School as Literary Theme Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Schools, schooling, teachers, and students abound in North American literature, reflecting the indelibility of the school experience for teachers and for learners. Classrooms, chalk on blackboards, the warmth or scorn of teachers, the disappointment of teachers when students fail to reach their potential, the tensions of testing and being tested season after season, year after year, engender mind-haunting images that appear in many forms in all literary genres, although prose works—fiction and nonfiction—seem to be far more numerous than poems about school, and much of the dramatic literature about school consists of screenplays drawn from fiction and biography.

The importance of public education in North American life stems from the notion that a voting citizenry in a democracy must be educated. Schools have been cast as agencies of the melting pot; they have often been specifically directed to produce uniformity out of North America’s cultural diversity. In the later twentieth century, various cultural groups began to celebrate, rather than to disavow, their cultural heritages. The melting pot, the reaction against it, and the extent to which schools promote or blight the American Dream are all reflected in literature of the school experience.

Apart from genre, works dealing with school can be classified according to emotional responses evoked by the experience, ranging from delight to disgust. Heroes in school literature include teachers who defy principals and school boards, principals who overcome the resistance or inertia of teachers and students and school boards, and students gifted with insight, decency, and courage beyond that of their teachers and principals. Many school-experience works are marked by a powerful sense of place, yet often the almost universal experience of teacher and learner connects them despite differences of cultural origin or of ethnic background.

Early Examples

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The earliest North American writings about schools, teachers, and schooling include The New England Primer (c. 1683), with its couplets about sin and the death of children reflecting Puritan thought. Thomas Jefferson’s writings reveal tantalizing glimpses of the school experience in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1783, Jefferson composed a letter to his daughter, admonishing the eleven-year-old child to follow a tortuous daily schedule of lessons in music, dance, art, French, and letter writing, lest she lose the love of her father. Other letters by Jefferson discuss the curriculum for the University of Virginia and express his strong distaste for the common practice of sending young Americans overseas to be educated.

Washington Irving created a lasting and negative stereotype of a teacher in Ichabod Crane, the ungainly, cruel, and credulous schoolmaster of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1819-1820, while more positive portraits of teachers are found in Edward Eggleston’s local color novel, The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871) and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men (1871), which reflect the ability of understanding teachers to provide solace and sound learning to young persons.

Mark Twain’s best-known works reflect teaching, school days, and issues of literacy. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) remembers school as a place to take a whipping to save one’s girlfriend from shame, to play pranks on the teacher, to write notes on a slate, or to avoid by playing hooky. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), shows less of school but more of its consequences. Pap Finn’s anger at learning that Huck can write is a major cause of the drunken illiterate’s increased cruelty toward his child, which results in Huck’s running away.

The Twentieth Century

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A number of excellent works have grown out of teachers’ experiences of schools, classrooms, and the children or young adults under their care. These books have been written as biography or as autobiography; they also have been cast as fiction, occasionally drama, and, less commonly, poetry. Books by and about teachers explore the teachers’ self-discovery, their learning as much as they teach, their growing frustration with the toll taken on their students by racism, poverty, and stunted aspirations, and the follies and stinginess of politicians who make decisions without experience or knowledge. Among the best twentieth century works in this vein are Jesse Stuart’s The Thread That Runs So True (1947), Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase (1964), and Samuel G. Freedman’s Small Victories (1990).

Book-length student accounts of school life outside the young adult genre are rarer than teacher-told tales, but school experiences form substantial and formative portions of many autobiographies, novels, and some poetry.

Good Teachers and Bad

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Stereotypes and more balanced renderings of good and bad teachers exist. The good teacher, like the title character of Frances Gray Patton’s Good Morning, Miss Dove (1954), has patience and wisdom, the right questions and the right answers. He or she often influences the lives of children over several generations, teaching them everything from the times tables to honesty under fire.

Small Victories recounts the professional coming-of-age of a New York high school English and journalism teacher, Jessica Siegel. Much in the mode of Up the Down Staircase, Freedman’s book echoes Kaufman’s theme that the teacher learns as least as much as the students and must battle not only their ignorance but the more dangerous ignorance and indifference of administrators and politicians.

