Novels in Third Places: The Case for More Classrooms in Our Literature

By Jenny DavidsonSeptember 1, 2016

Novels in Third Places: The Case for More Classrooms in Our Literature
AS A TEACHER, I spend a lot of my best time in the classroom. The classroom witnesses moments of exhilaration, boredom, discovery, and hilarity. Indeed, the dynamic of conversation in the classroom is an object of much more frequent concern to me than questions about how one might talk to a partner, parent, child, or therapist. And yet many of the great canonical novels I’ve built my life around reading are much less interested in school scenes than in domestic ones. They tend to concentrate on husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. Why, though, should fiction serve primarily as the domain of home life rather than work or school life?

This essay represents a manifesto for the importance of literary classrooms: not classrooms where literature is read, but rather the classrooms within literature as places especially worthy of representation in writing. I’m tempted to go so far as to say that I’m also calling for fiction about committees and meetings (I hugely enjoyed Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, written entirely in the format of letters of recommendation, a woefully familiar genre for the college professor) but I’ll stop short of that point, which surely sounds perverse to most. I’m interested in thinking, though, about what forms of life are especially worth representing in fiction and in pursuing the question of what it would mean to downplay that domestic material that’s so much a part of the history of the Anglo-American novel from the 1700s to the present day and instead prioritize other kinds of group dynamics.

What is the appeal, for readers and writers, of attending closely to the many and varied forms of institutional and pedagogical life — not fully public, sequestered in some sense — and what are the obstacles to doing so? Children’s literature is, as it were, “allowed” to claim a good deal of classroom space, since most children spend the majority of their waking hours being educated. But for mainstream novelists, what are the risks and rewards of setting fictional scenes in classrooms? Why is it hard? Why is it worth doing? And finally what might we gain from asking for more fiction in this vein — an adult literature of classrooms, so to speak? I am largely excluding the campus novel here, which incidentally features classroom scenes but which is typically more concerned with satirizing the absurdities of academic institutional life. By definition I’m more interested in fiction that approaches the classroom — and topics of education and individual transformation — with an orientation more earnest than satirical.

The novel has a sibling in the discipline of sociology, which emerged alongside the large-scale social novel in the 19th century as a closely allied tool for representing the whole of a society in all of its intricacies. The TV series The Wire clearly owes its storytelling and its vision of how a work of art can represent an entire society — the whole web of human interactions — to that 19th-century multi-plot tradition that finds its apex in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But we would also call The Wire sociological in its interests and methods. Taken together, the program’s sequence of seasons offers the portrait of a city — its interdependent group of narcotics detectives and drug dealers in Baltimore, and all of the other components that make up the social world as a whole. The show manages to encompass the prison system, the school system, journalism, and real estate as well as the effects on individuals and families by the operations of these larger structures and frameworks. In fact, The Wire is far more ambitious than most contemporary fiction in its broad aim to depict society as a whole. Part of the show’s ambition is precisely in its disregard of the traditional divide between the novel and sociology. Think of it this way: It is almost as if sociology and the novel had cut a deal with each other. Having originally claimed much the same ground, they divided the spoils, with sociology reserving the right to explore the workplace, the classroom, and institutions of all kinds (hospitals, prisons, factories) and the novel disproportionately focusing on the private lives of individuals in couples and families.

Some of the ethnographies produced by academic sociologists have the vividness and immediacy of a good novel. These works are far more likely than novels to concentrate on terrain having to do with the workplace and “third places” (places that are neither home nor work but where we find significant fulfillment). I can’t think of real matches, in fiction, with Loïc Wacquant’s fascinating sociological account of the dynamics of a Chicago boxing gym or Elijah Anderson’s classic study of Philadelphia “corner” life. I’m calling for novelists to give in to their sociological leanings, and for the worlds of work and play, rather than primarily domestic life, to come back to the center of what novelists depict in their fictions. Part of the appeal of genre fiction, after all, must be its attention to these other spaces in which we live our lives: the police procedural in its concentration on the workplace of the police station, science fiction in its concentration on the spaceship or planetary administration, fantasy in its obsessive focus on scenes of apprenticeship and mastery. Genre fiction has chosen to foreground such topics much more centrally than the typical Anglo-American literary novel.

It’s difficult to talk about the history of schools in literature without bringing in something about the history of education. Though other reformers preceded him (significant parts of Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, composed as a series of letters to a friend on his son’s education and published as a book in 1693, sound as though they could feature in a showcase of 1970s-style progressive education), it is Rousseau who stands foremost here. He was the first to establish the premise that education deforms most children rather than drawing out what’s within them in a way that is liberating or developmentally satisfying. It’s a philosophy later reflected in Wordsworth’s famous line, in the “Intimations of Immortality” ode: “Shades of the prison house begin to close / Upon the growing boy.” Rousseau’s indictment of conventional education as a dreadful blend of corruption and confinement continued to ripple throughout the educational theories and practice of the following decades. These were the same years, though, in which the rise of utilitarianism precipitated by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill gave new force to the deadening reign of “hard facts.” John Stuart Mill, for example, had a nervous breakdown as a consequence of having so much knowledge drilled into him at a young age, suffering an anomie that could only be cured by reading poetry. Dickens devoted a great deal of ink to lambasting abuses of education that are sometimes well-intentioned but inadvertently brutal and utilitarian, or sometimes merely brutal without any intellectual rationale to speak of.

