Archives For Brooks-Honor Code

With one broad sweep of a word-processing program, NY Times Columnist David Brooks brushed off the Newbery Award collection of the best children’s novels as containing some “exquisitely sensitive novellas” in his essay Honor Code (July 5, 2012). He should reconsider this judgment on several counts.

The premise of his editorial was to bring attention to recent statistics that suggest young boys are falling behind in the American education system. First, he compared the contemporary American schoolboy to the rambunctious Prince Hal of William Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry IV parts I and II and Henry V. This comparison proved an apt metaphor, although Brookes failed to call attention to the irony of his allusion; Prince Hal and the American schoolboy are both out of place in their respective educational institutions. Unfortunately, he over- stepped his position when he mischaracterized the  prestigious Newbery Award given to excellence in children’s literature by stating: “If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas.”

Simply because a book is  written for young audiences (elementary through middle school) and is shorter in length than an adult novel does not mean the book is a novella; the Newbery Award books are novels. However, on several occasions the Newbery has been awarded to books of poetry (1989 Medal Winner: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman) or short stories, songs and poems (2008 Medal Winner: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz).

As to the charge that some of the Newbrry novels are “exquisitely sensitive,” well, yes, some are. I am “exquisitely sensitive” myself when I remember my reading the 1963 Medal Winner: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. However, while I can only comfortably include those titles that I have read or recommended to my students, there are fewer “sensitive” novels than one might suspect, in fact, some of the Newbery Award novels are brash, outrageous, or disturbingly violent. More than a few of them have been banned.

Consider that Mr. Brookes began reading Newbery books in 1969; he would be eight or nine years old.  The “exquisitely sensitive” 1967 Medal Winner: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt would be available to him as would 1947 Medal Winner: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey However, during a 10 year school reading career, ages 8-18, he could have also encountered:

  • 1969 Medal Winner: The High King by Lloyd Alexander
  • 1970 Medal Winner: Sounder by William H. Armstrong
  • 1972 Medal Winner: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
  • 1974 Medal Winner: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
  • 1976 Medal Winner: The Grey King by Susan Cooper
  • 1977 Medal Winner: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
  • 1979 Medal Winner: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

These are seven books that do not qualify as “exquisitely sensitive” books “to tame” rambunctious students. If Brooks had continued to read the canon of Newbery award winning novels as an adult, he would have encountered the following “definitely NOT exquisitely sensitive” books as well:

  • 1987 Medal Winner: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
  • 1991 Medal Winner: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
  • 1990 Medal Winner: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  • 1994 Medal Winner:  The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • 1999 Medal Winner:  Holes by Louis Sachar
  • 2000 Medal Winner: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • 2003 Medal Winner:  Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
  • 2009 Medal Winner: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I would also like to give a shout out to the one book that was read by every “rambunctious” boy I ever taught, the  1988 Newbery Honor book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. For many boys, this is the ONLY book they remember.

Newbery authors do not write in order “to tame” rambunctious youth, boys or girls, and I would suspect that several would take great offense to that statement.  Authors for children and adults alike write to tell an extraordinary story, to share an experience, or to give voice to a character or person from the “margin”, an outsider who has a voice through the written word.

Many authors are not “tame” themselves, in fact, this year’s Newbery Award winning writer was Jack Gantos for Dead End in Norvelt. Gantos has a fascinating back story. He  was convicted as a young man of smuggling drugs and spent time in a federal prison. His behavior, in fact , was very much like the  behavior of Prince Hal of Shakespeare’s plays. However,Gantos was a reader and found great literature to guide him during times of trouble. While in prison, he was without a notebook and wrote in the margins of The Brothers Karamazov, intertwining his words with Dostoevsky . His memoir of his felonious behavior  is called A Hole in My Life, and we teach the text as a required read in our Grade 12 Memoir class.

The Newbery Award winners reflect the rich diversity of literature that is available to students, rambunctious or not. These novels are not assigned “to tame” , but they are assigned, or recommended, to comfort a reader, to entertain a reader, to challenge a reader’s beliefs, or to incite a reader to action. They may be short, but they are not novellas, and no teacher “pretends” they are the solution to educating a fiercely rambunctious student.  Most teachers know that these Newbery Award novels, and their Newbery Award honorees companions, may be the  only solution for educating that fiercely rambunctious student.

