It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
“‘The horror! The horror!’
In episode 82 of The Wonder Years called “Kodachrome” (from the 5th season) a 60s ideal (radical!) meets institutional reality (square!) with the expected outcome: “The Man” on top. (You can watch the episode on YouTube in 5 minute bits.)
This ideal of freedom from system dominance is demonstrated by the English teacher (naturally), Ms Shaw, who, from the outset, eschews the past, rejecting Ivanhoe by Walter Scott (one of Thoreau’s favorites!), “old, long, boring,” in favor of the present, The Catcher in the Rye (which by 1972–published in 1951–was no longer new or fresh but might still be considered institutionally risky). The program begins with Ms Shaw reading aloud from The Heart of Darkness (a novel detailing the institutions of colonialism, imperialism and slavery of Christian Europe in Africa). Both Salinger’s and Conrad’s novels were two pieces in the curriculum when I taught in the early 90s (when the Wonder Years was on television). No one asked me to teach Ivanhoe; and to be sure Catcher was no longer subversive in a culture which now considered him a whining, spoiled, failure–the subversion had been subverted. Though belittled in the culture of acquisition and conquest, its hero seeks meaning outside of material gain and its outward appearances; a quest of emotional depth confronting the corruption of social necessities, of systems that create corruption, while at the same time confronting the personal trauma of dealing with the death of a deeply loved younger brother. One only dismisses this novel if one begins from the perspective of competitive individualism. Why bother with the story of a loser?
Heart of Darkness, it must be said, eluded most readers in 9th grade and confessedly I’d say I had only just begun to appreciate it at age twenty-four. Holden remains a kind of reality (an “I” walking and talking with whom to identify) while Conrad’s Kurtz is burdened with such profundity that understanding remains “ineffable” and “inscrutable” (two of the books most prevalent terms). On top of this there is the distancing of the narrative voice–Marlowe. Marlowe tells us the story and though a participant he is never a part of the action. This choice makes the narration the “Real” action of the novel and the events in it serve as pieces in the puzzle of this artwork. The historical details are clear and condemnatory but these too, because they are subservient to the act of telling, are “not the point.” We don’t feel “the horror” of Kurtz: it is an abstraction to ponder over.
Contrary to this, we like or don’t like Holden Caulfield in the same way we respond to actual people we meet and come to know. He is our avatar of youth in “modern times,” and, though the 50s are long gone, the confrontation with social institutions is always a relevant issue. In this we might say that the response to Holden is a kind of psychology testing. What kind of person does or doesn’t care about him and this particular (yet generalizable) confrontation with institutional reality? He does not know how to make the world fit him anymore; school, advertising, sexuality, intellectual maturation prior to emotional and physical maturation, disease and dying, adult authority, adult predation, class bigotry are only a few things he must try assimilate without “losing himself.” He is constantly seeking guidance and those he enlists are utter failures offering “suck it up” bromides of every stripe.
Perhaps it’s interesting to note that Ivanhoe is a kind of Holden Caulfield and not at all a kind of Kurtz (or Marlowe). Scott, it is claimed, by making his hero of “middling” abilities was more able to engage the reader in the social milieu of the time period (the Middle Ages) so that the reader doesn’t just think in heroic tropes (which are formulaic–canned thought) but rather considers the context of the action with much more interest. Ivanhoe also gives us a version of Robin Hood (a nobleman standing against class oppression) and his merry men. Ivanhoe has friends and support. Holden Caulfield does not (excepting his sister, Phoebe).
Are the creators of The Wonder Years making a particular point besides “out with the old, in with the new?” Who knows? Institutions are containers of tradition and are conservative by design. A Black woman, non-traditional in methodology, offering non-traditional texts and non-traditional thinking, refusing to “grade” thoughts, acting from within the traditional institution and acting alone was clearly going to be a kind pressure point intended as a challenge. She goes so far as to make what to me is an incontrovertible point: How can you grade a free exchange of thought, she asks, contrasting this with mathematics where one is always charged with getting known and correct answers. (That’s why those who profit off evaluation design and implementation push all thinking into the “quantifiable” mode.)
