National Endowment for the Arts
'••>•• * -INSTITUTE of , ,.
"/.$• Museum^ Library
FOR THE ARTS
FOR THE ARTS
A great nation
deserves gre.it art
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nations largest
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner
cities, and military bases.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support
for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six nonprofit regional arts organizations in the United
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years.
Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg
National Endowment for the Arts
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W
Washington, DC 20506-0001
Wolff, Tobias. Old School. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives
Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education
Writer: Michael Palma for the National Endowment for the Arts, with an introduction
by Dana Gioia
Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC
Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Book cover courtesy of Random House, image
courtesy of The Hill School. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover: Photo
by Jennifer Hale.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Biography. 4
Lesson Two: Culture and History 5
Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6
Lesson Four: Characters 7
Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8
Lesson Six: Svmbols l )
Lesson Seven: Character Development 10
Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11
Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12
Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13
Essay Topics 1 4
( 'apstonc Projects 15
Handout One: I he Importance of frost.
Rand, and 1 lemingyvay W->
I landont Iwo: Prep SchooK: Fact and Fiction 17
Handout Three: 1 he Narrators Coming oi Vge 18
I caching Resources l l)
N< I 1 Standaids
Our school was proud of its hierarchy of
character and deeds. It believed that this
system was superior to the one at work
outside, and that it would wean us from
habits of undue pride and deference. It
was a good dream and we tried to live
it out, even while knowing that we were
actors in a play, and that outside the
theater was a world we would have to
reckon with when the curtain closed and
the doors were flung open."
— from Old School
National Endowment for the Arts
Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through
great literature, as well as inspire students to become lifelong readers.
This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through
Tobias Wolffs classic novel, Old School. Each lesson has four sections: a
thematic focus, discussion activities, writing exercises, and homework
assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects and
suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the
The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews,
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel. The Big Read CD presents
firsthand accounts of why Wolffs novel remains so compelling years
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make Big
Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom.
Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while
introducing them to the work of a great American author.
From the NEA. we wish you an exciting and productive school year.
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman
National I ndowmeni tor the \ro the big read • |
Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD. Read
and discuss Reader's Guide essays. Write a
description of your school.
Homework: Read Handout One and the
first chapter, "Class Picture" (pp. 3-25).*
FOCUS: Culture and History
Activities: Discuss America today versus
fifty years ago. Write about the narrator's
Homework: Read Handout Two, "On Fire,"
and "Frost" (pp. 29-60).
FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View
Activities: Discuss the narrator's basic
personality. Write a description of him from
the point of view of another character.
Homework: Read "Ubermensch" and
"Slice of Life" (pp. 63-99).
Activities: Discuss the narrator's character
development. Write about another character
as a foil to him.
Homework: Read "The Forked Tongue"
FOCUS: Figurative Language
Activities: Discuss Wolffs use of metaphor
and simile. Write a brief description that
contains figurative language.
Homework: Read "When in Disgrace with
Fortune" (pp. 131-152).
Page numbers refer to the 2003 Knopf hardcover and 2004 Vintage paperback editions of Old School.
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National Endowment for the Arts
Activities: Discuss the narrator's views on
fiction and his plagiarism. Write about a
favorite book and its author.
Homework: Read "One for the Books"
and "Bulletin" (pp. 155-175).
FOCUS: Character Development
Activities: Discuss the desire to be
understood. Write about the narrator's
potential unconscious motives.
Homework: Read Handout Three and the
novel's conclusion, "Master" (pp. 179-195).
FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds
Activities: Explore Wolffs view of human
nature. Write about a turning point in
Homework: Make a final assessment of the
novel's most important theme.
FOCUS: Themes of the Novel
Activities: Explore Wolffs treatment of
the themes of the importance of literature,
honesty and deception, and tolerance
Homework: Prepare outlines and
FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great?
Activities: Evaluate the greatness of the novel
and its most important theme. Defend the
universal relevance of Old School.
Homework: Finish essays.
National 1 ndowmeni Rx the Vns the big read • 3
Examining an authors life can inform and expand the readers
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson,
explore the authors life to understand the novel more fully.
