Topic: Professions & Institutions

Showing Movies in Class: the Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly
(6/5/2007)

Defenders of America's rotting public schools are invited to address the recent fad of showing contemporary, commercial motion pictures in class. At the outset, the Scoreboard will state that it regards the practice as violating the professional duty of diligence…it is simply lazy teaching. Schools are obligated to concentrate their efforts on activities, skills and lessons that a student is unlikely to get at home and that parents agree with. They are also obligated to teach, not merely to sit classes down in front of television screens while the teachers catch up on balancing their check books.

Four commercially released films, two of them Oscar winners, have been in the news recently because teachers or principals decided that they had sufficient educational value to justify classroom screenings. By far the most popular for school viewing is Al Gore's advocacy documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which states, often overstates, and intentionally over-simplifies the case for international action to counter global warming. My son was shown it in his Earth Science class; a Canadian website, the National Post, interviewed a high school senior who complained that he had been forced to watch the film in four different classes (see: "lazy teaching," above). Things haven't reached that absurd state in the US yet, but give it time: a Texas mother recently complained to a school that her son was required to watch the movie in algebra class.

Gore's film has legitimate educational value (other than its obvious relevance in a "Film as a Propaganda Tool" college course, but only as part of a more comprehensive and critical examination of the complex scientific and policy issues involved in climate change, and only by teachers who are qualified to teach the subject and who can distinguish between polemic and fact. The Canadian student noted that while every teacher who showed the documentary acknowledged that there were "other sides" to the issue than Gore's message, and that the film "had some propaganda" in it, none of them bothered to point out the propaganda or explore those "other sides." Since even scientists quoted by Gore in his film have complained that the documentary is overly alarmist and simplified to the point of distortion, "An Inconvenient Truth" is simply an irresponsible teaching tool as it is commonly used.

But it is by far the best teaching tool of the four films, the others being "Brokeback Mountain" (about the travails of two gay cowboys), "The Departed," a bleak, cynical and violent look at corruption, and "The 300," a comic book-style retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, omitting most of the actual facts of the battle.

Showing any of these films for educational purposes, with or without parental approval, is irresponsible, incompetent, and sufficient proof that neither the teachers nor the schools that employ them can be safely entrusted with any child's education. The only genuine question remaining is, which teacher was the most unethical?

It would be hard to top Ms. Buford, a substitute teacher for Ashburn Community School in Chicago. She made another teacher's class watch R-rated "Brokeback Mountain," which includes scenes of gay cowboy love-making, without approval from the school, the teacher or the students' parents. "What happens in Ms. Buford's class stays in Ms. Buford's class," she reportedly said before having a student close the door.

Deception. Violation of trust. Abuse of power. Failure to get consent.

Unauthorized use of Las Vegas' copyrighted slogan?

I think she's clear on the last one. Otherwise…outrageous! She's now being sued by the parents of one of the students. Good!

But if I had to choose, I'd much rather have my son see "Brokeback Mountain" than "The Departed" in school, which is the film that a Danville, Kentucky teacher showed her high school class without permission. In truth, I gave my son the chance to watch a DVD of "The Departed" with me, on the theory that, like most Martin Scorsese films, it would raise interesting ethical issues. My son gave up on the movie half way through, saying, "It's just curse word, curse word, curse word, bloody killing…over and over again. Pointless and boring." Bingo! There is an ethical issue or two buried in all the double-crosses and gore, but this ethicist had trouble sorting them out. "It sure is hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys today!" is not much of a message.

It's also not much of a classroom lesson, and certainly not one that's worth making students sit through 175 minutes of vile language and unrelenting brutality in a film without a single heroic character. Astoundingly, the teacher responsible has merely been "reprimanded." Any school that doesn't consider this a firing offense be de-commissioned and turned into a shopping mall. If Jack Nicholson's character in "The Departed" was the Kentucky teacher's principal, she would have been hung on a meat-hook.

Finally, we have the case of principal Aurelia Cole and the staff at East Ridge High School in Lake County, Florida. According to WFTV, a pirated version of "The 300" was shown twice… to a 10th Grade history class and the school's baseball team. The school principal apparently tried to hide the fact from parents and the County school officials.

Showing "The 300" to a history class is like showing "Star Wars" in a science class: not completely irrelevant to the class, but wildly inappropriate. (Showing it to the baseball team is simply, well, weird.) Reading two sentences that include the date of the battle and the primary combatants would cover all the genuine historical content contained in this movie, and probably more accurately. It is also R-rated (though no more violent than video games many of the students probably play every day), but this incident has an unethical bonus missing in the others: the movie was stolen. Pirated movies are stolen property. In addition to being lazy, irresponsible, and lacking any genuine regard for history, the East Ridge teachers are terrible role models, practicing theft of a type that is epidemic among teenagers.

That makes the East Ridge movie scandal the worst of the batch from the Scoreboard's perspective, though it's a photo finish.

Private school, anyone?

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