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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/02/2012

The cinema of educational despair: A bad narrative reinforced

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University. This was written for his blog on Edutopia , and he also publishes a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal. He volunteers with the California Film Institute’s Educational Outreach Program.

By Mark Phillips

The least productive current narrative about public education goes something like this: Our schools, especially high schools, are failing. There is a predominance of ineffective teachers. Short of closing bad schools, firing bad teachers, and sending kids to charter schools, there is little we can do to change this. Most good teachers, buried alive in the testing mania, are impotent on a systemic level. For the general public this narrative, partially reinforced by films like Waiting for Superman , provides a misguided message. For teachers struggling in underfunded schools, it encourages anger and self-pity rather than productive action.

To then have a major film come along that reinforces this narrative and takes it even further into bleak anger and despair infuriates me.

So it is with the new film Detachment, and what makes the film even more concerning for me is that the film is of enough quality to be potentially seductive for many filmgoers. The cast, including Adrien Brody, James Caan and Marcia Gay Harden, is good. So is the directing and as a character study the film is engaging. However, this is also a film about a public school and, as a commentary on education, Detachment is a disaster.

Movies about teachers and high schools have rarely been realistic or enlightening. The teachers are most often either heroic Lone Ranger type characters (e.g. Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir With Love, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver) who magically reach previously unreachable students and transcend bad schools, or total incompetents (most of the other teachers in any of those films). The schools are usually lousy, with difficult students and dim administrators.

But at least most of those films were at least mildly hopeful. Detachment takes the struggle of teachers and schools to a new level of relentless bleakness.

One of the purposes of cinema focused on social issues ought to be to enlighten the audience and effectively illuminate ways of solving our problems. Instead, Detachment, reinforcing a counter-productive narrative, is more likely to become part of the problem.

None of the teachers are good, Brody’s Henry Barth included. He reaches kids on a personal level but mostly just preaches to them. As he says, ‘if you have something meaningful to share they’ll listen.” And share he does. And they listen. He’s a good preacher.

All the teachers are disillusioned. Many are in despair. They all wanted to make a difference, but have failed, undone by the kids, the parents, and the system. As one teacher says: “We’re failing. We failed in the sense that we’ve let everyone down, including ourselves.” Another one leaves a ranting voicemail ripping kids and parents before he commits suicide.

The teachers’ view of the students is cynical. One teacher who pops pills all day says, “If I didn’t take these things I’d be committing mass murder with half of these parents. I’d be helping them throw their [expletive] kids out the window.”

The school psychologist has a total meltdown and shouts at a student: “You are a shallow, disgusting creature….Your life will basically become a carnival of pain and when you can’t stand it…it will get worse!”

The students themselves are mostly reprobates, disinterested and/or angry and/or lost. They continue the long tradition in films about high schools, reinforcing the narrative of adolescent pathology.

The central student character is a stereotypical bright, lost kid, demeaned by her father, overweight from binge eating, and isolated from her peers. In the most telling moment in the film, she comes to Barth and he is too emotionally crippled to help her. The scene reinforces the pervasive theme of teacher impotence.

The only people who come off worse than the teachers and kids are the parents. The few depicted are terrible and only two show up on Open School Night.

The ending perfectly highlights the central message. Gather reads lines from The Fall of the House of Usher: “...I looked upon the bleak walls….upon a few white trunks of decayed trees with an utter depression of soul…There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart,” while we watch thousands of ripped out book pages blowing across the desolate school corridors. Fade out. Get the picture?

By the end of the film I wanted to fire the teachers and close the school. This is not good!

Disillusioned teachers lost in struggling schools with little support and test score pressures, could find the film a cathartic validation of all their frustrations. The film plays into those feelings very effectively. There is even an “every struggling teacher’s fantasy” scene in which the whole faculty walks out on a district administrator announcing the No Child Left Behind-driven changes in their curriculum. For critics of our public schools this will validate the half- truths they already believe.

But in its representation of public schools the film is a simplistic rant. The screenwriter, Carl Lund, is an ex-teacher. It clearly was therapeutic for him. That doesn’t make it good for us, and especially not for anyone looking to deal effectively with our present problems in public education.

There are no groups of teachers working collaboratively to bring about change. There are no bright together students challenging teachers or offering to help them change things. And there are no enlightened committed parents.

How about a film about really bright, dedicated, politically savvy teachers and students who take on a group of dim political leaders and turn their school around? Imagine the impact a film with that narrative could have.

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