Back to School: (Non) Required Reading

Going back to school: the classic new beginning. Students have always been fertile ground for authors, providing tidy settings for coming-of-age stories. When I imagine a “literary” student, what comes to mind is a mash-up of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and a whole host of private school boys (á la A Separate Peace).  Children’s and YA books fare much better. They feature students and schools that are diverse in terms of pupils, teachers, and the stories they tell. But in books for older readers, well, students often seem to function as an avatar for the author, reflecting on his or her (usually his) own beginnings as a writer or thinker. Given that being a student is such a formative and universal experience, we deserve, as with any genre, to see the diversity of experience reflected in writing.

So in honor of the back-to-school season, I picked out a couple short stories from some of my favorite contemporary authors. These stories disrupt rosy-eyed myths about the student experience. They show diverse and distinct people dealing with the strange social ecosystems that form around educational institutions.

A Private Experience, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“She imagines the cocoa brown of Nnedi’s eyes lighting up, her lips moving quickly, explaining that riots do not happen in vacuum, that religion and ethnicity are often politicized because the ruler is safe if the hungry ruled are killing one another.”

My first choice is not directly about a school, but takes a critical eye towards further education. The story follows Chika, a medical student who gets caught in a violent race riot while visiting Kano (in Nigeria). Chika, herself Igbo and Christian, shelters from the riot with a woman, a stranger, who is Muslim and Hausa. Her conversation with the woman, at times awkward, at times gentle, is at odds with the various tools Chika has to understand the event. News reports and political science theories seem distant, sanitized, and insufficient.

As she talks with the woman, a market seller, Chika starts to realize the rare honor that comes with an opportunity to study medicine, or attend college at all. She condescendingly imagines what the Hausa woman is thinking rather than actually listen to her, and then slowly notices her privilege is clouding her vision.

At various times in our lives, we realize our perspective is unbearably limited. The story suggests that education sets us up for this by instilling a false confidence in our own wisdom, by failing to prepare us for the many situations that cannot be taught, but only experienced. There is a discrepancy between how we imagine the world, and how it truly is. A Private Experience argues for taking the time to be cynical of our own thoughts, showing that we must confront the physical truth of the world in order to understand.

Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1” from Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra

“5. One can infer from the text that the teachers at the school:

(A) Were mediocre and cruel, because they adhered unquestioningly to a rotten educational model.

(B) Were cruel and severe: they liked to torture the students by overloading them with homework.

(C) Were deadened by sadness, because they got paid shit.

(D) Were cruel and severe, because they were sad. Everyone was sad back then.

(E) My bench mate marked C, so I’m going to mark C as well.”

Zambra writes about students in a prestigious school in Chile during Pinochet’s reign. Their education is defined by the specter of the Academic Aptitude Test, a standardized test all students must take before being considered for higher education. This theme becomes immersive, drawing the reader in by mimicking the format of a reading comprehension test. It ends with multiple choice questions, offering absurd possible answers that often miss the point (and with no answer key).

The Academic Aptitude Test and its failings are tied specifically to the dictatorship in the story, but every student who has gone through a standardized educational system can relate to the feeling that you are being asked not to think, but to do what you are told. The test is an absurd measure of your intelligence and worth, but you have to play the game regardless.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

“On my ride from the bus station to the campus, I’d barely glimpsed New Haven—a flash of crumpled building here, a trio of straggly kids there. A lot like Baltimore. But everything had changed when we reached those streets hooded by the gothic buildings. I imagined how the college must have looked when it was founded, when most of the students owned slaves. I pictured men wearing tights and knickers, smoking pipes.”

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere tackles that well-worn territory of people “finding themselves” in college. We are all familiar with the image of college students experimenting with different identities, often going overboard with newfound freedom. College is confusing and exhilarating, because you get to completely decide who you want to be—but Packer challenges that idea, showing the limits of reinvention: No matter how much you might want to escape to a different world, start afresh, you are always going to bring yourself with you.

The story offers a complex discussion of the ways in which institutionalized education is often disconnected from students’ realities, especially lower class or minority students. Yale, with its masses of expectations, social groups, well-meaning staff, and its loaded history, becomes almost claustrophobic when combined with protagonist Dina’s personal baggage. To adapt to the institution starts to mean erasing herself. And yet, parts of her feel comfortable in the setting and among her peers. Ultimately, she cannot function at Yale without denying the facts of her past or ignoring the school’s context: An elitism that is pervasive through to the very architecture of the buildings.

While none of these stories are particularly similar, they do all offer some criticism of how education can be out of step with reality. Being a student is to be trapped in a system, and generally a flawed one. There are obviously many affirming, exciting, inspirational moments to be found through learning. However, I would argue the experience is more defined by the day-to-day grind of bureaucracy, the feeling of not fitting in, and the lingering certainty that what you are learning will never be of practical use. These stories confront the frustrating aspects of education: one offering an optimistic way around, one a cheeky acceptance of a rigged system, and one a sobering reflection on the unsustainability of it all. If you are going back to school this fall, hopefully you can find a balance between the three.