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Education
Carly Simon as an Adult Educator


Carly Simon as an Adult Educator

by John Ohliger
August 7, 1989

This is the first in an occasional series on adult educators not usually so identified. We'll explore the lessons they teach and draw conclusions about the field of adult education from their work. If, as the saying goes, "The most profound form of education comes from looking at life," those not called adult educators deserve that label, when experiencing their work helps us look at life in fresh ways.

"Let The River Run"


"Let the river run, let all the dreamers wake the nation. Come, the New Jerusalem." So begins Carly Simon's stirring rock hymn for the new film Working Girl. "Let the River Run" up-lifts powerfully while at the same time it casts subtle doubts on our dreams. Ms. Simon won an Oscar for it and the song is now deeply embedded in America's popular culture through heavy sales of the film, a video, a soundtrack album, a single and sheet music. Here's what she believes are its lessons (in her own words drawn from various recent interviews in The New York Times, on network television, and elsewhere):

"When I first read the script, the opening scene is so big and majestic in its own way. It's the ferryboat coming across the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty, the gleaming steel buildings on Wall Street. There was something very grand yet jungle-like about the story of these naive young secretaries with their high aspirations coming to their offices hoping that maybe after 10 years they'll move up one flight to a higher office with a window. 1 just saw those aspirations as being so poignant. I thought this really needs some kind of largeness. So I looked in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass for inspiration and came up with the idea of doing a hymn with a jungle beat which would signify the New York City jungle.

"I wanted more of a poetic sensibility so I asked my husband, Jim, who's this fantastic poet, to give me some lines. He came up with what I truly think are the best lines in the song: 'We, the great and small, stand on a star and blaze a trail of desire through the dark'ning dawn.' "

The Dark'ning Dawn


And so the doubts creep in with "the dark'ning dawn." The doubts are there as well in such lines as "Oh, my heart is aching" and "Sirens call them on with a song." How does Carly Simon personally resist the siren songs? How does she honor both her doubts and her dreams? Says she:

"You find that the more technology allows you to be a part of a larger world and to know what's happening in Japan and in the Ukraine, you lose sight of our own villages. I think everybody has to get back to their home roots and do something for the territory that they're really a part of. Since churchgoing has fallen off, we have to do community oriented things. This art gallery is my attempt to do that."

Ms. Simon has just opened an art gallery called "River Run" named after the song and the same phrase in Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The new gallery brings the work of artists from her home territory on Martha's Vineyard to New York City to introduce their talents to a larger audience. The shows are also fund raising events for local charities.

From Working Girl To Career Woman


Carly Simon's lesson-packed "Let the River Run" flows as a theme throughout Working Girl, a film with striking adult education connections itself. It's the story of Tess McGill, played by Melanie Griffith, who also won an Oscar for her portrayal. Tess is an ambitious working class clerk who tries to climb into the middle class over the opposition of a woman already firmly entrenched in that class's higher reaches. One reviewer claims that taking adult education courses proves Tess is ambitious. Cosmopolitan calls her a "scheming night-school grad." Thus the movie depicts a "working girl" seeking to become a "career woman" through adult education. Tess does move up the ladder after a personally devastating struggle.

However, the invisible but unyielding class barrier remains. Adult education hasn't been able to remove it. Does the field con people into believing, as Tess does, that through individual educational efforts not only can one person find economic salvation but that through the same path the class barrier itself can be eliminated? "Power to the people," toasts Tess's lover and ally in her attempt to get ahead. "The little people," she insists, just after graduating from college with honors at age 30 following five years of night classes combined with full-time clerical work. But Time says Tess is a "brainy loser" in a film presenting "the 21st century challenge that faces America: How will the working class be educated to survive and thrive in the computer age?"

The New Jerusalem


The cautionary lessons for adult educators in this film and the song are to be careful about what short-range dreams to encourage while working with others to find ways to reach the long-range vision of the New Jerusalem. "New Jerusalem," which is the second title of the song, is as old as "Revelation," the last book of the Bible. The perennial issue associated with this vision is whether it points to a place on solid earth to be reached through collective action or to a place we can find only in our own hearts to be realized individually. Will there solution to the issue come when we find a way to establish it on solid earth and in our hearts through some union of collective activity and individual realization? Is such a dream of fulfillment for all realistic?

One clue to its feasibility lies in Carly Simon's reference to the jungle and her use of a pulsating rhythm in the song to suggest the savageness of the untamed wilderness. "It's a jungle out there!" is the common caution, applied in her song, as she says, to the dangerous "Wall Street jungle." But thoughtful ecologists are now encouraging us to recognize that the uncultivated areas are well worth celebrating, not only of the land, but also of our own minds and hearts. A truly practical vision of the New Jerusalem now fosters not only necessary order but rich and absolutely fundamental undesigned spontaneity as well. In my view, such a blend is a much more reachable goal.

Let All The Dreamers Wake The Nation


The stirring call in the song to "Let all the dreamers wake the nation" is a momentous message when linked as it is with the hope for a New Jerusalem. It was just as momentous a message 30 years ago when the great American poet E.E. Cummings wrote, "Dive for dreams or a slogan may topple you."

The tough questions adult educators need to ponder are: Which dreams should we dive for? How can we avoid the slogans? Ms. Simon's "Let the River Run" is one adult educator's call to answer these questions. Her valiant attempts to meld her dreams with her doubts in her song and in her life encourage us to follow her example as we find our own paths to a better world. Let us know how you resolve your dreams and doubts about adult education and we'll print them in an upcoming column. Send your views to Basic Choices, Inc., 730 W. Jefferson #1,Springfield, IL 62702.

John Ohliger is the co-editor of the new book Radical Thinking in Adult Education, $12.75 from Syracuse University, Kellogg Project, 113 Euclid Avenue, Syracuse NY 13244-4160.


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