Ennui on the Screen and Life Lessons

The screen has historically not been seen as a great educator, even if education and entertainment share a common element: the need for change and growth. For there to be stakes in the most basic stories there has to be someone needing to rise to a challenge – and more complex works show the pervasive difficulty in recognising and addressing life’s obstacles. The likes of Dead Poets Society have created, however, a popular image of education on the screen as a schmaltzy, inspirational exercise, but this ignores that education is naturally driven by emotion: it’s a subject that underpins every part of our existence and so is not prone to subtlety. Surely, then, the vivid chronicling of life the screen affords is perfectly placed to explore the nuances of how we learn, teach, and to suggest how we can become better educated and better educators? 

Undoubtedly one of the books that lays the groundwork for understanding education’s purpose and potential is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire’s short but iconic book that identifies education as a key tool of social action. In doing so, however, it criticises methods and reasons for that continue today; the ‘banking’ method of depositing facts in others. It suggests, quite rightly, that there has to be both dialogue around ideas and room for people to form their own. Stories are more dynamic when there are characters talking, thrashing through ideas, and eschewing the conventional banking method, and so Freire’s manifesto is one fit for the screen.

Dead Poets Society might be seen by some as shallow but it’s a powerful presentation of teaching that is geared around the needs of those taught. The students begin the film frustrated by their circumstances, with overbearing parents and formulaic, uninspiring teachers. This all changes with the arrival of John Keating (Robin Williams) who uses an unpredictable style they need in order to recognise the link between the work and their own lives, taking the effort to recognise the individuality of his students. Indeed, to those who’ve not experienced such consideration this might seem fanciful – and Freire recognises that without the right education perceiving alternative ways of being is nigh on impossible.

The main cast of Dead Poets' Society pose enthusiastically for an in-character promotional photo
Image Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures / Silver Screen Partners IV

Even where the film does lose realism, it recognises the intensity of the common need for self-expression. These students are people who are unable to perceive what Freire refers to as an “untested feasibility” – an opportunity beyond their current situation — but only an endless present, thanks both to their lack of power and a lack of experience having any real sort of personal agency. The agony faced by Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), then, when banned from his creative pursuits is entirely plausible. It has echoes of The End of Eddy, a semi-autobiographical novel that has influenced, of people trapped into behaviours because they have learned to expect no other possibilities; an issue that Eddy finds itself evident amongst both the rich and the poor in the consistent sense of oppression by societal expectations.

Emphasised repeatedly by Freire is the importance of dialogue, but he puts as the foundation of productive conversation the need to speak your honest truths – a concern that is held by the multifaceted Half Nelson. This film shows Dan (Ryan Gosling), a white history teacher who connects with the Black students in his school with open conversation linked to their realities, reminding them that history is all about the potential for change. Dan, however, doesn’t make change in his own life partly, it seems, because he can’t name the various causes of his self-loathing; semi-intentionally curbing the possibility of finding ways to tackle them. This brings truthfully to the light the idea that without. discussion, we can’t learn or even act on what we already know. 

In its multiple facets, the film explores not just how we respond to the pressures upon us but the near-universal nature of oppression – connecting with the insight provided by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Foucault recognises how prison is part of a larger system aimed at keeping us in line through fear of societal ostracisation, but it seems to be this very pressure that stops Dan from opening up about the destructive personal life that bleeds into his work. Though, things start to change when he builds a friendship with a student, Drey (Shareeka Epps); the latter is able to break down his barriers by remaining an ally even when he’s at his most drug addled and least outwardly socially respectable. Growth here has to happen outside of the boundaries of oppression.

Forrester and Jamal, of Finding Forrester, have a serious but amiable discussion over a stack of books in the former's softly lit home
Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

That’s a particularly complex film compared to Finding Forrester, a wortk about white author William Forrester (Sean Connery) mentoring Black student Jamal (Rob Brown) that is both a reasonably considered representation of oppression and a balm for oppressors. Its main positive is that Forrester isn’t really needed to develop Jamal’s talent; the latter gets into a private school based on his own abilities, and even Forrester recognises the tenacity of the teen. His obstacle is the oppressor’s generosity in recognising and seemingly boosting that talent. Freire recognised it is the case that such generosity is a tool to maintain the status quo and that only the oppressed can deliver real change. Indeed, it’s as the prodigious level of his talent becomes more obvious that the school disbelieves it’s really his own talent, because his exceptional ability is clearly a threat to the oppressive order.

The disappointment is that Finding Forrester does fall into the trap of turning the titular character into white saviour, limiting the film’s ability to educate. Jamal finds himself in a difficult situation where everything he’s worked for is at risk, and ultimately, it’s only Forrester who’s able to remind the former’s school of the merits of his work. This could be seen as an example of a good ally, but it might have been bolder to explore how Jamal might or might not have found a way forward on his own. Liberation can’t be aid given to the odd person, and that by not showing Jamal surviving on his own wits he’s hampering Black viewers’ ability to imagine this themselves in reality.

Hume isn’t a philosopher focused on education, but his ideas are important here in how he recognised that society naturally splits itself into like-minded groups; and we might be able to assume that, in groups of the similarly oppressed, there more room for people to grow on their own terms without oppressors steering their direction. Moonlight exemplifies the importance of this, with the young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) meeting adult Juan (Mahershala Ali) who changes his life; he’s shown respect, care, and acceptance for potentially being gay. Juan is also a complex character, though, as a drug dealer – but within these bounds he is able to somewhat oppose traditional masculinity. Chiron can’t expect a saviour, here, however, and so we get a more realistic and constructive example of someone who, as he grows into a man, has to reformulate his experiences towards becoming a more complete version of himself.

Juan holds Chiron afloat in the sea in an early scene from Moonlight
Image Courtesy of A24

Another example of this is provided by the TV series Cucumber, showing someone who’s not coming of age but middle aged and in stasis. Henry (Vincent Franklin) is a gay man but largely isolated from gay culture; he takes on the oppressor’s shame about his identity that is manifested in his aversion to any intimacy. It’s only when crisis pushes him towards the gay community that he gets an opportunity to learn  and the examples he sees lead him towards addressing the part he plays within that community – even if this is a tumultuous process that takes years. Learning is a mixture of the opportunities that we have and our own choice, but considering how hard it is even when prompted we need all the guidance possible.

All of the valuable examples here, ones that suggest longer lasting and hard won growth, are a reminder of how cognizant educators and students have to be of the balance between the individual and the collective. This might be seen as Marxist but it’s equally close to the ideas of Ayn Rand, someone supposedly on the hard right as opposed to the hard left, with one of the key tenets of her philosophy of Objectivism being that the individual shouldn’t be sacrificed for the group. That these thoughts are shared across the political spectrum supports the idea that an oppressive way of educating, of stifling people’s thoughts for the purpose of maintaining the status quo, is harmful to all – and even to oppressors who find themselves hamstrung by the rules that they perpetuate.

Film and television are unquestionably an important part of the life-long education that we experience, and of altering the way we see the world. Screen entertainment can help bring vividly to life reflections of our existences, whether that’s the bad habits we’ve collected or hinting at largely untapped possibilities. It’s in presenting ways of living beyond those which we currently experience that we might imagine change, and these mediums, as crucial, widely accessible carriers of the arts, perhaps have a responsibility to explore those possibilities. The real question, though, in this age of uncertainty is whether people want to change, to resist the orthodoxies thrust upon them – or semi-consciously choose to perpetually indulge in an unfulfilling present.