The high school English class (or Language Arts), while offering conventional forms and constructions to learn and understand, has traditionally been charged with teaching a kind of critical perspective. Critical perspectives are born of context. If you don’t interrogate your own context (why do you think the way you think?) then you are already committing bias errors, making assumptions prior to your application of inquisitive methods. It is my experience that this is rarely done in our school systems. Further, it is unlikely that it is done in any of the other classes which are ones of more “factual” bent. History, for example begs for this interrogation of context, but within the highly organized, hierarchical structure of an institution like a school, history is for learning and parroting. A history class in an American school is almost always about replicating a national ethos–an acceptable, replicable, patriotic ethos. This does not give one much room to be critical of perspectives, especially when those are handed down to you by authority figures and in authoritative texts. History, cliche though it is, is indeed the victor’s truth. So we double up on our errors–we fail to ask ourselves what has gone into our own thinking frameworks and then we fail to ask what designs our institutions have on us as citizens. These are normally deeply intertwined as our parents, our first traditional institution, and their thinking is full of both personal and institutional bias.
Within these traditional structures Ms Shaw offers a knowing subversion with the primary and personal motivation of teaching well and successfully inspiring the class to be critically engaged, at which she succeeds. But she must be exposed as a difference that is making a difference and that can be highly disruptive if not destructive of the traditional patterns. Also, to be subversive she must make the students complicit in the subterfuge (don’t tell anyone we’re reading Catcher and not Ivanhoe!). As the episode progresses Ms Shaw does the by-now familiar “alternative” things in the classroom–she teaches outside and she wants not to give grades (pass/no-pass). When told she must give grades she decides the kids should give their own grades. When the extent of her curricular and methodological changes are discovered she is told she must adhere to the state-mandated content and evaluation practices (i.e., follow the law) or face the consequences. So she quits then and there and drives off into the sunset.
It is one of the most critical episodes of the series. Kevin “sides” with tradition or rather with institutional acceptance of norms. It does a wonderful job of revealing the the “economic” and “political” consequences of these choices. Faced with a report card without an understandable letter grade Kevin’s dad is angry saying, “I pay taxes and I want to see a grade.”; Paul (Kevin’s best friend who is an A-student and an intellectual elite) is angry because it’s not fair the way the “bozos” in that class will be allowed to give themselves grades: Paul is exposing his own self-identity here also; and in the end, Kevin is angry with Ms Shaw’s desertion because he likes her, and she’s a good teacher and her quitting means they will get a crappy teacher in her place. The voice over that is the show’s “grown up” conscience entones, “She didn’t do what was best for us.”
With this I disagree. A good teacher, one who believes that thoughts and people should not be measured and graded by arbitrary systems cannot, on principle, give grades according to those standards. A good teacher who compromises on this point in order to do “some good” within the “flawed system” has already become simply another proponent of that system, serves the ends of that system. If your goal is to subvert those ends and yet you participate in the continuation of them then you have failed and you have become a different person. You carry the institutional walls within you and you are a representative of their ubiquity and power.
Thoreau advises when the government does not act as you would in good conscience then you must stand and say no:
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned from office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.
This is what Ms Shaw chose to do and that was indeed “best” for the class. She offered them a way to approach literature and school and thinking. And she took a principled stand against arbitrary institutional measures. And in one sense she offered a stand against the uncritical nostalgia of suburbia normally at work in The Wonder Years.
We have come no further than this of course, and perhaps we are only fools if we believe there is a way to be different within the borders of a nation which is only an extension of that described so wonderfully in Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz, symbol of The (Ivory) Heart of Darkness of European conquest and endless rapine; and, before Conrad, with much greater power and less “inscrutability,” by Melville in his portrayal of Ahab in Moby Dick on the American Murder Ship ironically named for a “disappeared” native people, the Pequod.
Today we no longer are even allowed to offer the tiniest bit of subversion in the classroom. Nearly all instruction is geared toward the successful management of testing implementation and procedures. No time for subversion, no time for thinking, and really, no time for even fun or joy in youth. But the deeper and very real concern as I see it is that the very structures of a capital economy, a political economy whose ideology enforces the belief that competition leads to strength and justice and truth, are the primary structures of our educational ideology as well. Within this framework we privilege and praise the winners though they win “at all cost” and compromise much that we hold to be virtuous turning this gain to a sacrifice of self on the altar of material “success.” This easily leads to minds that believe the strong are just and deserving; the weak are failures and so underserving. It is the ideology of justifiable erasure and genocide (even if by sanctioned inattention and care). Our least among us shall bother us no more.
In “Resistance to Civil Government” Thoreau asks “for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” How does one even know what that is when there is no critical discourse allowed even English classes? He next says, “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” What can we offer but what we are given in institutions of enforced reception? In other words, we cannot even contemplate that “one step” towards a betterment.
True learning begins with NO. It begins when the child is able to utter that one commanding syllable to the parent. It begins when the child must confront what happens AFTER the NO. That is the moment when we are truly born free or truly well-shackled.
When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
If you took all the girls I knew when I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they’d never match my sweet imagination
Everything looks worse in black and white