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Claiming an Education

The year 2022 marks 50 years of undergraduate women enrollment at Notre Dame (although female students such as religious sisters have earned degrees at the university before this time). While it’s something worth commemorating, at the same time, it’s an occurrence that warrants great reflection. On one hand, the inclusion of women in the Notre Dame curriculum made large strides in encouraging women’s right to education. But at the same time, 50 years wasn’t that long ago and have we truly made coed universities a place of equal opportunity?

The poet Adrienne Rich gave a speech at Douglass College in 1977 titled “Claiming an Education” which inspired the title and essence of this column. In the speech, she formulates a lot of her argument around an ethical and intellectual contract formed between student and teacher. Students cannot afford to think of receiving an education, but rather, claiming it as their own. A true student cannot take the leftovers or “predigested books and ideas,” but must challenge oneself and seek criticism, not avoiding conflict nor confrontation. 

The differentiation between claiming an education and merely receiving one is all the difference in Rich’s commencement address. The distinction is not semantic nor trivial but can be the difference between feeling at home in a university and being an imposter.

However, claiming an education requires activation energy on behalf of all female students. It doesn’t mean accepting what’s provided, swallowing empty platitudes and pretending that merely an acceptance into university is enough to placate one’s dreams and ambitions. Rich specifically states that it means “rejecting attitudes of ‘take-it-easy,’ ‘why-be-so-serious,’ ‘why-worry-you’ll-probably-get-married-anyway.’”

In addition, claiming an education isn’t a singular act conducted on a woman’s behalf. Instead, the contract is a pledge of “mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, methods and values,” which extends to all people. Today, children and women are continuously denied access to education, whether it be coercion into marriage, a lack of investment in the minds of women through gender bias, poverty, and many other pervasive issues. While Notre Dame celebrates our 50 years of women, worldwide, 129 million girls are out of school.

Mutual seriousness for women’s education is a growing battle. Even women who have access to education may not be treated with the same pardons and considerations as their counterparts. As I read Chanel Miller’s powerful memoir “Know My Name” this summer, I was moved by the author’s trials in keeping her head above water. Through external pressures, she attempted to maintain an air of normality and safety, while she treaded harsh calamity beneath the surface. She was forced to defend her choice of clothing attire, dance moves and her relationship with her boyfriend before the defendant, a member of the Stanford swim team, was forced to deal with the consequences of his actions to commit sexual assault. 

The cover of one of the editions of her memoir is representative of Kintsugi, a Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by gluing the fragments and filling the faulty parts with gold. The goal is to not merely hide the defects of the pottery, but rather, to show that even in its brokenness, it is beautiful. In fact, it is in its highlight of its brokenness that makes it more unique, stronger and more whole. 

When I was contemplating what to write about in commemoration of the celebration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I didn’t want to focus on the negative aspects of the continual journey to equal education. I truly love Notre Dame and the amount of progress that has been made globally to encourage equal access to education.

However, I was mesmerized by the art of Kintsugi, and the notion that by restructuring brokenness, something stronger and more beautiful is created. By encouraging transparency and dialogue about the past, I believe we create space for more women and students in the future to claim an education. 

When I consider the commemoration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I think not only the victories, but the fortitude of those — present and past — who continuously provide all students the environment to grow their intellectual curiosities and capabilities. The only way celebrate growth is to recognize the trials and the starting pieces of upward movement. It is when these pieces come together, each fragment strengthening one another, in which unification and progress can truly occur.

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the fiddle, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

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