Monday, April 3, 2017

More thoughts on Nicholson Baker's Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids

Commonweal Magazine’s latest issue contains my review of Nicholson Baker’s Substitute, in which the best-selling novelist observes classroom life in your everyday American public school. You can read the piece here. I found the book to be a painfully accurate depiction of life on the ground in our educational technocracy. In this post I'd like to include some observations that I didn’t have the space or time for in the review itself, not the least of which is the book’s relevance to Catholic educators.

More on that subject later, though. Firstly, it took me a while to warm to Baker’s position here. As a teacher myself, I couldn’t help but resent what I saw as hubris in his waltzing into a classroom as a substitute—his first time ever as a teacher—and imagining that his observations were insightful enough to publish to great influence. He largely refrains from editorializing, but if you read between the lines you can tell which teachers he considers buffoons, which ones are vile, and which ones are saints. This all seems a bit unfair, though it does not mean his points are inaccurate.

Baker seems to recognize that his role puts him at a significant disadvantage, in that he only sees a group of children for one day at a time, and, though he does see the same kids on several different days, he doesn’t know them nearly as well as their real teachers do. To protect privacy he has changed all the names in this book, from the school district itself to the children in his care. This presents a problem, though, because in assigning fake names to everyone, he deceives the reader into thinking that he is on a first-name basis with everyone. He’s not. A substitute teacher, over the course of a 45-minute class period, internalizes the names of maybe 5 kids, and probably not until the last 10 minutes of that class period. When Baker sits down at a new desk at the beginning of a school day, and a student walks into the room swinging his iPad around in its case like a nunchuck (kid are constantly doing that in his school), Baker would see the student as simply a nameless kid acting like a teenager, not “John,” or “Jim,” or “Brock,” or whatever name Baker gives him for the sake of convenience. It’s disingenuous, and though it may be an innocuous mistake, it speaks to the larger issue with his role as a substitute critiquing an atmosphere in which he, more or less, is a stranger. His position is much like that of a new babysitter. If a teenager came into a family’s home for an evening to watch over the kids and later chastised the overwhelmed, stressed-out mother for yelling, we would rightly cry foul. It’s not a babysitter’s place to offer a critique.

So why did I end up giving the book a positive review? Because when a family is dysfunctional enough, even the babysitter will notice it. Baker’s role as a substitute only allows him to experience a sliver of what a real teacher does, but a sliver is all he needs to see.

I’ve written about that dysfunction directly in the review, so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say that modern pedagogy only knows how to engage with students through one thing—work. Class consists of keeping kids busy, getting them to process information, fill out worksheets, complete online quizzes and games, and Baker does a great job of keeping these kinds of frenetic bureaucratic exercises in our focus, even though it makes for an exhausting book to read (imagine what the day is like for the students). The teachers who succeed are the ones who actively work against the busy-ness to carve out time for real conversation, discussion, lecturing, and story-telling. The push-pull between the students who don’t want to work and the teachers whose job it is to get them to work is felt on nearly every page, and rightly so. Some variation of “just quiet down and do your work!” is on the tip of every modern teacher’s tongue, ready to be fired out to settle down their classroom for 3-4 minutes of productivity before they need to raise their voice again.

Teachers have wrestled for silence in every age, I’m sure, but the modern school seems uniquely set-up for these kinds of battles. Why? Because its insistence on teaching the skill of processing information hardly appeals to a student’s genuine curiosity. Facts are not interesting in themselves. Without a larger purpose, processing information and thinking critically aren’t attractive activities. In order to “succeed” and keep busy in the modern classroom students need to be cajoled, distracted from what they are actually doing, and promised rewards like iPad time.

