Hooray for Diffendoofer Day by Dr. Seuss was published posthumously with some help from children’s author Jack Prelutsky and illustrator Lane Smith. A young boy who attends the Diffendoofer School in Dinkerville, a very special school with very unique teachers, narrates the story. Published in 1998, only two years after Berlin published Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, this Seussian classic is a prime example of classroom environment Berlin encourages English departments to adopt. Filled with silly named teachers who reject the conventional, boring, dreary style of teaching, Diffendoofer School is the ideal representation of the social-epistemic ideology. Even though Berlin is targeting college English departments in his book, the Diffendoofer School more than meets the challenges set by Berlin in terms of the goals of education.
Berlin writes that “We must finally provide a college education that enables workers to be excellent communicators, quick and flexible learners, and cooperative collaborators” (Berlin 50). The unconventional methods employed by the teachers in Hooray for Diffendoofer Day create situations in which students are asked to do more than memorize facts and figures, fostering an environment where students develop more than study skills.
Miss Wobble teaches smelling,
Miss Fribble teaches laughing,
And Miss Quibble teaches yelling.”
These teachers are at the crux of the participatory classroom Berlin describes, as they “[share] the right to dialogue while never relinquishing the authority to set certain agendas for class activities” (Berlin 103). Activities at the Diffendoofer school include “how to tell chrysanthemums from miniature poodles” and “how to put a saddle on a lizard or a leopard,” and each teacher brings a different specialty to the classrooms. “The aim of the course [like those at the Diffendoofer school] remains the same in all situations: to enable students to become active, critical agents of their experience rather than passive victims of cultural codes” (Berlin 104).
Thus, when it comes time to take “a special test to see who’s learning such and such – to see which school’s the best” Miss Bonkers quickly assures the students of their success, because the Diffendoofer school has taught the students how to think. As I read through Berlin’s explanation of the social-epistemic classroom, I kept thinking that this was ultimately the unspoken goal of the composition course. To Berlin, students should be exposed to a variety of texts that allow them to locate “the unsaid and excluded elements that constitute a text’s meaning, the reader develops a sensitivity to the gaps, inconsistencies, and disparities that are an element of all signifying practices” (Berlin 91).
In Hooray for Diffendoofer Day the narrator reports that the test had questions about poodles and frogs, listening and laughing, but there were also questions “about other things we’d never seen or heard, and yet we somehow answered them, enjoying every word.” The same “sensitivity” Berlin suggests readers will develop is represented by the critical thinking skills the Diffendoodfer students use to answer the questions about things they have never encountered. The goal in both Berlin and Miss Bonkers classroom is the same: provide students with opportunities to engage in a variety of situations in a way that prepares them to apply the same skills to new, unfamiliar terrain.
Also, just as Berlin sets his social-epistemic rhetoric in contrast to previous movements such as democratic literacy and Fordism, the Diffendoofer School is the foil of the Flobbertown school. In miserable Flobbertown everyone does everything the same; they dress in one style, they sing one song, they never dance, they never play, their lunches have no taste, and their dogs have no bark. Flobbertwon functions like an assembly, producing students who are incapable of original and critical thoughts. According to Berlin, “Writing is thus discovery and invention, not mere reproduction and transmission” (Berlin 81). In this contrasting pair, social-epistemic ideology as found in the Diffendoofer school clearly falls under the category of “discovery and invention”, leaving the mere reproduction and transmission of information to Flobbertown.
“Thus, in choosing the texts we are to read and in providing the interpretive strategies we are to use in responding to them, English studies plays an immensely important role in consciousness formation” (Berlin 55). I believe education at any level should play an important role in consciousness formation (although I recognize Berlin’s primary focus in the English classroom). The Diffendoofer School provides an over the top representation of what a true social-epistemic classroom should look like. A place where teachers abandon the idea of a uniform, dreary, assembly line approach to learning, and embrace all of the knowledge that can be gained from lessons on building robotic rats, teaching ducks to sing, and “tying knots in neckerchiefs and noodles.” The social-epistemic classroom is a liberated place where creativity and exploration meets learning and thinking.