Sunday, July 10, 2011
Lessons from France
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2009)
Of course education is key to our future; you can’t imagine a politician deviating from that. It’s something we all know, and as such, it’s essentially meaningless. Is any topic subject to so much grandstanding? Well, sure, health care, but health care is an easy one by comparison, at least given the superficiality of most debates on the topic (this too will have to change, as it dawns on us that we’re spending too much money patching up the sins and misfortunes of aging generations, and not enough on promoting and building the prospects of the younger one). But how best to teach? Every so often, the stats come out about the shaky grasp among young people of history and culture and other traditional “basics”. We hear that schools, or some of them anyway, are plain dangerous; attitudes are in the toilet. Private schooling, goes the prevailing wisdom among several people I know, is the only way to go, even if it bankrupts you.
How To Learn
As with so much else now, the contradictions kill you. I believe unambiguously in the value of studying the arts. I studied film and philosophy myself before swerving into accountancy, an unusual combination for sure, but I’m convinced it made me a better, more resourceful accountant than I would have been otherwise. But I also see way too many English and history graduates doing jobs asking much less than they could give. Periodically you read we’re going to need more plumbers or electricians or whatnot – a career path generating more money and no less variety than many of those under-deployed arts graduates - yet much as we might collectively like to claim otherwise, that kind of vocational training just doesn’t carry the same prestige.
Our multicultural society is a huge treasure; the source of much of our greatness. But by its nature it makes it hard to identify the core of what’s the most relevant knowledge now. And although young people may not know as much about some of the traditional cornerstones, their heads are surely fuller with what they do know than those of any previous generation. For sure, assuming we avoid complete collapse, there are far more paths now to a viable career. But how many of those open up through formal education? At least there are some basic skills, the table stakes of human interaction – English, math. But in a global economy, with calculators (or plenty of underemployed people to do the basic things for you), maybe it only really matters that you know how to work around things. And no matter how dedicated and resourceful our teachers might be, they’re only human after all, and probably underpaid – how much can we reasonably ask of them?
Lautent Cantet’s new film Entre les murs (The Class), which won the top prize at Cannes last year and is nominated for a foreign-film Oscar, is a fascinating and highly successful attempt to grapple with some of this. It takes place over a school year in what looks like a highly diverse Parisian district, focusing on a teacher of French and a specific class of 14 to 15 year olds. It’s based on a book by Francis Begaudeau, a real-life teacher, here playing a version of himself. Most of the pupils, likewise, play versions of themselves; the dialogue and situations were largely developed in extended workshops prior to filming.
This gives the film an immensely rich, engaged texture. At its best, the class becomes a tumble of untidy interactions, fascinating layers of cause and effect, with formal instruction fighting for space among a torrent of digressions. Both teacher and pupils test the limits – him to prove his relevance and to better connect, them because that’s what kids do. Sometimes, both sides go over the line, and the equilibrium’s threated (which, inevitably, has different consequences coming from the teacher versus the kids). It quickly impresses itself on you as an ongoing work of collective performance art; whether it’s over-stylized, I couldn’t say, but it’s certainly mesmerizing to watch.
But what about education? Throughout, the kids question the value of what he’s telling them, and he’s often straining for an adequate answer. In the end, they sum up their key learnings for the year, from his class and others, and it’s an almost comically barren list. But then you never know what happens outside the walls – one girl surprises him by saying she read Plato’s Republic, and then proving it. The film shows us nothing of his outside life and only as much of the pupils’ as you’d expect from a teacher’s perspective. At one point they hear one boy’s mother might be deported; it occupies the teachers for a few minutes, then never gets mentioned again. But the boy seems to be going on, much as he always did.
At the end, Cantet generates a moment of superb existential doubt, through one girl’s confession that she understands nothing of what goes on. And yet, by the measures he applies, she seems to be functioning. Maybe she’s guilty, as the phrase goes, of over-thinking. Earlier in the film, one parent worries that the school spends too little time facilitating the brightest children, potentially letting them be constrained by the demands of others; from what we see (albeit a highly fragmented view), it’s a legitimate concern. In this sense, The Class ably captures a key ambiguity – that diversity, expanded community and escalating possibility, let loose on a world already feeling its limitations, might be in conflict with attaining true, informed individuality.
Welcome To The Sticks
The Class is a delight to just about everyone who sees it, but the movie the French really liked was Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, the biggest homegrown hit of all time there. Here, that gets you one screen at the downtown AMC. The premise is a post office manager, transferred as a punishment to the country’s far north (he’d pretended to be handicapped, to get a prime job on the coast). Those northerners don’t have much of a reputation – they talk funny, they’re rough around the edges, and it’s real cold up there – but, of course, he learns to love them.
That’s as far as this movie’s pedagogical content goes. Directed and co-starring Dany Boon, it does have its moments, although a fair chunk of those consist of jokes about being drunk, or pretending to be in a wheelchair, or mistaking someone as gay (you get the idea). Even in subtitled translation, the verbal misunderstandings are entertaining in an Abbott and Costello kind of way. But I don’t think there’s a single minority face to be seen, or a remotely complicated idea to be heard, from start to finish. The huge box office response teaches us again what we knew already, about the short-term pay-off of keeping the lessons real simple.