“a Searing Indictment of the Failure of the American Education System” – Is This a Fair Assessment of the Catcher in the Rye and Death of a Salesman?

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“A Searing Indictment of the Failure of the American Education System” – Is this a fair assessment of The Catcher in the Rye and Death of a Salesman?

In The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Death of a Salesman (1949), there are contemptuous references to the American Education that currently existed. This was a time of educational reform, which continued into the 1950s. These reforms were the result of the inadequacies discovered during recruiting for World War II when recruits were found to be almost illiterate and five million were rejected for educational deficiencies. Attempted reforms merely stretched the already strained resources “this…badly lowered the quality of instruction” 1. Furthermore underpaid teachers rebelled against their low and wages by going on strike. However, they gained little public support and only increased the Red Scare, the belief that Communist agents were infiltrating American society. This, coupled with a sense of falling behind the Soviet Union on subjects such as science and foreign languages, meant that reform was desperately needed. As a result the government poured millions in to state education, improving teaching, resources and curriculum.

The characters in both texts are or have been through the American Education System so there are common condemnations and endorsements of the system in each text, although Holden is privately educated.

Holden Caulfield is in education as The Catcher in the Rye progresses at the private “Prency Prep”. Holden has recently been to a “fencing meet” with McBurney School. They were planned to arrive around “dinnertime” and so would have missed an all-important football game between Prency and Saxon Hall. This is very poor organisation by the school, scheduling an off-ground fencing activity for the same day as a football game where the losing team is expected to “commit suicide or something”. Not only does this mean the fencing team would need to miss such a prestigious event, but any achievement they gained would be completely over-shadowed by the football game. In addition, it strikes one as discordant that football is given such importance. The game is evidently given in undue consequence is “suicide” is even remotely considered appropriate action for the losing team. It also foreshadows James Castle’s suicide, for what seems like an equally futile reason, a comment about Phil Stabile. Finally it is ironic that so much emphasis is put on football when the school’s adverts show a horse and they are tying to give an impression that “all you ever did at Prency was play Polo”, yet here a football game is given precedence. This implies the school wishes to be view as a sophisticated to appeal to the privileged WASP section of American society who would be the majority clients. This problem is not specific to Prency, according to Holden who has attended many schools throughout America, as he is always “flunking out of” them, and in his considerable experience ”all the athletic bastards stick together”. This is a clear indication of the social segregation with in schools. The fencing team “ostracized” Holden in the train on the way back from New York. This could be seen as a metaphor, in the same way the stereotypical “athletic bastards” “ostracize[s]” the rest of the school. This is a comment on the American system where money and “being well liked” are used to give people undue credit.

In Death of a Salesman education is presented differently, partly because the characters are being educated at a public rather than a private school. The prime example of this is Bernard whom Willy considers to be at a disadvantage in life because he spends his time studying rather than playing football and being “well liked”. He is described by Willy as “an academic” and “a worm”. However, he expects Bernard to help Biff pass his exams and even to “give him the answers”. This is a heavy demand even for a friend, especially as this is a state exam and they are “liable...
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