Captain Underpants as a Critique of the Public School System
In a wild time, a gallant hero once fought mutant toilets, a Medusa lookalike that gave wedgies, and bionic boogers. And after a decent run in saving the city of Piqua, Ohio just over half a dozen times, Captain Underpants had his time to rest. But in 2012, the semi-nude savior served again as the subject of Dav Pilkey’s hit series named after the briefed bravado himself. Once more, the classic children’s book from the 2000’s surges in popularity and Captain Underpants is again a household name.
As I’ve matured through the years, I used to look back with rose-tinted lenses at the countless hours I spent reading and rereading the series. When I finally picked up the first book again, I was absolutely shocked at the deeper message behind the shenanigans of George Beard and Harold Hutchins. It’s absolutely clear that Dav Pilkey actively criticizes the American public school system in the original run of Captain Underpants (series).
In a book filled with potty-related humor, attacking one of the largest systems of employment in America would be a shot misfired, a black sheep, something that doesn’t belong. However, the author works in subtle details that lead to an all but obvious criticism of public education, addressing several issues that current public schools struggle to deal with.
The most prominent issue that Pilkey deals with is the fact that the public school system has yet to raise educational standards to match global growth. This is a broad topic, but most basically refers to the lack of academic rigor that American schools have in comparison to Western European, Scandinavian, East and Southeast Asian schools of pre-collegiate education. The critique of this topic is so rampant within the novels that it’s used as many the foundation of many comic situations. Take, for example, the various activities that teachers assign to their classes. Scenes taking place in class often include drawing, making arts crafts, and various other projects. Hardly are the children ever engaged in an intellectually stimulating activity. One might argue that arts and crafts take creativity, but this point is largely mitigated because at the elementary level, nobody is tapping into ones’ inner Picasso. It is also important to note that when students are engaged in academically laborious work, it’s imposed upon them with restrictions and regulations. Take the letter-writing scene in book five, Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman. One of the teachers will be leaving soon, and her students are given the assignment to write a farewell letter for her. Letter-writing is a forgotten art with the ubiquity of email these days, so this doesn’t seem like a terrible practice. However, the students are given an outline to follow, exact words to copy, and a template for the cover of her card. In no way are they actively engaging with the material and assignment they are assigned; they are spoon-fed the answers and given the resources to completely cut off any required effort.
School isn’t completely about academics, particularly elementary schools. Extra-curricular programs and creative activities are a major part of the elementary school experience. Modern American public school systems, in Pilkey’s mind, are able to mess this up somehow. I mentioned above that classes at Jerome Horwitz take time to constantly do crafts and art. This might have been a decent time to expand on creative ventures and spark interest for the arts. The teachers manage to bypass these benefits by setting constraints on what is allowed to be created. In the segment in the previous paragraph about creating the farewell card, a girl happened to draw a butterfly on the card in an effort to beautify and make unique what was given to her as plain and normal. For acting on her own decisions, she was punished and her card was torn in pieces. This is the scene in which Pilkey most explicitly shows the complete control teachers exert over the creative content of children.
Who’s fault is it that children are not receiving the education America needs to compete? Pilkey argues that teachers are to blame, for a spectrum of reasons. The author weaves important details that reveal his condemnation of the behavior of public school educators. We’ve already covered the fact that teachers fail to set a standard of education beyond what is required by the government, enacting pointless classroom events and slowing academic growth by disengaging students intellectually with mundane and repetitive assignments and projects. The list of faults modern elementary school teachers bring to the classroom extend far beyond a lack of academic rigor, and to compile the full set of complaints Pilkey has, one needs to look closely at the teachers of Jerome Horwitz Elementary School.
Miss Tara Ribble is the most frequently mentioned of the teaching staff at Jerome Horwitz. Cruel and uncaring, she is constantly grumbling about her students to other teachers or to her class itself. Her name reflects her personality; at a brief glance, she’s just a miserable (Miss Ribble) person, but upon closer inspection, she’s terrible (Tara Ribble). Despite having no patience for immaturity and lack of focus, Miss Ribble drags herself to complete the grueling work that is teaching children. Her classroom is the most commonly featured doing pointless activities such as origami or drawing. She is the despotic ruler of the classroom, yelling at one of her students for drawing a butterfly on her farewell card. The tyrannical teacher also is petty and shallow, as shown during her wedding in the fifth book. Tricked into marrying Mr. Krupp, the principal of Jerome Horwitz, she rejects him at the altar because his nose was not of her desiring.
