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Old School 






Old School 



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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 

Image Credits 

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. 

July 20 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

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 
fiction genre. 

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. 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman 

National I ndowmeni tor the \ro the big read • | 


Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

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).* 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Discuss America today versus 
fifty years ago. Write about the narrator's 
inner conflicts. 

Homework: Read Handout Two, "On Fire," 
and "Frost" (pp. 29-60). 

Day Three 

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). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Discuss the narrator's character 
development. Write about another character 
as a foil to him. 

Homework: Read "The Forked Tongue" 
(pp. 103-127). 


Day Five 

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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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

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). 


Day Seven 

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). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Explore Wolffs view of human 
nature. Write about a turning point in 
the novel. 

Homework: Make a final assessment of the 
novel's most important theme. 


Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Explore Wolffs treatment of 
the themes of the importance of literature, 
honesty and deception, and tolerance 
and acceptance. 

Homework: Prepare outlines and 
begin essays. 


Day Ten 

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 

Lesson One 



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 
successful writer. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

EJ Homework 

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 
seven lessons. 


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Lesson Two 


Culture and 

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 . 

Discussion Activities 

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 
young men? 

^ 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? 

H Homework 

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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Lesson Three 


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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

EJ Homework 

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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Lesson Four 



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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

23 Homework 

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"? 

National I ndowmeni tot thi 


Lesson Five 



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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Writing Exercise 

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 
figurative language. 

2J Homework 

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 
headmaster's office? 


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Lesson Six 



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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

H Homework 

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^ 


Lesson Seven 



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. 

Discussion Activities 

"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"? 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

E3 Homework 

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 Plot 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Q Homework 

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 

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Themes of 
the Novel 

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? 

5] Homework 

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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What Makes 
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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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' 

23 Homework 

Students will finish their essays and present their essay topics and arguments to 
the class. 

National 1 tuiowment tor tin 


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 
the school? 

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 
a bookstore. 

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. 

National Endowment foi the \n<« 



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 
terrifying world. 

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 
human spirit. 

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 
more complex. 

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 
of character-building. 

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 
human condition. 

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 

Web Sites 

The publisher's web site contains biographical information 
on Tobias Wolff, a list of awards, and additional educational 
materials for teachers. 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. 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 


CTE Standards 

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 
contemporary works. 

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, 
context, graphics). 

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 
communicate knowledge. 

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." 


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 ., 

•.v.. MuseurrhndLbrary