In J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, are Holden’s reasons for hating Pencey Prep valid?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Holden is not right to hold a grudge against his school, Pencey, in J.D. Salinger'sThe Catcher in the Rye.It is difficult for him to decipher between reality and his perspective of it; therefore, his thoughts about his current school are distorted based on his emotions. For example, at the beginning of chapter 5, Holden says that steak is served every Saturday night at the school. Most people would appreciate that, but Holden says the steak is dry and of poor quality. He also doesn't like it because he thinks it is a public relations stunt for the parents who visit the next day. He speculates that parents my ask what their boys had for dinner the night before and that the administration would look good if the answer was "steak." Other examples of Holden's distorted view include the following: first, he feels ostracized by the other students who seem to invite him to join him in activities; second, he feels like no one cares, but Mr. Spencer tries to talk some sense into him before he leaves; and third, Holden responds to the school and other students poorly because that is how he feels about himself. Clearly, Holden holds a grudge towards the school because he isn't successful there; but, he wasn't successful at any other school, either.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Holden is right and very perceptive for his age. Most boarding schools are dumping grounds for unwanted children--mostly boys, since there are not too many boarding schools for girls. The parents don't have time for their own children, so they are more than happy to believe the advertising that tells them what they want to hear. The pictures of boys jumping over fences on horseback are an excellent symbol of what the parents want to hear, which is that the schools are not only fun places to be but that they confer upper-class status on their graduates. The military schools, of course, are the worst because they are the repositories of the boys who are real problems at home. In addition to offering access to the upper class, they offer discipline. Many of the boys at these expensive boarding schools are bullies because they feel hostile for being rejected by their own parents. The teachers and administrators have to be phonies because they understand the truth as Holden sees it--which is that kids who are able to live at home and lead conventional lives are much better off than kids who are exiled to boarding scvhools.

cosmicarcata | Student

Pencey Prep School is like a machine that produces all these phoney people that Holden is disenchanted with.  He talks about how Pencey Prep. uses false advertising in showing a polo player jumping hurdles around a field.  The only thing is there are no horses at Pencey Prep School and as far as their claim for "Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men."  He says they don't do any more molding than other schools.  This means they are all in the same game of molding, but that isn't the same as "clear-thinking".  He questions that their was anyone, teachers included that were "clear-thinking and all." 

The purpose of Pencey, is explained by his history teacher Old Spencer.  Mr. Spencer tells him that Life is a game. repeating what the head school master Dr. Thurmer told him in a previous meeting. "Life is a game, boy.  Life is a game that one plays according to the rules."
"Yes, sir.  I know it is.  I know it."
Holden is giving this teacher lip service because he knows it is what this phoney teacher needs to hear and because he has also seen this man give lip service to Dr Thurmer the school mater. 

But underneath this response he thinking:

"Game, my ass.  Some game.  If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right - I'll admit that.  But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it?  Nothing.  No game. "

I think that anyone that is not good at test and paying lip service to princes are going to see how shallow "playing school" is.

We of course see this today with testing.  We wouldn't test a blind man to see if he can see what we see.  But we test children to make sure that they "think" the way we want them to think.  And the way we want them to think is that "Life is a Game."  Because as long as they believe this they will be a consumer and realize that they have to "pay to play."

Just to demonstrate how Old Spencer plays the game as an adult lets skip over to chapter 22:

"Even the couple of nice teachers on the faculty there were phonies, too,"  I said. " There was this one old guy, Mr. Spencer. should've seen him when the headmaster, old Thurmer, came in the history class and sat down in the back of the room.  He was always coming in and sitting down in the back  of the room for about a half an hour.  He was supposed to be incognito or something.  After a while, he'd be sitting back there and then he's start interrupting what old Spencer was saying to crack a lot of corny jokes.  Old Spencer'd practically kill himself chuckling and smiling and all, like as if Thurmer was a gd prince or something."

Maybe Spencer was a history teacher that was telling the history according the facts but Dr. Thurmer comes in and makes sure that he is telling them "according to the rules."  He may be making  jokes and belittleing and shaming the teacher in front of his students.  Rather than standing up for himself he learns to be phony because he needs the job, because he is close to retirement.  The job is more important than the facts that Dr. Thurmer is joking around about that are probably not funny to Old Spencer.  The students also learn how to play the game by modeling their behavior according to the rules after all if you don't you are likely to be shamed.

So from this example we see that Pencey Prep is a breeding ground for phonies and bullies.

Read the study guide:
The Catcher in the Rye

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