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Everyone has a story they can tell that outlines their educational experience, or experience of trying to educate themselves when all the odds are against them. For some the stories are all about the struggles and obstacles they had to overcome in order to get where they wanted to be, and for others the story is about simply exceeding expectations that are set for them. In the essays “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi and “Learning to Read and Write” by Fredrick Douglass we see what it was like to for them to have a desire to educate themselves while society is holding them back.
In both texts the writer describes what it was like to have to go about getting an education in secrecy. For Douglass it was the challenge of learning to read and write when he knew doing so could get him killed if he was caught, for Nafisi it was finding a way to bring more insightful texts into the lives of young women in a place where every aspect of their lives was controlled.
Although there is more freedom in today’s world regarding education, there are still many restrictions that prevent students from learning about topics that truly matter and make a difference in their lives. In today’s educational systems there is a given set of subjects that students are to learn throughout their years of schooling. These subjects are the basic blocks of education, reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Aside from these subjects there is not much variation in what is taught, or even allowed to be taught in a public school system.
Subjects such as politics and religion are almost completely banned from the public schools and if a teacher decides to take a risk and try to teach one of those subjects, it is almost certain severe consequences will follow. Topics like religion and politics are ones that students have to reach out and study on their own much like Douglass had to do with teaching himself to be literate and like Nafisi had to do in order to bring more insightful texts in young women’s lives.
Schools today tell children the subjects they are to learn and it is rare that their education strays from the basic topics mentioned before. It appears as though schools are holding today’s youth back. Society has become so afraid it seems of well-educated people that they will do anything they can to limit the knowledge of today’s children. In his essay “Against School” John Taylor Gatto asks “Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of them (the students] ever really grows up?” (Gatto 684). From there he continues to ask if public schools are even necessary. Do children need to sit in formal classroom setting in order to become educated? Douglass never once sat in a classroom and yet he successfully learned how to read and write, his “pen and ink was a lump of chalk” (Douglass 99). Nafisi on the other hand did step into a classroom, one where she taught students based on guidelines that she was required to stick to.
The formal classroom setting had so many restrictions Nafisi had no choice but to risk her life if she wanted to make a difference to others. She allowed young women into her home and taught them what they needed to be taught. It wasn’t just about reading books they were told they couldn’t, it was about expanding their literary horizons and getting a sense of themselves within their culture. Both Nafisi and Douglass took great risks to help themselves and others. While today’s students don’t need to take as great of risks in order to learn the “forbidden subjects” they do need to have desire to learn, and many students no longer have that. Unlike Douglass and Nafisi, student’s today are more preoccupied with getting good grades and pleasing their parents and teachers than reaching out and trying to learn the things they can’t learn at school. Because of this it is not often that a student will reach out to learn on their own, however it does happen.
Since the consequences of trying to learn something that can’t be taught in public schools are not as severe as they were for Nafisi and Douglass, students feel more secure in taking steps to educate themselves, which is what they have to do in order to truly become educated. Douglass was a man who knew what he wanted and he was willing to put his life on the line to get it. He wanted to be educated and he wanted to have the opportunity to read and write because he knew doing so would open up many opportunities in his life, but because he was a slave he was not allowed to have those “simple luxuries”, the simple luxuries that students today take for granted. It was the same for Nafisi, she wanted to be able to discuss literature freely and openly and she did so knowing that if she was caught the consequences for her and her students could be imprisonment or death. She put her own freedom and life on the line to be able to teach a group of young woman some of the finest literary works available in a place where their actions were heavily restricted. In her essay Nafisi says “when my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes” (Nafisi 494).
What she means is that by giving these young women a chance to express themselves without the fear of saying the wrong thing, they were able to let go of themselves and truly open up and show others what they were capable of. Both Douglass’s and Nafisi’s stories relate to educational systems today. Nafisi’s story relates to school systems today in that if a teacher reached out to teach something against the rules they would suffer consequences if they were caught. Teachers in the public school systems are very limited to the things they can say and do in a classroom and it was the same for Nafisi when she was teaching in a college classroom. Douglass’s story relates to today’s students in that if they want to learn they need to reach out and do it on their own.
Students are restricted inside the schools almost as much as the teachers are and that is why it is up to them to take it upon themselves as students to be ambitious and learn the things they are told they can’t. “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and “Learning to Read and Write”, although describing very different situations, are inevitably the same. They are about going against society and being an 3 individual even when it is completely against everything they are allowed to do. They relate to today’s modern education as well. When you are told you can’t do something, you go for it. That is what Nafisi and Douglass did and that is what many students today are trying to accomplish as well.
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