Teachers and Students in Waterland

Jennifer Ellingson, English 27, 1997

Education, in its various forms, shapes the lives of the characters in all the novels we have read. Perhaps Waterland most of all elucidates the earth-shattering significance of knowledge, with its disturbing links of cause and effect. In his discourse on teachers and students, Graham Swift raises provocative issues about their roles, motivations, and responsibilities. Tom Crick, the unconventional history teacher in Waterland, has ideas about the relationship between teacher and student:

It's about the opposition... It's about what gets rubbed off between the persistence of the one and the resistance of the other. A long hard struggle against a natural resistance. (239)

Crick learns from his students, the so-called children. This process is described as natural, as opposed to artificial or man-made. A natural relationship of opposition, and yet according to Crick, history shows us that we are doomed to become like those who came before us, for all our struggle against them. However, this struggle against, or not to become, is essential to not "let the world get any worse."(240)

From another perspective, the teacher who in the opinion of the optimistic headmaster Lewis should guide the students, "equipping them for today's real world," instead in a sense, subverts them. A literal example is Tom Crick illegally bringing his most precocious (and underage) student, Price to a bar where their roles are reversed: the sober student aids his drunk teacher.

Teachers shouldn't be drunk. They should be upright, exemplary and sober. The pupil shouldn't have to guide the master. The rebel shouldn't have to prop the tyrant.(309)

And yet, in spite of the shouldn't, here is the reality of young Price making sure Cricky doesn't drive home in his condition. Here, also, is Lewis' critique of Crick's lessons in which dreams of the end of the world are discussed, and in which Price is suffered to declare that "The only important thing about history is that history has reached the stage where it might be coming to an end." (154) It is true that such lessons corroborate the students' intuitive fear for the future, and Lewis decries their results as "pessimism." Crick responds to Lewis by saying, "Or realism." Just as Crick as a youth saw the world in the ruins of World War II, so too do the children of the 1980's live under the fear of nuclear holocaust. So the world is not learning, and the answers will not be provided by "upright, exemplary, and sober" history teachers. They provide only the mistakes; "an obstructive instructor, a treacherous tutor."(236)

The optimistic paternalism exhibited by Lewis, the headmaster, is perhaps even more subversive than the raw realism of history presented by Crick. Crick warns his students:

Children, beware the paternal instinct whenever it appears in your officially approved and professionally trained mentors. In what direction is it working, whose welfare is it serving? This desire to protect and provide, this desire to point the way; this desire to hold sway amongst children. (152)

Here, the teacher (or father-figure) is as dependent on the student-child as vice-versa. While Crick, at age 53 claims not to expect a future, Lewis seeks to influence it, to somehow affect it or own it through the "children who will inherit the world."(105) Yet even the realistic history teacher Crick becomes suspect of such quasi-selfish (yet natural?) paternalistic motives when he claims Price as his son at the bar. This perspective on education and paternalism has parallels to colonialism or Empire-building, which Crick also advises against, and reiterates as something completely different from the reclamation of land or history.

The blurring of the teacher and student roles is exhibited in another more specific kind of teaching in Waterland. Tom Crick's future wife Mary Metcalf, as an adolescent teaches sexuality to Dick Crick, the idiot progeny of incest. This dubious endeavor has untold consequences which include (but are not limited to) the murder of fellow youth Freddie Parr, a gruesome abortion, and the kidnapping of a baby in a supermarket some nearly forty years later.

What is Swift saying about responsibility and causality? Surely Mary Metcalf is not completely responsible in a moral sense for the tragedies which befall her and others in the course of events following her lessons. What about the significance of intent or awareness of consequences? Yet Swift takes great pains to show that these events are inseparable through links of cause and effect. He also makes clear that this "Whywhywhy" sequence which it is human nature to trace, can never be traced to its origin. Thus, as teachers, can Mary and Tom be held any more responsible for events proceeding from their actions or teachings than those who came before or after them? Tom Crick's ancestor, the brewer Ernest Atkinson defended himself against recrimination for a collective drunkenness from his newly released Coronation Ale -- "though he was responsible for the beer, he could hardly be held responsible for those who did not drink it wisely."(172)

Similarly, Henry Crick, as the father of Tom and Dick, insists that Tom not teach Dick to read. Henry has some awareness of the possible consequences of Dick learning to decipher the letters which tell the taboo circumstances of his birth, or general truths of the world in which he can never fully participate. Henry attempts to preclude the degree of suffering which does, in fact, ensue. He intends to distribute the figurative beer of knowledge wisely, for who in this novel can drink it wisely themselves, having no clue what dire cataclysms those bottles from the past contain? Swift creates a system of history in which the actions of free-willed individuals interact with each other to create unintended disasters, for which these hapless characters are directly responsible, and yet simultaneously the victims.

Crick envisions history as a circle, and revolutions as continuous regression toward an not quite attainable past. But what drives this circular, backward, forward, "sometimes sideways" movement? Crick refers to "lost travelers in the desert...moving in a great circle,"(135) the thing that takes us back, being Natural History, "which doesn't go anywhere. Which cleaves to itself. Which perpetually travels back to where it came from."(205) This Natural History is a force independent of, and yet which in a sense governs our Artificial History÷that is history we created with language, with man's unique ability to seek meaning and ask demand a Why. Crick sees his role as a history teacher to teach his students "to accept the burden of our need to ask why."(108) -- in other words, the responsibility to ask why.

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