The Pequod Review:
How to Survive in Your Native Land is by far James Herndon’s best book, a series of funny but intelligent scenes from school life, mostly based on Herndon’s experiences as a teacher at a middle-class suburban high school. Under the humor and playfulness are deep and serious points:
If kids in America do not go to school, they can be put in jail… All of the talk about motivation or inspiring kids to learn or innovative courses which are relevant is horseshit. It is horseshit because there is no way to know if students really are interested or not. No matter how bad the school is, it is better than jail. Everyone knows that, and the school knows it especially. A teacher comes into the teachers’ room and says happily, I had the greatest lesson today! and goes on to tell the other envious teachers what it was that they hadn’t thought of themselves and says, The kids were all so excited! It is horseshit. The teacher has forgotten (as I forget) that the kids have to be there or they will go to jail. Perhaps the grand lesson was merely more tolerable than the usual lesson. Perhaps the kids would have rejected both lessons if they could.
That is why the school cannot ever learn anything about its students…As long as you can threaten people, you can’t tell whether or not they really want to do what you are proposing that they do. You can’t tell if they are inspired by it, you can’t tell if they learn anything from it, you can’t tell if they would keep on doing it if you weren’t threatening them.
You cannot tell. You cannot tell if the kids want to come to your class or not. You can’t tell if they are motivated or not. You can’t tell if they learn anything or not. All you can tell is, they’d rather come to your class than go to jail.
Here are his cynical comments on the institutional nature of schools:
An institution must continue to exist. Every action must be undertaken with respect to eternity… For unless a Savings Bank can persuade the people not to Save, the Savings Bank will go broke. But the Savings Bank must continue to exist, since otherwise the people would have No Place To Save. Just so, the School must encourage its students not to learn. For if the students learned quickly, most of them could soon leave the school, having Learned. But if the students left the school it would cease to exist as an institution and then the students would have No Place In Which To Learn.
Following that argument, we can arrive at a description of an institution: An Institution Is A Place To Do Things Where Those Things Will Not Be Done.
And here he describes the obscure subjects that have found their way into lesson plans:
Flax is what school is all about. In my own old-fashioned geography books the thing that most remains in my mind now is that they always grew flax… Flax is actually a slender erect plant with a blue flower, the seeds of which are used to make linseed oil. Linen is made from the fiber of the stalk. I know this now because I’ve just looked it up in the dictionary. It is quite possible that it does grow in all those countries like the book and my test papers said.
But beyond that, a thing like flax has an important place in a school. Unlike corn, say, which in L.A. we could drive out and see in fields and buy from roadside stands and take home and eat, unlike wheat or cotton or potatoes, I think you could live your entire life in America and never even see or hear of flax, never know about it need to know about it. Only in the school, only from the geography book, only from the teacher, could you learn about flax. It showed you how smart the school was, for one thing. For another, it showed you what Learning was; corn, for example, wasn’t Learning precisely because you could go out and see it in the fields… Finally, it showed the school who among the students was willing and able to keep flax in mind, to raise his hand and say it aloud, to write it down, and put its name on maps.
This is social criticism at its most biting and perceptive.