
The boy, as Rodriguez quotes Hoggart, has to be 'more and more alone' and this, Rodriguez implies, is unnatural and contrary to development as well as destruct to the social construct of family and friends.
Most scholarship boys, Rodriguez tells us - using Hoggart as his mouthpiece - and this is another of his rhetorical skills -- are good students although troubled son(s)" (544). "Brooding. Sensitive. Haunted by the knowledge that one chooses to become a student." (Ibid.)
Allegiance is transferred to the teacher and Rodriguez makes this clear by describing his intellectual development. He elaborates on his awe for learning and his endeavors to please his teachers and nuns. Helped by their encouragement and impelled by the success of others, he sets himself immense reading lists slanted to adult -- not children. These are books that he is determined to master, and attempts to get his parents interested in the same. Gradually, but surely, he becomes distanced from his parents and describes his parents' shame of their differentness from him as their boy becomes increasingly unrecognizable.
Through description of the masses and types of books that he read and though illustrations of incidents that occurred between his parents and himself, Rodriguez manages in vivifying his argument. These 'hundred most important books of western Civilization' that the boy read one after another in order to become like the professor ("these books have made me all that I am") and his description of laboriously and uncomprehendingly reading Plato's Republic word per word, only in order to complete that list resonates with the loneliness of the child. Through stories, then, Rodriguez brings through his point.
Again using Richard Hoggart as mouthpiece he also elaborates on the profound lack of self-confidence that the scholarship boy feels and transposing Hoggart with himself and all within the development of his life from boy who entered the classroom unable to speak English to ending his academic career in the quietness of the reading room in the British Museum he uses description to indicate a harrowing story:
Around me each day were dour faces eclipsed by large piles of books. There were the regulars like the old couple who arrived every morning, each…