• Watching Death of a Salesman with my daughter

    There’s something lonely and depressing about lugging my suitcase and oversized pack through the long lines at security and then to some faraway gate in O’Hare. At least I feel that way. Selling my wares on travel for various academic matters, I feel a bit like Willy Loman driving up to New England, if he could only get pass Yonkers.

    This may be my internal psychodrama. My life bears little outward resemblance to Loman’s. In a cab on my way to the airport, I spoke with a producer for ABC News. In a surreal moment, I looked up from my cellphone conversation to notice a local news program on the small television screen. I see my own face staring back at me, babbling some of the same observations I am now offering to another news person in New York. I’m headed off to Phoenix. When I arrive, wealthy alumni will munch fancy cucumber sandwiches while listening to the Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration opine about health policy. Then I’m off to Washington to present a paper.

    I should clarify that I’m no bigshot. My momentary TV presence is pure happenstance. Chicago’s crime problem is national news at the moment. I’m one of the academics receiving some resulting attention. I’m gainfully employed, but I’ve had my share of false starts and disappointments, too. Talking with accomplished friends and colleagues, I’ve sometimes wanted to say: “I’m liked, but you’re well-liked. Perhaps you sometimes feel the same.

    My daughter was recently assigned Death of a Salesman. The play was a heavy lift for her. Much of the spite, disappointment, and human frailty of that play is fortunately inaccessible to a suburban 16-year-old.  There’s a dated gender dimension to the thing, too. Most important, in the inexorable manner of an unimaginative high school English class, Miller’s play was unbearably stretched-out, slowly-dissected, and pickled to an extent that no sane teenager could possibly look at it anymore.

    My daughter was supposed to discuss the ending of the play on Monday.  She was struggling with it. So we downloaded the Dustin Hoffman production from Netflix. On Sunday afternoon, we watched it whole.

    The two of us had a surprisingly intimate conversation about the play. I told her about my maternal grandfather, Harry Oncher. He actually knew Arthur Miller well. Grandpa owned a carpentry shop in New York City. Miller would regularly stop by. Grandpa would give him furniture-making tips and show him how to use some of the tools. This later became politically sensitive. Grandpa was a Communist, and Miller was a fellow-traveler. Yet as far as I know, Miller’ purpose was non-political. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman declares: “A man who can’t handle tools is not a man.” That wasn’t entirely Loman talking. Miller took great pride in his carpentry.

    My daughter and I talked about her own Grandpa, my dad, who’s also pretty handy with a socket wrench. Dad spent 30+ years soldiering away at engineering jobs he disliked– only to be laid off with customary brutality after a corporate takeover. He was in his mid-fifties, twenty-five years ago. Bolstered by a strong marriage, he survived the indignity and the economic shock. He has enjoyed a satisfying retirement.

    Perhaps because the play had such personal meaning for me, my daughter got into it, too. Seeing the production in its entirety, she did a great job pulling her thoughts together. She went off to school enthusiastic, ready to discuss it. Later that night, though, she looked bored and subdued when I asked her how things went: “We didn’t talk about it. We spent the class doing worksheets…”

    The worksheets’ main purpose was to verify that the kids actually read it, to show that they could identify the correct make and model of the car that made its appearance in Act II. I’m sure a worksheet might capture valuable individual notes, ephemeral details, and vocabulary.

    No worksheet could capture whether that play conveyed actual human meaning to these young people. “I told you that I hate that class,” my daughter told me. Who can blame her? I’ll bet similar mediocre experiences ar being replicated across thousands of classrooms across America.

    We’re living through tough economic times here in the southland of Chicago. Foreclosures and layoffs have brought financial disappointment, thwarted upward mobility, and everyday struggles for economic dignity that bear unmistakable resemblances to Willy Loman’s plight. Death of a Salesman might have provided an opportunity to communicate through literature what all too many of the families represented in that classroom are now going through.

    This was an opportunity squandered. Attention should have been paid.

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    • Oh, come on! Dylan wrote the theme song of suburban English class treatment of books like that “Long ago, far away, things like that don’t happen nowadays”.

      I had to do To Kill a Mockingbird in Jr. High and we managed to treat it like the South was in another galaxy. This was in the suburbs of Boston during the era of court-ordered bussing. God forbid anyone would make a mention of current politics!

      • ” This was in the suburbs of Boston during the era of court-ordered bussing.”

