The Price of Excellence

February 20, 2013 at 4:20 am (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I have a love/hate relationship with education.  Or should I say formal education.

I love to read, I thoroughly enjoy research.  But most my teachers over the years would tell you I was a horrible student, if they even remember me.  My work was typically mediocre, often done at the last minute.  The ones that do remember me probably remember a fairly obstinate and argumentative irritant, not really someone you want filling out your back row.

EducationI went to a very expensive private university.  Between the severe debt it put me in and the obsession with appearances, it left a really bad taste in my mouth.  I think in many cases, college is pretty useless these days.  It doesn’t really prepare you for anything, merely gives you four years to either party a lot or exhaust yourself with work – depending on your financial situation.  I feel betrayed by universities and the entire education system.

Yet, I find myself longing for the chance to go back and get a frivolous Master’s degree.  I watch movies only to be wooed by the montages of students in glorious libraries.  I fall in league with nerds like Rory Gilmore and Felicity Porter and lean toward books like May Sarton’s The Small Room.

The Small RoomThe Small Room is a 1960’s novel about a professor teaching in a woman’s college called Appleton.  Don’t judge too quickly, it is most definitely NOT Mona Lisa Smile.  Instead it is a social commentary of the very tender and sometimes volatile relationship between teachers and students, and how an entire campus reacts to the scandal of the theft of intellectual property.

Rather than an emotional feminist vs. anti-feminist story one would expect from the setting, The Small Room is about exploring the many nuances of excellence in education… and the price of obtaining it for both teachers and students.

“What is the price? […] The price is eccentricity, maladjustment if you will, isolation of one sort or another, strangeness, narrowness.  Excellence costs a great deal.” – Carryl Cope of Sarton’s The Small Room.

Frankly, education is such a moving and sensitive topic.  Who isn’t brought to tears by Dead Poet’s Society? Who doesn’t stand and applaud Mr. Holland’s Opus or The Emperor’s Club? Who doesn’t watch Finding Forrester on repeat?

Then on the counter balance… Who doesn’t laugh their butt off reading Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase and acknowledge how utterly familiar it sounds?


While reading, I imagined Appleton to be a smaller version of Wellesley.

May Sarton’s The Small Room is delightful and truthful.  Without full on hating on education altogether, it takes into careful consideration the heavy weight being a teacher or a student can be on a human being and their relationships.

“[…] before she went to sleep, she wondered whether just this were not what you did take on if you chose to be a teacher… this, the care of souls.” – The Small Room

I have a 1976 Norton Library edition (featured above) and I fell in love with the book immediately.  Long before I picked it up to read it, Sarton’s novel was part of my personal collection.  I remember being so struck by the green leafy cover, the musty smell, and the promise of imaginary academia while holding the book in the used bookstore.  The novel has lived up to the promise of its cover (and its smell!) and I think any alumni or teacher would appreciate the ethical discussions within its pages as Sarton and her characters attempt to define the price of excellence.

1 Comment

  1. emilysbrainworks said,

    Lovely review! I have the same copy you have, and fell in love with it long before I read it, as well.

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