Editorial February 10,2012

On the demonization of education in Western literature

Roy Lisker

"From all the Jails the Boys and Girls
Ecstatically leap -
Beloved only Afternoon
That Prison doesn't keep

They storm the Earth and stun the Air,
A Mob of solid Bliss -
Alas - that Frowns should lie in wait
For such a Foe as this -

Emily Dickinson

The body of literature, fiction and non-fiction, in which schoolteachers, headmasters, professors, even education itself are demonized, is both substantial and ancient. To Wordsworth "shades of the prison house" begin to infect the minds of children from their first day in school. To William Blake, schools inculcate and indoctrinate the "mind-forged manacles". Looking over the fiction written from the 19th century to the present, I've come up with a short list of classical exemplars of the genre:

19th century

  1. Henry Adams, Education of Henry Adams : A negative accounting of academic education in New England on the eve of the Civil War.

  2. George Eliot, Middlemarch : Scabrous portrait of the dry, tyrannical pedant Reverend Edward Casaubon.

  3. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend : Headmaster Bradley Headstone is a deranged lunatic, obsessed with sexual jealousy.

  4. Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler : Jorgen Tesman is an emasculated pedant, spoiled by two doting maiden aunts. His wife, Hedda, responds to the unbearable banality and oppression of her domestic prison by a descent into insanity and suicide.

  5. Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger : Beckmesser is the paradigm of all vindictive , talentless teachers, armed with his chalk marker.

  6. Anton Chekhov: savage portraits of schoolmasters, whom he obviously hated as a class: Serebriakov in Uncle Vanya ; Kulugin in Three Sisters, Medvendenko in The Sea Gull

20th century

  1. Shaw, Pygmalion: The portraiture is more derogatory than demonizing. Henry Higgins is portrayed as a mixture of linguistic wizard and introverted fuddy-duddy, proud of his theories and intolerant of mere mortals. The price for accepting the affection of Lisa Doolittle is her servitude, symbolized by his slippers and glass of brandy at night.

  2. Sologub, The Petty Demon : Peredonov may be the nastiest portrait of a school superintendent ever to make its way into print. From Wikipedia: "The Petty Demon attempted to create a description of 'poshlost', a Russian concept that has characteristics of both evil and banality. The antihero is a provincial schoolteacher, Peredonov, notable for his complete lack of redeeming human qualities."

  3. Roy Lisker, Getting That Meal Ticket: satire of a megaversity based loosely on the University of Pennsylvania. Numerous scabrous portraits of teachers in mathematics, biology, human sciences, English, etc…. and a hapless hero, Aleph McNaughton Cantor, drowning in this ocean of folly.

  4. Virginia Woolf , To The Lighthouse : Mr. Ramsey is a metaphor for the readily caricatured traditions of philosophy at Cambridge U. She knew her subject well, being the daughter of Leslie Stephen, and part-time resident of Otolline Morell's Garsington Manor, where she met Bertrand Russell, T.S. Eliot, G.M. Keynes and others

  5. James Joyce , Ulysses : masterful portrait of the low, petty schoolmaster Mr. Deasy, Stephen Daedulus' employer

  6. Heinrich Mann, The Blue Angel : Professor Unrat! Somewhat overdone portrayal of a gymnasium professor, ignorant of human nature and the ways of society.

  7. Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man : Unforgettable portrayal of a hypocritical black college president.

  8. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim . Paradigm of the British campus novel of the 50's. I found the novel tediously superficial save for the portrait of the self-centered, dithering thesis advisor, Professor Walsh, which is something of a gem.

  9. George Orwell: " ..Such, such were the days ": denunciatory essay on British public school education.

The fashionable novel of
oafs and adulteries in small elite colleges

  1. Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin: One of a kind portrait of an absent-minded and mixed-up professor in a small elite New England college. This may have been the novel that initiated the genre

  2. Mary McCarthy: Groves of Academe Clever and witty; based on experiences in Bard College and Vassar.

  3. . John Barth, End of the Road: One of the best works written in this style.

  4. Edward Albee, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? .

  5. Jane Smiley,Moo ; David Lodge,Small World;DeLillo, White Noise; Phillip Roth,Human Stain. Churning the crank: banal re-workings of the same set of stale themes, something of a mix of Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim", Mary McCarthy's "Groves of Academe", Jacqueline Susann's "Peyton Place" and repetitive low-level pornography.

  6. N.H. Kleinbaum, Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society: Private prep schools for the children of the rich.

Contemporary British fiction

  1. A.S. Byatt, Possession : Not specifically about education or teachers. Savage caricatures of deconstructionist lesbian scholarship on Victorian literature.

  2. Lindsay Anderson, If :denunciatory film about British public schools.

  3. Almost all the professors in the TV series of Inspector Morse detective stories, which is set in Oxford, are villains. Sometimes they are allowed to be simply fools. I don't recall a single admirable don in the entire series

A website that lists 100 novels about professors, academics and education can be found at : Fiction about education

As for the converse side of the genre, namely those novels with heroic, sympathetic or praiseworthy teachers, they tend to be mawkish, hero worshipping or sentimental . Typically a brave young schoolmistress goes to the backwoods to bring enlightenment to the unwashed natives. A rare satisfying example of the genre is the film, "Songcatcher". A James Hilton will supply us with an "endearing" portrait of a befuddled schoolmaster, Mr. Chips - the very name is derogatory.

