Tobias Wolff’s Old School: Truth, Tangent, and Return

After yesterday’s post on yearning and return, I realized I had omitted something that had been on my mind for a long time. Here it is.

If you have not yet read Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School (2003), please read it before reading this piece, which will reveal some of the ending. I also encourage you to put off reading reviews until you have read the book. Though widely praised, it has been strangely misunderstood by some, including Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. Reviewing comes with pitfalls: the best reviews draw attention to good work (or warn against the mediocre), while the worst sacrifice the book to the reviewer’s own needs and frailties. Few reviewers are consistently insightful; they succumb to their own stuff, as we all do at times. That’s how I see Kakutani’s review. Enough of that.

I am writing about this book because, from the first reading in 2003 through the third and most recent one yesterday, I have been carrying it around in my mind. I pick it up (in my hands or in the imagination) and return to favorite passages. It says more about education than many an education book; it is part of my own education. It is the ending that stays with me, though everything else builds slowly to it—an ending that seems a tangent but becomes a return and vision. I will look at this return today.


Personal Narrative Is Bad

The following speech was delivered by Ernest Leghorn at the quarterly meeting of the Society for Improvement of Culture on August 14, 2012.

Good evening. It is a pleasure for me, as CEO of Future Innovations Today, Inc., to be speaking to such a distinguished audience about the future of education. As you know, FIT has been working closely with school districts to promote best practices for a changing economy. Our top priority is literacy. We need to persuade schools to stop focusing on personal narratives (you know, those compositions about what I did over the weekend or my scariest memory). We don’t need personal narratives in today’s workplace. What we do need is evidence-based argumentative writing and informational text. This is what employers and colleges want to see; this is what’s missing from the typical curriculum. This is part of the reason why our schools are failing.

Now, most of you already agree with me, or you wouldn’t be here tonight—but a few may be wondering whether such a sea change is necessary. Well, it is necessary, and I will explain why.

I stand before you as a fairly well-known executive, to put it mildly, but I was not always so. I grew up in a small town in Virginia—Buchanan, that’s right, BUCK-an-an, and while we weren’t poor, we didn’t have many luxuries. I had my bike, my toy cars, my Nintendo, and that was about it. Then one day we came home, and the bike, Nintendo, and my mom’s jewelry were gone. Windows broken. Chairs tipped over. Someone had broken into the house, taken a bunch of items, and made a mess of things.

Well, I started having nightmares about robbers every night. My dreams would always start with the sound of footsteps outside. They’d grow louder and louder. Then I’d hear someone turning the doorknob. I’d remember, just then, that my dad forgot to lock the door. I’d hear the door open with a creak. Then footsteps again, coming down the hallway, toward my room. I’d jump up and press against the door as hard as I could—but the door would push open, and just when a face started to peek through—an mean face with crinkled brow—I would wake up in a sweat.

When I was old enough to have children, I made a promise. Never, I said, would I let my kids go through such a scare. I’d make sure the home was safe. I’d lock all doors. We’d install burglar alarms. I kept my promise to the letter: got married, had two sons, started working in the dot-com industry, made enough money to purchase an alarm system, and kept the house so safe and quiet that Bobby and Jimmy didn’t even know what danger was. They were innocent, happy boys. We lived out on the outskirts of San Mateo, California, on a long road with orchards and fields on either side. My wife worked in entertainment, so between the two of  us, we could afford this lovely property. The boys romped around without fear until late in the evening. We hardly ever saw a car from our window—except for our own two cars, that is.

One night, when everyone else was sleeping, I sat up and gazed out the window. The moon was full, and its light spilled silver on the peaches. But there was another light out there, or two. Craning my neck to the limit, I saw that it was a car. No mistake about it: a car that had paused right outside our gate and didn’t seem to be budging.

Suddenly I was in a flashback. The old terror returned to my head in a rush. But now, as a father, I had to brave it. I jumped out of bed, ran down to the second floor, and stepped out on the balcony, to make my presence known. That would be enough, I thought, to send him away. He didn’t budge.

I didn’t want the boys to wake up and see him. Whatever he was doing there, I had to get rid of him quickly. All the same, the thought of going out there to confront him (or her) made me tremble a little, even at my age. Maybe this was the very burglar who took my bike and tipped over my chair so many years ago. A crazy thought, I know—but such was my state of mind.

At last my concern for my sons overrode all else. I opened the door and walked out onto the path—in my bathrobe and pajamas. The car was still there, in a pool of moonlight, like a bug taking a bath. As I approached, I saw that it was a yellow Saab. Like a bee, I thought, about to collect its honey. Well, it won’t get my honey. I walked right up to it and knocked on the front passenger’s window, which then rolled down. I saw one man alone in the car, staring at a map that he had spread out over the steering wheel.

“Can I help you find something?” I asked, peering in.

“Oh, no, thank you.” He showed me his round, pleasant face, his curly hair and spectacles. “I’m just trying to decide where to go next.”

I left him to his decision-making and headed back to the house. I turned back once and saw him still in the same spot. But when I entered the house and looked out the window, I saw him pull slowly away. I never saw him again, nor did any car come to bother us.

