Southern fiction has a new hero—Tom Ironsides makes his appearance in book form in Perrin Lovett’s work The Substitute (Shotwell Publishing, 2023). Sequels and prequels are in the offing.
Ironsides is a sort of James Bond, but a much better man. He is a master of his former craft as a CIA operative, although he has progressively developed a realisation that he had not really been defending his country but rather the worst people in it. Lovett describes his paramilitary adventures vividly and more realistically than Bond fantasies.
Ironsides has seen much of the world and has lived a good deal abroad, including as a college professor in Slovakia. Like Bond, he drinks and likes women (and additionally is a cigar connoisseur ). He is also a Christian, a genuine classical scholar, and feels deeply a duty toward his declining country and people. Ironsides was born and bred in the snows of New Hampshire, but is a happily adopted South Carolinian.
In his first book appearance Ironsides’s social conscience leads him in retirement to sign up as a substitute teacher for South Carolina schools in the Augusta, Georgia metropolitan area. He wants to know what is happening in education.
From here The Substitute is based on the first-hand experiences, blow by blow, of the author as a Substitute. These experiences are a cold shower (or an alarm bell if you prefer) for anyone who really wants to know what goes on in the public schools. And we all should want to know.
Ironsides’s encounters in elementary, middle, and high schools with dozens of administrators, teachers, and students–good, bad, and indifferent–are authentic. There are a number of good books about the perilous state of American education, but Lovett provides us with a nuts and bolts, every day portrayal that really strikes home.
There are some good and dedicated teachers–almost all demoralised and wanting to get out even if it means working for Walmart. The students are mostly good (although there is a violent minority who are never appropriately handled). But the young people are, as they vaguely understand, the victims of fearful, faddish, over-controlling bureaucrats who have never had any idea about what education should be.
The schools barely teach reading, writing and ‘rithmetic to some of the students. As for passing on Western Civilisation, which has been the successful goal of education for centuries, the intellectual and moral mediocrities who are in charge do not even know what you are talking about.
Ironsides entered the schools in an open-minded investigative attitude and in hope of contributing some improvement. He ends his year with the certainty that there is no hope of reform in the vast decaying educational empire. The preservers of civilisation must leave behind the mass public “education” and begin innovative work elsewhere.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews