Setting

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"You don't look right to me. You're not a little god-damn Commie, by any chance?" his homeroom teacher Mrs. Kukla asks Robert Nifkin. This harangue epitomizes the world of his high school, situated as it is in the Eisenhower 1950s, with the Cold War hot and the country haunted by hunts everywhere for communist subversives, including daily and bizzare hunts in Nifkin's high school. Mrs. MacAllister, his English teacher, adds to these hunts for communists her own perverse twist that Jews are also to be feared, "And Jews want to destroy our traditional values. They are sexual deviants, and they spread pornography." This adds greatly to the Jewish Nifkin's discomfort at school. Then there is Mrs. Sweet, the biology teacher, who talks to her plants, ignores her students, and conducts one of the most disgusting frog dissection labs in history. All this has Nifkin wondering, "Was there an international crazy-ladies conspiracy?"

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The only bona fide communist at the high school is Sergeant Gunter, the man who runs the school's ROTC unit, and who warns his students about the evils of commissioned officers. He is eventually turned in by one of his students, then arrested and jailed. He is the only teacher Nifkin likes, and his arrest ends any interest Nifkin has in attending school; he is unpopular with the other students and his few friends are people outside of school. He eventually stops attending classes and starts helping deliver fake "antiques" to buyers who do not seem to care that they are blatantly obvious frauds. He notes that his parents, who wallow in their incredibly bad taste in home furnishings, would love the ornate fabrications. Home can only be better than school, but this is damning with faint praise since home is still an alienating place. Nifkin's father is forever hassling him about not being manly, calling him a "sissy boy" and other demeaning names.

His perambulations outside of school allow him to discover some of the wonders of Chicago, a city with eccentric characters, strange coffee houses, fascinating art galleries, and wondrous architecture. After he is reported as a truant and forced to return to his school, he is introduced by a friend to Wheaton School, a private institution housed in a great old mansion where abuse and harsh discipline are nonexistent, students and teachers can meet in the dead of night, and everyone earns good grades. Even Jeremy Holtz, a good-hearted but very simpleminded young man, does well enough to go to Princeton.

Literary Qualities

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The narrator of The Education of Robert Nifkin is Nifkin himself; the novel is supposedly his essay response to an admissions form for St. Leon's College (probably intended as a parallel to Pinkwater's own alma mater Bard College). One of the (in his opinion, absurd) questions on the admissions application was:

64. Characterize, in essay form, your high-school experience. You may use additional sheets of paper as needed.

Since Pinkwater would have been applying for college himself in the 1950s, the novel may well be the imaginative response he would have liked to have given to a similar topic on his own admission application. Since author and protagonist both have Chicago backgrounds, it is easy to draw a parallel between Nifkin's admiration of the city's architecture, his love of art, and his absorption in American literature with Pinkwater's own likely experience as an artistic young man who would become a sculptor, illustrator, and a professional writer. Pinkwater also seems to invite the drawing of parallels between himself and Nifkin by naming Nifkin's mother Faye, a match for his own mother's name Fay, and by dating the essay "Robert Nifkin, Chicago, October 1958," which would be when Pinkwater himself would have been applying for admission to college. Beyond these parallels one should take care to note that Nifkin is a created character, as are the other figures in the novel, which is fiction drawn from memories of life not autobiography. That Nifkin looks somewhat like Pinkwater, weighing in at 222 pounds, is not remarkable, as most of Pinkwater's main characters are heavy like himself. Pinkwater often uses aspects of his own youth as part of the background in his novels. In Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (1979; see separate entry, Vol. 9), main character Leonard Neeble's father is in the rag business, as Pinkwater's own father was. Therefore, his use of childhood borrowings in The Education of Robert Nifkin, although heavy when compared to other Pinkwater works, is not unusual.

Social Sensitivity

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The Education of Robert Nifkin is a social comedy, that is it derives its laughs from showing the absurdities of social conventions, in this case those that apply to schooling in America. Although the era for the novel's events is the 1950s, young people and adults are likely to recognize some of the problems Nifkin faces: teachers who do not care about teaching, hostile school administrators, a coercive student body life in which normal students enforce conformity via ostracism, and a daily routine so rigid that students have no chance to explore their interests and to develop depth of knowledge in any given subject. Instead of just pointing out the absurdities of life in Riverview High School, which are funny enough, Pinkwater offers the contrast of a school that is the opposite of Riverview. Wheaton School has almost no discipline beyond a tacit understanding among its students that no one will be allowed to ruin a good thing. The chaos of Wheaton School is likely to differ from what many people would think a school should be, which may be part of its point. The grades at Wheaton are faked, its students attend only enough to meet minimum legal requirements, and its students gain entrance to college on the basis of records that are inaccurate. Wheaton School does have notable faults, but it at least affords students chances to learn freely and to see how real life mixes with academics. When Nifkin finishes his long essay for the admission application for St. Leon's College, he has shown that he may be better prepared for college by having attended a school with a benevolent administration and teachers who actually shared their student's lives. The relaxed approach to education may be imperfect, yet better than the stern discipline of Riverview.

In The Education of Robert Nifkin, Pinkwater also touches on social issues of the 1950s—ones that may be unfamiliar to his readers. Nifkin's father is an emigre from Poland, a refugee from his own people as well as from the Nazis. He and his wife are somewhat representative of a generation shaped by the desperate times of World War II. Their love for all sorts of expensive kitsch, which alienates Nifkin, is an emotional response to an era of fear and deprivation, and it is their way of celebrating a prosperous American life. From the way they are presented in the novel, it seems almost inevitable that a gap between generations would form, since neither they nor their son can help the way they respond to American life. Each side could use more understanding; the son could make a better effort to visualize how his parents' lives were formed by extraordinary times, and they could try to realize that their son is almost untouched by the forces that dominated them.

The outrageous behavior of teachers at Riverview High School is exaggerated for the purposes of comedy, and modern readers are likely to recognize the underlying personality traits even though the teachers' fixations may in part be grounded in the history of the 1950s. It might help readers who are curious about the hunt for communists and other details that may be absent from modern high schools to talk with those who attended schools in the 1950s. There may not have been communist witch hunts in schools, but there were documentary films warning young people about how to recognize communist cells and to whom these cells should be reported. This era of fear and suspicion saw the birth of the loyalty oath still required of teachers in many states, and there was a fear that the educational system would be used to indoctrinate students into particular political beliefs— at Riverview such an effort is made by almost everyone, creating a hostile environment for students. Sergeant Gunter may have been the nicest teacher for Nifkin, but he is just as surely trying to indoctrinate his students as Mrs. MacAllister is.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96

"D(aniel) M(anus) Pinkwater." In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 35. Edited by Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz, and Jane E. Neidhardt. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985, pp. 317-321. A gathering of snippets from reviews of Pinkwater's novels.

Pendergast, Tom. "Pinkwater, Daniel Manus." In Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Vol. 38. Edited by James G. Lesniak and Susan M. Trosky. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993, pp. 335-338. A brief summary of Pinkwater's career.

Telgen, Diane. "Pinkwater, Daniel Manus." In Something about the Author. Vol. 76. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994, pp. 177-181. An overview of Pinkwater's career with juicy quotations from an interview of Pinkwater.

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