"Poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom"

In today’s New York Times, a 10th-grade history teacher at a public school in
the Bronx reviews Hollywood’s latest inspirational-teacher flick.

The great misconception of these films is not that actual schools are more chaotic and decrepit — many schools in poor neighborhoods are clean and orderly yet still don’t have enough teachers or money for supplies. No, the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job….

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.

I won’t argue the need for more of the first two, but I’m always surprised at how, once a Ms. Gruwell wins over a class with clowning, tears, rewards and motivational speeches, there is nothing those kids can’t do. It is as if all the previously insurmountable obstacles students face could be erased by a 10-minute pep talk or a fancy dinner. This trivializes not only the difficulties many real students must overcome, but also the hard-earned skill and tireless effort real teachers must use to help those students succeed.

It seems to me that Hollywood takes exactly the same short-attention-span approach to foreign policy. Each international crisis is a movie project. Activists devote their attention to it for six months or so, generating media events and raising tons of cash. When that’s done, they take several months off, then they’re ready for new causes, new projects, new scripts, new locations, new casts, new marriages. Nothing can’t be solved by media events, cash, and lots of feel-good self-congratulation. Who cares if their solution bombs with the people it aims to rescue. They’re not really the audience. They’re somebody else’s responsibility. And it was all somebody else’s money to begin with.

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Filed under cinema, education, U.S.

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