Watching through BtVS and Angel, it’s apparent that among the many well-considered and highly developed themes Joss Whedon is keen to explore, that of knowledge (and the human relationship to knowledge), is paramount.
From the least-educated character of Xander, and arguably Buffy, and possibly Gunn, to the most-highly educated: Professor Walsh, Fred (Winifred Burkle), and Giles, Whedon uses every character as an opportunity to contribute dialogue regarding the tenuous line one must walk in the pursuit of knowledge.
Before exploring individual instances where knowledge becomes a problem or a weapon (often, most readily used against the self), it is important to talk about the contrast Whedon proposes to one’s scholastic learning and pursuit of knowledge and that is: the matter of “heart.”
The character of Xander is often cited as the “heart” of the Scooby gang. In S4E21 “Primeval,” Xander becomes the heart of a spell that unites Giles, Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The “heart” is a role traditionally attributed to female characters in culture and movies. This concept opens a can of worms about Xander and his masculinity, and what that means in terms of both the show and Whedon’s message, i.e. What’s wrong with being the heart? What’s wrong with men donning traditionally “feminine” roles? Why are these roles perceived as weaker than? Why does Xander struggle in his role? etc.
Through the years, Xander never seeks to learn or develop skills, yet he continually protests about being the most vulnerable and unskilled member of the group. He does not learn martial arts, study lore or magic, or even train with Giles to learn basic defense and weapons skills. He subscribes to his own inferiority, never more than when Willow and Buffy head off to college while he (sulkily) takes a blue-collar track.
Additionally, we know Xander is a terrible student in school. His grades are often mocked by himself and he is continually cheered on by Willow to apply himself and study. Xander has no natural skill for school and never pushes himself to learn much of anything. The knowledge that Xander gains is based on his peer group; to be a Scooby, Xander must do research and log “field hours.” Thus, through his peer group, Xander’s education becomes one of emotion, which he sadly takes no pride in or ownership of. He is not proud to be the “heart”. He sees it as a unecessary role in the group, while Whedon presents it as vital. Often, Xander is the only glue keeping the team together, especially in later seasons. In many ways Xander’s battles occur emotionally, but that too is something he has little confidence in and does not relish.
On the other hand, Buffy has natural aptitude for school. Despite her continual struggles to balance her responsibilities, for Buffy, school always loses out to slaying and social life. Buffy’s grades are traditionally a mess, as is her participation and effort. It’s only when the gang get their SAT scores back that we become certain that Buffy has a natural penchant for learning and school. Willow (looking at Buffy’s SAT scores): “Buffy!” You kicked ass!”. We also know that Buffy gets accepted to some stellar schools such as Northwestern. Her SAT scores are good enough for highly respected colleges to look past her shoddy transcripts and problematic record of behavior.
But Buffy never challenges herself scholastically (until she enters college) and she never has to. She was able to dial it in the whole time, which is a surprise even to her. Once Buffy enters college, it becomes quickly apparent that slaying and school will no longer be a balance she can fudge enough to succeed. She tries well enough at first, but once her mother becomes ill and dies (admit it, you just flashed to the image of Joyce’s body on the couch. Ouch, every time), there is no way Buffy can juggle school any longer. She must become mother to herself and her sister, and slaying and the need for income both trump Buffy’s scholastics. In effect, life has happened to Buffy, spoiling her plans and illuminating that education is a gift to be valued, one that one often must make tremendous sacrifices to pursue.
Knowledge of Charles Gunn’s education is based highly on conjecture. In his own words, we know he is from “the streets,” where he runs a gang of young adults and teenagers that clean up vampires from their distressed neighborhoods of origin. Like all characters in Buffyverse, Gunn is a stereotype, one that often becomes uncomfortable because with him, the issue of stereotype and race is raised, but, that is the topic for another essay.
Gunn takes pride in his roots and often flaunts his street smarts and common sense which often manifest as jadedness based on years living in a virtual war zone. As viewers, we imagine that Gunn’s hardships in life regularly trumped the luxury of scholastics and school and his countenance, language, and bearing support this theory. He is regularly identified as the “muscle” of Angel Investigations, becoming a worthy fighter and brawler alongside Angel.
When Angel Investigations takes over the LA branch of the evil Wolfram and Hart Law Firm, Gunn almost immediately makes and takes a deal to have his brain supernaturally and surgically enhanced to gain comprehensive knowledge of the law and business (and Gilbert & Sullivan musicals). He becomes an uber-lawyer, an elite brain, but through unnatural means. For Gunn, it is literally a short-cut education at any cost, as the price of his unnatural knowledge ends up leading directly to the death of Fred.
While Gunn knows a price will be required for his gain (but not what that price is specifically), he does not hesitate for a moment, elucidating that those who have necessarily gone without education due to socio-economics, circumstance, and access will sometimes pay nearly any price to obtain it and have a chance to better themselves and their lot.
Next up… Part 2: The trouble with big brains…