This post is the second in a series noting recent works of literature or film that employ homeschooling as a plot device. In this post I discuss popular children’s author Gordon Korman’s 2007 book Schooledand the 2007 book by Charles Webb, famous author of the ’60s classic The Graduate, titled Home School.
Gordon Korman is a giant in children’s literature. He has published 55 books to date, with total sales topping seven million copies. Many of Korman’s best-known books are serials, but he also publishes stand alone books. Schooled is one of those.
Schooled tells the story of Capricorn (“Cap”) Anderson, who lives with his grandmother Rain at Garland Farm as the last two members of a hippie commune Rain started in 1967. Cap has grown up in almost total isolation from the outside world, constantly imbibing Rain’s hippie philosophy, eating home-grown produce, living simply and self-sufficiently. Homeschooling is of course part of this lifestyle. As Cap explains, “I was homeschooled. That was the law. Even on a tiny farm like ours, you had to get an education…We wanted to avoid the low standards and cultural poison of a world that had lost its way.”
Cap’s parents had died of Malaria while working with the Peace Corps, so when Rain is badly injured while working on the farm, Cap is sent to live with a social worker while his grandmother recovers in the hospital. He is also sent to 8th grade at Claverage Middle School, or C Average as the students call it.
The naive flower-child Cap is thrust into the sordid world of Jr. high, with its back-stabbing cliquishness, its power hierarchy, its violence and cruelty. Visiting his grandmother in the hospital after his first day, he complains to her,
They’ve got these things called lockers…The halls are lined with them. And you won’t believe what they’re for! They’re for locking stuff away–so other people won’t steal it! Why can’t everybody just share?…. They don’t have regular time at school, you know. They have periods. All of a sudden an alarm goes off and you’re supposed to drop what you’re doing and rush off to a different room with a different teacher to do something completely different! How can anybody learn like that?
Over the course of the story Cap slowly begins to learn about the wider world of the modern teen, and his classmates at the same time grow increasingly enamored with his peaceful demeanor, his selflessness, his undiscriminating love for everyone.
Throughout the story Korman’s characters reveal complete disdain for the pettiness and meaninglessness of their public school experience. One remarks, after witnessing Cap save the day by driving the school bus to the hospital after the bus driver has a heart attack, “When your whole world is a cheesy, prepackaged rehearsal for being alive, like middle school, a kid your own age who can pilot a twenty-ton bus is impressive.” Another comments on a pep rally, “So much of school was like that–more a feeling than anything of substance.” Another notes, “School had nothing to do with learning and knowing and getting the right answers. School was about sports and girls and fun and being popular.”
By the book’s end, however, the stark contrast between the idealism of Garland Farm and the harsh reality of C Average middle school has faded, replaced by a feel-good synthesis of “all you need is love” group hugging by the school’s students and a dawning awareness on the part of Rain and Cap that TV, nice cars, and other consumer comforts are pretty cool. After his excursus into the crass but colorful world of school, Cap finds Garland Farm drab and dull. His homeschooling days have come to an end.
Charles Webb‘s Home School, while a very different book from Korman’s, shares with it an over-the-top caricature of the hippie lifestyle. Home School picks up eleven years after The Graduate. It’s now 1974. Benjamin Braddock has married Elaine and the two have moved across the country to Hastings, New York and are homeschooling (or, rather, unschooling) their two sons. The book opens with Elaine being accosted in the grocery store by the wife of a prominent banker. “Excuse me,” asks the woman, “but aren’t you the people who took your children out of school?” Elaine answers in the affirmative, and the woman continues, “I assume you know what you’re doing…” Elaine responds, “I think so.” And the woman then lets her have it, “our daughter was home from college and said if we’d done that to her she’d never have spoken to us again…I asked Claire–what in this world could motivate parents to deprive their children of the happiest experience of their lives?” Elaine retorted, “We took them out so they wouldn’t grow up to be bankers.”
The school board then clamps down on the Braddocks and gives them ten days to register their kids in the local public school or face prosecution for truancy. Ben is at a loss for what to do and is incensed that the school principal, a notorious skirt chaser, would dare to claim the moral high ground over his family. But then he hits on a plan. His mother-in-law, the seductress Mrs. Robinson, might save his family’s homeschooling. But an agreement had been reached with her years earlier requiring very limited contact with the family–just one phone call a year and gifts for the boys at their birthdays. Ben breaks the agreement and invites Mrs. Robinson to New York to seduce the principal. This she does easily, getting the whole thing on tape, which Ben then uses to blackmail the principal and keep his family free from the school authorities.
As the novel unfolds, many more interpersonal dilemmas are raised, all of which become grounds for the education of the boys. “A basic tenet of Benjamin and Elaine’s homeschooling philosophy was that nothing fell outside the boundaries of education – life itself was education – and when anything came up in the course of events that was a source of interest it was incorporated into the matrix of ongoing learning.” A visit from hippie Vermont family the Lewises provides abundant opportunity for such learning. Like Capricorn Anderson, the Lewises are over-the-top. Goya, the mother, is still nursing her 9 year old. The children never eat processed food. When visiting a local supermarket with the Braddocks, this conversation takes place between Goya and her children Aaron and Nefertiti:
“What’s that?” Goya said. “Wheat germ.” Aaron said. She shook her head. “You’ll spoil your dinner.” “But we’ll save it till later.” “Oh no,” Goya said. “I know you.” “Please!” Nefertiti said, holding it up in front of her mother’s face. “Please! It’s toasted!”
Though Elaine clearly thinks the Lewises are nuts, Benjamin is intrigued by their lack of concern for worldly welfare and their mysticism. Ben has intentionally self-sabotaged his career, preferring a dead end job shelving library books to the professional track for which his education had prepared him. “His vocation, he had come to realize as time went on, was to see if he could prevent what had been done to him by the various institutions he had passed through from being repeated in the case of his offspring.”
Evidently a good bit of Home School comes out of Webb’s own life. He and his sort-of wife Eve (who goes by the name Fred) pulled their own children out of public school in California in the 1970s and evaded truancy officers by hiding out in a succession of nudist camps. Like Benjamin, Webb has made many principled decisions over the years that have undermined his career and financial situation. This sequel, it seems, was written partly because Webb needed the money.
Neither Webb’s nor Korman’s book is very good. In fact, were I not reviewing it for this blog I would not have finished Webb’s Home School. The dialogue was torture to endure and Mrs. Robinson, who seemed so shockingly risque when The Graduate was first published in 1963, today seems dull and predictable. Perhaps some children would like Korman’s Schooled, but I found its storyline simplistic and surreal. Nevertheless, both books do illustrate well the main theme of these posts on pop culture representations of homeschooling. If you want to construct interesting child characters or families, you need some way to get outside of the tedium of commercial suburban homogeneity. Homeschooling is one option authors are increasingly turning to as a resource for creating dramatic interest and narrative tension.