Two Professors Sound Off on the Portrayal of Teachers in the Movies
by Mariann Starkey
Reprinted with permission from The Colorado Daily (April 27, 2001).
Robin Williams portrays teacher Sean Maguire in "Good Will Hunting" and teacher John Keating in "Dead Poets Society." The Maguire character was cited as a positive example of a teacher in the movies.
Group stereotypes in movies have enraged people since before African Americans were depicted as tap-dancing, watermelon-eating fools back in the 1930s. In addition to ethnic and cultural typecasting, some say Hollywood romanticizes professions and turns them into clichés as well.
Two college professors were in Denver recently to give a feature presentation at a teacher's conference titled, "Teacher Features: When Hollywood Defines Who We Are." They love movies but watch in dismay as films show their counterparts impregnating the chancellor and giving a student marijuana and alcohol ("Wonder Boys"), or entertaining and encouraging emotional nonconformity rather than teaching literature to an English class ("Dead Poets Society").
"I enjoyed the performances in 'Wonder Boys,' but I thought his (Grady Tripp, played by Michael Douglas) behavior was reprehensible," says Ben Wiley, professor of communication at St. Petersburg Junior College near Tampa, Fla.
As for "Dead Poets Society," Wiley thinks it's a beautiful film, drenched in golden hues and featuring robust, athletic scholars. But as a film depicting good teaching, he says "no."
"It shows a cult leader at his worst with an ostensibly anti-authoritarian bias, who gets his students to actually turn themselves over to his authority. Give up Mr. Pritchard's authority (the author of the textbook the teacher tells the students to reject) and listen to him instead; turn off the intellect and turn on the emotion," Wiley says.
Jo Keroes, professor of English at San Francisco State University, agrees.
"I object to ['Dead Poets Society'] because it skirts a serious moral issue that it raises and because, in the guise of advocating non-conformity, upholds the most traditional of patriarchal values," Keroes says.
"Dead Poets Society" takes place in an elite boarding school for boys--hardly a bastion of non-conformist ideals. But it's within that setting that the teacher, John Keating (played by Robin Williams), encourages a young student to question the authority of his father. The student, as an indirect result of Keating's teaching, ends up committing suicide.
"Also, because the film is so well done and because Robin Williams is so perfect in the part of John Keating, it deludes the audience into thinking that this what real teaching is and should be," Keroes adds.
Keating is dangerous and deceptive, she says.
"The 'Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' is a much better movie because it at least attempts to deal with the complexities of an unethical but charismatic teacher. It's also a film based on a very complex and subtle novel, while 'Dead Poets Society' is a vehicle for Robin Williams--an actor I admire, by the way," Keroes says.
Wiley believes the film character Keating, with his melodramatic shtick, has permeated the national consciousness.
"Of all the powerfully transgressive Whitman poetry that the screenplay writers might have selected, they go to the schmaltzy 'O Captain, My Captain,' all because that poem fits Keating's demand to become the new captain of the students' souls. This is not the teaching that I know in my classroom or the classroom of my colleagues," he says.
Keroes' research into the teacher-student relationship includes not only watching more than 40 films to analyze how Hollywood defines who teachers are, but studying literature. The first known, scandalous love affair was the true story of Peter Abelard with his pupil, Heloise, in 12th-century France. This relationship and others are documented in her book, Tales Out of School: Gender, Longing, and the Teacher in Fiction and Film, (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999).
Keroes, who has a doctorate in literature from Stanford University, has been teaching at San Francisco State for more than 20 years. Since part of her work involves preparing post-secondary teachers of writing and literature, it was no accident that she became interested in the ways teachers are represented in both movies and literature.
Wiley, also, has been at his college for more than 20 years. After receiving an MA in English from Kansas State University in 1972, he came to St. Petersburg Junior College in 1974. He teaches a variety of courses, including introduction to film and contemporary literature.
Both Keroes and Wiley think films can be good literature, for example, "Henry V," "Pillow Book" and "Citizen Kane," and both use film in their classes. According the them, good cinema about teachers include "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "Educating Rita," "Children of a Lesser God," "Good Will Hunting" and "Mr. Holland's Opus."
According to Wiley, "Good Will Hunting" shows the community college teacher (counselor) reaching the student in nurturing ways that other research-driven institutions might not value. It shows the capacity of teachers to transform lives.
"I also like "Educating Rita" because it shows the power of literature and good teaching to inspire students at a time when so many teachers and students are jaded and cynical about narrative," he says.
"Mr. Holland's Opus" is good because a teacher actually teaches, worries, evaluates and sacrifices.
"All three of these films are unrealistic in many ways, or at least all three present slices of the teacher pie without giving us the full look," Wiley says. "Still, with that disclaimer, I think all three present a powerful, positive view of the classroom teacher, college and high school."
Bad films about teachers are too numerous to mention, but Wiley says it's difficult for any two-hour film to fully or accurately portray the teacher.
"It can perhaps show pieces, small pieces, but teaching is too big an endeavor for film to really convey what it's all about," he says. "I call it neurotic, erotic, quixotic and despotic to show the gross categories of teacher images in film. I could also add robotic, psychotic and sclerotic."
Wiley says he is especially concerned about how the community college is depicted in film, but is essentially ignored by Hollywood because it doesn't have the cachet of the big guys and their ivy-covered walls.
"Perhaps (community college teaching) is a sub-genre of teacher in film. More often than not, if we are mentioned at all, it is as a joke or a place of last resort for inadequate student and incapable teacher alike," he says.
As a final volley to filmmakers, Wiley says community colleges know they have arrived when pornography is named for them.
"One film that suggests the community college represents something the big guys don't have was surely a title I saw once while surveying a hotel's adult film offerings. It was called 'Junior College Sluts'," Wiley says. "I didn't watch it myself but did wonder how a junior college slut differed from a university slut or just a slut in general. I guess it suggests someone earthier, more abandoned, less likely to ask existential questions while smoking after sex."