Before winning a scholarship to a prestigious Eastern prep school, Tobias
Wolff grew up in an isolated, working-class community in the Pacific
Northwest. Thus, like the narrator of Old School, he felt himself to be
something of an outsider among many classmates from backgrounds
of great wealth and privilege. Like the narrator, he was forced to leave
before graduation (in Wolff's case for academic reasons, not an issue of
plagiarism). Also like the narrator, Wolff later enlisted in the Army and was
sent to Vietnam, and ultimately he went on to become a well-known and
Listen to The Big Read CD, Track One. Have students take notes as they listen.
Ask them to present the three most important points learned from the CD.
Photocopy the following essays from the Reader's Guide: "Introduction to the
Novel" (p. 3), "Biography" (pp. 6-7), and "Tobias Wolff and His Other Works"
(pp. 12-13). Divide the class into groups. Each group will present a summary of
the main points in its assigned essay.
Read the first three paragraphs of the novel to the class (pp. 3-4). Have your
students write a similar description of their own school, touching on some of the
same points that Wolff emphasizes: the economic and social backgrounds of the
students, the school's expectations of them, the relative emphasis placed on areas
such as academics, sports, and creativity.
Read Handout One: The Importance of Frost, Rand, and Hemingway. Read
the first chapter, "Class Picture" (pp. 3-25). Prepare your students to read
approximately 25-30 pages per night in order to complete reading this book in
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National Endowment for the Arts
Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the
The greater part of the novel takes place between the autumn of 1960 and
the spring of the following year. John F. Kenned\ r has just been elected
president of the United States, and for many young people it is a time of
great hope and promise. Of course, we read the novel — as Wolff wrote
it — with the awareness that this climate will soon be shattered bv Kennedy's
assassination, the Vietnam War, and violent social upheaval in the United
In 1954 Ernest Hemingway, one of Americas most popular authors.
received the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his mastery of the art of
narrative . . . and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary
style." Robert Frost was the most celebrated living poet in the United
States. During his lifetime, he received four Pulitzer prizes for poetry. With
each new book his fame and honors increased. Russian-born writer and
philosopher Ayn Rand formulated objectivism, a philosophy in which she
considered "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness
as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest
activity, and reason as his only absolute. Rand presented this philosophy in
her widely acclaimed novels The Fountainhead and Adas Shrugged 1 .
How would your students characterize the social, cultural, and political
atmosphere of contemporary America? How do the writers portrayed at
the beginning of the novel relate to our main character? What does the boys'
excitement over their upcoming visits tell us about the motivations of these
^ Writing Exercise
The whole episode involving Gershon highlights certain inner conflicts in the
narrator's character. Have your students write a brief essay on this theme. Do
they find themselves torn by conflicting loyalties or aspirations' How. if at all. do
they resolve these issues?
Read Handout Two: Prep Schools: Fact and Fiction. Read "On Fire" and "Frost"
(pp. 29-60). The exchange between Robert Frost and Mr Ramsey (pp. 50 53)
engages some of the main themes that the novel has raised thus far Consider the
ways the narrator relates the events. Is he a reliable narrator'
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and Point of
The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters,
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited,
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told.
With the possible exception of the last chapter (a point that will be
addressed later), Old School is told entirely in the first person by its
unnamed central character. We are limited to his knowledge of facts,
his awareness of events, and his insights into himself and others. This
awareness and these insights undergo some significant changes with
maturity, consistent with the novels emphasis on human imperfection
and learning through painful experience.
Based on the chapters read thus far, what sort of person does the narrator seem
to be? Is he likable? Is he admirable? Do his assumptions about himself and about
other people seem to ring true?
Have your students choose one of the other characters and, based on their
interactions in the novel thus far, write a description of the narrator in the voice
of and from the point of view of that character.
Read "Ubermensch" and "Slice of Life" (pp. 63-99). List the three most
prominent characteristics of Ayn Rand as she is portrayed. What statements and/
or actions of hers support each of your choices?
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The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist.
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist
lacking these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or
purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The
protagonists journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold
differing beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast
with the protagonists and highlight important features of the main
character's personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes the
protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success.
The narrator of Old School 'is himself clearly a work in progress over the
course of the novel. The scorn and contempt he feels for almost everyone
else after reading The Tountainhead (1943) is a clear indication of his
immaturity, and his reaction to Ayr) Rand herself and his consequent
disavowal of her views lead him to a new depth of sensitivity and insight.