Take, as a case in point, the acronyms ubiquitous in a K-12 school system. Baker notices several of them in the course of his month-long stint as a sub. Students are encouraged to set “SMART” goals: “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.” There is also “FASTT Math, which stands for “Fleuncy and Automaticity through Systematic Teaching with Technology.” Students are encouraged to use their “writing VOICES”: Voice, Organization, Ideas, Conventions, Excellent Word Choice, and Sentence Fluency.” Why all of these acronyms? I think it’s simple, actually. Because these chopped-up skills are not things that have any inherent attraction in their own, because they have no beauty that draws students to them, they must be funneled into a gimmicky word or phrase, and VOILA! they are suddenly sexy. It’s pedagogical sleight-of-hand (don’t pay any attention to the man behind the curtain!), but kids can see right through it, especially when they get to middle- and high school. The same can be said, too, for the educational taxonomy posters that are everywhere in American classrooms. Putting exclamation points after various critical-thinking skills and hanging them on the wall is the fastest way to send your students the message that you have given up on interacting with them as one human being to another.

Students need beautiful things. They need to read stories, to have their natural curiosity piqued so that they want to investigate more on their own. They are fully capable of this kind of attentive engagement, but we only see it, as Baker says, when students say the pledge of allegiance or are read fiction aloud. This is not surprising, because these are two activities in which students acknowledge that they are part of something larger than themselves, and therefore that there is some deep purpose to what they are doing. Fostering more of this kind of spirit requires less activity and more receptivity. Simone Weil writes about this in her letter on the subject ofreligious schools, in which she argues that the role of a school should be to teach students how to pray; that is to say, how to pay attention, how to give themselves over completely to the subject at hand. The letter is remarkable; I’ve written about it before and hope to again. Weil’s advice is a far cry from the modern ethos, which just might be “how to keep kids busy.”

What should Baker’s book mean for Catholic educators? He observes life in a public school district, but insofar as his book depicts modern pedagogy accurately (and I would argue that it does), it directly addresses the issue of Catholic schools. Baker would have found a similar environment there, for though they generally out-perform public ones, most parochial school systems use the same textbooks and follow the same educational practices.

More and more parents are opting out of the public school model, choosing instead to send their children to charter schools, the number of which has more than doubled in the last decade, and classical schools, which have grown at similar rates. Clearly something is not working, and as the modern educational system grows more and more focused on informational acquisition and processing—which is to say, less and less involved with anything resembling the liberal arts—the problems that arise in Baker’s book will only get worse.

I’ll close by recalling one of Dickens’ famous opening scenes, from his novel Hard Times. The setting is a school in industrial England. The school very much resembles a factory, and the aptly-named Mr. Gradgrind opens by shouting to his students that “in this life, we want nothing but Facts… nothing but Facts!” The class is studying horses, and he calls upon a young girl for a definition of a horse. The girl’s father works with horses and, therefore, she grew up with them and knows them better than anyone in the class. Yet she cannot speak—how to put into words and categories that which she knows so intimately? Gradgrind denounces her for being “possessed of no facts.” He instead calls upon a boy named Bitzer (Dickens’ names are the greatest), who spits out an encyclopedic litany of horse facts: “Quadruped. Gramnivorous…four eye-teeth, twelve incisive. Sheds coat in spring…Age known by marks in mouth…” Bitzer is the ideal student in Gradgrind’s factory of facts. His answer is exactly right, which is to say, exactly wrong, for Dickens reveals just how out of touch such an education is with human nature. Bitzer knows nothing about horses except which terms they are assigned…and that is exactly what Gradgrind, and the system, desires.

Of course, Dickens is writing fiction, and his exaggerations make the factory school look ridiculous. But how different are Gradgrind and his facts from the data-driven worksheets and rubrics of our modern system? In spite of the limitations of Baker’s role as a sub, he reveals them to be eerily similar. Baker’s book has gotten lots of coverage in the secular press; I hope it gets some attention in Catholic schools as well.


  1. Hi,

    Can't say I'm familiar with The Commonwealth Magazine, but just signed up for a subscription because I see you do some reviews/writing there. I am planning on reading your review on the book called the "Substitute."

    I also, though I haven't delved too deeply, think your blog looks really interesting and I am hoping it will help me help my teens delve into literature (I, too, would like to know where to start:))

    Thanks, Jane

    1. Thanks for reading Jane! I don't think you will be disappointed with Commonweal.