You can imagine what impression this story made on my colleagues. (I wasn’t at FIT yet; I was just a manager of an engineering team.) They made a joke of it. Whenever I seemed in doubt, one of them would ask, “Do you need help finding something?” and I’d reply, “No, I’m just trying to decide where to go next.” Or I’d ask the question, and they’d give the answer. Pretty soon, it became part of our lore. People even forgot where it came from.

Sounds fun, eh? Yes, we had fun with that joke. Until the new director of employee relations came along. The CEO had brought him in to address some personnel issues, and one of the first things he did was to get to know people. He’d go on break and lunch with them and pick their brains about the atmosphere, tensions, inside gossip, all that. One day, he asked one of our team members whether she needed any help, and without thinking about it, she answered, “No, I’m just trying to decide where to go next.” He thought she meant she was leaving the company; when she explained herself, he was not amused. Language in the workplace, he said, must mean what it seems to mean, or else all kinds of misunderstandings can arise.

So he pulled us into a meeting and told us that the inside jokes and stories had to end—that those were suited to times of luxury, not times of austerity, like ours. “The successful worker of today’s society has to use words precisely, accurately, and strategically,” he told us. I, for one, wondered about the difference between “precisely” and “accurately,” but soon enough I learned that they mean quite different things. After all, you can be precise with a falsehood.

This man ended up teaching me everything I know about leadership. It’s thanks to him that I became CEO of FIT, an amazing company with phenomenally talented employees. I want to leave you with this thought. Life is short. Only so many words can go into it. We must make the most of these words and ensure that they are fact-based. If schools do this, then they will succeed.

But my story isn’t quite finished. As it happened, when I was giving this same speech to the Video Game Association last year, one of the audience members told me that the man in the yellow Saab was his brother, a famous writer. “Yeah,” he said, “Sam used to go out on drives, just like that, to explore towns and get some details for his stories.” At the reception, he showed me a picture. Not the same guy. Didn’t look at all like him. Still, I’d like to think that the Saab guy is a writer of some kind and that maybe I exist in one of his books. All of us, for that matter, may be in books without knowing it. Isn’t that even more reason to choose your words well? I would like to end with that thought. Thank you.

After a standing ovation, an audience member asked, “Mr. Leghorn, one aspect of your speech puzzles me. On the one hand, you say that schools should stop emphasizing personal narrative. On the other…” He paused. Others looked at him expectantly; he gulped and continued. “I hear that FIT employees get free movie tickets when they meet their weekly quotas. Aren’t movies personal narratives in a way?”

Elizabeth Annabee, the event moderator, stepped to the microphone. “That was a fascinating question. Thank you so much for asking it. But the banquet is waiting, and we must not let the food get cold. Thank you, Mr. Leghorn, for addressing us tonight, and thank you, members of the Society for Improvement of Culture, for taking part in this wonderfuland in more than one way deliciousevent.”

Fiction Is Not Fluff

A slew of recent articles have reported on the push for more nonfiction in schools around the country. The Common Core State Standards specify that by twelfth grade, 70 percent of a student’s assigned reading should be “informational” text, and 30 percent “literary” text. This ratio applies to the curriculum across the subjects, but English teachers are under pressure to squeeze more nonfiction in their courses. After all, they will be judged on their students’ performance on tests.

Nonfiction is fine, but the pressure is not. In pushing nonfiction because it is nonfiction (or its non-equivalent, “informational text”), we are hurtling into a big mistake.

The rationale for the ratio is that students need to read widely. They must be able to understand informational texts in order to succeed in college and careers. Unfortunately, this argument often carries overtones of hostility toward fiction and literature overall. If nonfiction is serious, essential, practical, and real, then fiction, according to some, must be a waste of time. A commenter on Jay Mathews’ blog complains that students don’t know how to read closely, because they have been fed a diet of “feelings books” instead of texts that explain how things work or what happened. Now, this may be true, but it has little to do with fiction or nonfiction. A nonfiction book may be primarily a “feelings book,” whereas a work of fiction, drama, or poetry may be intellectually and aesthetically complex.

The nonfiction mandate (mixed with rumor and anxiety) comes in response to a lack. Many elementary and middle schools around the country devote large portions of the day to “literacy blocks,” where students practice reading strategies (finding the main idea, inferring meaning, etc.) on books of their own choice. Little or no subject-matter instruction occurs during these blocks. As a result, many children enter high school with scant background knowledge across the subjects. Many continue to struggle with basic reading. The problem affects students, teachers, and schools. A student might drop out of school, a teacher might lose a job, and a school might face closure, in large part because of curricular deficiencies in the early years.

Thus it makes sense to have students read across the subjects—to build their knowledge on a wide range of topics. This will ultimately make them stronger readers of literature as well as science and history. For some, it will make school interesting. Some students may find themselves engrossed in the anatomy of a beetle or the history of a river. It will enrich future courses as well; teachers can build on knowledge and insight that students have already acquired.

