Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Misunderstood Youth

By Adam Golub — November 11, 2005 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the various tributes that have appeared since his death on July 6, Evan Hunter, who penned the sprawling 87th Precinct series under the pen name Ed McBain, 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 ’50s pop culture, this hard-hitting school portrait contrasted sharply with the preppy, peppy classrooms of Miss Dove and 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.”

One critic called it ‘nightmarish but authentic’ and predicted it would ‘scare the curls off mothers' heads.’

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 experiences 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 fall 1950. By his own accounts, he found teaching both challenging and disheartening and 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 he 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 a 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 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 book never stirred such a 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 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 important, the film version of The Blackboard Jungle, which premiered in March 1955, was marketed not as a serious sociological exposé but as a sensational juvenile delinquency flick. MGM 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 featuring an adolescent hoodlum cleaning his fingernails with a switchblade was driven around the city. 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.

Perhaps we can best honor Evan Hunter by vowing to take the problems of urban schools seriously.

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 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” 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 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.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Misunderstood Youth

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School Climate & Safety Webinar
Praise for Improvement: Supporting Student Behavior through Positive Feedback and Interventions
Discover how PBIS teams and educators use evidence-based practices for student success.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Management Webinar
Build a Digitally Responsive Educational Organization for Effective Digital-Age Learning
Chart a guided pathway to digital agility and build support for your organization’s mission and vision through dialogue and collaboration.
Content provided by Bluum
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Drive Instruction With Mastery-Based Assessment
Deliver the right data at the right time—in the right format—and empower better decisions.
Content provided by Instructure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Some Districts Return to Mask Mandates as COVID Cases Spike
Mask requirements remain the exception nationally and still sensitive in places that have reimposed them.
4 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Chalk drawings from last August remind students to wear masks as they arrive at school.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP
School & District Management Women Get Overlooked for the Superintendent's Job. How That Can Change
3 female superintendents spell out concrete solutions from their own experience.
4 min read
Susana Cordova, former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Susana Cordova is deputy superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Allison V. Smith for Education Week
School & District Management Opinion You Can't Change Schools Without Changing Yourself First
Education leaders have been under too much stress keeping up with day-to-day crises to make the sweeping changes schools really need.
Renee Owen
5 min read
conceptual illustration of a paper boat transforming into an origami bird before falling off a cliff
wildpixel/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Principals Are Running Scared. Here's How to Steady Them
Mentorship is an old idea with new currency, write the authors of a recent book on helping school leaders thrive.
Phyllis Gimbel & Peter Gow
5 min read
Illustration of a hand holding a flashlight to help guide a person out of a dark space
iStock/Getty