Catchers in the Rye: Education and Extremism

A good friend from school gave me a book 10 years ago that he used for the orientation course he taught for visiting international scholars—J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It wasn’t until the recent New Year’s holidays that I finally committed myself to reading this classic 1950’s novel and it unexpectedly sparked my reflection upon higher education and some larger dynamics at work in the world today.

Reading the news or watching television will most likely bring into focus images and stories of extreme forms of thought and action; from the headlines regarding ISIS to the various hard-line soundbites from politicians jockeying for attention. Such extremism, by its nature having little to do with tolerance and moderation, rarely has outcomes beneficial to the common good and the values we need in our global community to “do life together.” Instead quite the opposite seems to happen with extremism intent on tearing the fabric of our communities into unpatchable pieces. Mr. Antolini, the inspiring but troubled teacher in Salinger’s novel, speaks to this tension when he shares the following quote from psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

And so it seems the heart of this tension is the question of maturity and the search for a mechanism by which women and men can acquire this mark. The obvious answer to me is that education is central to this maturation, with educators in the vanguard of this process—they are the “catchers” in the rye field of fanaticism.

The protagonist in Salinger’s book, Holden Caulfield, says the following to his sister, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

Perhaps education has for too long been looked at as a panacea for the world’s problems, however this role as “catchers” is one that we should rally around as central to our vocation as educators. This aspiration speaks to the higher calling and lofty goals of the academy regarding character, wisdom, and humanity—the ideals that drive and inform the pragmatic outgrowth of how we act and engage with our environment. The cliff of extremism is real and too many around the world have experienced the impact of those who have gone over the edge. Therefore it is a worthy and attainable aspiration of IIE and our partners to be the “catchers” who are about the work of facilitating the mark of mature young women and men through education to live for those causes and ideas that bring us together.