Hollywood Profs Flunk Teaching Test

Hollywood just can't get education right.

Its latest prep-school drama, "The Emperor's Club," is well worth seeing as a thought-provoking story of honor and ambition. As a portrayal of an effective teacher plying his trade, however, grade it an "F."

The teaching methods used by William Hundert -- deftly portrayed by Kevin Kline -- on his charges at the prestigious St. Benedict's prep school were of questionable merit even 25 years ago.

True, a teacher like Hundert could have had a positive impact. He was a decent man who cared for his students and had a passion for his subject, Roman and Greek history. That would have rubbed off on many of his 14-year-old boarding school students.

But by the 1970s -- the era in which the film is set -- American education had undergone a much-needed revolution in methods, prompted in part by educational reformers such as John Holt, author of "Why Children Fail." Holt, James Moffett and others shifted the focus from teachers to students.

They argued that students failed because they were stifled by a top-down educational style that tried to pour knowledge into students' brains. Under this approach, pupils became passive participants without any commitment to learning.

The reformers challenged teachers to stop dominating the classroom and allow student voices to fill the room. Students, they argued, should not parrot the teacher, but be encouraged to express their own values, assessments and theories.

Holt thought it a waste of time for teachers to ask students to give answers already known by the teacher. He called that "fishing."

Hundert's students, which included Sedgewick Bell, the shallow, tuned-out, narcissistic son of a senator, struggle in the film to learn a vast array of historical facts they then recite when called upon. These are facts available to anyone who had access to reference books.

Hundert could have made a more substantial contribution to his students' education by asking them to debate among themselves which cause of Rome's decline was the most important. Some of their answers would involve the expression of their own, personal knowledge -- something nearly impossible to reveal through "fishing."

In the movie's key scene, Sedgewick had emerged -- only briefly, as it turned out -- from his haughty shell and seemed dedicated to winning the title of "Mr. Julius Caesar" in an academic, "quiz-show" contest. He sought to attract the attention of his senator father, who, before the contest, was always too busy to listen to his son.

At a fateful moment in the contest -- with parents, students and the senator assembled -- Hundert notices that Sedgewick is cheating. His intent to mold the boy's character for good has gone for naught.

In such "educational" contests, hidden cheat notes could serve Sedgewick's cynical purpose. If the contest required the students to retreat to separate rooms with their notes and reference books to write essays of interpretation or analysis, there would be no cheating.

Of course, that would have required Hundert to read and evaluate the essays, and would have taken the drama out of the contest. And it would have made it difficult for visiting alumni to witness the event for the purpose of boosting the school's endowment.

It is every teacher's dream to build their students' character. Hundert aptly expressed his hope with the maxim, "A man's character is his fate." But character is shaped more by family and the totality of life's experiences than by any single student-teacher relationship. It is better for teachers to concentrate on challenging a student's intellect.

Other influential movies also failed to deliver. In the popular "Dead Poets Society” (1989), Robin Williams played another prep school teacher, John Keating. Keating used comic routines and other eccentric ploys to fire his students. He does get his students to write their own poems, but there is no discussion of them. Keating dominates, on one occasion taking his students into the quad to march, all for the purpose of getting them to have faith in their own beliefs and uniqueness.

In the 1999 movie "Election," Matthew Broderick played Jim McAllister, who botches both his marriage and his teaching career and, sure enough, conducts classroom discussions like a true fisherman.

After 37 years of teaching, I find it disturbing to see educators in movies and on television -- many held up as models in their profession -- teach in such inept ways. The present state of our nation indicates we need leaders with innovative thinking, problem-solving abilities and vision. Hollywood's way of teaching is not likely to nurture those capacities.

It's time for the entertainment industry to clue into the changes in the profession and show audiences the real ways our children learn, discover and grow.

PNS contributor Donal Brown (dbrown@pacificnews.org) taught in the California public school system for 35 years and in Africa for two


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