Back-to-School

Mandatory Schooling & the School Story

Winslow Homer, “Crack the Whip”

The morning before his fourth day in kindergarten, my son Colin said he wouldn’t be going. He had tried school, he explained, and “it wasn’t working out.” Very much like eating broccoli, he saw this education business as voluntary and a taste you either acquired or didn’t. He hadn’t. As his parents, we were amused: How to explain that schooling, like gravity, was not really optional?

Mandatory schooling, we sometimes forget, is a recent phenomenon and only some 150 years old. We can glimpse the uneasy transition to that state of affairs in Nineteenth Century children’s books. Angered by the disciplining of one of her daughters, Marmee in “Little Women” storms into the classroom and tells the teacher that for her child (to quote Alice Cooper’s song) “school’s out forever.” Then there is Tom Sawyer who plays hooky so frequently that his companion Huckleberry Finn envies him; Huck doesn’t have the chance to do that since he doesn’t go to school at all. That’s not to suggest, incidentally, that Huck is ignorant; as Mark Twain observed,

“You should never let schooling get in the way of education.”

Nowadays, however, the school calendar is such a fixed part of our lives that it seems as much a part of nature as the change of seasons. August marks the beginning of back-to-school sales as excited and anxious students acquire stationary supplies and new clothes for the advent of September. Soon thereafter, families organize their lives in terms of Thanksgiving, Christmas holidays, spring break, and summer vacation.

To get a sense of how pervasive schooling is in our culture, we might imagine what life would be like without it. In this case, dropping off the face of the planet would be such films as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Legally Blond,” and “Good Will Hunting.” Gone, too, would be all the Harry Potter books with their accounts of events at Hogwarts, that fictional school more interesting than any its readers might attend.

Actually, as the television program “Glee” also makes clear, fictional schools are often more appealing than the real kind. When my daughter and her friends were in junior high, their favorite film was “Grease” even though that movie recounted life at Rydell High in the mythical 1950’s, decades before their own era. In a similar fashion, when the young Ronald Reagan was daydreaming about going to college, he was reading “Frank Merriwell at Yale”; Burt L. Standish’s popular pulp novel talked about football and cheerleaders but never mentioned classrooms and homework.

If we were to imagine subtracting schooling from our culture, gone as well would be all those books and films that feature dedicated teachers — from Mr. Chips to Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver.” That wouldn’t be so bad if it meant burying the smarmy prof in “Dead Poets Society.” But such a subtraction would also mean the loss of Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, with Love” and the curmudgeon Charles Kingsley (played by John Houseman) in “The Paper Chase.”

If schools were absent, we would also lose stories about the prom (“Sixteen Candles,” “Carrie”), school sports (“Friday Night Lights,” “Hoosiers”), student misbehavior (“Porky’s,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House”), and reunions (“The Big Chill,” “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion”). In a similar vein, we might wonder whether someone who is home-schooled can ever really understand “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

The absence of schools would also mean that films like “Mean Girls” and “Napoleon Dynamite” wouldn’t make sense. Adolescents would no longer need to be a part of the in-crowd or accommodate themselves to such categories as cheerleaders, nerds, jocks, losers, and the like. On the upside, “The Breakfast Club” could finally be retired from television reruns.

As an intellectual exercise, this imagining of a life without schools makes evident how mandatory schooling has shaped our culture in pervasive ways. If it was not a part of our lives, so many phenomena from bake sales to car washes, from back-to-school specials to high-school reunions, from Harry Potter to Ferris Bueller, would be . . . well, unimaginable.

The School Story

With the advent of mandatory schooling came the “school story,” a genre as old as Tom Brown’s Schooldays and as recent as the Harry Potter stories. In these, and in the many books in between, educators seem to come in two types: the Dedicated Teacher (or Mr. Chips) and the evil Classroom Tyrant. But if the truth be known, every educator is something of both since they constantly wrestle with the issue of being both kindly and demanding.

My favorite work on this topic is a picturebook by Harry Allard and James Marshall:Miss Nelson is Missing!” Miss Nelson is kindhearted, so her pupils take advantage of her and misbehave. Then one day, a substitute teacher arrives and Miss Viola Swamp is a disciplinarian who gets the job done but in such an unloving way that the students begin to miss Miss Nelson. Without spoiling the ending, let me simply say that the Misses Nelson and Swamp seem to live in the same house, a place where disguises and wigs are abundant.

Besides Dedicated Teachers and Classroom Tyrants, other familiar features in the school story include: the wish to “fit in,” the fear of being an outsider, bullies, special friendships, school sports, misbehavior, truancy, nerds, homework, and the like. You can find a catalog of these in the Harry Potter books. But there are two other features which seem to me to make J. K. Rowling’s stories especially appealing to readers who are also students.

The other compelling feature of Rowling’s books concerns the general powerlessness of the young in schools. Richard Brautigan once wrote:

“My teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James
for all the time they stole from me.”

It is certainly appealing, then, for a student to read a story where a young person in school is not a helpless victim but an individual with extraordinary, even supernatural powers–and in this, Harry Potter shares something with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Very much to that point, let me add that my son did go to kindergarten that morning after we struck a bargain: that he could carry his Luke Skywalker action figure in his pocket.

Different versions and parts of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2005) and the San Diego Union Tribune (August 19, 2012).

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29. August 2016 by
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