A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: On Things I’ve Read

Why is Viola Davis considered a supporting actress?

I think it’s an insult that Viola Davis may be up for an Oscar for “Best Supporting Actress” [in Fences]. Denzel Washington should be nominated for “Best Supporting Actor.” But Davis carried the film with her multi-layered character. Her portrayal of “Rose” made her the star—by far. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a more robust depiction of the valor of Black women and “violence” against Black womanhood. I found myself both rooting for “Rose” and mournfully wishing so many sisters didn’t have to live lives exactly like hers—and worse.

Thabiti Anyabwile. Davis did get that nomination for supporting actress. So what is the difference between supporting and lead role? I just finished reading the play, Fences, because when I heard August Wilson had won a Pulitzer for it I wanted to read it before I saw the film, and I thought Rose’s situation was not only central to the action but thematically even more gripping than Troy’s–that fence, as Anyabwile points out, represents Rose’s attempt to keep her family in, her hopes that Troy will not drive Cory outside it (she is the one who has asked Troy to build it). Saying Rose is not a lead character is like calling Mark Antony a supporting character in Julius Caesar; but Marlon Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1953. So, huh.

Human Touch in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

I read a lot of books and have forgotten more about them than I thought was possible, but some scenes stay with me no matter how many books intervene. Maybe because I’m a dad, the scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when the father shoots and kills the man who has grabbed his son will not leave me. It’s not the only scene from the book seared into my brain (“the things you put into your head are there forever” (12) after all) but when I picked up the novel this year to re-read it, I was thinking about it before I’d even reached it.

It rose to the top of my thoughts with the first line of the novel, where the father reflexively reaches out to his son: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping before him.” It occurred to me that in my previous readings of the novel, the only other person to touch the boy was the man his father killed. The contrast between the two men’s touching of the son struck me–they both aim to possess, but one is for the sake of consumption and one is rooted in love.

What role, I began to wonder, does touch have in this bleak world McCarthy creates for us?

Touch, I realized with this first line, has maintained credibility in a world where so much language is useless, its “sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality” (89)¹. At no time in the book does the father say I love you to his son, yet we never doubt through all their Okays that he loves his boy. How do we know this? How are we so convinced about this father’s love for his son?

No novelist wins a Pulitzer Prize by being sloppy, and having read a few of McCarthy’s other novels, and having read The Road a couple times, I knew nothing extraneous had sneaked into the text. Every letter and comma serves a purpose, advances some kind of idea. What if, then, I spent this year’s reading monitoring McCarthy’s use of human touch? What might I discover about the role McCarthy assigns touch in The Road? What insight might that deliver to me about the nature of touch?

I therefore read with a pencil close at hand and marked each referral to one person touching another person and then jotted on a note card the pages where I found those moments (I can therefore assure you that 99 pages of the novel contain instances of touch). Obviously, most of these depict exchanges between the man and the boy, and in that basic sense most of the touch connotes something positive. My next task–which I have yet to finish–is to categorize each incident in a chart so I can determine which kinds of touch are most common (is a touch of guidance more common than one extending warmth?).

But while I have not completed my chart, I can already see how this touch stands in direct opposition to the meaninglessness of the world the man and the boy inhabit. While the bonds between humans have burned like the landscape–the boy and the man’s primary mission, after all, is to check for and avoid contact with other human beings–and while concepts of goodness and love make no sense anymore², the primacy of human touch has defied reason and meaninglessness. So opposed to the mother’s argument that there is no reasonable defense for living, the man continues to kiss his son (e.g. 82), to hold him when he needs comforting (e.g. 62, 85), to intervene when the boy cannot do something for himself (e.g. 39, 66), to guide him (e.g. 61, 85), to warm him (e.g. 29, 36, 67), and to keep him safe (e.g. 67, 77). Thus, when this dragon of meaningless evil breathes its fire, burning every word of reason propelled at it to destroy it, this simple and fundamental sensory expression withstands its conflagration.

In this preponderance of love expressed through human touch–and, admittedly, the punctuations of hatred, also expressed through touch³–exists the concrete reality of love (and hatred). The abstractions of language and morality have burned away, but goodness and love exist. People can say what they want–can name themselves Ely if they want–but the boy carries the fire, and we know he carries the fire not because of what he says, but because of what he does; we have seen him and we know he is the one who worries about everything, who has to worry about everything because no one else will (259).

