2012 MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Díaz on Reclaiming Our Education



Junot Díaz. Photography by Nina Subin. Via: (UVA)


I am writing this as a senior in college who has been pondering heavily about the value of education. I’m a little bit troubled when people say that an education is the key to change the world. Yes, I wholeheartedly believe it can change the world, but, what kind of education are we talking about here that can change the world? This is a common scene of our education that I have been slowly observing: someone goes to his class and then he is being taught by a professor who reads off his presentation slides. Then he sends him home to memorize facts from his presentation in preparation for the upcoming standardized examination. Sadly, this exam only assesses his rote memorization of facts rather than his ability to understand why it matters and transmute facts into knowledge, or even wisdom. If this is the kind of education that people talk about, what are the chances that he is going to be an agent of change in this world? I’d say zero.

Standing before the graduating women at Douglass College in September of 1977, Adrianne Rich (May 16 1929 – March 27 2012), one of the most insightful poets and thinkers of the twentieth century, says in her commencement speech that she believes that in order to reap the juicy rewards of education, students should think that they are claiming their education, instead of going to school to receive an education. The distinction between “to receive” and “to claim” is immensely striking. “To claim” an education is to utilize anything that can enhance our intellectual freedom, whereas “to receive” is to let others do our own thinking and chose the most convenient ways to avoid contentious problems of learning. The former is about leaning to do a solid work and the latter is being satisfied with a shallow work.

Between my opinion on the fragility of our education system and Rich’s powerful commencement speech, there’s Junot Díaz, a 2012 MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner, who is not only someone who believes that radical hope is the best kind of hope, but also he shares Rich’s belief on claiming our education. On April 30 2013, in an intelligent conversation with Paul Holdengraber on NYPL Live podcast about his career as a fiction writer, Díaz, who is also a working professor of creative writing at MIT, was asked by Holdengraber about his thoughts on education. According to him, students need to take a full ownership of their education. When an education is taken seriously, it has a chance to transform people’s lives.

If we subscribe to Rich and Díaz’s shared belief of taking ownership of our education, we can expect to see more people to be an agent of change in this world.


Junot Díaz at Strand Bookstore. Via: (Flickr)


Note: PH= Paul Holdengraber and JD= Junot Díaz

The transcript of the podcast is below:

PH: I’m curious about your teaching career. What do you have your students do? What are your classes? What do you expect from them? Do you think that writing can be taught?

JD: […]

I guess my thing with me and my students is that part of what I want from my students is sort of utopian. You know, we want our students to take ownership of the class. The problem is that we live in a society where we’ve basically told most people that being passive is the best way to get your education. So most students don’t really take ownership of the class because they haven’t been taught that. And they usually don’t have the space to actually take ownership because most students are over fucking worked, they’ve got way too many classes, they’ve got way too many pressures. Most students are sitting on huge fucking loans and how do you sit in a class and take ownership of an art class when you are thinking about $ 120,000 loan that is sitting over your head.

We ask our students to, as a professor, I ask my students, to participate in a class pretending that the society did not break their legs before they showed up.


The point of any class is an opportunity to receive an education. And an education is an opportunity for you in contact with your material, in contact with your peers, in contact with the modeling of your instructors. An education is an opportunity to be transformed. And I think that’s what I want.

PH: That’s what you want to transmit?

JD: I want to use the sort of the critical lens of what we are doing in class to open them up to what education does best, which is to transform them. That the person walks into the class is not the same person leaves. And 99% of the time it doesn’t work but every now and then it works. And it’s worth everything. It’s worth everything to have a student who ten years later down the line says the opportunity that you offered me, that the other professors offered me to transform myself was foundational to who I am. That’s why we do this crap all of us.

We’ve been taught that you’re supposed to be in college because instrumental reasons.

PH: When you said instrumental , you mean in order to achieve a purpose?

JD: Basically college is just preparation for a job which means that when college is just preparation for a job, transformation is not on the table. Because to be transformed, you gotta take risks, but when it’s like college is just instrumental and it’s like, this is for a job, why would you take any risks? But when an education is education is good for education’s sake, you’re far more likely to take risks.

The full podcast:



Related reads:

  1. Some Thoughts on Knowledge Acquisition
  2. A Forgotten 1932 Book on Education and Recreation