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February 22, 2005

Sociology of the school

Jessa Crispin reviles Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking?, declaring the novel to be "horrid" because it lacks the very insight into character--particularly female character--that it presumes, via title and subject matter, to have. Crispin's point is well taken--if you are going to write a novel that capitalizes on the Mary Kay LeTourneau phenomenon, you had better be able to offer some sort of insight into it. But I'm finding that the novel possesses another kind of insight, and that if one reads it less as a character study of one teacher who ruins her marriage and career when she has an affair with a student and more as a sociology of the sort of school in which that kind of teacher can appear, the novel more than redeems itself. I'm only about half way through What Was She Thinking?, so my thoughts are necessarily provisional. But the passages that have struck me most as I've been reading are the ones that have to do with the peculiarly incestuous, debilitatingly superficial culture that can so easily arise among secondary school faculty when a school is badly run. Heller is interested, for instance, in what happens when heads of schools hire their own alums fresh out of college, and her observations, centered here on an imaginary comprehensive school in north London, raise questions that could well be asked of American independent schools.

Here's the passage in question:

Sandy Pabblem, the headmaster, is very keen on having former pupils like Elaine on staff. He imagines it reflects well on the school that they should wish to return and "give something back." But the truth is, St. George's alumni make exceptionally poor teachers. It's not so much that they don't know anything about anything. (Which they don't.) Or even that they are complacent about their ignorance. (I once heard Elaine blithely identifying Boris Yeltsin as "the Russion one who doesn't have a thingy on his head.") The real issue is one of personality. Invariably, pupils who come back to teach at St. George's are emotionally suspect characters--people who have surmised that the world out there is a frightening place and who have responded by simply staying put. They'll never have to try going home again because they're never going to leave. I have a vision sometimes of the pupils of these ex-pupils, deciding to become St. George's teachers themselves--and these ex-pupils pf ex-pupils producing more ex-pupils, who return to St. George's as teachers, and so on. It would only take a couple of generations for the school to become entirely populated by dolts.

I'd love to hear from readers who have encountered this phenomenon--as parents, students, or teachers.

Posted by Erin O'Connor at February 22, 2005 10:30 AM


I have seen this frequently. Just scanning the local paper I've come across the names of former high school classmates teaching at the same high school we attended. It's mostly the jocks that were "helped" all through high school that return to the old stomping grounds. I think they can't get enough of the teenagers swooning over them. With all the news about female teachers molesting their students, I can only assume that the former cheerleaders have finally caught on to this.

BTW, these former jocks frequently end up in administrative positions via the coaching and/or PE route.

Posted by: nicksmama at February 22, 2005 11:06 AM

I think this phenomenon is older, more traditional, than the novel passage would have us believe. At the university level, it was quite common, forty years ago, for Masters and doctoral students to land their first positions at the university from which they received their degrees. Thomas Pynchon, for instance, was offered a creative writing position at Cornell after he received his BA -- and only on the basis of a few short stories. Today, Pynchon would only be eligible for a tenure-track job after, say, his second novel -- *Gravity's Rainbow*!

Many of my older high school teachers were themselves graduates of that high school. It used to be considered traditional to settle down in the area in which one grew up. Only today is that seen as pathological; only today is being pushed around the map by the forces of a "fluid labor market" seen as the natural order.

And I definitely don't see the slightest connection between that phenomenon and sex between teachers and students. Wanna know why teachers and students have sex? Because 14-22 year old humans are as sexually "ripe" as can be. Plus, human sexuality tends toward fantasies of power and domination. What's surprising isn't that the odd teacher schtupps his or her student, but that more teachers aren't schtupping their students. Should it be illegal? Probably. Will it ever be eradicated? Nope.

Posted by: Karen Eliot at February 22, 2005 01:16 PM

I haven't personally encountered this (having no experience with boarding schools), but for those interested I'd recommend reading The State Nobility and Homo Academicus (both by Pierre Bordieu) which more or less catalog the production and effects of this phenomenon in France.

Posted by: bsf at February 22, 2005 01:55 PM

That should be *The Crying of Lot 49*, not *Gravity's Rainbow*, up above. Both Pynchon and I would like to forget *Crying* but facts is facts.

Posted by: karen eliot at February 22, 2005 02:36 PM

I must read this novel! Thanks for providing the details. That's the first thing that's really made me want to read it, given large universe of books. My mom teaches at a Philadelphia-area independent school & has a bee in her bonnet about the problems that happen when you hire alumni who are often underqualified for the job. Won't provide more details (breach of confidentiality?!?), but this question about a certain emotional immaturity that leads to inappropriate behavior with teenagers comes up often... In the university department I teach in, we have a rule against hiring our own PhDs into tenure-track jobs, and I think that the benefits of such a policy well outweigh the occasional missing-out on a really superb job candidate.

Posted by: Jenny D at February 22, 2005 10:25 PM

Isn't it interesting that this phenomenon - of the alum returning to tutor fresh-faced students in boarding school manners - is such a cinematic trope? Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society, and Kevin Kline in that other film about a Latin contest. It seems any movie about boarding school life requires this basic outline: burned out, cynical teacher/alum returns to campus and is at first demoralized but then rediscovers the meaning of life by reaching those difficult students and "making a difference." If only it were that easy in the real world; everyone would want to teach in a boarding school (just as every American seventh grader loves "A Separate Peace" because they are transported to a world without parents, a world where limits can be tested and intense friendships formed, a place where easy stereotypes are confirmed and nobody gets in real trouble - until they die.)
P.S.: Best school movie ever? "Election"!

Posted by: M2 at February 23, 2005 11:43 AM

I watched this phenomenon at a small college where I used to teach, where 9 full-time faculty members (out of a FT faculty of about 40) were alums. This particular college didn't require a Ph.D. for faculty at the time, so many of the younger professors were fairly recent grads with M.A.'s completed or in progress. The college's academic quality in the areas staffed by alums was often suspect; in most of the sciences, where outsiders were teaching, things were somewhat better. The quality of the students was quite weak, which didn't help any quest for excellence--which the administration did its best to discourage anyway.

In the time since my departure, the collge has openly declared a preference for hiring alumni in staff positions, to an extent where the list of alumni working there makes up a rather high percentage of the total staff. My first question on hearing about that was "Aren't they afraid of becoming, for want of a better word, inbred?"--to which my informant had no clear answer. That's just one data point, of course, but it seems to me that if you're bringing in weak students (and it was big news one year when we found evidence that an applicant had actually been rejected), that might not be the best pool in which to find employees.

Posted by: Mark at February 23, 2005 11:45 AM

My most recent alumni bulletin from The Phillips Exeter Academy (did I mention I graduated from Exeter, America's premier boarding school?) celebrates alums who returned to campus to teach - everyone from Charles Pratt ('52) to some woman in the class of '96. All following in the great tradition of Hammie Bisell ('29).I despised that goddamn place, and frankly saw it as a jail sentence. The only reason I could imagine anyone wanting to return is to avoid the real world. So constricting. /rant.

Posted by: Snobby McTightass at February 23, 2005 12:03 PM

i think we're overgeneralizing a little bit. after all, all grads are alumni of SOME school; are they only poor teachers if they return? what if they like the area? or have some other preference/reason for teaching at their alma mater? i don't know about boarding schools, but if we're talking about high schools or colleges, i think the discussion assumes too much.

Posted by: Jason Saphara at February 23, 2005 12:17 PM

You'll find this phenomenon in small towns, too.

Posted by: Michael at February 24, 2005 07:49 AM

This isn't far from predatory college-town companies latching on to recent graduates who want to stay in their college town environment rather than enter the career advancement track. They'll take the jobs even when the profs and professional peers warn them not to.

In the worse cases, students can keep making use of the skills they learned in their majors, but in positions that offer little support in professional development.

When they leave the second nest (should they leave at all), they "graduate" a second time years later into a job environment that may have moved forward since they got their BS degrees.

So where do they go? 1) the second or third employment tier in their field 2) another career altogether, or 3) right back into the clutches of the people who gave them their first "real" job.

But they can still go to the 'Skelkar after work, just like they did when they were "still" at Dear Olde State.

I imagine the alma mater prep school trap is not all that different.

Posted by: Bill at February 24, 2005 11:03 AM

I experienced this kind of thing while studying for an MA in Psychology at a small commuter college for working adults. The instructors were almost entirely recruited from the college's graduating students. This led to a vapid education in psychology that turned almost entirely on how one FELT about, for example, theories on childhood development. Whether or not the theories were empirically valid mattered not all. After earning my degree I now find myself employed with a General Contractor that builds medical imaging centers.

Posted by: Daniel at February 25, 2005 04:48 PM

I am always suspicious of people who haven't gone anywhere, or wind up where they started; it just seems like some sort of stagnant state. That said, I have returned to Southern California after years abroad, and don't feel like it's because I was scared of the real world or feared failure; it's because I like it here and want to raise my kids here. Perhaps teachers who graduated from those self-same schools are merely trying to keep giving that which they got.

Posted by: Isaac B2 at February 26, 2005 12:02 AM

You see the phenomenon in college teaching as well: graduates returning to teaching positions. There is an assumption that alumni "get" their students, which ignores the fact that these are the alumni who were different enough from the pack to go on to advanced graduate work in an academic field....

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at February 26, 2005 10:33 PM

my high school in Australia had a rule that alumni couldn't come back for their first job after graduating, but they had a few who came back as soon as possible afterwards (generally the prefect, school captain types for whom high school was presumably the best time of their lives).
In general, though, there didn't seem to be a problem with staying on at the same university for undergrad, Phd, postdoc etc. Maybe just because there are so few other universities to go to without leaving the country.

Posted by: pigpuppet at March 4, 2005 03:27 PM

What, exactly, does the comment from "Poker" (posted at 3:10pm) have to do with anything being discussed here? Sir/Madam - that kind of obsession just ain't healthy. Move along.

Posted by: Liz at March 7, 2005 06:42 PM