In the end, this human touch shows us what the man and the boy do, and what they do is good. If we agree that McCarthy’s portrayal depicts a true aspect of our world, then no matter how bleak our world appears at times, no matter how much evil pushes against the ideas of what we think is right, goodness and love still reveal themselves through their actions, like touch.

In this way, I’m convinced McCarthy’s novel is a parable for a reality I confront frequently. Its insight is stunning.  When darkness is overcoming the world and I can’t find words to confront it, I can hold my son, rocking him back and forth, and know in this is a spot of grace, a place where light shines in this world.


Notes

  1. Thus the man can say to his son, “I’ll be in the neighborhood” but to his son, born in the world after the incident that destroys it, the phrase means nothing (95). The same thing is true with his stories about heroism and even names–see the conversation with “Ely.”
  2. See the mother’s defense for suicide and her point that the man has no way to answer her because there is no reason to live (57). See also the depiction of “absolute truth” as “cold” and “relentless,” “darkness implacable,” and a “crushing black vacuum” (130).
  3. Hence the man the father kills and the father’s vow to kill anyone who touches the boy (77).

Is “flipping” a classroom all teachers have to do?

Over at Edutopia blogger and teacher Brian Sztabnik writes about some experiences he has had “flipping” his classroom:

A reading transformation can occur in your school much like it has in my classroom, replacing fear and dread with excitement and self-expression. Students will read if they choose the books. They will write with voice and clarity if they have the ability to express their thoughts. They can change from reluctant to inspired readers if it happens on their own terms. All you have to do is flip the experience, turning the practice of reading on its head by making them the creators of their own learning.

The article is optimistic and energetic, which is good; my trouble is that I do find myself reacting to the article and many I have read like it with a bit of skepticism. Perhaps my skepticism rears up as soon as I hear the words “all you have to do”; if all I had to do could be written in a blog post, why is my district spending millions of dollars killing me with acronyms?

Obnoxious attempts at humor aside, I have a couple immediate reactions to Sztabnik’s article, which of course means I’m slightly contrarian at first, but look deeper, I have positive things to say as well–honest!

Choice and Challenge

The student quote says, “when none of it makes sense.” That captures my biggest problem with the choice many teachers trumpet as the answer to everything. When the most common reason students don’t want to read the classics is they can’t read the classics–aren’t we concerned? I had students read the Brown v. the Board of Education decision the other day–it’s about four pages long and the first page is an outline (syllabus) of the rest of it. It’s hard, yes, but not astronomically difficult; it’s boring, okay, but it’s not that long. Yet I hand it to students and if I don’t have a highly detailed response assignment built in, they shut down and don’t read it. That is, I was not able to hand it to them and say, “Let’s read this and then talk about it.” I had to have an assignment tied to it. I could have them read a hip hop song’s lyrics instead, but am I not trying to educate students so that they can read a Supreme Court decision, particularly the most important decision of the 20th century?

The Lecture Flip: Watching at Home

“Students watch online lectures at home.” My first thought is, they do? And what else is going on while they watch that lecture? And then I wonder if those who propose this have ever engaged in that kind of learning, because I personally hate watching online lectures. They are so insanely boring they make me crazy, and when you have the ability to tune out without being rude or skip ahead, well . . . guess what I do? Every time I watch an online lecture, even dynamic ones, I usually find myself wishing they’d written it down so I could move through it faster. I’m no defender of lecturing a lot in class, so if putting them online makes it so students don’t have to endure hearing junk they didn’t really need to hear anyway, great, but the idea of having people watch them at other times strikes me as wishful thinking. If I as a teacher have something important to say to students, an online video would be the last way I’d say it.

The writing flip: Writing at home

“Students blog about the experience at home.” I have students with computer issues all the time. You would think they all have the ability to do our work outside of school, but for a good number of my students their phones are the only way they connect to the Internet. If we had a guideline at school that said, “Any students without computer access at home should make sure they schedule a study hall so they can use the school’s computers” that would maybe work. On the positive side (see, I do more than just criticize!) Sztabnik’s method does something I think schools should do more of: admit that many of our students have better computing technology than the schools can provide and then challenge them to use it for educational purposes. We ask students to buy their notebooks, while not their computers? If you could balance that with ensuring that we don’t leave students on the wrong side of the digital divide, I’d be interested in the idea.

