Best Expose This Year: Substitute, by Nicholson Baker

How to get at the absurdia in all the listless, corrupt, stupefying American social institutions?  For American education, a working teacher could not tell the truth – what happens to the paycheck? A journalist would be too intrusive, too tied to the permission of the tremulous authorities. Reformers and critics cannot provide the ground-level, quotidian, head-battering stupidity from inside the institution. Oh, but yes, Nicholson Baker, a literary superstar, stumbled on the perfect gambit: be a certified substitute, bring a voice recorder, and spend a month in the living hell of being an actual substitute teacher in his local school system.

The book is a terse, fact-based, eminently horrifying vision of the insanity of the busywork that pervades the saturnalia of American schooling. Baker records conversations and explicates the harrowing dutifulness of being a professional chucklehead, a figure of immense comic inanity who actually has a working brain inside his official dunderhead persona. Baker is a wonderful, though at times over-earnest Keillorian guide to the underworld of drug-saddled, under-stimulated American youth. He is no Dickensian Gradgrind: he explains quite a few times that he “loves these kids,” mostly for being innocent, sometimes snarky victims of a relentless imprisonment of, to repeat, an insanity of pointless busywork.

American schooling, at all levels, has been a colossally wasteful, inhumane, deleterious form of babysitting, as Baker states in his few, but forceful sociological asides. The idiot readership of America mostly complained about the length of the book and its simplistic format, but in no other book this year is the living, breathing specter of social nihilism better presented. School enforces, through its sometimes well-meaning, but tormented supercilious operators, heedless obedience to a fatuous concept of intelligence-fashioning, when it does nothing but obviate that goal for its prisoners. The cavalcade of what Baker artfully terms “worksheety things” is the practice of a society without any sense of collective purpose, without the slightest love for its ensnared, non-needed children. Baker muses in one section about putting the entirety of American schooling into a two hour roving bus tour, but that’s about as hard-hitting as a social critic can permit his or her trenchancy to become without being scorned as bitter, or worse yet, a “nihilist.”

Yes, every American social institution is afflicted with the mountainous presence of bafflegab, and business and politics could certainly use a Bakersonian expose. Yet it is “education,” that is, the imprisonment and discard of near-majority of American youth and adults in pointless confinement, that deserves its faithful rendering, and Baker becomes the most wonderful demolisher of the bafflegab that accompanies the bafflegab, the Tracy Kidderish folkinsh veneration of the alleged nobility of education. Baker is mordant and restrained in his withering self-depiction, prone to feckless over-praise of slumped and snurfly students, hilarious in his stylistic touches, showing how the martinets and plumpy punjabs of the school te4acherhood employ capital-letter hectoring to ride each day’s chaos out to a paycheck’s conclusion. “I’ve got my eye on you, man,” Baker, one of the greatest American writers, remonstrates to to one nictitating first grade boy, and it is hard to imagine how that would have been handled if Norman Mailer or Hemingway had been tasked to do a similar feat of controlling a lunatic classroom.  This is the Ball Four of American schooling, and that book is an American classic.


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