So the first thing I should note about Nicholson Baker’s excellent Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids (2016) is how funny it is. He’s got a keen eye for the absurdities in contemporary education, the unintentional comedy of teacher’s lessons, and the wackiness of a high-school class as seen through the eyes of a somewhat-addled substitute teacher. The story takes place in 2014, when Baker decided to take a stab at being a sub. He’s not doing this for money, one would guess, as he’s an acclaimed fiction writer, but he wisely doesn’t explain much: He just starts narrating his experience in classes, in which he spends an inordinate amount of time fussing with his student’s gadget problems: “Devin was poking fruitlessly at his iPad. ‘It’s blocking my Google Doc,’ he said. His screen had a popup message on it: VIRUS SCAN WARNING. I told him to work on paper” (246). Even when things are working correctly, Baker questions whether what they’re studying is worthwhile: “So much of what Mrs. Painter was required to teach was pseudo-knowledge—lists of tongue-embrambling Greek- and Latin-rooted words like prokaryotic and heterotrophic and halophilic that were perfect for tests because they were hard to remember. This was torture by word list. The uglier the word, the better, because it more efficiently showed who was willing to commit gobbledygook to memory and who wasn’t” (273).
Substitute was a best-seller for a time and is hardly an obscure title I’m dusting off for your attention, but was relevant this week in a news mention of Maine’s policy of providing an iPad for every student, and how it has not improved test scores one bit. I’m not surprised. It’s funny/sad how the students struggled every day to handle their gadgets, all the while wasting time when they do function, on frivolous fun such as gaming, watching Youtube videos, taking pictures and selfies, and probably worse. With the recent school shooting in Florida there’s a great deal of scrutiny on the structure and safety of high school education, and Baker’s book makes it sound like a frustrating waste of time and energy.