Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The central issue in the poem is what constitutes a worthwhile education or “learning experience.” The poem examines the teaching role of history, but Piercy also raises a number of points regarding education. Classroom learning often seems to have little relevance to the world outside or to what a young adult will need to know to thrive in that world. Classroom education often seems to consist of exercises such as mastering the conjugation of French irregular verbs before students have yet experienced life, but it is also an attempt to get them to “think a little on demand.”
The boy in the poem, and thousands of others like him in the late 1960’s, because of their lack of interest in the classroom, were literally “bored to death.” Perhaps the education system, stuffing him with “lectures on small groups” in classrooms with “green boards and ivory blinds,” has failed them. Piercy’s interest in history and in the process of education led her to depict a learning experience in which established systems fail to preserve what Americans value in life. It could be argued that young people, like the boy in Gary, are America’s finest resource and that they are of more value than steel.
What the boy is learning in the classroom has ill-prepared him for the experience of living his life. The classroom—and the Army, for that matter—may elicit learning experiences of a type, but those experiences cannot truly be equated with education. The series of prepositional phrases allied in the poem point to dead-end places: the classroom, the city of Gary, the United States of America, NATO, SEATO. All are leading the boy to “Today’s Action Army.” On the other hand, academic success would offer the boy a draft deferment but would give him in return a life of deathlike boredom.