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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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What are some possible explanations for Holden's lack of motivation in school in The Catcher in the Rye?

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Although Holden Caulfield is an intelligent adolescent, the only class he passes at Pencey Prep is English. Holden's failing grades have more to do with his negative attitude towards school and those teaching him than they do with his intelligence.

One possible explanation for his lack of motivation concerns his perception of his teachers. Holden views them as phony individuals who are more concerned about looking good in front of the headmaster than they are about the material they're teaching or the well-being of their students.

Another explanation is that Holden fears becoming an adult and may feel like passing his classes will only speed up the inevitable. He also completely rejects American society's idea of success. He views school and grades as essential elements of the American system and precursors to the competitive world of adults.

Holden also does not want to conform to the education system and desires to be isolated and alone. He has no motivation to get good grades or win academic awards—he simply wishes to disappear and remain a child. He also does not want to follow in the footsteps of his father, who he also considers a phony. Holden wants to live an independent life in which he is not forced to conform to American culture or live up to society's superficial expectations. He is also still struggling to cope with the death of his younger brother, Allie, who died of leukemia at a young age.

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Holden feels that the odds in the great game of life are stacked against him. If you're on the "right" side in this game—that is, if you're popular, academically gifted, or good at sports—then you're okay. But if you're on the "wrong" side, the side that doesn't have any "hot-shots," then there's really no game at all, just an unequal contest. As Holden believes he's on the wrong side in this game, he doesn't see the point of trying hard at school.

Holden readily admits that he sometimes acts like a twelve-year-old. But he's also keen to point out that, at other times, he acts considerably older than his years. But when he does, no one ever seems to notice; they only pay attention when he behaves in an immature manner. And it's fair to say that Holden is pretty sick of being ignored like this. So he figures that there's no good reason to try hard in school; whatever he does, however he behaves, he'll always be ignored.

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Holden is depressed and has survivor's guilt because of the death of his brother, Allie, from leukemia. Holden can't focus on his classes: he is too depressed to care. We know that Allie is on Holden's mind as the novel opens, because Holden writes an essay for Stradlater, his roommate, about Allie's baseball glove. Stradlater declares the essay is no good.

This leads to the second reason for Holden's lack of motivation for school. Stradlater, who dismisses the essay Holden has written, represents to Holden the superficial values of an elite boarding school environment. To Holden, Stradlater is a phony, and most of the prep school experience is about phony posturing. Holden has come to feel there is more to life than the narrow borders of his insulated school experience.

Stradlater—and this is important—not only represents the phoniness of boarding school to Holden, but also its predatory nature: Holden feels Stradlater takes sexual advantage of females. Holden wants to escape from these confines so that he can protect the innocent in a way he was never able to protect Allie. He wants to become the catcher in the rye, saving children from disaster.

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Holden is convinced that life at Pencey Prep, and school, in general, is a reflection of phoniness and inauthenticity.  For Holden, he equates success in school with artificial "buttering up" of teachers and authority figures.  This flies in the face of his own philosophy.  Holden believes that a search for truth is essential.  What he sees as success in school rewards phoniness.  At the same time, Holden fails to really see the "point" in school.  He has not been able to be convinced that what is being taught and assessed in school has meaning in his own life.  Holden fails to see the connection between academic lessons and life connections.  Within this lies another level to his poor performance and lack of motivation in school.  Finally, I would say that motivation requires some level of emotional commitment and connection.  Holden does not feature this.  Holden does not have much in way of "buy in" regarding academic success.  Holden is not someone that really features much in way of connection to what is happening in school.  In this, there is a lack of motivation.  Holden demonstrates a lack of emotional affect or connection and within this, one can see the motivation deficit as almost a conclusion.  In a world where there is constant doubt about material, adults, and his own emotional sensibilities that enable him to "buy into" something real, Holden shows a lack of emotional affect with the concept of school and through this, Salinger shows that some level of academic success can only be found when students have the emotional quotient to embrace, at some level, what transpires in the school or classroom setting.

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