Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Civilizing Missions" in Action-packed Urban High Schools

In "Teachers in the 'Hood: Hollywood's Middle-Class Fantasy," Robert Bulman proffers an analysis of urban high school movies that I found to be quite illuminating.  Bulman's thesis, "In these films the poor and mostly non-white students must change their behavior and accept middle-class values and cultural capital in order to achieve academic success," articulates the essence of these movies precisely.  Last semester, in one my education classes, we watched the film Lean on Me because the professor felt that the movie did a good job of portraying some of the realities of urban education as well as education in a Type I school system.  My response to the film was only half in agreement.

Lean on Me does do a decent job of portraying the sometimes-corrupt nature of BOEs--and local politics in general--but I felt at the time, and Bulman's article has reinforced my belief, that the film does a poor job of articulating the job of an urban educator.  In his essay, Bulman discusses the archetype of teacher-/educator-hero in these urban high school films as a cowboy, an outsider to the system who is not afraid to use violence when needed.  As a corollary to this line of thought, I wonder if we might not view films with the cowboy teacher-/educator-hero less as part of the urban high school film genre and more as part of the action film genre.  Or, to put this another way, I think that urban high school films of the cowboy hero type make up a sub-genre within the broader action movie umbrella.  

In your typical action movie (think Die Hard or a James Bond film), there is very little--if any--consideration of collateral damage.  I recall one action-packed scene from the Bond film Goldeneye in particular.  In the scene, Bond commandeers a tank and rides it through the streets of St. Petersburg, causing innumerable automobile accidents, substantial damage to buildings and other infrastructure, and the destruction of a monument to Peter the Great.  But, to the audience, none of this damage is supposed to matter; in a Bond film, all that matters is that Bond completes the mission (and usually gets the girl).  In Lean on Me, I think we find a similar set of audience of expectations and thematic disregard for collateral damage.  When Joe Clark kicks out a good portion of the school for suspected drug dealing, we are not meant to wonder or care about the future of these individuals.  They are roadblocks to Clark's success and must be plowed through in much the same way that Bond plows through the cityscape of St. Petersburg.  The reality of education, of course, is that this method of the ends justifying the means should not be tolerated.  Teacher preparation and education programs like the one at MSU stress that educators must believe that all children are able to be educated.  But films like Lean on Me would have us believe that education is only for the children who already have a disposition towards it.  In truth, it might be fair to say that these children need educators least of all.

A second corollary that Bulman's article raised in my mind is that we might also view urban high school films as an extension of the imperialist phrase, the White Man's Burden.  To be clear, I have not watched enough of these films to make a truly convincing argument, so I am only extrapolating based on Bulman's research and my experience with Lean on Me.  But, even Lean on Me, which might initially appear as anything but the White Man's Burden because Joe Clark is black, I believe, ultimately finds its roots in the "civilizing missions" of the nineteenth century.  When the film begins, we see Joe Clark as a teacher at Eastside in the 1960s (70s?).  He is decked out in an afro and wears a shirt looks anything but professional white man attire.  When Clark comes back as the principal of Eastside, however, his hair is now cropped close to the scalp, and he dresses in three-piece suits.  This latter-day Clark seems disconnected from his previous incarnation, and this can be no coincidence.  As Bulman points out, success in these films is based on an adoption of white, middle-class values, and these values must be introduced from someone, namely Joe Clark.  Thus, Clark comes to stand in for the imperialist missionaries and explorers like Livingstone in both his practice and appearance.

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