Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Wisdom and Knowledge

By J. D. Salinger

Wisdom and Knowledge

Chapter 2
Mr. Spencer

DEAR MR. SPENCER [he read out loud]. That is all I know about the Egyptians. I can't seem to get very interested in them although your lectures are very interesting. It is all right with me if you flunk me though as I am flunking everything else except English anyway. Respectfully yours, HOLDEN CAULFIELD.

He put my goddam paper down then and looked at me like he'd just beaten hell out of me in ping-pong or something. I don't think I'll ever forgive him for reading me that crap out loud. I wouldn't've read it out loud to him if he'd written it—I really wouldn't. In the first place, I'd only written that damn note so that he wouldn't feel too bad about flunking me. (2.47-50)

Holden may not know much about the Egyptians, but he does know a lot about people: enough to try to ease Mr. Spencer’s conscience about flunking him, and enough to know he’d never embarrass someone by reading a dumb essay out loud.

Holden Caulfield

"Oh, I have a few qualms, all right. Sure. . . but not too many. Not yet, anyway. I guess it hasn't really hit me yet. It takes things a while to hit me. All I'm doing right now is thinking about going home Wednesday. I'm a moron."

"Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?"

"Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do." I thought about it for a minute. "But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess."

"You will," old Spencer said. "You will, boy. You will when it's too late." (2.64-67)

Compare this conversation with Spencer to Holden's later conversation with Mr. Antolini. There seems to be some structural significance to these two conversations being placed—almost like bookends—around the rest of the text. Both men refer to some sort of crisis or downfall that Holden is surely approaching. Both talk (if somewhat indirectly here) about the importance of education. Both are a little gross—the white, hairless legs of Mr. Spencer and the fact that Mr. Antolini touches Holden while he's sleeping. How does Holden react here? Is it different from the way he reacts later?

"Well. . . they'll be pretty irritated about it," I said. "They really will. This is about the fourth school I've gone to." I shook my head. I shake my head quite a lot. "Boy!" I said. I also say "Boy!" quite a lot. (2.22)

Holden obviously has an issue with formal education. (Or, maybe formal education has an issue with him?) But before you write him off as being anti-education, start keeping an eye out for what kind of informal instruction he pursues throughout The Catcher in the Rye.

One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That's all. They were coming in the goddam window. For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life. Ten times worse than old Thurmer. On Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands with everybody's parents when they drove up to school. He'd be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents. You should've seen the way he did with my roommate's parents. I mean if a boy's mother was sort of fat or corny-looking or something, and if somebody's father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders and corny black-and-white shoes, then old Hans would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he'd go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else's parents. I can't stand that stuff. It drives me crazy. It makes me so depressed I go crazy. I hated that goddam Elkton Hills. (2.61)

It looks like Holden's problem with formal education is more about the people than the institution itself (if those can even be separated from each other). He sees formal education as always tied to a gross sort of classism. Is he right? Has it changed since then—or is elite education still interested in replicating a particular class structure?

Chapter 17
Holden Caulfield

"You ought to go to a boys' school sometime. Try it sometime," I said. "It's full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques." (17. 46)

Holden thinks that the whole point of education is to make you rich, so it’s inherently phony. To which we say—try being poor, Holden, and then turn up your nose at Cadillacs.

Chapter 24
Mr. Antolini

"Here's what he said: '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.'" (24.56)

It sounds here like Mr. Antolini might be worried that Holden’s going to commit suicide. But what’s Holden’s “cause”? He wants to be the catcher in the rye—to protect the innocence of youth. If Holden did manage to turn himself away from the rest of the [adult] world, as a kind of recluse, maybe he would “die nobly.”

"And I hate to tell you," he said, "but I think that once you have a fair idea where you want to go, your first move will be to apply yourself in school. You'll have to. You're a student – whether the idea appeals to you or not. You're in love with knowledge. And I think you'll find, once you get past all the Mr. Vineses […] you're going to start getting closer and closer – that is, if you want to, and if you look for it and wait for it – to the kind of information that will be very, very dear to your heart. Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry." (24.60-62)

Mr. Antolini gives us a new perspective: education is of inherent value itself rather than a means to a martini/golfing/monetary end, and it’s a way of connecting to people who feel just the same things you do. Is this a convincing argument? And—just a thought—could it be that this book we’re reading is the “something” that Holden has to teach?

"Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it'll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it'll fit and, maybe, what it won't. After a while, you'll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don't suit you, aren't becoming to you. You'll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly." (24.65)

Mr. Antolini explains the difference between institutionalized education and knowledge. Holden has been struggling (perhaps implicitly) to do this for most of the novel—so why does he just yawn instead of going to bed? Is he just not receptive to help of any kind right now? Is this a lesson that’s going to take time to sink in?

"I'm not trying to tell you," he said, "that only educated and scholarly men are able to contribute something valuable to the world. It's not so. But I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they're brilliant and creative to begin with – which, unfortunately, is rarely the case – tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end. And – most important – nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker. Do you follow me at all?" (24.62)

We’re not sure, but we have a suspicion that this is pretty close to Salinger's perspective. Mr. Antolini does seem to have a genuine love for his students (if possibly an inappropriate one…) and a genuine respect for learning. He doesn’t berate Holden; he talks to him like an equal.