Monday, April 5, 2010

Nuke LaLouche meets Cormac McCarthy

I want to show how a scene from Bull Durham, the best baseball movie ever, and an exerpt from Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road can help us to rethink teaching. Watch the clip and then read the excerpt. Just a heads up, there are a couple F-bombs in this clip:

Ok, we'll come back to this clip.

Now take a look at an excerpt from Cormac McCarthey's Pullitzer Prize winning novel The Road:

That night they camped in a ravine and built a fire against a small stone bluff and ate their last tin of food. He'd put it by because it was the boy's favorite, pork and beans. They watched it bubble slowly in the coals and he retrieved the tin with the pliers and they ate in silence. He rinsed the empty tin with water and gave it to the child to drink and that was that. I should have been more careful, he said,

The boy didn't answer.

You have to talk to me.


You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?


He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

Yes. We're still the good guys.

And we always will be.

Yes. We always will be.

Could you understand what was going on in this excerpt?

Did you notice anything unconventional with the writing?

In case you didn't notice, there were no quotations marks to identify the dialogue. The reader is left to sort out the dialogue and the narration on his own. If you're like most people, the excerpt still made sense.

In the Bull Durham clip, Nuke LaLouche is young and naive, but despite his five cent head, he has been blessed with a million dollar arm, and so, as his mentor catcher, Crash Davis has been assigned to mold him into a big leaguer.

The point to be made here is that while Nuke is still in the minors, a nobody, the rule is he shouldn't have fungus on his shower shoes; however, as Crash points out, that little rule can go away if only Nuke can make it to the big leagues - become famous and rewrite the rules in his own image - become colourful.

Unfortunately for Nuke LaLouche, he's not in Cormac McCarthey's league.

There's a double standard here.

When Cormac McCarthy submits his story to the world, he is met with a Pulitzer Prize and a movie deal, but when my grade 6 language arts students forget to use quotation marks with their dialogue on their Provincial Achievement Test, they are docked marks. Punished.

And Nuke is a slob.

At some point in time, Cormac McCarthy was in grade 6 - the minor leagues, grinding it out with the other minor league authors. If Cormac McCarthy does as he's told and complies with the rules of writing, he continues to use quotation marks, and The Road either never gets written or drowns in mediocrity and obscurity because it is standardized. Of course the omission of quotation marks does not define The Road's greatness, but I think you get the bigger message here.

So when does Cormac McCarthy ever learn to be different. If we don't provide him with the opportunity to be wrong - to be unique and creative - we can only hope that he will defy the rules at his own peril.

When school is more about reproducing the teacher's knowledge rather than the student producing their own, we run the risk of extinguishing their creativity. We teach it out of them. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we school it out of them.

If we can appreciate how Cormac McCarthy bends the rules to create something new and creative, then we have to provide students with a learning environment where they can grow their own creativity and find themselves.

In his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Ken Robinson points out that one size does not fit all:

Some of the most brilliant, creative people I know did not do well at school. Many of them didn't really discover what they could do - and who they really were - until they'd left school and recovered from their education...

These approaches to education are also stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the twenty-first century - the powers of creative thinking. Our systems of educaiton put a high premium on knowing the single right answer to a question. In fact, with programs like No Child Left Behind (a federal program that seeks to improve the performance of American public schools by making schools more accountable for meeting mandated performance levels) and its insistence that all children from every part of the country hew to the same standards, we're putting a greater emphasis than ever before on conformity and finding the 'right' answers.

Artistry and creativity that becomes standardized ceases to be art and loses much of its creativity.
For every Cormac McCarthy out there who defies the rules and finds his own style, there are a thousand Nuke LaLouche's who are made to feel guilty for the fungus on their shower shoes.

So they comply and never become colourful.


  1. Great insights. I do think it can be useful and fun to "try on" someone else's style (so in that case, reproducing is the point), but I still believe that should be the student's decision. What good is trying on a style that doesn't speak to you?

    Oh, I might have to disagree with you on the sandal fungus though! Sandal fungus is a hygiene problem that make toenails a little more..."colourful" than he might like, along with the toenails of those he shares the shower room with.

  2. Excellent post Joe, I haven't read McCarthy's book yet, but have read others that explore experimental literature techniques but never dreamt to make a connection to teaching. Fantastic!

    Speaking of experimental literature, you should try Jose Saramago's Blindness (I believe they made it into a movie). Like McCarthy he avoids quotation marks, but he takes it a step further and avoids proper names for his characters (instead referring to them by descriptions). Oh, if I could only have submitted something like that in Grade 13 English ...

  3. I like what you're saying and I often agree and love the video lesson/text based comparison. I have heard that great writers/artists such as McCarthy and Picasso have studied and mastered the traditional skills before they threw themselves off the bus and into the artistic freefall of greatness. What do you think? Should kids be told there is a right way and made to match the standard until they master it and have the freedom to write their own ticket?


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