Don’t watch this film. Seriously, don’t. It’s awful. I only watched because I was on the plane and the only other half-way watchable film was “Argo” (wich I did like, but I already saw). It was nudged in to watchability for three reasons – one was that one of the bit-part actors in the early “budget” scene looked disturbingly like @brlamb, and the other two reasons were both Salma Hayek (sorry).
So basically standard Hollywood “if you believe in yourself you can triumph over the odds” nonsense, but as applied to teaching. The plot fundamentally revolves around budget cuts administered by a slimy manager who – wait for it – turns out to be stealing money from the school. Various cuts to unessential stuff like supplies and staff wages are unremarked upon, but – oh no – the school music programme is getting cut, which is led by a generic film music teacher, all long greying hair and otherworldliness. (and the debating club is cut as well, but no-one could care less about that. Stupid debating club.).
So an underachieving Biology teacher decides to raise all the money to save music. He starts off teaching migrants towards their citizenship test, but that doesn’t pay anything like the $48,000 he arbitrarily needs so he quits. And then, after seeing a “mixed-martial arts” (basically cage-fighting) bout on TV, he decides that this is the money-making activity for him. Oh the LOLs. Oh the multiple serious injuries, which despite being a biology teacher he seems to understand very poorly.
One of the guys from his citizenship class helps him, and he fights various people, seemingly getting money even if he wins or loses. The morale seeming to be if your institution is facing cuts you should literally stand there and allow yourself to be beaten to a bloody pulp, because that’s the best way to address systemic funding issues in US education.
But wait – all this senseless violence is making him a good teacher. You can tell this because (a) standing on desks like in “Dead Poets’ Society” and (b) visual aids! in colour! He’s so confident now that he even manages to look Salma Hayek in the eyes long enough to convince her to have dinner with him – which he gets his working class friend to cook, for whom he subsequently finds a chef job for because he needs to totally Follow His Dream.
Meanwhile, he gets noticed by the people who run some big-league version of grown men fighting in shorts, for which he gets enough money to fund the music programme just by getting beaten up once (for a year? what happens next year? please god not a sequel!). He gets all this money because he has become a celebrity, which is totally the only way to succeed in the US. And in Vegas, no less! But (late twist) he gets a call from Salma: that rotten headmaster has stolen all the money that he won from those earlier fights. Now he (of course) he has to win against some tattooed guy who’s parents must have been (a) mountain gorillas and (b) siblings.
But the whole school music programme turns out to play his entrance theme, thanks to Salma Hayek who is now in a slinky red ballgown. Why? I don’t know, but I am prepared to suspend belief on that point. And everyone’s all “look, you inspired those kids so you won anyway – that’s what a teacher should do” (no teaching to the test here). And yeah, he wins. And everyone is happy – the music programme gets funded, the migrants that he abandoned because they didn’t make him enough money all get US citizenship, the kids are all happy and he gets to give Selma a quick squeeze. (if you think I am undervaluing Salma Hayek’s actorly contribution to the film, I am not. If anything I’ve oversold the integrity and taut writing that defines the part. Salma Hayek is a talented actress who was criminally underused in this film as little more than eye-candy).
So can what we learn from this:
- Educators can make a difference, but only if they really try. Everyone else who is suffering with cuts and a lack of resources and paycuts and the gutting of state education systems in favour of unaccountable charter schools just isn’t trying. Teachers should literally be beaten to a bloodied pulp rather than have taxpayers pay a fair contribution.
- Education is an individual activity – teachers inspire (and learners are – passively – inspired), generally by standing on desks and using visual aids. If only all teachers did these two simple things education might not be broken. Basically every lesson should be like a Ted talk delivered under the influence of amphetamines, because that’s the only good kind of learning.
- There is absolutely no sense in working with education managers in the state system – they are all corrupt, thoughtless, and devalue the contribution made by teachers. All they care about is the budget, and the embezzling thereof.
- Individual acts of pointless heroism are totally the thing. Some kind of collective, unionised action could root out the senior level corruption and ensure a fair use of the available budget – if it happened state- or nation-wide it could greatly benefit education for all. But better one fat guy gets kicked in the nutsack on national TV to fund a music programme.
- Don’t bother trying to change the system – no-one can change the system. Just be a celebrity instead – the real American dream.
- And Salma Hayek does not by herself make for a watchable movie. She needs a well written part which uses her undoubted talents as an actor.
Now I know what you are thinking – you are thinking that I’m over-analysing what is at best a dumb inflight movie. But this is important – again and again we are being sold individual heroism as the answer to education. Individual heroism backed by, say, Sony (who are responsible for this film) or another manufacturer of educational technology and resources.
All it is supposed to take is the vision and heroism of one person and a lot of taxpayers money going to large private technology companies and – boom – education goes from a broken process to one that churns out happy, confident, maybe knowledgeable, but clearly INSPIRED students.
Learning is a far more complex process than that. Education is not all desk-standing and self-belief. And “follow your dream” is an aspiration, not a right (you think my dream is an occasionally interesting education blog with a silly name?). We are being sold a Hollywood vision of education – all production values and regurgitated self-help. And it is this vision that is currently putting stars in the eyes of policymakers and funders. And that isn’t following a dream. It’s following an apocalypse.