Depressing Existential Teacher Movie Part II: The Transcendent Moment

Originally posted by AMERICANSCAPEGOAT.COM

February 23, 2015

(See Depressing Existential Teacher Movie Part I for context.)

DALLAS, Texas (AS) – There is a time in nearly every movie teacher’s career when he or she is driven by a sense of urgency to pour everything out in a lesson that takes a sudden, sharp turn away from the expected.  The teacher attacks the chalkboard with a violent passion.  Inexplicably, the students are mesmerized by the hypnotic tattoo of chalk against slate.  No papers are thrown while the teacher’s back is turned.  No attention spans crash during the long seconds it takes the teacher to finish writing.  There is a hushed moment of anticipation as if the teenagers know that someone is about to get real with them. They may not yet be willing to put words to what they are feeling, but they all know that they are being shown love, perhaps for the very first time.  It is a beautiful thing.  It is inspiring.  It is usually enough to cause most viewers to suspend their disbelief.These are cringe-worthy movie moments to a real classroom teacher.  While not defending the farce that so-called research based instructional approaches are the most effective means of educating students, it must be noted that teachers really shouldn’t bank on being able to overcome years of negative conditioning with a single burst of passionate honesty.  This is Hollywood, though.  It can do anything it wants.  When the chalk dust settled after Adrien Brody’s Henry Barthes finished scrawling his heartcry on the board there was no room for doubt in the viewer’s mind that Barthes’ students were about to receive the most powerful classroom lesson of their lives.

To cut the description of Detachment’s chalkboard sermon scene short, what unfolded began as a combined product of poor script writing and overacting.  Adrien Brody’s best sad-eyed face and lump-in-the-throat voice, mixed with a smattering of R-rated language, kept Henry Barthes’ students engaged in a lesson that appeared to be taking the viewer nowhere.  Then, when all hope for being presented with any truly thought provoking ideas appeared lost, Henry Barthes’ wrapped up his lesson with the following plea:

Twenty-four hours a day for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work dumbing us to death.  So, to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read…to stimulate our own imaginations, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve our own minds.

Truer words could not have been said.  The trouble is, this message is at odds with the purpose that reading instruction is given in current education models.  Reading is championed as a means of self-improvement, but not in way that would allow it to become a means to improve the unique qualities inherent in any individual student’s mind.  Instead, reading is presented as a required skill which is necessary for progressing through college with the aim of holding down a white collar job in the distant future.  Some allowances may still be made for presenting reading as an acceptable leisure pastime where beauty might be encountered, but increased pressures are being applied to transform reading into a more utilitarian function of a servile workforce.  The reduction of time allotted for the study of literary works in Common Core classrooms is one example.  Annual high-stakes testing, where a pat on the back for mastering the most basic requirements of reading comprehension is held up as a desirable goal, is another.  By creating readers who believe that good reading is measured by one’s ability to find answers hidden within a text like Easter eggs, we’ve created a generation that is largely incapable of comprehending text independently.

While passively accepting the practical reality, most people fail to understand that our nation’s children are systematically being conditioned to accept the belief that the primary purpose of reading is to become a more successful consumer.  Thankfully, we are not yet so debased as a society that we are willing to be so frank about this function of our most current research-based approaches to reading instruction.  We still favor the euphemisms.  We’d prefer to hear that reading is a key to a better life.  We all know that we’re still talking about consumerism.  After all, wouldn’t it be silly to imagine that something as ubiquitous as Common Core reading standards were designed to ensure that no child left school without first developing the tools necessary to nurture a rich thought life?