Discuss the way the narrator describes Ayn Rand. How does he feel about her
before he meets her? Does his viewpoint change after meeting her? Is he fair?
What instances of "weakness or ignorance" has the narrator displayed up to this
point? What capacity has he shown to learn from his experiences and grow in
understanding and depth of character?
f^ Writing Exercise
Have students choose George Kellogg, Bill White, or Jeff Purcell and write a
three-paragraph essay on how this character serves as a foil to the protagonist.
Read "The Forked Tongue" (pp. 103 127). Instruct students to pay particular
attention to any instances of figurative language while they read. Why does the
author title this chapter "The Forked Tongue"?
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Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story.
Imagery — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound,
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and
adds immediacy to literary language.
Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have a significant
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than,"
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an
important similarity between these two things.
Wolff draws from ancient and medieval references to (ironically) imbue the
young, unformed lives of the main characters with profundity. For example:
the English masters as a "chivalric order" (p. 5), Jeff Purcell as "the Herod
of our editorial sessions" (p. 13), the masters treating the students' spring
exuberance "like the grousing of impotent peasants outside the castle walls"
(p. 104), the Farewell Assemblies "Neronic in their carnality" (p. 112), and
the title of the school literary magazine, the Troubadour.
Break the students into groups and ask them to find at least three instances of
figurative language. Have them present to the class why they are figurative and
how the words and phrases help shed light on the story. Discuss as a class the
ways figurative language serves to illuminate larger thematic issues.
Read aloud the passage about the editorial meeting (pp. 1 19-121). Have the
students write a brief essay discussing how the key points are conveyed through
Read "When in Disgrace with Fortune" (pp. 131-152). Why does our protagonist
feel he is the author of "Summer Dance"? Why doesn't he feel uneasy when he
learns that he has won the competition or even when he is summoned to the
8 • THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently,
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in
the books title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can
reveal new interpretations of the novel.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Old School is the degree to which
literature itself, especially fiction, is woven into the lives of the characters
and the larger themes of the book. Mr. Ramsey is eloquent on this point in
the passage on pages 131-132. Works of fiction can take on symbolic value.
This is obviously the case with Jeff Pu reel Is First-edition copy of hi Our
Time. More subtly, the kinds of stories that one writes become symbols that
reflect the kind of person their author is.
To illustrate the above point, reread to the class the narrator's comments on
Hemingway and his stories (pp. 96-97) and his contrasting comments on himself
and his own stories (pp. 108-1 10). With these passages as context, lead the
class into a discussion of the narrator's discovery of, and plagiarism of. "Summer
Dance" and the complexities of his relationship to that story.
Have the students write on the following theme: What is your favorite work
of literature, movie, or piece of music? Why does it appeal to you' Discuss any
symbols that occur in that particular work of art. If no symbols are present, ask
students to discuss why symbols are not needed.
Read "One for the Books" and "Bulletin" (pp. 155-175). As the narrator
has grown into a mature man and a successful writer, has he undergone any
significant changes in his personality and/or his feelings about literature '
National I ndowmeni foi ilio \n^
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Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices.
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves,
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension
between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing
about what might happen next and the protagonists eventual success or
As an adult, the narrator has exchanged his youthful brashness and
assertiveness for a more measured and reflective view of life, but in large
part his transition into adulthood is one of continuity rather than change.
The most significant phases of his development took place during his
last year of prep school. His encounter with Susan Friedman shows
that as a young man he is still awkward and tentative with women. His
characterization of her dismissal of writing as an "impiety" (p. 163) shows
him to be as committed as ever to his literary ideals. Of the entire group of
young men who were mad about literature, he is the only one who has gone
on to be a writer. But even much later in life, he remains insecure about his
worth as a writer (p. 171), even as he demonstrates a prickly pride.
"Finally, one does want to be known," Mr. Ramsey says about Dean Makepeace
(p. 172). How does this comment apply to the narrator, especially in relation to
his guardedness about his Jewish heritage and his theft of "Summer Dance"?