Freedom of expression

“No longer must they be told what to write and how.” I like blogs and use them when I teach summer school, but what Sztabnik is doing here is really just recycling reading journals or notebooks with a different technology, isn’t it? Now, I find reading journals to be an effective teaching method and a crucial part of my pedagogy, so I’m not criticizing the method at all. Plus, I like the ability to comment quickly with a computer when I read blogs, and I also like the ability to have students read each others’ work (See for example what I did on my wiki this summer, where I highlighted students’ articles that others should read, and then had a feed planted in the class page where students could click on them).

So there are things I like about Sztabnik’s method and much of it resembles things I’ve actually done in the classroom. I think the big things that I don’t like are 1) worshiping at the altar of choice as if that solves everything, particularly when that choice means students will avoid the difficult tasks we educators should be teaching them how to do, and 2) recycling old ideas and acting like they’re new. I don’t suggest that Sztabnik is trying to act like a hero who thought of the great elixir–he really isn’t–but there is this tendency, as many teachers know, of folks to set up all educational methods of the past as a straw man who gets knocked down easily in the introduction to an article about the new method, and the new method is frequently just an old method in new clothes. For example, have you heard that we’re starting to call learning targets objectives again?

Those are a few thoughts I have today. Thanks for reading.

Reading The Road as a father, vulnerable to McCarthy’s probing tension

I remember enjoying Life Is Beautiful while in college: the quirky Roberto Benigni created a character I’d hope to be, and the peek into one story struck me as a poignant way to capture the tragedy of the broader genocide that was the Holcaust. At least, that’s how I remember thinking about it, and the positive memories are why I assigned my sophomores to watch it fifteen years later when I was out of class for some meetings.

They didn’t finish the film with the sub and I had to show the last 30 or 40 minutes or so when I returned. It did not go well for me. Within five minutes of hitting play my stomach was tied. When we finally reached the scene where little Joshua hides in the junction box and his father is taken away and shot, I left the room, afraid I’d throw up. What was different from my college experience? Becoming a father had made the movie unwatchable.

I wonder, as I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with my students, if they can comprehend this fatherly perspective, or are they as clueless to the gut-level connection as I was the first time I watched Life Is Beautiful? The first time I read The Road I withheld any positive acclaim until the end, muttering to McCarthy with every page, “Do not do this. If you do this, I will hate this book like no other.” I never had to utter to myself what “this” was any more than McCarthy’s narrator has to explain what is on the man’s mind: “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” (29). I knew with the first mention of “it” what McCarthy meant. The pit in my stomach, the one that drops into place the moment I read a sentence of The Road, told me what “it” was.

The pit, or whatever it is that leaves me on the edge of sickness and threatens to push me off it, arises particularly from the juxtaposition of the father’s knowing watchfulness and the boy’s sweet peacefulness, which we see immediately in the novel. For example, with the pistol out and ready, the man sees the same sweet sleeping idiosyncrasies any parent sees from their child: “He just sat watching the boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets” (5). The boy’s sleep prevents him from seeing what consumes his father: “He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day” (5). And when the boy wakes the two elements crash:

The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.

I’m right here.

I know. (5)

The tender boy sees his father and greets him, a moment in which any father would want to bask and respond in reciprocal tenderness–that is to say, it’s a moment where I would, so I assume any father would as well–but instead he answers by assuring his son that he is watching, that he is here, because that is what consumes him and how he must express his love. It is sad that it must be this way, but it works, for the boy’s response acknowledges his understanding and trust in his father. He knows his father is there, he doesn’t have to be told.

What a pang such tension brings me as a father. I know what it is to watch over my sleeping son, his face relaxed, his body vulnerable. Yet the joy of my looking at him arises from the contrast of his sleeping self with the buoyant energy that fills our home when he’s awake. Like the father in The Road, I see him as my charge, my “warrant,” but to me this is a responsibility within my grasp. It’s a duty of character development and moral guidance, not a task of raw survival and violent protection. In my gut I know no extremes exist to my willingness to protect him, but I need not imagine such circumstances, let alone plan for them or expect them.

