You may remember the movie Dangerous Minds from the last century. Or Stand and Deliver. Seems nothing has changed. Not only do we still face questionably realistic films about inspiring teachers in difficult urban schools, the reality of the plight of these schools has remained constant over decades. I wanted to revisit these two movies and their ilk because they embody a challenge I think we face as a society with coming to terms with our problems.
What’s particularly odd about the school teacher/inner city savior narrative is that writers never imagine the story from a different perspective: what about the principle who deals with dozens of fractious teachers who go from passionate to incompetent? What about the superintendent who must deal with multiple schools and policy problems? Or the individual child who goes through up to 8 teachers a day and a different set of classes each year? Or maybe the parents who fight on the PTA to get other parents involved and improving the school? It would be fascinating to see a high school the way the members of a gang do, to dramatize the ways they manipulate teachers and other schools. It’s obvious: there are so many people involved in each school and so many different roles that people play, and over the decades since Stand and Deliver came out, you might think we would have accumulated a somewhat developed variety of perspectives on the problems of education. Now, maybe those movies are out there, but it’s not my experience that they get mainstream recognition even if they do exist.
The basic problem this narrative monoculture creates is a collective inability to think about more than one aspect of the school at a time. We see the teacher’s frustrations, and often the kids’ frustrations through the teacher’s lens, brought to vivid life. But unless we see how the principle, the parents, even the gangsters, have their own valid frustrations, any interventions we might imagine will be like pulling on one end of a tangled knot and just making it the knot tighten even further.
A good example is a simple conclusion anyone might draw from Dangerous Minds is that if only we taught subject material that was relevant to the kids’ lives, they might actually engage in class. Michelle Pfeifer in the film begins to teach Bob Dylan lyrics about drugs and struggling against death instead of reading some warmed-over book about friendship. With a bit of prodding, the students connect with the ideas of the lyrics to their struggles as poor, urban underrepresented minorities. While the concept is nice, it really just won’t do to think that we could solve our educational difficulties by a) letting teachers choose their own curriculum b) assigning material about death and drugs c) having all students read Bob Dylan or any other number of possibilities. The problems of the superintendent would tell us that somewhat bland standards are necessary because not all teachers are able to do a good job with making a given material accessible and relevant. Moreover, the film’s optimistic belief that the students would ultimately all appreciate such an effort at connecting with their lives is seriously misguided.
What’s perhaps most interesting here is how comprehensive understanding depends on our powers of imagination. In order to avoid picking out one group or solution as the devil or godsend, we need ways to imagine their interdependence. The narrative trope of “single teacher (plus sidekick) saves the meaning of education for poor disadvantaged children” is a reasonable start, but wholly incomplete on its own. Are there other examples of movies or books that flesh out this picture? Even news/magazine articles? How could we tell a powerful story that would expand our powers of imagination about the problems of the education system?