Literature’s bad teachers do nothing useful at best, and, at worst, abuse or intimidate students while undermining love of learning. Some writings about the sins of schools are the work of former students evidently still pained by the wounds of cruel or incompetent teachers and school systems. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) offers a look at Scout’s inept teacher, who fails to comprehend the culture which has formed her pupils and who seems unnerved that Scout has already learned to read without her help and by a system she has not approved. In Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915), the musically gifted Thea Kronberg, bored and annoyed by her teacher’s obsession with sentence diagramming, drops out of school to teach music while still a child. Mazie, the central figure in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974), is a bright child but an outsider at school because of her clothes and the family’s frequent moves to seek a livelihood.

Minority Experience

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The theme of dominant culture’s schools’ being hostile to minority children and cultures is often found in African American, Native American, and other minority literatures. In Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Angelou and other black students, burdened with the worst schools, the poorest libraries, and the lowest expectations, nonetheless manage to use these flawed tools to overcome obstacles, learn, and nurture black pride. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) recounts humiliating experiences at a black college.

From Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), protagonists in African American literature often face heavy odds in seeking an education in or out of school. Much of twentieth century Native American literature represents schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Catholic church as generally inimical to native culture, thought, and religion.

The Frontier

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The school experience occupies a special place in the literature of the American West. In Owen Wister’s archetypal Western, The Virginian (1902), Molly Wood is the schoolmarm who has come west to escape a stifling existence in the East and an unpromising marriage, bringing with her Eastern attitudes of law, literature, and civilization—attitudes unsuited, in the eyes of the author and his hero, for frontier experience.

Late twentieth century writers mine the same vein with some new twists. The autobiographical All but the Waltz (1991), by Montanan Mary Clearman Blew, chronicles the author’s struggle to be allowed to continue her university education past marriage and her discovery that the older women teachers in her family, who she had always supposed continued teaching out of love, simply could not afford to retire. Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), by Ivan Doig, another Montanan, follows the rise and fall of Anna, a pioneer schoolteacher who inspires love, rejects it for financial security, and succumbs ultimately to the influenza epidemic of World War I.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Stage plays dealing with the school experience, other than works written for high school production, tend to the dark side. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You (1980), by Christopher Durang, is a savage and absurd view of Catholic school, as seen in retrospect by a quartet of disgruntled former students who confront their old teacher with her perceived sadism and narrowness. One of the least attractive teachers in dramatic or any other literature is Blanche DuBois of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), an alcoholic nymphomaniac who is fired from her high school English teaching position after making improper advances to a young student.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Poems about teaching and learning are less common than prose works on the subject, and the school experience is less likely to be a central focus. In Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” a boring lecture on astronomy drives the poet outside to look at the stars. Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” explores a black student’s response to his white college instructor’s seemingly simple assignment to write a page about himself. School is more obliquely the theme of Rita Dove’s “Fifth Grade Autobiography.” James Dickey’s “The Leap” (1967) laments the death of a schoolmate of many years past, and Anne Sexton’s “The Fury of Overshoes” (1974) recalls the puzzling but less painful problems of kindergarten children.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Conroy, Pat. The Water Is Wide. New York: Bantam, 1972. An autobiographical account of the author’s short teaching career on a South Carolina island. The young teacher faces challenges to his methods and materials.

Freedman, Samuel G. Small Victories. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. A sympathetic nonfiction account of New York teacher Jessica Siegel’s successful career and the reasons for her retirement.

Kaufman, Bel. Up the Down Staircase. New York: Avon Books, 1964. A classic of the genre. English teacher Kaufman confronts conflict, pathos, and the limitations of the system and of her own resources.

Keizer, Garrett. No Place but Here: A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community. New York: Penguin, 1988. An Episcopal priest’s story of his experiences teaching in Vermont, the interests, problems, and lives of his students, and Keizer’s reflections on teaching.

Kidder, Tracy. Among School Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Kidder’s work chronicles the labors of teacher Chris Zajac, who struggles with some success against the low self-esteem and impoverished lives of her urban, largely Puerto Rican students in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Olsen, Tillie. Yonnondio: From the Thirties. New York: Dell, 1974. The school experience forms yet another source of misery for a child from a family beset by poverty, hopelessness, and alcohol abuse.

Stegner, Wallace. Crossing to Safety. New York: Random House, 1987. Fiction based in part on Stegner’s own experience at the beginning of his distinguished career as a teacher.

Stuart, Jesse. The Thread That Runs So True. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. Beginning as a very young teacher in a one-room school in the Kentucky hills, the author traces his pilgrimage through a succession of schools and positions while his earliest students become teachers themselves. Excellent insights into the political and economic pressures on education.