This book is a long metal pole McCarthy has probed inside me, and with it he is pressing the nerve endings of my fatherly spirit. That nerve is central to what it means, to what it feels, to be a father, and even when aware of the novel’s ending, I find myself muttering, “Don’t press me too hard, McCarthy. If you rupture that nerve, I’ll never forgive you.”

 

Aaron Belz’s humorous verse tethers readers to reality

Aaron Belz is a funny poet. Consistently funny, not “he slipped a giggle-inducing verse into a broader collection” funny (ala Billy Collins) but funny in a way that his readers have come to expect. Funny as a primary vehicle for communicating what he has to say.

glitter bombYet he defies any attempt to banish him to the poetic land of Light Verse, a land from which no amount of verbal wit can break Ogden Nash free. True to form, in his latest collection, Glitter Bomb, Belz stares solemnly into our collective mirror and uses humor to explain what he sees. That humor is witty and full of word play, but Belz’s insightful observations betray his contemplative mind.

Of course with any humorist the first thing readers do is laugh, and Belz utilizes a variety of methods to make us grin. A classic technique he uses differently almost every time is the unexpected twist. See his redirecting of cliches, like in “Ice Cream”:

I scream, you scream, we all scream
when we get stabbed in the heart.

or his inversion of words’ normal pairings, like in “Interesting About You,” when what’s interesting is the ways “you fail to distinguish yourself.” Other times he plays upon our accustomed expectations, like in “Palindromes,” when the second half of each palindrome is not a sensible line but a strange garble of phonetic nonsense akin to the Swedish Chef’s monologues.

Belz’s word play draws particularly skillfully from contemporary idiom and colloquialisms, sometimes teasing the idiom, other times celebrating it. Using expressions anachronistically sounds silly and highlights how dependent upon cultural context our language is, as in a stanza of “Trois Poesies Antiques” called “Wack Kings”:

Watch out for the wack kings,
clanking their armor,
riding their dope horsies over the hill.

or in “Hambone,” where the poet thinks of his relationship “in a completely old way”:

“What has gotten into thee?”
you asked. “I’m boogying!”
said I. “Why don’t thou gettest

thy groove on, too?”

Other times Belz toys with the raw frequency of our idiomatic expressions, like in “No Vacancy,” where he strings together a series of disconnected nothings to make a conversation of sorts:

“Actually,” they say.
“Let’s be honest,” they begin.

“On the flip side,” I respond.
“As fate would have it,” you admit–

you confess. “It wasn’t your
fault,” you continue . . .

or in “So this is Thursday,” where he begins fourteen separate lines with “So this is . . . “

As readers laugh through a first perusal of Glitter Bomb, a few dark clouds form. At least, that’s the common imagery of the humorist-with-a-purpose. If a writer is notably intelligent or satirical we must say they have a dark sense of humor, a label applied since Twain and Bierce. A better image here might be to say that while Belz’s wit supplies buoyancy to our spirits, we notice after a time he has us tethered to something solid: reality.

This humorist has found some of the funniest parts of our lives are the parts we do not share or discuss with others. One such aspect is the ongoing battle we wage with what feels like our various selves. In a number of poems, like “Your Objective,” and “Song of Myself,” Belz splits these selves apart and toys with our denials of conflict and vice and our efforts and failures at virtue.

In “1-0,” for example, the speaker declares,

I’ve taken a vote among
myself and it’s unanimous
we’d like me to be slightly
less of a jerk if possible”

but by the end of the poem he concedes it might not happen. The verse operates subtly, teasing our lack of conviction in our demands of ourselves (“slightly” and “if possible”) and giggling at the oddity of a phrase like “among myself” even as it admits that 1) he’s a jerk and 2) he won’t be changing.

Such humor touches a reader close to the heart, and I get the sense that Belz is not only mocking others, but himself. How else could he discover the poignancy present in “Team”?

There’s no “I” in team,
but there’s one in bitterness
and one in failure.

