Searching for Common Ground: Rick and Pedro Go to the Movies Again

Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Earlier this week, we explored just a few of our favorite education-themed movies. Today, we cover some more movies and TV shows as well as some of the common themes they depict. Here’s Part 2:

— Rick

Rick: One recurring theme that strikes me in many education movies is the “fish out of water” meme. “Dead Poets Society” is a terrific illustration. Now, I’m a huge Robin Williams fan, but I’ve got deeply mixed feelings about his character here. In this movie, he struck me as a leech. Here’s what I mean: He went into a school where others had forged a culture marked by norms, tradition, and respect. It was also, obviously, a repressed and stultifying place. So it needed some work! But Williams didn’t tell the headmaster he wanted to come in and make some changes. He didn’t say, “All right! Here’s how we take care not to destroy what’s working while we change things up.” He didn’t go to a school where they embraced his philosophy. Instead, he just broke his employer’s rules, urged the kids to break the rules, and wound up contributing to a student’s suicide. His general attitude seemed to be, “You guys worry about the institution so that I have a platform to do my own thing.” That’s a, umm, complex legacy, at best. And yet the movie treated him as this heroic avatar. As much as I love Robin Williams and wanted to kind of cheer for him, I had big problems with all of that. But I think I’m an outlier there. I’m curious about your take.

Pedro: I liked the role and what he did. He was cultivating a passion for learning among his students and pushing them to do more than simply focusing on getting good grades. That moved me, because I think that developing a love of learning is a goal that is missing in a lot of schools. This is true whether we’re talking about elite private schools like the one depicted in the film or regular public schools. We don’t spend enough time showing teachers how to cultivate a love of learning among kids. Just think how different our society would be if more Americans had a love of reading or didn’t develop a fear of math. The character Williams portrayed subverted the rules to pursue that objective. I think more teachers should be willing to do that. Within reason, of course.

Rick: I’m with you on that. But I tend to think he should go to a school where pursuing his kind of pedagogy doesn’t mean trying to dynamite the institution. You know, another movie we haven’t touched on is “Lean on Me.” That’s the one where Morgan Freeman plays high school Principal Joe Clark while waving the bat. It strikes me that it’s one of those movies that gives the viewer an adrenaline rush even though it’s such a profoundly stupid movie. I mean, the hero’s journey is this relentless race to get enough tests over the minimum passing level in the course of a 100 days in order to forestall a state takeover. I just remember thinking, “Whose idea of educational heroism is this?”

Pedro: I agree. The message you can take away from a movie like that is: If you walk through the hall with a baseball bat, you can inspire everybody through intimidation, turn the school around, and get high test scores. That simplicity of it really always troubled me about the film despite the feel-good message. Another film we talked about on our list is “Remember the Titans.” It’s also based on a true story about T. C. Williams High School, a school in Arlington, Va., and their first attempt at integrating the school through the football team. This is a real case where what’s at stake really does matter for these communities. I think what some of these films do, particularly “Remember the Titans,” is they show us how school becomes a place where the issues in society are being acted out. Even as conflicts about race and integration were playing out through the football team, similar events were occurring throughout the country. The film shows this team coming together. The scene on the Gettysburg battlefield is particularly powerful. It’s so sad that there is so little commitment and interest in coming together across racial differences in this country right now. I think this film provides a good example of how movies can serve to help the public work through tough issues constructively.

Rick: Football frequently gets grief from folks who have problems with it, but it’s such a powerful crucible for forming character. The movie version of “Friday Night Lights” was fine, but the TV series starring Kyle Chandler just did an extraordinary job of capturing that. The five seasons were up and down, but it also offered a terrific window into the relationships, frustrations, and sacrifices that are at the heart of any educational endeavor — on the field or in a classroom. And Chandler’s Coach Taylor ranks right up there with the most inspiring educators I’ve ever seen on screen.

Pedro: I liked “Friday Night Lights.” Have you seen “Abbott Elementary” yet? It’s a comedy series set in Philadelphia. At first, I was a little troubled by it because it seems to be making a comedy out of kids who are disadvantaged and receiving a really subpar education. It’s an under resourced school in a poor neighborhood. But, I was struck by the fact that my 10-year-old daughter loved it, so we stuck with the series. After a while, I started really liking the show for two reasons. First of all, it’s funny as hell. Second of all, it does expose the inequities in education in a really profound way. I’ve come to appreciate the show as a way of illuminating complex issues.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 12 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “ Rick and Pedro Go to the Movies.”

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.