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A Life in School:

What the Teacher Learned
by Jane Tompkins
Addison-Wesley, $20 hardback
Reviewed by Mary Leue

The first thing that struck me about this book was the exquisite specificity of Jane Tompkins' memory! There was something about the author's way of recounting details drawn with great concreteness from her early years in school that told me at once that these things had really happened to her, and, very much as she was describing them!

What struck me next about this fact was a kind of familiarity I was sensing about Tompkins' style as I read along. As a mother of five children, all of them having spent their formative years in public school, I recognized this narrative style! It was the same vividness of detail I used to hear from my children when it was necessary for them to tell me about some appalling thing that had happened to them in school that day.

I began speculating about what has kept our national compulsory system of schooling in place for all these generations since it was first invented. Because what Jane Tompkins was reporting is by no means exceptional!Ñshe is not reporting on a "bad" school in a poor district! Because Jane's school was typical of an average American grade school! It's just that for all these years we have been accepting this level of intimidation and erosion of the self-confidence of our children as perfectly acceptable behavior on the part of our children's teachers! Why? Because it was practiced on us when we were kids! Because as parents we knew only too well what might happen to our own kids if we made trouble! Because the school held our kids hostage!

This extremity of fear may in fact not have been objectively warranted in many casesÑin fact, probably isn't! But as parents, we have all been conditioned to fear the unknown where school is concerned, and that makes it all too easy to swallow myths about the essentiality for our kids' entire future of making good grades, of developing the capacity for successful academic competition, for warning our kids to stay out of trouble, do our homework, not antagonize the teacherÑthe whole package! Our entire school system, like our jails and prisons, runs on fear! And the hard work and ingenuity of a few creative, conscientious teachers throughout the system is not going to change that fact! As long as our school system is still compulsory, it will always run chiefly on the power of basic intimidation, on the bottom-line level of fear most people live with and take for granted as "reality."

It is this common fear-base inflicted on our most vulnerable citizens - our young people - which, for me, is the most anti-democratic cultural ingredient we have built into our entire governmental philosophy! Not exclusively, of course. Our entire medical model is fear-based as well, and young mothers are subjected to it at the time of the birth of their young, and in turn, subject their young to it through the practice of pediatrics even before the school system steps in to take over! But, by and large, the medical system through which we operate comes directly out of the school system, selecting its practitioners through keen competition, both academically and economically and initiating them through callously inhuman practices including acute sleep deprivation and premature demands on their capabilities throughout their training!

It is this entire training system Jane Tompkins is writing about in all its seamy glory. She is eloquent about the result this way of living had on her of in essence depriving her of the natural biological support system parents are supposed to have for their children! It placed her in a position of viewing them as spies for the system against her! She knew instinctively that it was not possible for her to get any support or even understanding of her daily terror from her parents. They were themselves products of the system, and took its exigencies for granted as inevitable! Even if they did not take on the role of actively enforcing those rigors, they would never have openly supported their child against them, because they took for granted the necessity of conforming, if one was to have a place of honor withuin that system! The main difference between working class and middle class children in relation to school, then, is that working class parents, by and large, are as clear as their kids are that the school system is the enemy, because they know from experience that the system is not for themÑthey are automatically excluded from becoming participants!

It is this instinctive clarity of recognition of one's place within the sytem that explains the omnipresence of the Ritalin bottles lined up in the nurse's office in middle class schools! The eacher complains to the principal about some child in her class who is not sufficiently conforming to her requirements. In turn, the principal advises the mother to take her kid to a doctor for diagnosis as damaged by that phenomenon they call ADHD. The doctor automatically takes the school's description of the child's "symptoms" as definitive of this phenoenon, and writes the prescription.

No one questions the entire procedure! Why? Because no one in the entire caste of characters has ever been allowed to protest its premises effectively! Long ago, they had each surrendered their pwn individual judgments to the requirements of the system! To call our culture "democratic" is a travesty in the face of such ruthless universal destruction of personal integrity over the generations of our history! Without anyone's having noticed it, we have gradually turned ourselves into a nation of "robots building robots." Tompkins expresses this paradox thus:

School, by definition, conditions us to believe that there are others who know better than we do; it encourages and often forces us to give up our own judgment in favor of the judgment of those in authority. School by its existence, militates against the very thing that education is forÑthe development of the individual. The paradox is at its heart.

But Tompkins' education within the confines of our culture, inculcating, as it does, in its successful beneficiaries an array of characterological qualities it defines as excellences, also provided her with the skills she needed to "succeed" in her chosen career of teacher in the realm of "higher" education. And in this endeavor, she was aided and abetted by her parents, both of whom had themselves been defined as adults by their own childhoods within that system! Tompkins is eloquent about the role played in her own choices of a career within the system of her "love of Big Brother," to use the terminology of Orwell's poignant parable, 1984.

So in school, naturally, teachers were the prime object of my attention. That was where the power lay, so you had to keep up with what they were doing. Besides, they had knowledgeÑsomething I covetedÑthough like their power they kept it mainly to themselves. Perhaps it was simply because I had focussed on them for so long that I learned to want to be like teachers. To be the one everybody looked at and had to obey, to be standing alone, up in front, performing while other people paid attention was the only thing I knew to aim for. When I attained this status, it took me a long time to realize its emptinessÑunless you were already connected to yourself and to your audience by something we never learned about in school.

Still, it was here, in my concentration on teachers, that the love of school took root.

This is a very good book to read for a number of reasons. What delights me most of all is perhaps its rich and evocative use of narrative, of autobiography, as a vehicle for truth. Tompkins is not pretending to speak as a representative of anyone or anything! Her medium feels to me a necessary antidote to the poison of the misuse of "scholarship" as a podium or platform from which to convince others of one's credentials which is so prevalent in educational literature

ë the resort to expertise, of authority, of the assertion of superior knowledge in this area. In giving voice to her own experience in all its shadings and gradations, Tompkins succeeds brilliantly in evoking a world which is as poignantly multi-faceted as the world of Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Teacher - which, in fact, she quotes from in more than one place.

This book deserves a place on the shelves of the libraries of homeschooling parents, schoolteachers, professors of education, college students, alternative schools and public schools as a significant antidote to the poisonous but largely unacknowledged fear from which most of us suffer, have suffered and will suffer throughout our lifetimes. It's time we began taking notice of the toll that fear has been taking, so we may begin to move beyond it. This book can be a real help in taking that step!