Did you spot the grammar mistake? Listen, we're not total sticklers—there's a time and a place for funky grammar. But we're pretty sure the author is trying to show us something by having Rob speak like this right off the bat. This is a kid who hasn't spent hours and hours learning his cursive, that's for sure.
"I ought to lick you proper for leaving the schoolhouse."
"Yes, Papa. You ought."
"Someday you want to walk into the bank in Learning and write down your name, don't you?"
"I don't cotton to raise a fool." (2.42-46)
Clearly Papa is serious about Rob's getting an education. Do you think it's because he didn't get an education himself and he's trying to live vicariously through his son? Or is there something more to it?
"It all goes way back."
"Way back to what?"
"Back to reason. Something that modern townfolk don't care a lick for. They don't understand it, so they think it to be tomfool." (3.77-79)
Hmmm. Even with all their learning, those townfolk apparently still don't have all the answers. Papa suggests that there's an older kind of knowledge, a wisdom that comes from a close connection to the land and something that the educated folk in town have lost sight of. Do you buy it?
"…why can't you vote? Is it because you're a Shaker?"
"No. It's account of I can't read or write. When a man cannot do those things, people think his head is weak. Even when he's proved his back is strong."
"Men who look at me and do not take me for what I be. Men who only see me make my mark, my X, when I can't sign my name. They can't see how I true a beam to build our barn, or see that the rows of corn in my field are straight as fences. They just see me walk the street in Learning in clothes made me by my own woman. They do not care that my coat is sturdy and keeps me warm. They'll not care that I owe no debt, and that I am beholding to no man." (4.96-99)
Again, Papa sees two different—and equally valid—kinds of knowledge: the book learning that is valued by the larger community (and that Papa values as well), and the older, more practical wisdom that shows itself in the way a man handles his affairs and manages his land. Papa suffers the disrespect of the powers that be, though, because the only kind of learning they recognize is the kind that Papa doesn't have.
"Papa, do you believe all the Shaker Law?"
"Most. I'm glad it's all writ down in the Book of Shaker."
"How do you know it's all writ down, Papa? You can't read."
Papa looked at me before he spoke.
"No, I cannot read. But our Law has been read to me. And because I could not read, I knew to listen with a full heart. It might be the last and only time I'd learn its meaning." (4.36-40)
Papa can't read, but even though he wishes he could, he wants Rob to know that reading isn't the only path to understanding.
P.S. The Book of Shaker isn't really a thing. Check out our section on "Setting" for more on that.
Picking up the pencil, Aunt Matty started to draw some lines and circles (and a few other geegaws that I'd never seen before and never seen since) on the sentence about Jack. She put a zig-zag here, and a crazy elbow joint there. There was ovals and squiggles all over the paper. It was the fanciest thing I ever saw. The part about Jack was still in sight, but now it had arms and legs that thrashed out in six directions. It looked to me like a hill of barbwire. And the worse it got, the prouder Aunt Matty was of it.
"Behold!" she said at last, trying to pry loose the pencil from her own fingers. "That is a diagram!" (6.64-65)
Rob's description of Aunt Matty's diagram sure makes it sound ridiculous, huh? What do you think? Is learning to diagram sentences going to help improve Rob's grade in English? Do you think our author is trying to tell us something here?
The trouble kicked up when I showed my report card to Aunt Matty. She could read. But as it turned out, she couldn't read the letter A, no matter how many she saw. All she could read was D, where I got a D in English.
"You got D in English!"
The way Aunt Matty took on, it must have been the first D anybody ever got, because it sure gave her the vapors. I thought she was going to die from the shock of it. Like she had seen a ghost. There it was. A big black D, as big and black as Miss Malcolm could make it, right there on my old report card. And it was more than poor Aunt Matty could bear. She let out a gasp, and her hand went to her throat like she was spasmed. (6.18-20)
Aunt Matty's overwrought response to the D on Rob's report card comes across as comical, and makes her seem silly despite her big-time education. Might want to keep your mouth shut next time, Auntie M.
"Is he a better farmer than you, Papa?"
"Yes. He bests me at it. He wouldn't say to my face. But he knows and I know, and there's not a use in wording it."
"I don't want to grow up to be like Mr. Tanner. I want to be like you, Papa."
"I wouldn't wish that on a dead cat."
"I do, Papa. And I will. I'll be just like you."
"No, boy, you won't. You have your schooling. You'll read and write and cipher. And when you spray that orchard, you'll use the new things."
"True. And you'll have more than farming to do. You won't have to leave your land to kill another man's hogs, and then ask for the grind meat with your hat in your hand." (12.54-61)
Papa sees education as a way for Rob to improve his lot in life and make him more prosperous than his father. He's interested in education not as an end in itself, but as a tangible way to increase Rob's skill as a farmer and, in turn, his future prospects.
"You are not to say this to your mother, or to Carrie. But from now on, you got to listen how to run this farm. We got five years to go on it, and the land is ours. Lock and stock. Five years to pay off. And you'll be through school by then."
"I'll quit school and work the farm."
"No you won't. You stay and get schooled. Get all the teaching you can hold." (12.98-100)
Like elsewhere in the book, Papa insists that Rob pursue his education as far as possible, even in the face of Papa's death. Though quitting school might help Rob in the short-term, it would be disastrous for his future.
Under the tools, I saw an old cigar box that was gray with dust. Inside was a wore-down pencil stub and a scrap of old paper. Unfolding the paper, I saw where Papa had been trying to write his name. One of the "Haven Pecks" was near to perfect, and he almost had the hang of it. The paper was dry and brown, as if he had practiced for a long time. Carefully folding the paper back into just the way he had folded it, I rested it in its box and closed the lid. (15.23)
Wow, this is some sad stuff. Can't you just see Papa, in a spare moment here or there, trying so hard to write out the letters of his name? He understood all the possibilities that were closed to him because of his lack of education. No wonder he wants Rob to stay in school.