“The Educational Experience” offers Barthelme’s view not only of what current education consists—random facts with no coherence—but perhaps also of the worth of the entire sum of humankind’s history: nothing. Barthelme’s theory of history is contained in a fractured quotation from Wittgenstein that is offered by the “group leader” toward the end of the story: “The world is everything that was formerly the case.” People are nothing but the bodies of their predecessors, which do not form into a coherent whole, as the chunks of citation and reference remain undigested. This past ranges from the Fisher King of the Holy Grail quest legends (whom T. S. Eliot claimed to have included in The Waste Land) to the television character Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.
Time has itself changed all those things from the past of which education consists. Another of the grail motifs that Eliot appropriated, the Chapel Perilous, has been turned into a bomb farm, and Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto The Four Seasons has become The Semesters. Education is clearly no fun. The students are not allowed to smoke, but the narrator reflects that this is undoubtedly “necessary to the preservation of our fundamental ideas.” Both the pretensions of the educators and the disinterest of the students are criticized: The students are told that they will be both more beautiful and more employable, but they are only in a hurry to get back on the bus that has brought them to this exposition. Those doing the educating are similarly in the dark: Several of the students are “off in a corner, playing with the animals,” and the professors are unsure whether to “tell them to stop, or urge them to continue.” As the narrator concedes, “perplexities of this kind are not infrequent, in our business.”
Neither the students nor the teachers believe what is being said, but both groups bravely play along as if they do. Both, it is clear, have lost touch with the real history of Western civilization, given that it has to be visited on a whirlwind tour. At the same time, however, this history has become both more trivial and more threatening, so that recovering it may not be as simple a thing as merely a change of method.