Miss Ribble is the stereotypical teacher who teaches for the paycheck. Her attitude towards children is a clear indicator that she does not teach for the joy that comes with working with youths. Neither does she find value in that she’s setting up the future by instructing kids, shown by her less than stellar class room schedule which seems to be filled with pointless art projects and meaningless assignments. If she isn’t teaching for the sake of children or her country, there’s only one thing keeping her at Jerome Horwitz: access to a steady paycheck. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most common major employer throughout the United States is public education. Piqua, OH is no different, with the Piqua City School District having the third highest number of employees in the city, employing roughly 15% of the cities workers. The other highest employing workplaces are all tech companies with the exception of Walmart. This trend is a common one within American cities; while non-collegiate public education are typically top employers in any given city or town, the other top employers are typically technology and medical development/production companies and large corporate businesses. As a result, people who need jobs but are unqualified to work at these large firms turn to the public education system. Undereducated, underqualified, and with no motivation to teach children, it’s clear that Pilkey wanted Miss Ribble to represent the worst in teachers.
It’s also important to note the polar opposite, also exhibited by Miss Ribble herself. After her plight in the fifth book, the protagonists of the series, Harold Hutchins and George Beard, hypnotize their miserable teacher to become the most lenient and child adoring teacher in the school. Though her students appreciate the change in character, Pilkey does not. In fact, one may argue that she was a better teacher in her tyrannical form, because at least then she forced on her students the ethics of discipline. Instead, as the “nice teacher” stereotype, Miss Ribble loses all control of her class. She is unable to punish those who require disciplinary action because she is a “nice teacher”. Though she bakes cookies for her class, this distracts them from their education and from any school-related activities. Eventually, she allows her students to determine the class curriculum, allowing Harold and George to show how “Squishies” are set up (by putting folded ketchup packs in between the toilet bowl and seat so the condiment splatters over the unfortunate soul who wants to use the bathroom).
Pilkey condemns teachers who are overly lenient. Those who do come to teach children because they enjoy working with them often are unqualified teachers. They may love younger students, but their lack of will to enforce rules and trouble their young charges interferes with the ability to enforce high academic and behavioral standards. The contrast between Miss Ribble’s character progression serves as the author’s reproach of a common path for teachers. Because it’s easier to garner the affection of children by being kind, teachers will gravitate towards working at developing the personality of being ‘nice’; however this often leads to becoming weak-willed and unable to control the academic progression of the class. However, the inverse is not necessarily true either. Being strict will not necessarily increase academic performance or behavioral standards, as Miss Ribble enacted an equally unproductive class schedule and her students were just as unruly before her change.
With the staff at Jerome Horwitz so unified in their hatred of children, it’s easy to overlook some of the lesser teachers who play an equally important role in fleshing out Pilkey’s criticism. Mr. Fyde is one of these lesser noticed instructors, and while he doesn’t outwardly despise young children, he represents other common flaws in teachers. Mr. Fyde is a science teacher at Jerome Horwitz that is disconnected from his students. Unable to comprehend their immaturity and youth, he interacts with his class awkwardly. Because of this disconnect, he struggle to control his students and often let them dictate the direction of his class time. Though he is a man of science, he fails to properly control a simple vinegar and baking soda demonstration, showing a lack of proper training. Altogether, his name suits him quite well, as he is constantly mystified (Mr. Fyde) by the demands of his job.
The aspect of Mr. Fyde’s behavior that is the most problematic is his inability to control his class due to his lack of understanding of his students. He doesn’t understand that kids want to joke around and play pranks, and thus, he’s unable to comprehend why his class makes animal noises in class, one of the prime reasons he quit his job eventually. This lack of insight allows his class to continually wrest his authority from him. It’s easy to see how this kind of weakness is disruptive and impacts the learning environment of school negatively. Having had a good number of these kinds of teacher myself, even in college, any small tangent made by an innocent question can lead to significant divergence from class plans, leading to an irrelevant and unproductive class period. A strong connection with one’s students is essential, and Pilkey points out the negatives of lacking this trait.
Through the characters in the series, Pilkey denounces various undesirable characteristics common in modern public school teachers: unmotivated, lack of balance between leniency and strictness, inability to teach at a suitable difficulty, void of productive class time, unprepared, and underqualified. All of these qualities facilitate in creating an environment unsuitable for the development of young minds, and the author doesn’t fail to address any of these issues. Though written for children, Captain Underpants doesn’t pull any punches in pinpointing the weaknesses of public schools. It’s been 17 years since the first installment of the series was published, and the situation hasn’t gotten too much better. It looks like the skivvied superhero has yet to taste success in his skirmish in teaching the States how school should be run.
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