Happily for Belz, his privacy is intact and I have no clue what might have inspired such verses. I do have a clue, however, about what parts of me connect so well to what Belz mocks, and I constantly laugh and pause, knowing I too may be the butt of the joke. As a sample, there is a part of me that, despite my best efforts to resist it, has succumbed to the promises of advertising. This version of me has begun to see myself in overblown, over-confident terms, like the speaker in “My Chosen Vocation,” who, though failing at his goals in life, is left “rather sexy-looking” with his messy hair that was “volumized / with Matrix Essentials / Foam Volumizer”; in his own mind, he is the picture of a modern day Walt Whitman, not a washed up, purposeless bum. I’d like to say I’m not that bad, but who am I fooling? Perhaps Belz is right.

E.B. White wrote of Mark Twain that he didn’t know that a humorist must always preach, as Twain claimed in one instance they should, but that they must always speak the truth. In this collection of poems Aaron Belz rebuffs for his poetry the label light verse and earns a better label, humorous verse, because he has tethered his playful wit to the noble satirical goal of speaking the truth.

He has succeeded, and readers of this volume can be confident their reading will begin in laughter and end in wisdom.

 

Is The Great Gatsby Post-Hypocritical?

I find myself thinking a lot about hypocrisy and irony as I contemplate The Great Gatsby and its place in American literature. Hypocrisy seems to me to be one of those characteristics that bothers people more than almost any other. It’s like it’s the great American vice, not in the sense that Americans do it more than other cultures, but in a sense that Americans seem to detest hypocrisy more than any other action or situation. A stringent totalitarian might be hated, but not nearly as much as a stringent totalitarian who doesn’t live by the same strict rules he enforces for others.

Among the novels my American literature students read are The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby (though this year is my first year teaching Gatsby, so it’s a new adventure for me). Hypocrisy was at the heart of what The Scarlet Letter was about–Dimmesdale’s public face was one of holiness, but secretly he was the most guilty sinner. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain took the hypocrites and made them look ridiculous, to make sure we didn’t miss it. He mocked the hypocrites, yes, but even more so he seemed to be mocking those of us who actually believed those hypocrites, those of us who fall for the hypocrisy of the king and duke and get lulled into accepting the reasoning of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons.

Inherent in hypocrisy is irony–the way a person seems is incongruent with the way they are. In The Great Gatsby the first thing I see is irony, as these glittering rich people strike us as amazing: Gatsby’s fantastic parties; Tom’s profound wealth that allows him to turn garages into horse stalls and spend his time playing polo, the most exclusive and privileged game in existence, the game of royalty; and Daisy’s lounging on sofas and periodically having her daughter pop in to say hi. But undercutting their amazing glitter are their miserable lives (I’ve constructed a reflection for students opining that everyone in the novel is a total jerk). It’s ironic, but are they hypocrites? My first thought is that they were hypocrites, because they’re living like they’re awesome but they’re not. But then I realize they aren’t even pretending to be morally upright people. They just have so much wealth and privilege that they’re able to lead these miserable lives and no one is going to mess with them. Ironic? Yes. Hypocritical? Maybe not.

Tom is one character that makes me confused. He is a hypocrite of sorts, since he’s an adulterer. What adulterer is not a hypocrite? He’s just not very good at it, since though he’s technically hiding this affair from Daisy, everyone knows about it (Nick tells us people are mad at him for not hiding it more when he goes into the city, so there’s a sense in which there must be a code of decorous hypocrisy Tom is breaking). Tom is so cruel and confident about his playing around that he seems less like a hypocrite and more like a privileged bully. Of course, you could say that he’s a hypocrite for getting all upset when he discovers Daisy loves Gatsby, but that seems not like hypocrisy and more like . . . the actions of a control freak. After all, he seems not to be bothered by the idea of it having happened once he is confident Daisy won’t actually leave him.

Yet isn’t Gatsby a hypocrite? He’s a rich cool guy, but he’s built his wealth from some sort of illegal activities, which seem at least to include some bootlegging. But again, like Tom, he’s not so much acting one way when he’s really another as he’s just not emphasizing his bad way. He was “an Oxford man”–technically true, but obviously misleading, as all he did was go to a few classes and never graduate. Is that hypocritical? Not in the pure sense like Arthur Dimmesdale or the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, but it certainly contains an element of hypocrisy, since he is living a kind of lie.