        Ah, fond memories. I grew up on Beacon Hill in that period (yes, I was a rich kid), but went to public schools. I’d walk up and over the hill to get to the Green Line and see large numbers of school buses lined up to take my fellow rich kids out to their private schools in the suburbs. For the rich, bussing wasn’t problematic in the slightest, it seemed.

    • Having worked in the education/legal field for over 30 years, I can tell you that the modern classroom is not quite the place for vigorous intellectual discussion. For that, I would put much of the blame on one, the push to teach to the test and two, the lack of intelligent teachers (hobbled even further by a truly horrible education certification world). Our teaching staff comes, generally, from the lower third of our college students. They simply are not very bright.

      There are many reasons for the decline in the abilities of our teachers but one that is obvious is that women are no longer (thankfully for them but not for our students) pushed into teaching. We have lost so many bright and capable women to other fields. I firmly believe that such a transfer of women and their skills has enriched our society greatly.

      But it has left a profound hole in our teaching corps.

      The only way to reverse that would be to raise salaries to make teaching a clear and worthy career choice for all our best and brightest men and women. Or as conservatives seem to delight in saying: you get what you pay for. Well, we pay for the Pinto and we get it. As Pogo says: the enemy is us.

    • US Ed has, for decades now, taken a quantity-over-quality approach to hiring teachers, and a standardized curricula approach to teaching the material. The inevitable result of that is, first, teachers covering subject areas they have little to no experience in and lacking the firm grasp of it needed to educate in result and, second, the discouragement of attempts to approach the subject matter in engaging and creative ways.

      Speaking from personal experience as a student who attended both AP and Regular classes during the 90s in Texas, the only classes that were ever interesting were the AP ones. In these classes less time was given over to teaching Standardized Testing gimmicks, more freedom was given to the teacher to determine their lesson plans and personal teaching style, an emphasis was placed on having teachers for AP courses who had an actual backing in the subject they taught, and, of course the class sizes were easily a half, and often a third, of what you’d find in your regular classrooms. Also of note was the economic and racial make-up of these AP classes, which were, almost in their entirety, filled with upper-middle class or higher white students. Instead of attempting to give every child a quality education through hiring the right amount of teachers and offering the right salary and workplace environment to make the job attractive to the properly credentialed, the school system instead used the cover of “academic excellence” to justify segregating the student population into the “right kind of students”, who would receive what should be the base-minimum educational experience in the US, and everybody else, who would basically be treated to a school-life of endless, mind-numbingly terrible worksheets meant not to teach them anything but merely to keep them under watch for most of the day. We treat our schools and our educators primarily as day-cares and babysitters, and the inevitable result of that is mediocrity, poor performance, and a general disinterest in education among both students and the adults educated under that system.

    • It’s a good play, but it’s just not for teenagers. I studied it in high school and hated it too. What 16-year old can relate to Willy Loman? It’s for people who have made some mistakes, had some regrets, and watched a few dreams turn to dust.

    • Formal education often misses the point. We tutored some kids in geometry, and the course focused on applications, ignoring the entire proof structure in which an entire geometric world is built from a handful of axioms and raw logic. The whole point of learning geometry is to experience that construction, and these kids didn’t even have a clue it existed. I guess you can do the same thing in the humanities.

    • The true trajedy for your daugther was the lost opportunity to communicate about her views of this literary masterpiece. Is is not the ability to communicate, especially through the written word, that is vital to the learning process? Is it not the essential skill necessary to move through the professional transitions of the future facing any young student? As you intimate, a lost opportunity at school but not the shared experience. It was priceless, no doubt!

    • I’m saddened to hear that a “discussion” on Death of a Salesman boiled down to a few questions on a worksheet. While I never particularly liked my English classes (writing was never my forte), I’ve grown to appreciate just how good some of my teachers were.

      I honestly can’t think of a single worksheet in four years of high school. It was always discussion based, with grades based on those discussions and papers analyzing the themes, characters, or plot.

      I still remember our class discussions on literature such as Death of a Salesman, Dubliners, Beloved, Heart of Darkness, 1984, Brave New World, and many others. I suppose I should consider myself lucky.

    • I recently talked to a Brooklyn English high school teacher who lamented that she is no longer “allowed” to teach fiction. Some study found that non-fiction produced better grades so the order came down that English classes could no longer read fiction.

      Too much blame is put on teachers (see the comments above) and too little on the stupidity of education reformers and administrators.