10 julho 2018

Review of 'Education and the boarding school novel: The work of José Régio', by Christoph Teschers

Filipe Delfim Santos’ (2017) book Education and the Boarding School NovelThe Work of José Régio is a well-written and insightful work in eight chapters, engaging with the genre of boarding school novels as well as related genres, such as the Künstlerroman and Bildungsroman, and their relevance for education. Santos shows at the example of José Régio’s work A drop of blood how boarding school novels not only tell a story about boarding schools as educational institutions but also about the impact of the daily life and environment of such schools on students’ mental, character and self-development of, predominantly, boys. The book can loosely be divided into two parts, with Chapters 1–4 focusing on the broader topic of boarding school novels situated in the wider context of genres, its relevance to education and a reflection on boarding schools as special places in which Santos analyses the power relations and structures impacting on the development of the young mind. Chapters 5–8 see a shift of focus more strongly towards José Régio as author, educator and artist, as well as a more detailed engagement with his boarding school novel A drop of blood as an autobiographical novel of Régio’s early life.

In the first two chapters, Santos argues the relevance of non-fiction literature—in the case of school and boarding school novels often autobiographical—for education, especially for the study of the psychological effects of the schooling experience on the educated mind. Santos argues that the memories forming these texts reflect, on the one hand, the most influential and memorable events and circumstances on the novelist and, on the other hand, are usually of substantial length, allowing a psychological exploration of the student’s developing character at the time. Santos further offers a short overview of different literary genres in relation to boarding school novels and alludes to two distinct versions within this kind of novel: the boarding school novel in the Anglophone tradition—written for the young, idealising the school experience, and the more autobiographical tradition prevalent in German, Francophone and Portuguese literature, among others. The latter is usually written for a mature audience, offering a more critical perspective and often depicturing a much harsher reality than boarding school novels in the English tradition:
The school’s purpose of protecting the young from the social plagues of the outside world … is defeated by the very nature of society’s worst features: abuses of power, hypocrisy and disrespect for the individual: ‘Boarding does not create society; boarding school mirrors it’ (Pompeia 1888, 312). (Santos, p. 23, italics in original)
What is of particular interest to educators here is the bleak outlook on what could be seen as an idealised educational environment, which presumably would allow for a well-structured and carefully crafted pedagogical experience beyond the classroom for students. Although Santos draws on a range of boarding school novels from different countries (with a focus on Portuguese and German literature), one has to keep in mind the historical perspective of this genre, which has seen most contributions in the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century. One would hope and assume that boarding schools today would follow more refined pedagogical practices and provisions for students’ well-being. However, I am not aware of research that has looked at the structural changes of boarding schools in comparison to earlier concepts. More recent research around social and cultural reproduction of society in and through schools might indicate that similar process are still at play (Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2002). Schooling in Capitalist America Revisited. Sociology of Education, 75, 118. [Crossref], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), if so, mirroring a different social and cultural environment than was present at the time reflected in the novels drawn on in this book.Santos then turns to Foucault and his discussion of places of power. He depicts boarding schools as ‘allotopias’, as special places that are restricted in access and restrictive in their nature. Santos discusses the restrictive and oppressive power relations often emergent in boarding school literature and compares boarding schools with other ‘places of confinement’, such as prisons, juvenile corrections, boot camps, convents, hospitals and other ‘total institutions’. According to Santos, boarding schools are only outpaced by juvenile correction institutions in fulfilling criteria often attributed to ‘hypertopias’ (total institutions), such as seclusion, restricted eligibility, surveillance and others. The theme of allotopias and power relations, here discussed in general terms, is later picked up again in the discussion of Régio’s novel A drop of blood, where Santos points out the interdependent, sometimes slave-like and degrading power relations between new and older students, as well as students and prefects. Santos concludes that ‘Schools are true laboratories of power’ (p. 52).

Aspects of gender in boarding school literature are addressed in Chapter 4, where Santos comments on the strong male focus of the genre—a majority of the literature on boarding schools from the antiques to today plays in boys only school environments. Santos discusses the images of masculinity that are dominant at the time and local cultural context of the boarding school experiences described in the novels, which are quite often, according to Santos, dominated by Christian and bourgeois values of turning boys into men. Novels often reaffirm traditional masculinity stereotypes of physical strength and a certain rowdiness and toughness as the ideal of what it means to be a man. However, other aspects of masculinity and internal experiences of boys as boys are emerging, especially in the Portuguese and Continental European boarding school literature. Santos discusses the impact these conceptions of masculinity can have on the developing male mind and character, especially where internal experiences of self do not fit the external ideal of what it means to be a boy or a man. He explains further the symbiotic relationships between boys that are depicted. For example, in Régio’s work, relationships between a physically strong and dominant boy who offers a certain protection and the nerdier, studious and often less physically capable boy who brings some balance and a voice of reason to the boy-dyad. Santos further alerts the reader, here and in the later discussion of Régio’s work, to the complexity of male relationships between friendship, dependencies and romantic desires that emerge in some of the boarding school literature. Santos closes his reflection on masculinity and the boarding school ideal, stating the fated decline of the latter due to changing views on masculinity after the Second World War, which has seen a stronger emergence of female ideas in family contexts. Santos mentions briefly that a more romanticised, in contrast to some of the more explicit depicted sexual encounters in male focused boarding school novels, female genre tradition was established, but has seen less followers and is only touched on here. Although Santos clearly focuses on Régio’s work in this book, the elaborate and detailed work on boarding school novels in general would, in my mind, have warranted a more detailed engagement with the female focused tradition of the genre. The shortness of the topic here leaves a slightly superficial impression that sits at odds with the level of depth and breadth Santos applies throughout the rest of his work.

