- The Dreary Time:The Ethos of School in Award-Winning Fiction for Children, 1960-1980
School is a fact of life for most real and many fictional children. As a concrete time-and-space-bound place or as an abstract, ongoing process, school has a personality, an ethos, that is independent of the people who interact with it in some way—teachers, administrators, students, parents. And like the personalities of humans, those of schools can be positive or negative. But as it emerges from a body of award-winning fiction recommended for American children between 1960 and 1980, the ethos of school as an influential institution of society distinct from the people who interact with it is essentially negative.1
When Mark Twain, that early writer of childhood realism, summed up Tom Sawyer's experience of school—"Tom's heart ached to be free, or else to have something of interest to do to pass the dreary time" (72-73)—he was not reflecting on human personalities: on the master who did little to enhance Tom's schooling or on Becky Thatcher who did. He was instead expressing a boy's vague discontent with the ethos of school itself. Tom's perception was undoubtedly echoed by countless real school children who endured the dull and often ineffectual processes of public schooling in mid-nineteenth century America; American education was at the dawn of its self-scrutiny, and Tom's experience of school, like Twain's, did not reflect any of the tentative new schemes for educational improvement (Paine 38).
But it is surprising and disconcerting that, in the era of "new realism" a century later, modern fiction writers convey the impression that the ethos of school as little changed. After all, educators in the post-Sputnik generation scrutinized and evaluated the school enterprise with unprecedented self consciousness. From 1960 to 1980, educational policies and practices adjusted frequently to changing mandates and formulae for school improvement, all with the motive of making school a pleasanter, more effective, more accessible, more relevant social institution. Yet the intense activity in professional school circles seems to have had little impact on writers of children's fiction. Despite the research, money, and enthusiasm that sometimes vitalized (though with uneven success) the generation's real schools, the atmosphere of fictional schools was still "dreary."
The individual authors of this body of books draw from different recollected and current realities; they do vary in the frequency and intensity with which they portray school, and most write quality literature to engage and enrich children rather than muckraking tracts to indoctrinate them. But these dissimilar artists often send similar messages; and because they have the approval of those who market and recommend books—editors, sellers, buyers, critics, and awarders—these books bear the tacit imprimatur of a large, literate Establishment of adult American society. Like all children's books, furthermore, this generation's "best" ones mirror, consciously or not, cultural attitudes in the society that produced them. And what these books mirror, with the candor that marks the "new realism," is the attitude that school is, more often than not, conspicuously restrictive, boring, irrelevant, unimaginative, rigid, petty, and dismal. On a subtler level, they imply that school is impersonal, undemocratic, hypocritical and even immoral. Dreary indeed!
As a compulsory, regulated social institution, school is inevitably a distasteful intrusion on real children's idyll of endless freedom, play, and autonomy. Not surprisingly, therefore, school's lack of freedom contributes to its dreariness for both Tom and modern fictional children. It may not always be like Colditz, the prison in Conrad's War, that "was just like school: nasty, cold, boring, and full of people who told you what to do all the time" (70)2; it may not be a smelly, barricaded waystation for the displaced, as in TR 7-41-R, but it is not an acknowledged bastion of freedom, either. In school, as in church, Jess in Bridge to Terabithia "could tune . . . out . . . not really thinking or dreaming but at least free" (83). In The Trouble with Terry, children chant, "No more pencils, no more books," glorying that "one second they were still in...