Walker Percy famously quipped, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Percy believed in a connection between education and the good life, and he was right to point out that they are not the same thing. The struggle is in knowing the difference—ultimately, in the search to figure out how one can succeed at living the good life. Three recent films—An Education, A Serious Man, and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire—delve into this question of education and its connection to the pursuit of the good life.
An Education is based on the autobiography of journalist Lynn Barber and adapted for the screen by novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy). Set in 1960’s London, this film tells the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a young prep school student on track to pass her exams and apply to Oxford. Jenny’s parents are intent that her education should be tightly focused on only what is necessary to get into the prestigious university, nothing less and nothing more. When she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a considerably older man, their romantic relationship complicates her thinking about what she wants out of her education and in her life. David charmingly woos Jenny and her parents to let him take her on adventures to Oxford and Paris, introducing her to another kind of life. When Jenny becomes uneasy about David and his friends, she realizes that there are two kinds of education, and she must pick one. The familiarity of the academic classroom has left her bored, unconvinced of its value. The world of art, concerts and high society appeal to her sense that life ought to be an adventure, something exciting and daring. Just as she makes her choice between school and worldly education, she learns the truth about David, and must honestly confront who she is and what she hopes to be.
The climax of the film is Jenny’s struggle to understand how her education fits with her vision of the good life. In a conversation with the school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson), Jenny asserts, “It isn’t enough to give us an education; you have to tell us why.” She soon realizes that the answer cannot be handed to her; it must emerge from her own sense of identity. She begins to see how her teachers came to discover who they are, and how their lives are more than a successful education. In the end, Jenny learns that her dilemma is not a simple choice between two types of education: the classroom, or the “real” world. Rather, she must move beyond the education that others have prescribed for her and be able to ask questions for her education to be meaningful.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, A Serious Man, feels like a loose adaptation of the story of Job to the American Midwest in 1967. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a university physics professor, married with two children, and up for tenure. Larry has lived the life expected of him by society; he has not deviated from the script. Unfortunately, his sickly and bungling brother has taken up residence on the couch; his wife is seeking a divorce so she can move in with Sy Ableman (a much more exciting family friend); and a disgruntled foreign student is threatening his chances for tenure. And that is just the beginning.
Larry’s life is going downhill fast. What is a good Jewish man to do? He seeks the advice of three local rabbis. But wisdom cannot simply be gained by consulting the experts. Like Jenny in An Education, Larry is seeking meaning beyond merely passing the test and memorizing the rules. Larry’s quest illuminates the need for education to be an active engagement with the world, not merely a passive acceptance of the status quo. Throughout the film, Larry insists that he hasn’t done anything to deserve his suffering. The three rabbis’ advice turns out to be too ambiguous and cryptic, and so Larry remains in a fog of confusion about why he is suffering.
The Coen brothers have a rare gift for making films that are serious enough to be tragic, yet absurd enough to be comedic. And while at times you want to laugh at Larry’s existential crisis and the clichÃ© and aphoristic words of advice offered to him by the rabbis, the film also has a tragic side. Larry has lost his ability to learn. He is educated, but has become an unreflective and uncritical man. He is unable to see that the life he has been chasing is an illusion, and now it may be too late to change course. While the film is wise not to attempt to offer a trite answer to the meaning of suffering, it seems to suggest that it is our response to suffering that matters most of all. The film illustrates that true education is our ability to think about meaning and critically question the way we have shaped society. To become a mensch (a human being or a serious man), Larry would have to see himself as a person with decisions to make, rather than simply going through the motions of life as others have selfishly recommended.
Similarly, Lee Daniels has made a film that provokes the audience to think about what makes for a meaningful education. Set in Harlem in 1987, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe). It is a hard story, and there are more than a few intensely disturbing scenes. Sixteen-year-old Precious is obese, black and pregnant by her father for a second time, all of which suggest that the deck is stacked highly against her chances of achieving the “American dream.” She uses fantasies of being rich and famous to cope with all of the hate she is burdened with. Precious’s mother, in an excellent performance by Mo’Nique, is constantly hitting Precious, throwing things at her, and verbally assaulting her very sense of self. She is eventually expelled from the high school she attends and offered a place in an alternative school. There she is not only pushed to learn to read and write, but she also begins to feel that she might have worth and dignity.
Precious avoids the simple narrative of education as a path to salvation, especially as Precious’s life continues to be an everyday struggle. This film shows that love is an essential component of a real education. Hate has kept Precious in a prison of illiteracy and self-doubt. While learning to read and write among classmates and mentors that come to love her, she finds freedom that is no longer tied to mere educational success. In addition, she catches a vision within which she can love and serve her children, and through this discovers what the good life could be.
Each of these films invite a conversation by asking what an education is for. Education, alone, cannot provide one with the good life. Knowledge, money, a good job, family and even fame are not essentially bad, but none of these should be the ultimate pursuit of an education. In order to take education seriously, one cannot take it for granted. Instead, one must search for a grounding purpose that is sustainable, which requires reflection and an engagement with the world, including its suffering. And finally, true learning cannot happen without love—a love that encapsulates an orienting desire for the good life and a willingness to risk entering into fragile relationships. Without these, regardless of the letter grade, one is likely to “flunk life.”