Very well. But it is folly to privilege “informational text” over literature—to imply that it is more serious, important, academic, advanced, or useful. We see this tendency even in this year’s ELA tests (or what little information we have about them). In a New York State test scoring guide, two sample tasks involve judging a fictional text against “facts.” Third graders are asked to read an Algonquin legend and then explain why it could not happen in real life. Sixth graders are asked to read a Nigerian folktale and an article on the sun and the moon, and then “explain how the folktale would have to change if it were based on the facts in the article.” Granted, these are just samples, but they suggest an effort judge fiction by fact. If we continue in this vein, we’ll be in deep trouble, and so will the students who have to tackle these strange tasks.

Such privileging of fact is not good preparation for college. Each field has its language and logic. It is as misguided to insist that literature be true to fact as it is to turn mathematics into a series of word problems. Moreover, any serious study involves play. In literature, we thrill in the paradox, the impossible, the imagined, the uncertain, even as we focus on details and structures. We stop to admire passages without knowing exactly why, even after years of analyzing them. We laugh and laugh over the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Tristram Shandy, Akaky Akakievich, and Humpty Dumpty. Other subjects, too, have their uncertainties, rumination, and delight. In mathematics, insights do not come when called. No matter how much we learn about methods, we are often left blundering, turning a problem this way and that, until suddenly the solution comes through. In history, no structure is perfect; we search for the one that will explain events clearly without oversimplifying them. Facts are part of each field but not the sum total. If they were, the fields would be dead.

The domain of literature is nothing to scoff at. Literature is made-up stuff, yet it takes us to old truths—not through data, not through statistics, but through story, image, rhythm. It shows us things we might not otherwise see; it reminds us of things we heard long ago. Take this passage from The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy:

Henchard bent and kissed her cheek. The moment and the act he had contemplated for weeks with a thrill of pleasure; yet it was no less than a miserable insipidity to him now that it had come. His reinstation of her mother had been chiefly for the girl’s sake, and the fruition of the whole scheme was such dust and ashes as this.

Even out of context, the passage shows mastery of language and form. The final phrase brings to mind the words from the Anglican burial service, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (as well as Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19). There’s a funeral in Henchard’s mind, a death of a fantasy and plan, combined with a “fruition,” a dream come miserably true. There is a cadence, a lasting quality, in the way the passage ends. This passage and the novel demand close reading; there is nothing trivial here.

Granted, not many students read Hardy in school or elsewhere today. But they certainly won’t read it if English teachers cut down on literature. Novels (and even poems and plays) will get short shrift; in some districts, apparently, teachers have been instructed not to teach more than one novel per year (see the fourth comment). (I’d be content with two superb novels per year; there’s every reason to make room for lyric poetry, epic, drama, short stories, and essays. But it should depend largely on the course.) Some students may read such works on their own, but most will not; they won’t see the point of doing so. Thus, a mandate intended to lift the intellectual level may end up bringing it down.

There are practical problems, moreover, with a fiction/nonfiction ratio. First, the definitions of fiction and nonfiction get fuzzy in places. Where would Homer’s Iliad fall? What about Plato’s Republic? What about Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or Auden’s “September 1, 1939”? If you answered fiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-fiction-fiction, you’re probably right by educators’ standards, but the terms seem somewhat arbitrary here. All of these works are worth reading; all could be included in a first-rate curriculum. What does it matter whether they count as fiction or nonfiction?

Second, there is no adequate way to measure the ratios. Shall it be by number of works? By word count? By some formula that weighs word count against difficulty level? Any approach will render itself absurd. The number of titles is certainly misleading, as some works are much more demanding than others. The same is true for word count. A formula will only prove frustrating; it could wield far too much influence over the actual selection of works. Teachers will find themselves testing various combinations on the formula until something passes. Out of anxiety, schools will err on the safe side and eliminate a good deal of literature from their curriculum. When people must follow foolish directives, they will often do foolish things.

What should schools do instead? There’s nothing wrong with including more nonfiction for its merits. Yes, students should be reading historical materials in history class. In science class, they could certainly read the textbook, and there may be room for classic scientific works and modern articles as well. In English class, students should read literature and literary nonfiction and perhaps other materials that shed light on them. The focus should be not on the proportions, but on the substance. In a good curriculum, the proportions will come on their own.

But policymakers get ruffled over the idea of a good curriculum. What is it? Should schools decide this for themselves? What if their definitions vary widely? How can we ensure any level of accountability? In addition, isn’t it likely that schools will find some rationale for what they’re already doing? All of these are worthy concerns, but let’s not assume that schools are devoid of good ideas and practice. There are excellent curricula that could inspire others directly and indirectly. There are teachers who create and teach substantial and memorable courses. We don’t need a uniform curriculum, but we can define some common elements and shape individual curricula from there. We could identify a few works that all students should study, and leave the remaining selections to the schools.

There is no substitute for good sense and good education. The push for more nonfiction (because it’s nonfiction) will not raise the level of learning in schools; it may even depress it. What’s needed is careful thought about what we’re actually teaching—the subjects and works themselves—and how we can make our offerings stronger and more beautiful. Yes, more beautiful too. Beauty is not a frill.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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