An unpleasant amalgam of pedantry and brutality was traditionally present in the British schoolroom as it appears in early plays and novels, from the pedants of Shakespeare’s minor comedies to the abusive environments of 19th-century establishments more concerned with extracting profit from parents than imparting knowledge into children’s heads. Classrooms in this era were no picnic for teachers, either: it’s hard, when one reads Wollstonecraft or Austen, to comprehend the great horror expressed by both of those authors around the prospect of having to work as a governess. But if you were a governess or a tutor in late 18th-century Britain, you were potentially utterly at the mercy of cruel children and abusive parents (more The Nanny Diaries than Teach for America!). Mrs. Goddard’s school in Emma is harmless, benign, but hardly a place of stimulation or development, and the schools in Dickens’s and the Brontës’ works are far worse.

Dickens’s novels in particular are full of gruesome scenes of education. Dotheboys Hall, in Nicholas Nickleby, represents a classic instance of the educational institution revealed as punitive rather than liberating. When Nicholas arrives at the school and looks around him, he sees the following:

Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect.

These children experience school as a place of exile: they have been expelled from the family hearth, where a loving mother may or may not have attended them, and have been taken to a place in which the only affection and benefit comes from the company of one’s peers.

For every literary novel that depicts the boarding school as a place of refuge or as a magical surrogate for family, there must be a dozen along more Nicklebyesque lines. Often, an English child is exiled from the prelapsarian bliss of colonial, emotional, and meteorological warmth to the cold inhospitable “home” of an English school. Schoolmaster Squeers in Nickleby, who compares himself to a slave driver and Nicholas to his overseer, is of the same way of thinking as Gradgrind in Hard Times: education is all about cramming facts into children’s heads. The idea that the real imaginative space of childhood comes not in the classroom but in novel reading is hugely important to Dickens, and it is developed most fully in David Copperfield. David has been put under the supervision of a most brutal set of schoolmasters, with the company of the other boys as his main respite against educational oppression. His main protector and companion is Steerforth, of course, to whom David recounts the stories and books he’s read. Dickens lavishes some of his most emotional language on David’s storytelling at night in the dormitory:

Whatever I had within me that was romantic and dreamy, was encouraged by so much story-telling in the dark; and in that respect the pursuit may not have been very profitable to me. But the being cherished as a kind of plaything in my room, and the consciousness that this accomplishment of mine was bruited about among the boys, and attracted a good deal of notice to me though I was the youngest there, stimulated me to exertion. In a school carried on by sheer cruelty, whether it is presided over by a dunce or not, there is not likely to be much learnt. I believe our boys were, generally, as ignorant a set as any schoolboys in existence; they were too much troubled and knocked about to learn; they could no more do that to advantage, than any one can do anything to advantage in a life of constant misfortune, torment, and worry.

Indeed, the evidence of 19th-century fiction suggests that progressive education hadn’t made its way very far into actual classrooms. In this world, novels themselves are better educators than the teachers children encounter in their real lives.

Villette, perhaps my favorite Charlotte Brontë novel, renders the school from the point of view of a teacher frustrated by the sheer ignorance and lack of curiosity of her students. One is struck, reading Villette, by the paradox of the tightness of the school’s social constrictions and yet the fact of its being a place where a young woman of little means might meet a man of extraordinary character and intellect. Brontë’s protagonist, though she is a teacher rather than a student, is engaged above all in a struggle for her own autonomy, one in which the school’s owner is as much an enemy as the obtuse bourgeois schoolgirls who stare at her so blandly across their desks.

The classroom is one of the best places to explore power differentials: the power of a student to shame or humiliate a teacher or vice versa, the sexual relationships that develop inside and outside classrooms between students and teachers (as in Coetzee’s Disgrace). Education isn’t just implicated in personal power relations however, it is also symptomatic of much broader patterns of power and control. Nowhere is this more clear than in depictions of colonial education, from Macaulay’s notorious Minute on Indian Education (“I have never found one among [the scholars of eastern literature] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”) to more recent representations in fiction and autobiography of scenes of classroom hegemony.

The Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau represents the classroom-colonial power structure in his excellent small book, School Days. In this rich passage, the language of the colonial oppressor is inflicted on children by way of the educational system, so much so that the classroom itself becomes the prime place of realization of the nature of the colonial relationship. As he begins school, the little boy at the center of the story is anxious about having to speak in public:

But everything went well: no one had to speak, to write, to explain this-or-that. It was the Teacher who talked. And now the little boy realized something obvious: the Teacher spoke French […] French (to which he didn’t even attach a name) was some object fetched when needed from a kind of shelf, outside oneself, but which sounded natural in the mouth, close to Creole. Close through the articulation. The words. The sentence structure. But now, with the Teacher, speaking traveled far and wide along a single road. And this French road became strangely foreign. The articulation changed. The rhythm changed. The intonation changed. Words that were more or less familiar began to sound different. They seemed to come from a distant horizon and no longer had any affinity with Creole. The Teacher’s images, examples, references did not spring from their native country anymore. The Teacher spoke French like the people on the radio or the sailors of the French line. And he deliberately spoke nothing else. French seemed to be the very element of his knowledge. He savored this smooth syrup he secreted so ostentatiously. And his language did not reach out to the children, the way Mam Salinière’s had, to envelop, caress, and persuade them. His words floated above them with the magnificence of a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering in the breeze. Oh, the Teacher was French!

The use of the third-person perspective here for what is clearly an autobiographical narration, together with that depersonalizing name (“the little boy”), confirms the sense of this classroom as a place of self-estrangement rather than self-discovery. The classroom becomes the place in which the subject will realize not self-development or self-fulfillment but only the painful sense of his own interpellation into structures of power hitherto invisible or, rather, inaudible to his ears.

There is no more powerful and profound novel of classrooms, I think, than Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark is the great novelist of small groups — she almost always avoids writing about families and instead focuses on girls in a boardinghouse, nuns in a convent, students and teachers at a writing conference. Sandy, the girl of Miss Brodie’s “set” whose perspective the third-person narration hews to, will later convert to Catholicism and become a nun, publishing a curious psychological treatise called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. “What was your biggest influence?” A questioner asks her: “Was it political, personal? Was it Calvinism?” “Oh no,” says Sandy to the interviewer. “But there was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” Miss Brodie was “a born Fascist,” a fan of Mussolini first and later of Hitler. Once again the classroom novel points to the larger power structure outside the classroom. Miss Brodie considers her girls the crème de la crème, the leaven in the lump. Here are her principles of education as Spark lays them out (it is a frequent topic of holding forth for Miss Brodie):

The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.

For someone who believes in education as a leading out rather than a thrusting in, Miss Brodie is of course full of strong opinions and inflexible pronouncements: the novel depicts her as being at once ridiculous and a profound threat, a deeply corrupting influence on the girls as her pronouncements become rules to live by. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel of loyalty and betrayal in which the state of girlhood is somehow more lasting or significant than the stages of life that come afterward. Miss Brodie is attractive to the girls because she is like them: unlike the other teachers, the narrative pronounces, “she was still in a state of fluctuating development, whereas they had only too understandably not trusted themselves to change their minds, particularly on ethical questions, after the age of twenty.” Spark forgoes suspense and surprise in order to pattern a morality tale:

All the time [the girls] were under her influence she and her actions were outside the context of right and wrong. It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognize that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects; by which time Sandy had already betrayed Miss Brodie and Miss Brodie was laid in her grave.

I am making a case based less on the need for representation than on my feeling that the conversations I have in classrooms are some of the most interesting and revelatory ones I experience across all aspects of my life. Those who aren’t in classrooms often, or ever, shouldn’t miss out on those glimpses of magic when they come: the magic of insight, cooperation, group discovery.

When I was a little kid, all I wanted was to write books. Though I spent the lion’s share of my time reading, I was also compulsively writing in notebooks from earliest childhood. As a three-year-old, I dictated a story to my mother called “The Children and the Fruit Trees,” and I have a huge box full of all the other stories and novel manuscripts of my childhood, one of which was unironically referred to by myself and my brothers as my best seller (“Where’s Jenny?” “She’s upstairs working on her best seller”).

Over the years, however, I’ve discerned in myself a shift of priorities. I was very sure, when I was young, that writing books was the interesting and worthwhile part of what I would do when I “grew up,” as they say. For many years I thought of writing as my “real” work and all the other things I do (teaching, editing, reviewing manuscripts, serving on committees) as in some sense a day job, less valuable to the world and less important to my sense of myself. But I have come to see that the work I do in my teaching is in every sense as valuable to me — as interesting, as exciting, as deeply rewarding — as the work I do when I write a page of a book that matters to me. I am restating the obvious here, to some extent — we know this about education. But it is a funny, exciting, and surprising revelation for me, in middle age, that what I have really been working toward all these years can be framed in terms of teaching as much as writing. That discovery is at the heart of my call for more classroom scenes in the novels we write and read.


Jenny Davidson teaches at Columbia University. She gave an earlier version of this piece as the Lillian and Robert Drake Endowed Lectureship at Hendrix College in March 2015, and would like to thank Dorian Stuber for the invitation and everyone at Hendrix for their hospitality.

LARB Contributor

Jenny Davidson teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her latest book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, is out in paperback this summer. She gave an earlier version of this piece as the Lillian and Robert Drake Endowed Lectureship at Hendrix College in March 2015, and would like to thank Dorian Stuber for the invitation and everyone at Hendrix for their hospitality.


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