National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Old School

Old School

by Tobias Wolff

There is a need in us for exactly what literature can give, which is a sense of who we are… a sense of the workings of what we used to call the soul.


The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Despite everything that happens, the narrator never wavers in his pride and love for his school. Why do you think he is so attached to the school?
  2. There are few women in the book, but the narrator's interactions with them tell us some important things about him. Discuss this in connection with Lorraine, Patty, and Susan Friedman.
  3. Ayn Rand is by far the most negatively portrayed character in the book. What is there about her, both personally and philosophically, that is so opposed to the spirit of the novel?
  4. After almost telling an embarrassing story about George Kellogg, the narrator observes: "If, as Talleyrand said, loyalty is a matter of dates, virtue itself is often a matter of seconds" (p. 44). What does this mean? How does it relate to the novel's assumptions about human nature?
  5. Other than the narrator and the three real life authors who appear in the book, which character do you like or admire the most? Which one do you like or admire the least? Explain your choices.
  6. Both the narrator and (on pp. 139–140) Bill White consider "Summer Dance" to be "their" story? Why does each of them feel this way?
  7. Read Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark." The narrator refers to this story (p. 193) by claiming that Arch "was no better than Aylmer." How does Hawthorne's story get at one of the main themes of the novel? Not only does Arch's character struggle, but the narrator struggles with his Jewish roots. How do both characters reconcile their birthmarks? Are they better or worse than Hawthorne's Aylmer?
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