As indicated above, Chapter 5 sees a turning point in the book, focusing more strongly on Régio as a person, educator, author and artist, and on his work in the Portuguese literature scene. Santos sets the context by describing the place of boarding schools novels in Portuguese literature and situates Régio’s A drop of blood in the wider local and historical context of adult focused boarding school novels. Santos provides a background of Régio as an eclectic writer who published in a range of genres. Régio grew up and became a teacher in a small, secluded village in rural Portugal. However, Santos interprets Régio’s writing to show a more troubled and far from idyllic persona. Régio is said to see art as an expression of the individual’s ‘I’ of the artist, which contextualises his writing not as a form of activism or social criticism, but as an expression of his own persona and experiences. This non-activist stance, according to Santos, has created some challenges for Régio within the circles he connected with. However, some of his work has also been oppressed by the then-government due to perceived activism and evident naming and criticism of social issues, although he did not advocate for ready-made solutions of any flavour. Overall, Santos paints Régio as a controversial artist who faced internal, personal and external challenges in terms of perception and recognition of his art. In the context of his boarding school novel, Régio’s autobiographic focus on the inner self and psychology of the protagonist allows valuable insights of Régio’s experiences in boarding schools on his personal development and self.

Arguably one of the most interesting chapters for educators is Chapter 7, in which Santos analysis Régio’s boarding school novel from an educational perspective, drawing on many of the concepts established in the earlier chapters, such as allotopias, power relations, images of masculinity and boyhood relationships. Although each section in this chapter has its own appeal, the chapter itself has a somewhat disjointed and episodic feel to it. Here, Santos begins with a reflection on the power of narratives and differing versions of the same events, stating the lesson that ‘when your version of the story is not told, you risk becoming not the hero but the villain’, which he sees as fundamental ‘to the unfolding of Régio’s narrative as well’ (p. 110). Santos reflects briefly on ‘other spaces’ followed by an analysis of Lelito’s (Régio’s protagonist) school initiation as rituals of humiliation and degradation. Santos looks at the model of prefects and fags, common at the time in boarding schools following the English model, analysing the power relations and forms of class systems in boarding schools in which new students start out as servants, not to say slaves, of mature students in exchange for protection from other forms of abuse. The aforementioned pairing of boys in symbiotic relationships is discussed, as well as Régio’s ‘psychic masochism’, expressed through open and explicit narratives of Régio’s erotic life to an extent that Santos judges challenging even for today’s readers.

Santos concludes in Chapter 8 that Régio’s A drop of blood is indeed a Künstlerroman, as it focuses on the formation of the personality of the protagonist in an autobiographical fashion, representing the ‘I’ of the artist. Santos judges Régio’s work not to be attractive for the general public, but for a selected audience, although his writing is supposedly easy to engage with. From an educational perspective, Santos considers boarding school novels and Régio’s work in particular as double significant: (i) the personal development of students in a treacherous and dangerous (for soul and self) environment is presented for psychological analysis, and (ii) a critical reflection on educational settings, especially on boarding schools, beyond the glorification in the British tradition, is implicitly or explicitly part of this autobiographic genre. Santos sees links to relevant educational questions, such as single-sex educative environments and the impact of contemporary views and stereotypes of masculinity (and femininity) on these environments. In regard to Régio’s A drop of blood, Santos lists a range of questions the novel poses for education, such as if and how young men with artistic dispositions can be accommodated in mainstream schools and curricula, and how and when should these students received detached, individualised education to foster their artistic interests and talents? Here, links to the educational discussion around talent and giftedness, as well as inclusive education and universal design for learning come to mind, but have not been considered by Santos in this context. However, Santos draws on Régio to point out once again the reproductive function of schools for society and notes that it is here ‘that disrespect for the individual begins, in the name of goals presented as common and universal. But are they ours? Should they be ours?’ (p. 134).

Santos’ book Education and the boarding school novel is eloquently written and a pleasure to read. It covers a wide range of aspects related to boarding school novels as a genre in global and historical contexts; the relevance of literature for educational theory and contemplation; boarding schools as ‘other spaces’ that are sometimes idolised but do not live up their ideal in the autobiographic narratives presented in the boarding school literature; as well as an analysis of José Régio as author and artist, and an educational analysis of A drop of blood in relation to students volatile psychological development and the impact of school organisation and settings. Overall, the book provides an interesting overview into this broad topic, although some chapters and sections within seem disjointed at first and only find their place when looked at as a whole. It certainly is a book that needs, and is worthy, to be read from cover to cover.

Christoph Teschers
School of Health Sciences, University of Canterbury, College of Education, Health and Human Development, Christchurch, New Zealand

© 2018 Christoph Teschers