When the narrator steals the story, do you think he has an unconscious desire to
be expelled from school and/or exposed as a fraud? Write a one page essay on
whether or not his expulsion can be considered a good thing.
Read Handout Three: The Narrator's Coming of Age. Read the novel's
conclusion, "Master" (pp. 179-195). In what ways does Makepeace's story
parallel that of the narrator? In what ways do the stories differ?
10 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense,
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented.
The last chapter of Old School is, in its own way, a genuine surprise ending,
with its sudden shift of focus and point of view. To begin with, we might
ask who is telling Arch Makepeaces story. The answer that suggests itself
is that the narrator of the novel is simply passing along what Mr. Ramsey
had told him in Seattle. But reread the paragraph beginning at the bottom
of p. 173: "He kept it short, but ... I was somehow given to know more
than was actually said. The spaces he left empty began filling up even as
he spoke." In a sense, then, we may regard the last chapter as the narrators
imaginative reconstruction of the deans life and character — a full-fledged
example of literary art.
Like the narrator, Arch Makepeace has carried a burden of concealment,
chafing at the idea that others' good opinion of him is founded, at least
in part, on misunderstanding. (Recall his reaction on reading "Summer
Dance": "He ... was most affected, and in fact discomfited, by its
unblinking inventory of self-seeking and duplicity. It was hard to tell the
truth like that" [p. 186].) In the end, his punishment, his "sentence, is
much briefer and less severe than that of the narrator.
Wolff writes: "The boy closest to them smiles into his punch glass. He can hear
them; he has slipped into their camp and can hear the secret music of these
sure and finished men. our masters" (p. 175). Are the masters "sure and finished
men"? How does this relate to the last section of the novel. "Master" ! Finally,
how might this draw out a larger theme of the novel?
Wj Writing Exercise
Have students write a one-page essay on a turning point in the novel. Where
does the plot begin to change? Have students choose a turning point and explain
why they think the novel revolves around this point.
Review the novel. Ask students to select the one theme they believe is the most
important issue in the novel. They should find places where this theme emerges
and be prepared to present their ideas to the class
National Endowment tor the \n^
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Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound
questions will arise in the reader's mind about human life, social pressures,
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus
censorship, the relationship between ones personal moral code and larger
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts
or from new points of view.
Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise
Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises
in order to interpret the novel in specific ways. Using historical references to
support ideas, explore the statements Old School makes about the following
The Importance of Literature
From the discussion of William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" in the opening chapter
through the previously cited exploration of Hemingway's short fiction and Mr.
Ramsey's observations on the need for stories, the novel makes a sustained,
passionate defense of the significance of fiction to our lives. What claims are
made for fiction beyond mere distraction or amusement?
Honesty and Deception
Poised right on the brink, I still held back, perhaps sensing that the moment it
started, once I allowed myself the comfort of his interest, I wouldn't be able
to stop; that the relief of confessing this paralysis might betray me into other
confessions. In some murky way I recognized my own impatience to tear off the
mask, and it spooked me (p. 118).
Why does the narrator hide the truth about himself? Why does he want to
confess? Which of these impulses does the novel affirm?
Tolerance and Acceptance
For years Arch had traced this vision of the evil done through intolerance of the
flawed and ambiguous, but he had not taken the lesson to heart. He had given up
the good in his life because a fault ran through it. He was no better than Aylmer,
murdering his beautiful wife to rid her of a birthmark (p. 193).
What is the lesson here, and why does it need to be taken to heart?
Ask students to begin their essays, using the essay topics in this guide. Outlines
are due during the next class period.
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a Book Great?
Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the
larger context of the human struggle. The writer's voice, style, and use of
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and
breaks new ground.
Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, within
groups, other books that include some of these characteristics. Do any of these
books remind them of Old School 7 . Is this a great novel?
A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does
Wolff create in Old School 7 . Does this novel speak for more than one man and
his personal concerns? What does this voice tell us about the choices and
responsibilities of life for a sensitive person in contemporary America?
Divide students into groups and have each group determine the single most
important theme of the novel. Have a spokesperson from each group explain
the group's decision, with references from the text. Write these themes on the
board. Do all the groups agree?
