The Catcher in the Rye
Wisdom and Knowledge Theme
If you asked Holden, he’d probably agree that everything he needed to know he learned in kindergarten. To him, institutional education is nothing more than teaching kids how to be phony, how to make money, how to live the kind of lifestyle where they go into an office all day and play golf all weekend. (Gee, that doesn’t sound so bad to us.) But by the end, he seems almost ready to admit that Mr. Antolini might be right: there’s inherent value to knowledge and learning, and formal education can keep you from squandering your native talent—and, thanks to Catcher in the Rye, we know that Holden has plenty of native talent.
Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge
- What is it that Holden hates about these prep schools? Is it education, the institution, or the people running the institution? Does he distinguish between these? Can we?
- Does the ending to The Catcher in the Rye suggest that Holden will indeed "apply himself" in his next school, or does it hint that he'll just fail again?
- Is that even a relevant question, considering what we've just learned by reading The Catcher in the Rye?
- Is Holden convincing in his argument that education leads to snobbery and phoniness?
- Check out Mr. Antolini's big speech about education. Does the tone with which this is presented suggest that Salinger agrees with this, or is it presented in mockery of those who would promote it as a personal outlook?
- Does The Catcher in the Rye make the argument that knowledge is best obtained through experience, rather than formal education?
- What would Holden think about the fact that The Catcher in the Rye is often taught in schools today?
Chew on This
The speeches given to Holden by Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini, at the beginning and end of the novel, respectively, act as thematic bookends for the plot structure. Holden's reactions to these "lectures" encapsulate the ways in which he has changed over the course of his story.
Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini have fundamentally different attitudes toward education: Mr. Spencer sees education as a way of creating conformists, and Mr. Antolini sees education as a way of creating individuals.