This is a collection of cartoons about teachers and schools, connected in some way to The New Yorker. Exactly how is unclear, since the book contains no information about when and where (and if!) the cartoons were originally published. The cartoons are certainly in the New Yorker style. For the most part they are not laugh-aloud funny, but many will bring a smile to the lips. Several (if not most) seem to me to be too dependent on their captions, many of which would work about as well without the pictures. The best cartoon in the book, I think, is the one on page 27, by Arnie Levin. I think the editor agrees, since he put it on the back cover.
Whether that's worth $21.95, I'm not sure. The book might make a good present for anyone who is involved in education.
I think that's all you really need to know. You might want to stop reading this review here, since I am about to embarass myself by making heavy weather of the themes and ideas suggested by the cartoons in the book. And since I'll quote several of them, I may spoil the jokes. You have been warned.
As I paged through the book, I was struck by common themes to be found in many of these cartoons. Several of them, for example, rest on dislocation: they show students using in the classroom some of the sillier ideas often bandied about in adult conversation. Whether the result is funny because the ideas are out of place or because the ideas are bad ones is a good question to ponder; I tend towards the latter.
So we get, for example, the little kid explaining that 2 + 2 = 5 is not a wrong answer, it's just a different answer, or the students applying the language of the therapeutic culture to the classroom: "Miss Peterson, may I go home? I can't assimilate any more data today."
On the side of the teachers, we also see therapeutic language being made fun of, as in the principal who says, to a problem kid, "Thank you for coming. The talks were forthright and useful, and provided an excellent climate in which to resolve our remaining differences." Our moral relativism also comes in, as in the principal who explains that kids can be hostile, agressive, or sadistic, but never bad.
But the most common "funny" thing is to make teachers speak honestly about the students, as in "Your daughter is a pain in the ass." Is such honesty funny because it reflects what we all know many teachers feel?
While most of the cartoons are firmly set in the world of elementary school, a few reflect issues in undergraduate education. Grade inflation shows up, for example. And the silliness of some college courses duly comes up. Perhaps the most telling are the ones that reflect the changing attitudes of parents, as in the one in which a mother says "So what if he paid a classmate to do his homework — it was his own allowance."
Is this enough to conclude that Americans are somewhat nervous about the potential impact of current cultural trends on our education system? Probably not. It certainly did, however, reinforce my feeling that this is the case.
Fernando Q. Gouvêa teaches at Colby College in Waterville, ME.