Does this novel succeed in telling a story that speaks to and about all young men.
not just those in the limited world of private school students? Does the novel
tell a story about human beings in general? Why or why not? Write a one-page
essay explaining whether the author succeeds in reaching a broad audience. If you
disagree, explain why the author fails to reach a general audience. What advice
might you give to the author so that he might reach more young readers'
Students will finish their essays and present their essay topics and arguments to
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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics,
as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with their
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting
reasons should be backed by references to the text.
1 . Despite everything that happens, the narrator
never wavers in his pride and love for his
school. Why do you think he is so attached to
2. There are few women in the book, but the
narrator's interactions with them tell us some
important things about him. Discuss this in
connection with Lorraine, Patty, and Susan
3. Ayn Rand is by far the most negatively
portrayed character in the book. What
is there about her, both personally and
philosophically, that is so opposed to the spirit
of the novel ?
4. After almost telling an embarrassing story
about George Kellogg, the narrator observes:
"If, as Talleyrand said, loyalty is a matter of
dates, virtue itself is often a matter of seconds"
(p. 44). What does this mean? How does it
relate to the novel's assumptions about human
5. Other than the narrator and the three real-
life authors who appear in the book, which
character do you like or admire the most?
Which one do you like or admire the least?
Explain your choices.
6. Both the narrator and (on pp. 139-140) Bill
White consider "Summer Dance" to be "their"
story? Why does each of them feel this way?
7. Read Hawthorne's short story "The
Birthmark." The narrator refers to this story
(p. 1 93) by claiming that Arch "was no better
than Aylmer." How does Hawthorne's story get
at one of the main themes of the novel? Not
only does Arch's character struggle, but the
narrator struggles with his Jewish roots. How
do both characters reconcile their birthmarks?
Are they better or worse than Hawthorne's
14 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or
1. Show the class a film set at a prep school —
A Separate Peace (1972), Dead Poets Society
(1989), School Ties (1992), or The Emperor's
Club (2002). How does the movie's portrayal
of the prep school experience compare with
that of the novel?
2. On page 29 the narrator tells the story of the
Blaine Boys. Are there any interesting stories
in your school's history? Research the school's
background and make a public presentation of
your findings, with illustrations if possible.
3. Divide the class into three groups and have
each group prepare a presentation on one
of the three real-life authors who figure in
the novel. Each presentation should include
biography, photographs and other illustrations,
a display of books by the author, and the
reading of excerpts from the author's work.
Show your class the DVD of the 1949 film of
The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper and
Patricia Neal. Following the screening, lead
a class discussion to explore how well the
movie matches up with the portrayal of Rand
in Old School. (Research the degree of Rand's
participation in the making of the film and what
she thought of the finished product).
Have a drama day in class. Divide the class into
four groups, and have each group prepare and
mount a staged version of one of the following:
Frost's "Death of the Hired Man," published in
North of Boston (1914); Hemingway's "Hills Like
White Elephants," published in Men Witiiout
Women (1927); a scene from Rand's play Night
of January 16th (1934); the expulsion scene
from Old School.
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The Importance of Frost, Rand, and Hemingway
Much of the plot of Old School revolves around the
scheduled visits of Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and
Ernest Hemingway, and the fierce competition
among the students to win personal interviews
with these authors. It may seem hard to believe
nowadays, but there was a time not so long ago
when the general public was familiar with the
faces and even the personal lives of certain serious
writers. Three of the most famous and recognizable
writers of the time were the three selected by
Tobias Wolff for inclusion in his novel.
Robert Frost is, without any question, the best-
known and most popular American poet of the
twentieth century. Virtually everyone knows not
only his name but even the titles of some of his
poems: "Mending Wall," "Birches," "Stopping by
Woods on a Snowy Evening." Phrases from some
of these works, such as "Good fences make good
neighbors" and "Miles to go before I sleep," have
entered the language and are cited by people who
have no idea that they're quoting Frost. For a poet
to achieve such popularity is rare enough; what
is truly astounding is that Frost is also regarded
by a great many critics and poets as the best and
most important American poet of his time. The
traditional structures of his poems and their often
charming descriptions of nature appeal to a broad
audience, but discerning readers also respond to his
complex and often tragic presentation of human
beings struggling to cope with a harsh and often
Ayn Rand's major novels, The Fountainhead (1943)
and especially Atlas Shrugged (1957), have achieved
a surprising popularity when one considers their
length and demanding content. In each of these
books, a strong protagonist unswervingly pursues
his own vision without regard for the views of
others or the compromises demanded of him
by any individual or group. The hero of The
Fountainhead, for instance, is an architect who
chooses to blow up his own building rather than
accept any modifications in its design. Rand's
novels are especially appealing to young people,
who are often inspired by what they see as her
idealism and call to personal greatness. She is not
held in high regard, however, by other writers and
thinkers who generally find her presentation of
human nature unrealistic and her philosophical
views rigid and insensitive.
