Lessons From The Blackboard Jungle
Fans of police fiction are mourning the recent passing of Evan Hunter, who penned the sprawling 87th Precinct series under the pen name Ed McBain. In the various tributes that have appeared since his death on July 6, Hunter has been rightly honored as the creator of the police procedural, but his legacy should not be tied solely to that genre. Indeed, one of his greatest cultural contributions remains his first best-selling novel, The Blackboard Jungle, which riveted postwar Americans with its depiction of classroom chaos in an urban public school.
When it was first published in 1954, this tale of a novice teacher and his unruly charges offered a stark commentary on the state of education. In the book, beleaguered protagonist Richard Dadier grapples with overcrowded classrooms, apathetic students, burned-out teachers, and an unjust educational system in his first year of teaching at a vocational high school. In the world of 1950s pop culture, this hard-hitting school portrait contrasted sharply with the preppie, peppy classrooms of Miss Dove and Our Miss Brooks. As one reviewer observed, Hunter had laid to rest “the notion that high school teaching is simply a white-collar job with short hours and long vacations.”
Yet despite the fact that Hunter’s novel tackled a range of pressing educational problems, The Blackboard Jungle, along with the successful film it inspired, has survived in our popular memory as above all a story about juvenile delinquency. In the present day, the phrase “blackboard jungle” is essentially synonymous with school violence. Originally, though, The Blackboard Jungle aspired to be more than just a sensational yarn about youth deviance. As we pause to remember Evan Hunter, we should also revisit the story behind his famous work, for the history of The Blackboard Jungle can teach us much about the state of educational debate in America today.
Though Hunter’s novel is not strictly autobiographical, it is based on his experience as an English teacher at Bronx Vocational High School in New York City. After graduating from Hunter College, where he studied English and education and completed a semester of student teaching, Hunter took a substitute position at Bronx Vocational in the fall of 1950. By his own accounts, Hunter found teaching both challenging and disheartening, and he was “shocked by the vocational school situation.” He noted that absolute “disorder” began the moment he arrived at school. Hunter had one student who could not write his own name, and others who could not read. A pupil once shouted out to him, “Hey teach, ever try to fight 35 kids at once?”
Hunter never experienced the violence that Richard Dadier encounters in the novel, but claimed such incidents were not unheard of in vocational schools. Reflecting on his teaching in a 2000 New Yorker interview, he said: “I couldn’t stand it. I’d go in and give them everything I had. I would use all my acting talents, all my creative talents, trying to make interesting assignments for them. They weren’t buying.” He quit before the end of his first semester.
Hunter turned his short-lived teaching career into the stuff of his first serious novel. Determined to write a realistic account of vocational school conditions, he conducted extensive research for the project. He talked to dozens of teachers, and even recruited the cooperating teacher from his student practicum to consult on technical matters and check his manuscript for accuracy.
In October 1954, The Blackboard Jungle first appeared in print as a magazine condensation in a special issue of The Ladies Home Journal devoted to the topic of education. Hunter’s work was introduced as a “revealing novel about schools” that was “frightening” yet “based in reality.” When the unabridged book version was published that same month, reviewers similarly treated The Blackboard Jungle as a serious, sociological work of literature. One critic called it “nightmarish but authentic,” and predicted it would “scare the curls off mothers’ heads and drive the most carpet-slippered father to vigilant attendance at the PTA.” Another described it as “the most realistic account I have ever read of life in a New York City vocational high school.” The New York Times even compared Hunter’s novel to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for its potential to spur a social-reform movement.
Everyday readers also praised the novel’s realism. One fan wrote Hunter to say that his book was a “wonderfully powerful study of the public schools.” Another speculated that The Blackboard Jungle would be used as a “crowbar for reform of vocational schools.”
As it turned out, however, The Blackboard Jungle never stirred such a reform movement. There were several reasons for this. For one, many defensive educators quickly criticized Hunter’s novel as exploitative, and dismissed the issues it raised as hyperbolic. In New York City, for example, a teachers’ newsletter suggested to Hunter that “the ‘jungle’ you refer to is in your own mind,” while a school principal challenged the author to a debate about the veracity of conditions depicted in his novel. A second reason was that Hunter himself was reluctant to assume the role of public firebrand. While he hoped his book would inspire much-needed public dialogue, he was more committed to pursuing a literary career than becoming an educational activist.
Finally, and most importantly, the film version of The Blackboard Jungle, which appeared in March 1955, was marketed not as a serious sociological exposé, but as a sensational juvenile-delinquency flick. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer billed its motion picture as a “Drama of Teenage Terror,” movie trailers described it as “fiction torn from big-city, modern savagery,” and newspaper ads blared, “They Turned a School Into a Jungle!” During the film’s opening week in New York, a promotional float drove around the city featuring an adolescent hoodlum who cleaned his fingernails with a switchblade. This advertising campaign clearly shifted the focus away from the day’s burning educational issues; Hunter’s story about an urban school in crisis had been transformed into a Hollywood thriller about teenage thugs.
The postwar history of Evan Hunter and The Blackboard Jungle is thus the story of a missed opportunity for reasoned public debate about education in the United States. In the mid-1950s, self-protective educators, a retiring author, and a sensational film adaptation all conspired against any earnest school improvement efforts; the novel never realized its potential as a “crowbar for reform.” Instead of focusing on dilapidated facilities, teacher shortages, and curricular challenges, Americans were captivated—if not distracted—by images of knife-wielding delinquents. What’s more, the title of Hunter’s work, which was originally designed to conjure up the desperate conditions of a neglected institution, now survives in our cultural lexicon as an easy byword for a menacing school.
Perhaps we can best honor Evan Hunter today by vowing to take the problems of urban schools seriously. An important first step in this direction would be to stop sensationalizing the alleged pathology of urban youths in our popular discourse. For example, we should retire labels like “culturally deprived,” “from a broken home,” “dangerous minds,” and “super predator” from our lingua franca. By employing such rhetoric, we only succeed in playing out our own 21st-century “drama of teenage terror.”
We also should urge legislators to reform the “unsafe schools” choice option of the No Child Left Behind Act. This controversial provision gives parents the ability to transfer their children out of schools that have been labeled “persistently dangerous” based on state-developed criteria. Regrettably, this unfunded mandate has merely succeeded in branding certain schools with a scarlet letter, while handing a small victory to champions of privatization. In its present form, the “unsafe schools” clause effectively reinforces our media-fueled fears of school violence; instead, it should be amended to address the social and structural roots of such violence.
Reflecting back on the novel that launched Evan Hunter’s career, one lesson is clear: If we continue to focus on the sensational more than the sociological in education, then the prospects for genuine school reform will remain lost in the jungle.
Vol. 25, Issue 04, Pages 39-40