David Brooks recently wrote a column in The NYTimesHonor Code (July 5, 2012),  describing a crisis in education for boys. He suggested that Shakespeare’s character Henry V would not have been a success if he had attended an American School. But how different really was Henry V’s education?  Consider that Shakespeare’s Henry V spends his youth in Henry IV Parts I and II as Prince Hal, an irresponsible squanderer of his good fortune.

Brooks lays out his premise that if little Prince Hal had been placed in an American school, and I am assuming he means an American public school, Hal’s boisterous level of pre-school/kindergarten physical play would mean that he would receive recommendations from “sly” teachers for medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As Prince Hal made his way through our American public school system, Brooks predicts that he would be deprived of the necessary physical outlets such as recess, so he would act out, he would be “rambunctious”. That would result in numerous suspensions for the vigorous heir.

Eventually, Brooks supposes, Prince Hal would “withdraw” and “decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage…by junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.” Well, perhaps Brooks should look at Shakespeare’s storyline of Prince Hal who rejected the official British monarchy culture and disengaged for the pubs with his drinking buddies. His “grades” did plummet without the benefit of the American public school.

Prince Hal  had little interest in trying to please his father, he rejected the lessons of his tutors, and he found company with the gregarious Falstaff and other London low-life. In one memorable scene, he “lifts” the crown before his father had passed, a stage metaphor for his immaturity and unreadiness for the responsibilities of Kingship. His education was abysmal; his honor code was lacking.

After the death of the king, however, when Prince Hal becomes Henry V, he engages in a “hands-on” education, one which is gained at the expense of his former friends and at his discovery of the betrayal of allies whom he has executed. He is long past school age when his lack of military strategy catches him outnumbered after the Battle of Harfleur. All these experiences harden him for his ultimate victory at Agincourt, but not before he gets to deliver those wonderful lines from the St. Crispin Day speech, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”. Immediately after the battle, where 10,000 French soliders lay dead as compared to roughly 29 Englishmen, the more battle-hardened Henry V immediately turns around and (twice) orders his men to kill all the French prisoners (Act IV; sc iv).

According to Wikipedia, in March 2010, Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated in a mock trial of Henry V for the crimes associated with the legality of the invasion and the slaughter of  the French prisoners. The trial  used evidence from the  historical record and Shakespeare’s play:

“The outcome was originally to be determined by an audience vote, however, due to a draw it came down to a judges’ decision. The court was divided on Henry’s justification for war, but unanimously found him guilty on the killing of the prisoners after applying ‘the evolving standards of the maturing society’.”

Therefore, I am confident that Henry the V is the not the best model to describe an honor code.

All this makes me question Brooks’s intent for using Henry V to attack the public school system. While schools are not entirely responsible for the crisis where boys are falling according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, his comment that teachers would give “sly little hints dropped” about medicating students casts teachers as covert operators. Why pick on the teachers?

He does have legitimate reasons for concern about how boys are falling behind in education citing:

  • By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores.
  • Boys used to have an advantage in math and science, but that gap is nearly gone.
  • An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s.

In laying out his argument, Brooks complains that,

“The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.”

Well, yes. Brooks has described the corporate business model that has driven education, the business model that educators have been trained to use to prepare students when they enter the “real world.” What employer does not want an employee with these qualities? Yet, there are many teachers who recognize this model is not ideal for the diversity in attitude and aptitude for their students. Sadly, many of the educational opportunities that engage disaffected boys and girls including art, music, sports, and after-school programs are the first cut in times of economic hardship.

Additionally, teachers are keenly aware that not all students fit a cultural ideal, so they use multiple teaching strategies (differentiation, student success plans, response to intervention, etc) to reengage the withdrawn student. Mr. Brooks might have discovered these had he attended a classroom session and seen teachers working with students like little Prince Hal. Instead, he lays the blame for the failure of boys in the school system solely on teachers when there are other stakeholders, namely parents, who are primarily responsible.

Brooks’s suggestion that teachers celebrate competition might not meet with a school administration’s approval if a school’s mission statement celebrates cooperation. His suggestion that teachers should honor military virtues over environmental virtues might raise some eyebrows of parents, and his disparate suggestion that teachers should ditch friendship circles in favor of boot camps indicates that he has experienced neither.

In Shakespeare’s play, on the night before the battle of Agincourt,  Henry V walks unnoticed through the camp; he is finally and painfully aware of the responsibilities he has to his men and to his country and says, ““What infinite heartsease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” As more pressures: economic, social, cultural and philosophical, are applied to the American public education system, teachers could paraphrase Henry V’s thoughts and say,  ““What infinite heartsease for those who criticize without being on the front lines in the classroom every day?”

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