It seems like we could do this for just about everyone: look at their lives and quickly see the places where they are either liars or the places where they don’t live up to anyone’s standards. But in each case but Nick’s, no one really made any great claim to being better, morally, than they are.

Nick seems different because early on he insists, “I am one of the few honest people I have ever known” (59), but Jordan calls him on it at the end of the novel, saying, “I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride” (177), implying that she discovered he’s nothing of the kind. That seems to be the most clear representation of hypocrisy in the book.

The kind of irony, or hypocrisy, that is looked down upon in the book is Gatsby’s. He has presumed to be wealthy and important, but he’s not. He’s fake: fake in acquiring his wealth through crime, fake in being popular, as he throws parties for people who don’t actually know him, fake in his claims of being an “Oxford Man,” fake in suggesting his family is wealthy, fake all the way down to his name. He’s “new wealth,” living in West Egg, trying to get the attention of East Egg but really just drawing their scorn (see the time Tom and his friends on horseback invited him to lunch and couldn’t believe Gatsby thought they really wanted him to come). It’s sort of hypocrisy in that he’s ultimately different from what he portrays, but it’s more like he’s looked down upon for aspiring to be something different than he is.

But the book doesn’t seem to suggest that we should view him in the same way. We might think less of him, but not for aspiring to a new life. We might actually think less of him for trying for a life that isn’t worth having–after all, who really wants to be like Tom and Daisy?–and for thinking he could make Daisy transform into the form of his ridiculous dreams of the past, but those are different reasons for criticism than the other characters have of him.

So I’m left with in incomplete interpretation of the book and a sense that this particular great American novel is not so much about hypocrisy as it is about irony. In a sense it’s almost post-hypocrisy: what happens when people stop even aspiring to or claiming a moral high ground and instead act on their selfish impulses. When the hypocrisy is gone all that is left for us to see is the irony. We’re on the outside, looking in at the lavish privilege and parties of the rich, aspiring to be them, just like the poem “Richard Cory,” and ironically, when we get close enough to see the reality, those folks are 1) empty, hollow, and miserable, and 2) not willing to allow access to those who aren’t them, who aren’t the old wealth of East Egg. The disconnect of the irony is between the beautiful exterior (that their wealth provides them) and their corrupt interior (that makes up their personal lives).

And that confuses me the most, because my saying that triggers a saying from the Bible where Jesus criticizes a group of Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). The Pharisees tend to have this cultural place as the ultimate or first examples of hypocrisy. They’re the purest archetypal version of the hypocrite, and his description of them is precisely what I stumbled into using for the characters of The Great Gatsby: clean on the outside, filthy on the inside. So maybe this is a book about hypocrisy after all.

I don’t know. If you have an opinion, help me out here.

Thanks for reading.

Embedding education outside manipulative institutions: A reflection on Ivan Illich, schools, and public libraries

I have a love affair with libraries. Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, our library was, perhaps, more of an artifact than a lending institution, but I liked it anyway. Since it shared the property line with my school, our classes visited the library once a week and checked out books from Peggy Ward, the librarian with a British accent, which of course increased my artifact-impression of the place.

In eighth grade our long term substitute teacher must have misread the requirements of the class she was teaching, because she made us write 10 page papers on a local history topic–a challenge for high school students, I would think–and we had to use the holdings in a locked area of the library’s basement. That basement was everything you’d imagine a hundred year old New England library’s basement would be–dark, a bit damp, with a chained off area. By now my imagination has augmented the scene so much I picture an arched doorway and iron gate, but I suspect this image is a bit spurious.

Also in our town was a small college, and my friends and I often studied in its library, using their more substantial collection for our research papers and taking advantage of early versions of InfoTrac (that was where I learned to use microfilm). I felt particularly scholarly when occupying a study room or a private desk by a third floor window, and I was grateful that the college checked out books to locals like me.