Writers are less consistent in their condemnation of other classes of professionals:

Doctors are venerated (Sinclair Lewis "Arrowsmith", Morton Thompson "Not as a Stranger" ) or condemned (Flaubert "Madame Bovary" )

Scientists are admired (Ibsen: "Enemy of the People" , Brecht "Galileo", Dr. Spock in "Star Trek") or condemned as evil geniuses (H.G. Wells "Island of Dr. Moreau"; Balzac "Quest of the Absolute";Hawthorne "Rapacinni's Daughter" )

Criminals are admired (Macheath, Heathcliff, Richard III, Milton's Satan ) or hated (Fagin, Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, Phantom of the Opera)

Politicians are praised (Howard Hawks: "Mr. Smith goes to Washington"; Sandburg's biography of Lincoln; Stanley Wolpert, "Nine Hours to Rama") or pilloried (Penn Warren: "All the King's Men"; Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs and Ian Richardson, "House of Cards" ) P> Writers who cast a writer as protagonist will tend to indulge in hero-worship. However when it is a matter of attacking contemporary rivals or competitors, they can make them the objects of ugly character assassination: Pope's Dunciad, Mark Twain's satire on James Fenimore Cooper, etc.< P> But Teachers? : universally ridiculed, caricatured, despised, pitied, condemned, hated!


After giving the matter some thought, I've developed a hypothesis that is at least worth considering: Writers of fiction, quite apart from whatever unhappy experiences they may have had as children or in college, take umbrage at the concepts of absolute success and absolute failure , things that are ingrained into the very marrow of all educational institutions. Teachers per se may be portrayed as saints or villains, but the aspect of their functioning that brings disapproval is that of being, predominantly, judges.

Any work of fiction worth reading (and most of it is not) cannot allow itself to be constrained to so narrow a perspective on the potentialities of human nature, or the vicissitudes of the human condition. Indirect evidence for this opinion is provided by the vagaries of the Nobel Prize in literature. As opposed to physics or biology, fields in which fields the prizes approximate the genuine worth of the work of the people receiving them, the Nobel Prize in literature is completely haphazard. Universally esteemed writers like James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, and Henry James and August Strindberg were passed over. Many prizes go to writers one will never hear about again after the brief spate of publicity gotten from winning the prize (Dario Fo, Elfriede Jellinek, Juan Jimenez) .

Why is this? In my opinion scholastic standards of judgment are meaningless when it comes to literature. There are no "outstanding questions" to be resolved, no "conjectures" to be confirmed or refuted, no "quantifiable benefit to mankind" to be found Ulysses or War and Peace or Remembrance of Things Past .

Judgment of the worth of works of fiction is correspondingly highly erratic: writers like Joyce, Proust and Henry James are too demanding for most readers, and there is no reason to believe that the same doesn't apply to the Nobel judges as well. One hopes that Judith Krantz is never eligible for the prize, but it could just happen that a Nobel judge takes a fancy to one her novels in the same way that we all cherish certain kinds of junk food or bad music. For some reason, the gifts needed for scholarship, and those for the creation of works of the imagination, the capacities for accurate description, and the ability to invoke a world of human activity, don't make a good match. These will probably always be at war.

The linear ordering of human psyches as measured by a pass-fail structure that dominates entire institutions is anathema to the instincts of a good writer. In the "school world", students "win" honors, prizes, medals; they can "flunk out", be "suspended" or "expelled", they "pass or fail examinations" , write "term papers" that no-one will ever read, (though they may gather dust on the shelves of some academic department for a century); if they are dutiful , students matriculate , receiving bachelor's, master's, or doctors degrees .

Teachers "get tenure"; advance from "Instructor", to "Assistant" to "Associate" to "Full" Professor. Everything is lined up on a scale of values which itself is unquestioned: it is all Gradus ad Parnassum , all Sic Itur Ad Astra , sink or swim, Publish or Perish ( a doctrine which, for a writer, must certainly come as close to the definition of pure evil as anything in the academic world). Conversely there is no adequate method for judging the work of teachers. What there is, is based largely on student assessments. These tend to confound the work of a teacher with his personality, reducing their status to performers in a kind of gong show, rated by a comic popularity pool. Students like Professor X because he's entertaining; they dislike Professor Y because he lacks charisma; and so on.

This narrow, impoverished picture of Mankind, ( and "Mankind" is as much an open-ended blueprint as He is a reality) delineated by teachers and schools runs completely contrary to the vision of human potential expressed by the great speech in Shakespeare's Hamlet:

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving how express and admirable,
in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god!
the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.."

Although "winning and losing","success and defeat" are the defining concepts of all academic institutions, they are as incapable of being defined separately as "pleasure and pain" ( eg., the idiocy of Freud's "Pleasure Principle") . They are completely dependent on interpretation, many-sided, filled with contradictions. Hostility to new ideas works hand-in-hand with indoctrination in traditional dogmas, long after the latter have proven to be anachronistic or worthless. Academics gain tenure by writing fashionable nonsense (e.g.,deconstructionism, psychoanalysis, string theory.).They accumulate superfluous degrees solely to attain to a higher pay scale, more prestige, jobs in institutions higher up in the pecking order.

All human judgements are of necessity fallible, none more drastically than in the arena of cultural worth. Artists now recognized as the greatest of their era were consistently passed over and snubbed because of the corruptions of prevailing taste (example, The Impressionists). Ugly ducklings are forever turning into beautiful swans.

The central point is this: writers, those who really have something to tell us about the human condition, are irritated, even exasperated, by a world-view that classifies people, however intelligent that system of classification may be . Such one-dimensional systems of merit/demerit are not only inhumane, but contrary to nature itself.

It is this rejection of truthfulness in the portrayal of humanity – as if a painter were to deliberately paint the subjects he finds deserving as handsome, beautiful and intelligent, while those he considers undeserving be portrayed as deformed , diseased, hideous,(there are painters like that),that arouses the hackles of authors (those who write fiction worth reading), and tend to sour them on the positive virtues (about which all (educated!) persons agree) of education.

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