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Posts Tagged ‘education’

The Sharpened Pencil: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

October 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a ­thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”

As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”

There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement. 

Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.


This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?



Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »

It All Started with Algae, and Other News

September 8, 2016 | by


  • If I know you, reader, you were about to throw your hands up, abandon your career, move to a small town, and eke out a living as a substitute teacher. But wait! Nicholson Baker spent the first half of 2014 as a sub in Maine, and he wrote everything down, and the outlook is grim. Here’s what he took away from his time in the trenches of our public-education system: “In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-­provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-­O-­Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered ‘learning targets,’ and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-­knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class!, etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions.”

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I’ve Been Sick for Over a Year

August 22, 2016 | by

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »

Back to School with the Übermensch

September 16, 2015 | by

Nietzsche on education, inequality, and translation.

Nietzsche as a pupil at Schulpforta, 1861.

 When I went off to college, it wasn’t, as far as I could tell, the result of any decision. The assumption—the fact—was simply there, in my family or high school or race and class or wherever it was, that there was more to come after twelfth grade. I didn’t appreciate the privilege nearly enough, but I also felt no need to justify to myself or anyone else how I planned to spend the next four years. There must still be such eighteen or nineteen year olds out there, never expected to explain themselves, but it is harder to imagine them. Nowadays, education is fraught and embattled and debated and doubted down to the core.

I feel like I’ve read the same essay half a dozen times recently­—here are two good examples—an essay insisting that the true value of education is not calculable in monetary terms. Education is moral, philosophical: a process of creating and becoming better people. You can make the argument that a liberal-arts education is “valuable” in the narrow sense, since it is, but even if that argument wins some battles—and it rarely does—it will lose the war. Once you concede that economic striving takes priority over artistic or humanistic goals, then arts funding and English degrees and even pure science are never going to withstand the juggernaut of business and technology. You have to fight under a higher standard.

I agree with this line of thought and am happy enough to see the point made half a dozen times over. I’ve read it recently in Friedrich Nietzsche, too, whose little-known 1872 lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions are appearing this fall in my new translation under the snappier title Anti-Education. Even in Nietzsche’s day, the state and the masses were apparently clamoring for

as much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that’s the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income … Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money. 

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June 26, 2015 | by

In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Light Years.

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

For over half my life, I have returned repeatedly to Light Years. It was the first of James Salter’s books I discovered; it has since led me to all his others. Light Years is the one I know best. The first copy was borrowed. It belonged to my college roommate and was among the handful of books she’d brought with her from home, having nothing to do with our classes. It was a beautiful paperback published by North Point Press: yellow border, rough edges, thickly woven pages, a Bonnard painting on the cover. It was 1985. The book was ten years old; I was eighteen. I was new to New York, a freshman at Barnard College. I was unsophisticated, unmoored, bewildered by college and by the city. Reading the novel was like opening a window for the first time in spring, after a long winter has passed. Something worn out was set aside, something invigorating ushered in. Read More »