I can’t say I checked out that many books from those libraries–my parents bought me a lot of books and I was awfully busy chasing balls around playing fields to need any more–but there and everywhere I have moved, I have benefited from the library. These were places where I retreated for quiet study and places where I conducted research. In Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the library was beautiful and gave me a place to go outside my one bedroom apartment. I’d hang out with the homeless guys, reading in the sunshine of a well lit reading room. In Wheaton, Illinois, the library owned a collection of paintings and prints you could check out, and my friends and I decorated our apartment from this collection. In Petersburg, Alaska, the library contained no room for sitting and hanging out, but the librarians had created a quality collection highlighting local topics, and there I discovered one of my favorite books of all time, Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau.

I could have easily forgone these library experiences and I am sure most of my fellow residents in each place never utilized the library. But that’s okay; to my mind these libraries were the jewels of each of these communities, both for the services they offered and for the manner in which they offered them.

Allow me to contrast my library experience with my experience of school–an experience colored particularly by my time as a teacher. Some of the great objections I have to school involve its insistent, inflexible, and institutional qualities. I realize I can argue myself into a hole with this line of reasoning–five minutes after deciding that compulsory schooling is a great evil of our culture, I’ll pull back to my starting point and reargue for the existence of mandatory school. But I must insist that even though I tend to argue myself into pretzels, the manner of mandatory education for which I’d argue would most definitely not resemble the system we possess now.

Too frequently in our system I recognize what Ivan Illich describes persuasively (and frighteningly) in his book, Deschooling Society. School, to Illich’s view, is a manipulative institution, of the type “which tend to be highly complex and costly” and “in which much of the elaboration and expense is concerned with convincing consumers that they cannot live without the product or the treatment offered by the institution” (55). If this does not describe school, what does? My school employs counselors, and while one of their duties is to watch over students’ emotional well being, their primary duty is to convince students to make good choices–staying in school and working hard in school being the first choices, always.Similarly, we teachers must be concerned most primarily with graduation rates and attendance, and we are instructed to build relationships with students so that students will want to stay in school. To assist us in this effort, we parade data before students to let them know how much more money a high school graduate makes than a drop out and how much more a college graduate makes than a high school graduate (the college grad’s income is currently projected as 65 percent higher than a high school grad). We as teachers are taught to share with our students before each lesson “learning targets” which show students in “student-speak” how what we are doing in class will benefit them (that is, why they “cannot live without the product”). And, by natural fall out, each teacher has become an expert in explaining and defending the relevance of their curriculum, which suggests we engage in apologetics almost as frequently as in instruction.

These are only the most obvious strategies for convincing students to stay in school. Less obvious are the entertainment incentives built into the schooling culture: sports, activities, facilities. Too frequently I hear colleagues declare that activities like sports are the only reason many students come to school. Should this not alarm us more than it does? Amanda Ripley’s recent article in The Atlantic examines how little it raises our ire. Instead, the argument is presented as a simple justification for maintaining the activities’ budget, a budget that grows at each level of school. Says Illich, “Expenditures to motivate the student to stay on in school skyrocket as he climbs the pyramid. On higher levels they are disguised as new football stadiums, chapels, or programs called International Education” (42). It makes me uncomfortable to consider my own undergraduate alma mater, which built a sports complex, science building, and student center in the ten years after I graduated.

Counter to the manipulative institution, Illich describes a “convivial” institution, which is marked by “spontaneous use” (54). People use these kinds of institutions “without having to be institutionally convinced that it is to their advantage to do so” (55). His examples include things we would not normally even consider institutions: sidewalks, telephone link-ups, sewage systems, drinking water, parks. His last example, parks, brought to my mind that great institution I began this article praising: the public library.

Where Illich would place the public library on his spectrum of institutions, I am unsure. Perhaps he would look at my own library’s advertising budget and website and declare it impurely convivial, but it is so far removed from the compulsory nature of the school that I cannot place it anywhere near the manipulative side. To my mind, the library is the archetypal alternative to a high cost education, (the high cost education being one whose value, aptly described by Illich, is usually “a function of the number of years he has completed and the costliness of the schools he has attended”). I find the archetype most simply and memorably expressed in Matt Damon’s film Good Will Hunting, when Will argues with a snobby Harvard student in a bar and rebukes him by insulting his overpriced schooling: “The sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that . . . you dropped 150 grand on a . . . education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”

Such a line, while hyperbolic and embedded in a movie to play upon popular perceptions of privileged classes, should haunt public educators. Schooling our society is costly, but creating access to knowledge is not. In my city of about 80,000 people, our library accounts for five percent of the city’s annual budget. For five percent of the general fund, community members acquire a place to meet and study, access to the internet, and books containing any information or cultural expression they desire (the collection currently holds around 153,000 volumes, but between inter-library loan and the library’s willingness to purchase books its patrons request, the collection is clearly unlimited). The very mission of the library reveals its desire not to compel community members, but to assist them in the pursuits they choose: “anticipate needs, build relationships and communities, and connect community to a global world.”

