I hope everyone’s had at least one: a favorite teacher, one who raised your spirits with a kind word, one who stayed after class to explain something you didn’t understand or simply to continue a discussion, one who spotted something special in you and went the extra mile to encourage you to be yourself. At its best, the teacher-student relationship is a mentorship. At its worst, the teacher-student relationship can turn into something very warped as Muriel Spark illustrates in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) and Francine Prose describes in Blue Angel (2000). Both novels also raise very topical concerns about freedom of expression in the classroom.
Miss Brodie is a tragedy of World War I, part of the generation of spinsters whose potential mates were wiped out in the trenches. It’s now the 1930’s. Miss Brodie teaches in a girls’ school in Edinburgh and, she conceives herself to be in her prime although others might call her a woman of a certain age. Out of loneliness, Ms. Brodie has cultivated six of her students to be her confidants and has anointed them as the “crème de la crème.” For the next eight years, the Brodie set share intimacies with Ms. Brodie, facilitate her love affair with the music teacher, Mr. Lowther, and shield her from the probing questions of the unsympathetic principal, Miss Mackay, who scorns Miss Brodie’s unconventionality. Miss Brodie broadens the universe of her girls by inviting them to teas, taking them to galleries, and marching them on tours of the city. “These girls were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water, and the word “menarche”; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Bronte and of Miss Brodie herself. They were aware of the existence of Einstein and the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue. They knew the rudiments of astrology but not the date of the Battle of Flodden or the capital of Finland.” And for a time, Ms. Brodie commands their utmost loyalty, and Ms. Brodie and her actions exist “outside the context of right and wrong.”
Miss Brodie grooms her favorite, Sandy, whom she dubs “the leaven in the lump,” to be her successor. She grooms Rose to become the lover of Mr. Lloyd, the art teacher, who is Miss Brodie’s true love, but whom she has “renounced” because he is married. As she grows up, Sandy begins to recoil from Ms. Brodie, seeing her teacher as simultaneously silly and authoritarian, someone who has co-opted the role of a god, who has chosen an elect, and who has “elected herself to grace in so particular a way and with more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other spinsters who couldn’t stand it any more,” a leader of her own fascisti “all knit together for her need.” Sandy begins to rebel and ultimately betrays Ms. Brodie to Miss Mackay. Sandy does not inform Miss Mackay about Miss Brodie’s love affair with Mr. Lowther. She reveals that Miss Brodie is a fascist sympathizer, an admirer of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler, who shares her admiration with her students, in one case to especially ill effect. (Miss Brodie was far from the only British subject deceived and seduced by fascist leaders. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor famously supported Hitler. Remarkably, in 1938, one-third of all adult Italian Jews were members of Italy’s Fascist Party. Talk about betting on the wrong horse.) Miss Brodie is hurt less by her dismissal than by the betrayal, which destroys her spirit and haunts her until her death.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is another small package of a novel. In fact, it was first published in its entirety in the New Yorker. It’s also another work where the characters stay with you after you finish. Spark makes remarkable use of conjunctions, a sentence I never thought I would write. (Also remarkable, the number of times I typed Ms. instead of Miss, only to have to go back and correct myself. The times, they have changed) Spark’s sentences continue on and on with each phrase unpeeling yet another delectable layer. Maggie Smith starred as Miss Brodie in the 1969 movie and grabbed the Best Actress Oscar. Think of the Dowager Countess with a slightly more authoritarian bend, and you have Miss Brodie.
Swenson, the protagonist in Blue Angel, is a mid-life crisis in the making. He’s a blocked novelist teaching at a third tier college in Vermont. He’s bored with his marriage. He is too fond of the bottle. His creative writing students are talentless, that is until he discovers Angela. Swenson is attracted as much by Angela’s talent as by her youth and imagines himself falling in love. He’s lulled with little resistance on his part into a technically unconsummated affair as he starts mentoring Angela and providing feedback about her draft novel. The college has a black and white sexual harassment policy forbidding sexual relationships between professors and students, and Swenson is canned, his professional and personal life wrecked. It’s not until the end that Swenson realizes that Angela has contrived the entire affair from the get-go to get an in with Swenson’s editor and perhaps for other purposes that the novel only hints about. The unkindest cut of all—Angela’s novel is getting published while Swenson’s draft sits incomplete on his desk.
Blue Angel isn’t much of a novel, and the biggest mystery is how it became a National Book Award Finalist. With Blue Angel, the reader can see events coming from a mile away. In fact, Prose literally hits the reader over the head with foreshadowing. The title itself is an illusion to the Marlene Dietrich movie in which a teacher debases himself after he falls in love with a cabaret singer. And Swenson is a blockhead, so self-absorbed that he gets himself caught in a web. He’s helping a student with a novel about a student-teacher sexual relationship. Where did he think things were going? Despite its shortcomings, Blue Angel raises some provocative questions about free expression in the classroom. At a faculty dinner, the professors bemoan a climate in which they must walk on eggshells in teaching sexually explicit material. A gay teacher describes a class discussion about a gay subtext to Great Expectations. The next day a female student confronts Dave and tells him the discussion made her feel “unsafe.” Magda complains that her students “turned white as sheets,” when she attempted to teach a Philip Larkin poem that opens with a common obscenity. Swenson believes that academia’s “been knuckling under to the most neurotic forces of censorship and repression.” He then with typical Swenson blindness sabotages himself by proposing a remedy that’s beyond the pale of even the most liberal pedagogues in the room.
The recent announcement by the University of Chicago banning safe spaces and trigger warnings raises intriguing questions. When I sat on the local public library board, it was a point of pride to resist the patrons and politicians who wanted to filter the computers. But a library user is not a captive audience, and a library does not stand in loco parentis. There is an imbalance of power in the student-teacher relationship, and students, especially younger ones are very impressionable. As Miss Brodie says, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” So what’s the answer? Does it vary by topic? By age? It’s time to get over Puritanism in the classroom. What about hate speech? It would seem that in a class on Reconstruction, contemporary documents published by Southern racists would have an educational purpose as would Protocols of Elders of Zion in a lecture on Henry Ford. What about contemporary hate speakers? A college vets its professors for the academic quality of their work. University of Chicago is not hiring alchemists, eugenicists, or folks who ascribe autism to vaccination. Is hate speech the same as “junk science”? What about speakers who incite violence? Overt incitement to violence may not even be constitutionally protected. Does Ms. Brodie get to post her Mussolini pin-ups in the classroom and extol Hitler in 2016? These questions are perplexing, and I hope everyone is wrestling with them. But the University of Chicago deserves congratulations for standing up to kneejerk censorship. Thinking people need to think even about ugly things. You can’t erase the ugliness, unless you know about it.