Ernest Hemingway was the dominant literary
figure in America fifty years ago. Many admired
him not only for his sharply observed and exciting
novels and short stories, but also for his widely
publicized life of deep-sea fishing, big-game
hunting, and other manly pursuits. He is no longer
the imposing figure he was then; much of his
later writing is seriously flawed, and the macho
lifestyle is now seen as the bravado of a desperately
ill man. But his first two novels, The Sun Also
Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), and
many of his finest short stories are permanent
contributions to the highest shelf of American
literature. As Wolff acutely observes, much of
Hemingway's importance lies in the brilliance of
his craftsmanship — especially his ability to evoke
emotional states and the natural world — and his
emphasis on courage and stoicism in the face of all
the forces in the world that rise up to destroy the
1 6 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
n/\iNu^u i i w^
Prep Schools: Fact and Fiction
Prep schools have been the setting for a number
of very popular books and movies, including/?
Separate Peace (1972) and Dead Poets Society (1989).
From overexposure to such works, one might form
the impression that these schools are filled up
with rich boys — some of them oversensitive and
the rest insufferably arrogant — who react to the
pressures put on them by their crass, domineering
fathers by indulging in cutthroat competition,
frequent fistfights, and an alarming appetite for self-
destruction. Even beyond such crude stereotyping,
phrases such as "prep-school background" or
"prep-school mentality" commonly suggest wealth,
privilege, social prominence and connections,
and an inability to relate to — or even fully grasp
the reality of — anyone who does not share those
qualities. Needless to say, the reality is somewhat
Most of these books and movies are set in boarding
schools, where the students live on campus in
dormitories, just as many college students do. In
fact, however, the great majority of prep schools in
the United States are day schools, just like public
high schools. Public schools are operated and
maintained by local governments, usually uties
and towns. Most of the time, they are funded by
taxes on the homeowners that live within the school
district. Public schools are tree, and .ill students who
live within the district ate eligible to attend them.
Private schools — and all prep schools are private
charge (sometimes very high) tuition and tend to be
extremely selective in their admission procedures.
The word "prep itself is. of course, short tot
"preparatory." for main students in public school
s\ stuns, high school is the final Stage of their formal
education, A prep school is intended not as the end
of the process but as a middle step. What it seeks to
prepare its students for is, in the short view, further
study at a college or university. In the long view,
it tries to prepare its students for careers, often in
public service, and to prepare them for adult life
itself. Thus, great stress is placed on academics,
usually a traditional course of studies including
history, literature, philosophy, and languages. There
is also often an emphasis on athletics, and in some
schools on religious practice, especially tor purposes
Many prep-school students are from wealthy
and/or socially prominent families, whose members
have attended the same school tor generations.
and who support then school with large financial
contributions. But most prep schools, motivated by
a sense of mission and obligation to society, haw
generous scholarship programs and make strong
recruiting efforts. And these schools fed that they
have tailed in their mission it their graduates go
out into the world with feelings of superiority and
entitlement. What they Strive for instead is to giw
their students a sense of purpose and responsibility,
to inspire them w ith the awareness that those who
are given the gifts ot talent, wealth, and influent
haw an obligation to use those gifts in the serVM
ot others. As the headmaster in the nowl sa\s.
\ liools like ours ate \ ulnerable to ctiticism . . .