The school district, by comparison, requests that taxpayers fund a budget 74 times larger than the library’s. Its annual general fund alone requires 32 times the library’s entire budget. Surely such comparisons are unfair if we read from them that the school district is spending money unwisely and the library is a picture of fiscal restraint, but that is not what I imply. Nor do I imply that we should abolish schools and simply maintain a library. Instead, I would suggest that the cultural model of a library, a knowledge service, is by its nature a cheaper and more efficient educational endeavor than a school.

I’m a biased observer, to be sure. In fact, I am as biased an observer as one can be, particularly as the nature of my relationship with the library has changed from my early years. Of the 35 books I read last year (a number that includes seven audiobooks), 29 of them were books I borrowed from the library. My wife and I are conducting our children’s education at home, a pursuit that allows us to choose a topic–say, the Civil War–and then raid the library’s collection for everything they have. At any given time my wife is likely to have upwards of 70 books checked out. How many public school children can dive into a pile of 35 books on the Civil War when they study it in school? One of their favorites is a series called, You Wouldn’t Want to Be… The titles in the series cover the Civil War, World War II, Medieval Europe, and more. They’re not books we’d buy ourselves, but for a one time read amongst a number of other things to read on the same topic, they’re wonderful. On the institutional side, children in school are usually restricted to a textbook’s retelling of events, which amounts to little better than reading a dictionary. Is that the school-teacher’s fault? Absolutely not. Her school’s budget (if she were teaching in my neighborhood) is already 89% of the library’s budget–how can she possibly ask for more for the 23 students in her class? The school, existing in the system we have created, is responsible for much, much more than supplying learning tools to students, and that’s part of the inefficiency I suggest is present in the system and part of the complexity Illich describes.

The library possesses great potential for how we might reconsider education in our communities. Who is to say I could not conduct a class on writing, offered to the general public and conducted in a meeting room at the library? The class could target not students compelled to sit and listen to me regardless of their interests or motivation but instead anyone interested in writing better, be they young or old and their motivation for improvement professional or personal.

I do not for a second believe we as a community could banish our schools and simply lean on the library to provide education, but I do like to envision alternatives for education for our students, and I see no reason why the library couldn’t become the center around which such an education could rotate. Take a little pipe dream I developed out of a few of Illich’s other ideas (ideas I’ll refrain from summarizing here), where public high schools as we know them cease to exist and instead a dozen students are assigned to a secondary tutor. If I were that tutor, I could take students to the library and help them coordinate their own course of study, selecting books and reading materials chosen for each individual and meeting the goals of each student and their family. Institutionally, the library would fill the students’ and tutor’s needs even as it now exists, as it is prepared and flexible enough to meet the changing needs of its community. The school system, on the other hand, cannot stand for the plan I have just mentioned. Its curricular insistence and institutional inflexibility belie what Illich describes as a manipulative institution.

Juxtaposing the library and the school system is an exercise that strikes me as worthwhile, since both claim education as inherent elements of their primary mission, but each goes about pursuing that mission in wholly different manners. The beauty of the library, for me, has always been what it offered and the cost at which it offered it. It offers access to resources for the acquisition of knowledge, space in which reflection and discourse can take place, and it costs the community a relatively small amount. (It’s worth noting that this says nothing about how well the library serves the members of its community currently living in low socioeconomic conditions.)

Where do these reflections lead? In one sense, to no where in particular, as I know few folks who are interested in restructuring the entire school system. Yet it strikes me as worthwhile to envision a better way of learning and, where possible, to seize the opportunities available to improve the quality of our lives. Such is one more reason why my wife and I have grasped for our own children’s education home schooling, as we see that their education is better served by the convivial institution of the public library than the manipulative institution of the public school system.