Learning Down the House 

School is really a matter of mind-melding.

Around here, circa 2002, it was called Women's Studies 98/198. "At UC Berkeley, one class involved male and female students discussing their sexual fantasies, porn-star lecturers ... and class exercises in which students photographed their own genitalia," Ben Shapiro reveals in Porn Generation (Regnery, $27.95), his lament for youth in an America where "we have lost ourselves" because "the crassest elements of sexual deviancy ... have taken over the public square."

By public square, he mainly means classrooms. Shapiro is only 21, a student at Harvard, and sometimes takes a preachy tone that is unnerving in one so young: Madonna is a "whore," Paris Hilton a "fabulously rich slut." Porn Generation skewers school: from primary-school sex-ed programs -- fueled, Shapiro feels, by liberal adults' desire "that kids be sexualized younger, so that they can become more 'tolerant' of deviant lifestyles" -- to porn courses at Cal, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, Northwestern, and other institutions where "the inmates have been running the asylums." He offers the course-catalogue blurb for Wesleyan's Colloquium 289: "The pornography we study is an art of transgression which impels human sexuality toward, against, and beyond the limits which have traditionally defined civil discourses. ... Our examination accordingly includes ... so-called perverse practices such as voyeurism, bestiality, sadism, and masochism."

Which gives the injunction "study hard" a whole new meaning.

Whether you're learning about bullwhips or fractals, the truth is that education is ultimately a person-to-person transaction. It's about minds as impressionable as Silly Putty, yearning, sometimes paying, to be imprinted, folded, bounced. Trends and fashions and core requirements meddle, but when it comes down to it, individuals await individuals -- with their own aches and pains and agendas -- to tell the truth, sort good from bad, declare what's worth knowing and why. Talk about transfers of power.

Primary-school teachers work overtime and weep for their students' welfare in A Rabbit's Eyes ($14.95), an idealistic novel by Japan's Kenjiro Haitani. At first a book about first-graders seems an odd choice for the edgy New York publishing house Vertical, which does Koji Suzuki's horror-show Ring series, until you realize that ex-teacher Haitani is an outspoken activist famous for working to stop the construction of a US military heliport in Okinawa. He also broke off with his Japanese publisher in 1997 after one of its magazines -- greedily and inhumanely, Haitani felt -- ran a photo of a teenage murder suspect.

As A Rabbit's Eyes opens, a teacher upchucks at the sight of "a frog crushed in two, its twitching innards scattered on the floor like a red flower." A furious boy whose isolationism and near-muteness identify him as possibly autistic has killed the frog. Living alongside a waste-disposal facility, little Tetsuzo makes pets out of flies. Having eaten some, the frog must pay. Tetsuzo's teacher devotes herself to expanding his expertise, turning him into a local hero but incurring the ire of her regular-guy husband, who doesn't get why she spends her afternoons nurturing vermin with a child and schmoozing with his garbageman grandpa (a former classical cellist and political prisoner) when she could be home making dinner.

Paul Sminkey's translation captures regional details such as a junk-collecting drive and the school kitchen's cold whale-meat stew, as well as kiddish slang: Uncool instructors are "nothin' but a bunch of boogers!" and a girl who wets herself is a "damn pissing jellyfish." All the stoutheartedness and sacrifice get to be a bit much, especially when the hunger strike starts, but as any activist will tell you, it's nice to dream.

Passion of a different sort has a teacher spending after-school hours with a student in the story-within-a-story of Campus Sexpot (University of Georgia, $22.95), David Carkeet's memoir about how his ex-high school teacher wrote a smutty and possibly autobiographical potboiler -- also called Campus Sexpot -- that scandalized the small Mother Lode town of Sonora in 1962. Carkeet was fifteen and impish English instructor Dale Koby was far from Sonora by the time the book came out, far from its fallout as residents started playing who's-who. Conceptwise it's classic slapstick: small-town kids and adults in a buttoned-up era straining to pick up techniques from pulp fiction. But Carkeet, who is now a novelist, knows how to milk jokes and then fix without flinching on the sad human dramas fueling them. In Koby's potboiler as in Carkeet's life, "it was a general assumption that good boys who got good grades had no libido." It's a book about secrets, and how learning is like a game of Telephone.

Bruce Fleming grades his students, too, but they have more pressing acronyms on their minds than GPA -- RPG, for instance, and WMD. Teaching English at the US Naval Academy, as Fleming reveals in his memoir Annapolis Autumn (The New Press, $24.95), means deciding which works of literature heavily armed sailors will remember later, out at sea and at risk. But for now, they're undergrads on a sunny seaside campus.

"Who wouldn't get a smile out of our students?" muses Fleming, who also writes for the Village Voice and Washington Post. The typical plebe in a "natty, close-fitting uniform stands up tall, calls any tourist 'sir' or 'ma'am,' looks you in the eye, and, if called upon to do so, shakes your hand with a firm grasp," exuding fiercely good cheer that might actually be "designed to confuse the enemy into thinking that everything is going very well indeed." An Annapolis student "isn't supposed to be dumb," given the heavy load of courses ranging from calculus, physics, and electrical engineering to lit that he or she must pass to graduate -- learning, all the while, "that they exist as part of a larger whole. They individually are expendable; the only thing that matters is the mission." Still, they smile. Teaching them "is like tussling with twenty golden retrievers at once." Who wouldn't be exhilarated? Fleming wonders.

But because this is real life, and war makes life more real, or at least real in a different way, neither teacher nor students can afford to nurse illusions. When Fleming -- whose gay brother died of AIDS -- assigns works by the "probably gay" WWI poet Wilfred Owen, his students are stunned and incensed: "'But sir,' they respond, 'couldn't you have found us a normal poet?'" After much soul-searching, one midshipman reaches this rapprochement: "'I always thought that fags wouldn't kill anybody. I mean, I thought they were sort of fruitcakes. But Owen, he killed a lot of men. And he got a medal. It changed my views, reading that. I mean, he was okay.'"

Lesson learned, and there's the bell.

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