We’re away until January 3, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2016. Enjoy your holiday!
- What can writers and intellectuals do to stem the rise of fascism in America? Well, we should look to history, of course, where theorists stand time and again with quivers of poison-tipped arrows, their bows pointed at the eyes of tyranny. Take the Frankfurt School, for instance. In the twentieth century, facing seemingly insurmountable adversity, they steeled themselves and—oh … wait … “As the 1930s progressed, a number of the Frankfurt School idealists ‘lost faith … in the power of critical thinking to transform society.’ What role could the left-leaning intellectual have in a time when the socialist revolution was failing and fascism seemed set to conquer Europe? Max Horkheimer was one of those who despaired of the struggle, fearing that the ‘commodity economy’ would bring a period of progress so that ‘after an enormous extension of human control over nature, it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism.’ ”
- Still struggling to understand Donald “I Love the Poorly Educated” Trump? Maybe it’s your Facebook bubble. Or maybe, as Pankaj Mishra writes, you haven’t read enough Rousseau lately: “Beginning with his first major publication, in 1751, Rousseau, too, defended unlettered folk and their simple ways. Significantly, he did so just as the world’s first well-educated, networked élite—the Enlightenment philosophers—came into being, advocating a far-reaching program of progress through the use of science, reason, and international commerce. Rousseau’s more radical move was to position himself against the project that we now call modernity; he practically invented the category of ‘the people.’ ”
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
- 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.”
- Was Frankenstein inspired by algae, that most unsung of photosynthetic organisms? Maybe—it depends on what Mary Shelley was thinking when she wrote about vermicelli. Ryan Feigenbaum writes: “Shelley recounted listening to a conversation between her husband and Lord Byron; at one point, one of them had inquired into the principle of life and asked whether it could ever be discovered and expressed. Shelley continued, ‘They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of has having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.’ It was but a short distance for Shelley to consider the possibility that various once-living body parts could be reassembled into an amalgamous creature, then given life anew.”