What does this film have to do with education?
That's what I asked myself as I watched it again for the nth time. I think that the short answer is "more than you'd think."
The protagonist (for clarity I'll call him "Rupert") seems to have everything going for him: a decent job, a condo, the ability to afford Ikea products, etc. Yet he can't sleep. In fact he's had severe insomnia for a year. Materially he's full; spiritually, empty.
Rupert finds temporary solace in attending support groups for people struggling with disabling and life-threatening diseases (significantly, the first support group is for men with testicular cancer). It is only temporary because he finds that the presence of another impostor at these support groups, "Marla" (played magnificently by Helena Bonham Carter) means he once again cannot sleep. Marla serves as a provocation, both in Rupert's attraction to her and his need to move beyond a mere emotional catharsis to physical violence (those who think the point of this film is violence have completely misread it, I think).
Beauty and violence serve as points of transcendence for Rupert. Ultimately beauty wins out, but violence serves as a channel of grace (in a way that I think Flannery O'Connor might well appreciate) and, ultimately, love. This film is about the irrepressibility of the heart and our need for meaning and friendship and love.
Admittedly, the film is more about what does not satisfy the human heart. There is a veritable laundry list of what does not satisfy our deep human needs. Tyler's "homily" deserves to be quoted in full here (found in full at http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Fight-Club.html, but I've modified it to reflect the dialogue as found in the final edit of the film)
I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived -- an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertisements have us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.
We are the middle children of history, man, with no purpose or place.
We have no great war, or great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We were raised by television to believe that we'd be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars -- but we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed-off.
Tyler finds that violence does not satisfy his need for total fulfillment. What materialistic society offers is not an adequate answer. He will choose a two fold path: violence that moves from his fellow man to the structures of economic injustice in society, and the path of friendship and love (via Bob and Marla). The former has the louder voice in the film, but the latter wins out.
The Path of Communion
It might sound irreverent to call this a religious film, but I think it is (albeit in a very confused and halting fashion). There are clues sprinkled all around: (1) Rupert's tears on Bob's shirt that mimic Veronica's Veil; (2) the secrecy of the fight club "liturgy": like the early Church, outsiders are not let in ("The first rule of fight club is that you do not talk about fight club"), the fighting occurs in a basement (cf. the catacombs), the doors are closed to the initiated; (3) after Bob's death, the members of Project Mayhem take up a definite liturgical dimension: "His name is Robert Paulson; his name is Robert Paulson..."
It is Bob's death that shakes up Rupert to begin asking serious questions about himself - again, for the first time. Ulimate violence leads to a moment of grace: asking the questions that matter. Bob's death leads Rupert to discover two profound things: first, he is not who he thinks he is (or rather Tyler is not who he seems) and second, his profound love for Marla (he sends here away on a bus for her safety and confesses that her good is more important to him than her presence).
A Happy Ending and Beginning
Rupert's rununciation of holding on to Marla allows him to free himself from his shadow, Tyler. By beginning to love the other, he can finally have affection for his own humanity and emerge from the toxic shadow of Tyler. The form this takes is a kind of dying of self; a kind of 9mm exorcism. ("The kingdom of heaven suffers violence - the violent bear it away"). From this violence to self, the tenderness of a reborn Tyler emerges. Marla takes pity on Tyler and her love overcomes all the dysfunction and abuse.
As civilization is levelled by the bombs, Tyler and Marla hold hands to behold a new beginning. They are now equal: witness the way their clothing matches (Tyler has not pants, only boxer shorts which match Marla's skirt).
But what does this film have to do with education?
Ultimately, this film reminds me that the needs of my students cannot ever be met merely by material satisfaction. That going to college is a worthy goal, but is not sufficient for happiness. It reminds me that education is "always more." That it is openness to reality if it is real education.