I here is some truth in these criticisms. loo much
truth. But we ate tt\ ing to <\^ something hem W <
are trying to become something different and ewn
admirable" (p. 1 * ■
National Endowment for the \rn> THE BIG read • 17
The Narrator's Coming of Age
Among its other qualities, Old School fits into the
tradition of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-
age novel, a work in which the protagonist goes
through a process of maturing from adolescence
to adulthood. Two classic examples of the
Bildungsroman are the Charles Dickens novels
David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations
(1861). In our own time, one might even say that
the Harry Potter books, taken together, fit into the
At least since the time of Sophocles and Oedipus
the King, down through Shakespeare's King Lear
and many, many other works, much of the great
literature of the Western world has been founded
on a core set of assumptions: that those who
foolishly believe themselves superior beings will
sooner or later be forced to confront their own flaws
and mistakes, and that from this recognition of our
own limitations may come humility and a greater
compassion for the weakness and imperfection of
other people. Writers, critics, and teachers have
always maintained that reading great literature
and learning this lesson will help to make us more
compassionate toward and tolerant of others. One
of the many remarkable qualities of Old School is
that it shows us that very thing — a young man
becoming more understanding and accepting of
others not only through personal encounters, but
also through his encounters with works of literature.
From the very beginning, ignorance and
misperception characterize the narrator in his
dealings with other people, whether in the
unintentional pain that he causes the janitor,
Gershon, or his later misunderstanding (and
subsequent discovery) of the reason for Bill Whites
sadness and withdrawal. The clear lesson of the Bill
White episode is that we never really know
what's going on with other people, and therefore
we shouldn't be quick to judge.
Perhaps the book's most effective and moving
example of how the narrator's ignorance and
misunderstanding give way to deeper and more
compassionate insight comes in connection with
his grandfather and his grandfather's wife. When
they visit him in the hospital, he is vaguely ashamed
and dismissive of them. When he looks at them
in the light of his reading of The Fountainhead,
he is openly contemptuous of them. But when
his personal exposure to Ayn Rand shows him
the narrowness and heartlessness of her views, he
comes to recognize their decency and their love for
him. Through this experience, as well as through
his reading of Hemingway, he comes to embrace
woundedness and imperfection as the reality of the
This lesson — the precariousness of human nature,
the hidden sorrows in everyone's life — is one that
he keeps learning over and over. It is not until many
years later, for example, that he discovers that Mr.
Ramsey's editing of the Hemingway interview for
the school paper was motivated not by disrespect,
but rather a desire to protect Hemingway from
himself. As the narrator tells us late in the novel,
"The appetite for decisive endings, even the belief
that they're possible, makes me uneasy in life as
in writing" (p. 169). Clearly, at least part of the
reason for his uneasiness is his knowledge that we
never achieve perfection, that our own pride and
arrogance must be constantly resisted, and that the
lesson of love and forgiveness must be learned again
and again for as long as we live.
I 8 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The publisher's web site contains biographical information
on Tobias Wolff, a list of awards, and additional educational
materials for teachers.
www.salon.com/dec96/interview96 1 2 1 6.html
The Salon web site features a 1996 interview with Tobias
Wolff that includes biographical information and a discussion
of his writing.
Stanford University's web site contains an interview
with the author.
www.theatlantic.com/doc/2003l Iu/int2003-l 1-12
The Atlantic's web site features a discussion of Old School
with Tobias Wolff conducted by writer Curtis Sittenfeld.
National I ndowmeni tor the Arts
THE BIG READ ■ 19
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards"
1. Students read a wide range of print and
non-print texts to build an understanding of
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of
the United States and the world; to acquire
new information; to respond to the needs
and demands of society and the workplace;
and for personal fulfillment. Among these
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and
2. Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior
experience, their interactions with other
readers and writers, their knowledge of
word meaning and of other texts, their
word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-
letter correspondence, sentence structure,
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
6. Students apply knowledge of language
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
7. Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit
their purpose and audience.
8. Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
9. Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
10. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literary communities.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and
develop your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
"There is a need in us for exactly what
literature can give, which is a sense of
who we are, beyond what data can tell
us, beyond what simple information
can tell us; a sense of the workings of
what we used to call the soul.'*
'n Sumttird fitffay intcr\ icw
'Make no mistake, he said:
a true piece of writing is
a dangerous thing. It can
change your life."
N AT IONAL
FOR THE ARTS
from Old School
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
A great nation deserves great art.
•«• . -INSTITUTE ol .,