Did J.D. Salinger believe in unschooling?

J.D. Salinger

Or was the legendarily reclusive writer just spoofing us?

The last story in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories is called “Teddy” and it’s about a 10-year-old genius who fascinates scholars and religious figures. He’s asked about his views on education and he either endorses a radical form of progressive education or he makes fun of it. Anyone know? If he’s faking it, he’s a good mimic. Nothing worth knowing has to be taught. It can be absorbed when a child wants to absorb it. Teddy says:

“‘I know I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t start with the things schools usually start with… I think I’d first just assemble all the children together and show them how to meditate. I’d try to show them how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that… I guess, even before that, I’d get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them. I mean even if their parents just told them an elephant’s big, I’d make them empty that out. An elephant’s only big when it’s next to something else — a dog or a lady, for example… I wouldn’t even tell them that an elephant has a trunk. I might show them an elephant, if I had one handy, but I’d let them just walk up to the elephant not knowing anything more about it than the elephant knew about them. The same thing with grass, and other things. I wouldn’t even tell them grass is green. Colors are only names. I mean if you tell them grass is green, it makes them start expecting the grass to look a certain way — our way — instead of some other way that may be just as good, and maybe much better… I don’t know. I’d just make them vomit up every bit of the apple their parents and everybody made them take a bite out of.’

‘There’s no risk you’d be raising a little generation of ignoramuses?’

‘… No! … Besides, if they wanted to learn all that other stuff — names and colors and things — they could do it, if they felt like it, later on when they were older. But I’d want them to begin with all the real ways of looking at things, not just the way all the other apple-eaters look at things — that’s what I mean.'”

It’s always eye-opening when educators (and developmental psychologists) equate teaching with limiting rather than enhancing a child’s knowledge and understanding. Those who follow this philosophy — a misunderstanding of the pragmatist philosopher/educator John Dewey — believe teaching corrupts a child’s natural instincts. Instincts and inspiration are more important than studying and working hard to learn things. In this view, children will learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it, and in whatever way they prefer to learn it. Followed to its conclusion, that idea leads to the ideology of unschooling. But, the question raised by Teddy’s interrogator stands. Wouldn’t we end up with a “generation of ignoramuses?”

Richard Lee Colvin

(This post was revised on April 23, 2010.)