Hunger of Memory
Hunger of Memory is the intellectual autobiography of a young man still in his mid-thirties. It is an unusual book, difficult to categorize; it does not deliver the continuous narrative suggested by the word “autobiography” on the dust jacket, nor does it discuss except in passing the books and intellectual encounters which have shaped the author, as one might have expected from the subtitle: “The Education of Richard Rodriguez.” It is an unusually quiet book, unmarked by any violent or dramatic episodes. Indeed, the book’s climax is singularly undramatic: Rodriguez decides to give up a safe and promising academic career to write.
All of this suggests a book lucky to find a publisher, let alone a wide readership, no matter how well-written it might be. Yet Hunger of Memory, widely reviewed and widely discussed, has found that readership—has even become a cause célèbre, for all the wrong reasons. Rodriguez is Hispanic-American; he does not care to call himself “Chicano.” His parents were immigrants from Mexico. In Hunger of Memory he is highly critical of two government programs: affirmative action and bilingual education.
Because of this controversial stance, which he first took in several essays published prior to Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez is in demand as a speaker—to conventions of university administrators, to high school teachers of English, to women’s alumnae groups. He has been invited to appear on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “Today,” and other television talk shows. He has, he says, “become notorious among certain leaders of America’s Ethnic Left . . . the brown Uncle Tom, interpreting the writing on the wall to a bunch of cigarsmoking pharaohs.”
Those who were already opposed to affirmative action and bilingual education found in Rodriguez a stunning “minority” witness. Those who are ideologically committed to those programs have vilified him as a traitor. Neither side is much interested in the niceties of his quiet exposition, the evidence of his own experience.
Rodriguez is opposed to affirmative action because it does not address the root problems of illiteracy and low achievement, problems which begin at the elementary school level. Affirmative action, he says, takes a student such as himself who has already “made it” and makes it even easier for him. It is fundamentally unfair, as he must acknowledge in a bitter conversation with a fellow graduate student, a Jew, whose record is as excellent as Rodriguez’s—but who has no job offers, while prestigious schools are competing to offer Rodriguez a job. It was during this coversation, Rodriguez writes, that his “mind reared—spooked and turning—then broke toward a reckless idea: Leave the university. Leave.”
Rodriguez is opposed to bilingual education because he believes its proponents are mistaken about the fundamental nature of education. The purpose of education, he believes, is to provide students—whatever their “background”—with a public identity, a public competence. He says early in the book, in a passage emphasized by italics: “A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student.” This is seminal insight. Any attempt to take the necesary pain out of education results in a bad education—whether by deferring the plunge into English, the public language, or by overemphasizing “creativity” and “originality.” The best synonym for “primary ’education,’” Rodriguez observes, “is ’imitation.’” Education does not come naturally; rather, it “requires radical self-reformation.”
This last point deserves more emphasis, for the perceptions that underlie Rodriguez’s critique of bilingual education (and not that topical issue itself) are crucial to his richly suggestive autobiogaphy. In one sense, Rodriguez emphasizes, “education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process— a...
(The entire section is 4,696 words.)