books · education · Novels

The Perks of Old School Intertextuality

Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an immensely popular novel- and in essence, a coming of age novel. We’re following Charlie through his (sometimes) awkward high school years,and everything that comes along with that- the love interests, the drugs, the music, the literature.  So much literature. The character of Charlie’s teacher Bill seems to soleley exist to give him this literature, and why? Well, supposedly, because literature is enriching. It helps you grow as a person, and that is what you do, when you are coming of age. Though it isn’t just that- it’s not as if authors just throw random references to other books into their work- more so that they’re carefully chosen, specific books. If you’re going to include another author in your book, you’re essentially recommending it to your readers-so if a book is included, there’s a reason it’s in there.

Tobias Wolff’s Old School also has a great deal of intertextuality, and more interestingly, it has a book in common with Perks of being a Wallflower. This particular book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand even appears as a character in Old School, as one of many visiting authors to the school. One of the books main themes is individualism, on which the main character comments this

For once I had a complete picture of the world: over here a few disdainful Roarks and a few icy Dominiques, meltable only by Roarks; over there a bunch of terrifid nobodies running from their own possibilities. Now and then I caught glimpses of other ideas n the novel, political, philosophcal ideas, but I didn’t think them through. It was the personal meaning that had me in thrall- the promise of great mastery achieved by doing exactly as I pleased

Charlie also reads the book, and after being encouraged by Bill to be a “filter not a sponge” gives his thoughts on it:

There was this one part where the main character, who is this architect, is sitting on a boat with his best friend, who is a newspaper tycoon. And the newspaper tycoon says that the architect is a very cold man. The architect replies that if the boat were sinking, and there was only room in the lifeboat for one person, he would gladly give up his life for the newspaper tycoon. And then he says something like this …  “I would die for you. But I won’t live for you.” Something like that. I think the idea is that every person has to live for his or her own life and then make the choice to share it with other people. Maybe that is what makes people “participate.” I’m not really certain.

It is certainly an interesting book for both authors to have chosen for their respective ‘coming of age’ stories- as both fictional readers point out, it’s a book where the main character is extremely individualistic- he is only out for himself, and all of the other characters in the novel are defined by their help/hinderance towards him, and not on their own terms. It could potentially teach the reader that it is more important to share their lives with someone else (as Charlie notes) or it could do the opposite- turning the reader into someone who is hedonistic and who only thinks about themselves, which is what the narrator of Old School takes from it. From there, a reader of Old School or Perks of Being a Wallflower could read this book for themselves, and form their own opinions from it.

In doing this, it creates an experience that you as the reader can share with the characters of the book- it is something you can have in common, having read the same book, and perhaps even the same opinions.





education · plays

“Sheer, Calculated Silliness” – The Lessons of The History Boys

Irwin’s comment that he doesn’t “think there is time” for Hector’s kind of teaching anymore is a sad one – and applies well outside of the context of Alan Bennet’s The History Boys. Whilst the play does pit Irwin and Hector’s teaching methods against each other :

Dakin- We don’t know who we are sir. Your class or Mr Irwin’s.

Irwin- Does it matter?

Timms- Oh yes, sir. It depends if you want us to be thoughtful, or smart.

It never seeks to suggest that “smart” is superior to “thoughtful” or vice versa, nor that Irwin’s teaching methods hold any more merit than Hector’s. As such neither are defined as being either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways of teaching- neither is better or worse than the other- there is a feeling of it being “unquantifiable”, the very phrase used by the Headmaster to describe Hector’s results. That judgement highlights everything that is wrong with the education system today. There is no general consensus on ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’, but there is one on knowledge for league table results sake.

You learn in Irwin’s method- to pass the exam and get the results. There are now very few Hectors. There is no “sheer calculated silliness” -there is no antidote. The system doesn’t want to produce kids that know all the words to When I’m Cleaning Windows –  they would prefer those “who, in later life, had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words. Words said in that reverential way that is somehow Welsh”.

Why do we need Hector’s way of teaching? Because without it, the whole educational proces can become disheartening. If you’ve ever felt that education is not the way it appears in literature, that is because it isn’t. Our Lupins have been replaced with Snapes- Our Hectors by Irwins. The regurgitation of facts and statistics holds more merit than the gobbets you can remember, the poems and the stories you have learned by heart, not just because you had to but because you wanted to.

Sometimes, we stumble across that one class where all this is possible. A small number of students in a room crammed with books, with old film posters plastering the walls. Where the set text is abandoned within ten minutes in favour of a discussion about a dream someone had last night- a class where you forget you’re learning. “Love apart, it is the only education worth having”. For those of us who find out Hector, the answer to “What has Gracie Fields got to do with anything?” is this- probably a lot more than we first thought.