Replay: Make way for the Stupid Generation II

UPDATE: Since writing this a little over a year ago, David Coleman, the “architect” behind educational “reform” in U.S. public schools, has only gotten bolder. Having seen his curriculum implemented by most states, he is now turning to post-secondary education. And his business cronies are very much with him there too, because there’s a lot of money to be made turning thinking, questioning children into productive and obedient workers. Just ask these people.

Or to hear the warm and cuddly Mr. Coleman explain it himself, click here.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When Hollywood newbie Orson Welles was going to make Citizen Kane, he begged cinematographer Gregg Toland to teach him everything about how the camera worked. Toland told him not to sweat it, because he could learn all the technical details in one long weekend.

I guess Mr. Toland didn’t get the memo that instructional manuals are complex reading material that will develop and stimulate our children’s minds more than an education steeped in the classics (which Welles had) will.

475x350The U.S. government, under its new Common Core Standards Initiative in conjunction with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wants to cut out 70 percent of the fiction reading in public schools, because, you know, kids spend too much time with their noses in books already, the little eggheads. The spokesperson for this idea, David Coleman, a businessman with his talons in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other enterprises, says we can’t engage the bright minds of tomorrow in this Brave New World with the dusty minds of the past because this is a different ballgame, a fast-paced one that doesn’t have time for contemplation. “As you grow up in the world,” he says, “you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” I wonder if that thought has ever occurred to him about himself, because that was my first reaction.

Instead Mr. Coleman, and Mr. and Mrs. Gates, want the majority of reading in our high and middle schools to be of instructional or vocational manuals to prepare the kids for their careers. And people are taking this very seriously. So far 46 states and the District of Columbia have joined in. I keep waiting for someone to say, “April Fools” but so far this is being discussed largely with a straight face by people who call themselves “educators.” At the very worst it’s being offered with a “It isn’t as bad as it looks” disclaimer, which I remember hearing once from a Ford Pinto salesman too.

I’m writing about this again because I just bought a Blu-ray player. What does one have to do with the other? Well, I started replacing some of my DVDs with better-looking Blu-rays, and one of the very first to get the upgrade was Jean Renoir’s 1939 satire The Rules of the Game, which is one of about a dozen films I’d have to take with me if I were banished to a desert island, provided my desert island had electricity.

The film is intricately-plotted. I don’t think I fully understood it until I saw it the fourth time, and maybe I still don’t. Every time I watch it I marvel at the nuanced layers of character and social skewering that goes on. Renoir—yes, he’s the son of the famous painter—wanted to show the hypocrisy of both the ruling class and the servants who kowtowed under them. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. At the premiere the audience tried to burn down the theater they were so incensed. The filmmaker made cuts to no avail. Then the French government got into the act and banned the film. When the Nazis invaded a few years later they too didn’t like it (for reasons this time dealing with the relationships between Jewish and Austrian characters) and burned it. (Prints were not found again until after the war.) You have to work pretty hard to piss of the French and the Nazis both!

As I watched I tried to imagine sharing my great enthusiasm for this masterpiece with one of my contemporaries and I realized I couldn’t. They were all ignorant of the social history and social classes behind the story, which takes its premise from Beaumarchais, who ruffled more than a few feathers when he premiered his play. The basic underpinnings continue to be used and adapted into the present, from Robert Altman’s Gosford Park to the somewhat dumbed-down but infinitely more popular Downton Abbey juggernaut. rules-of-the-game_image05Figaro/Rules of the Game/Gosford all show that the very rich and the very poor are anything but very different. But more than that, Rules of the Game is filled with subtle allusions, dry jabs and deft attacks at everyday societal norms not questioned on a regular basis. It’s the work of a brazen dramatist daring to clear his throat at the fancy dinner table and say something that will embarrass the hosts even as the hosts are feeding him duck a l’orange and pâté de foie gras. Yet it’s not stuffy: the blend of high and low comedy (there’s a chase through a chateau worthy of the Marx Brothers) make Rules of the Game as sophisticated as any great novel. And as timeless, because the more things change the more they really stay the same. I don’t think insulation manuals teach that, or teach many of the other facts of life that might make tomorrow’s worker bees a little upset with their overlords, but I digress.

Rules of the Game tells us many things, but the over-reaching theme is that the rules are made by the rich and they serve the rich, and one of their most important jobs is to keep this important knowledge from the poor, or to make the poor so dependent that they rationalize the rules away themselves. It’s probably not an accident that the freest spirits in the movie end up either dead or dismissed from service, and the brownest of noses come out in the best shape.

rulesofthegame01As I sat there realizing I could not share my filmic experiences with anyone I knew, I tried to think of what technical manuals educators wanted our kids to read (because literature “doesn’t prepare them for the complexities of the world,” according to Mr. Coleman) that would have equivalent value. Would Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, or Invasive Plant Inventory by California’s Invasive Plant Council to pack the same punch or better-illuminate the world these kids would someday go out into, better? We’ve already been told kids no longer need a foreign language requirement. Then most sociology was stripped from the classroom because it was “too controversial.” Now we don’t need literature either—and indeed, to make iPhone apps, to drive tractors, to sell computer equipment, to write web code that pops up and reminds you to buy certain brands of vodka or SUV, you don’t need William Golding. In fact, Golding may hurt you because you might read it and realize how people who seem to know what’s best are really oftentimes fools.

Back when I was in middle school our history teacher told us that one of the hallmarks of the communist countries (this meant the Soviet Union) was that they merely trained their workers to be drones, cogs in the machine, slaves. They didn’t have free minds, he said. They weren’t permitted to read much literature in school because it was subversive. It caused dissent, unrest, made them think about their situation in life and alerted them to the fact that there might be other places where things were better. Or at least different. That distinguished them from us, he said, and those words were something that really stuck with me.

Now I’m hearing “educators,” and damn if I can type that word without putting quotes around it, want to strip away a good deal of the same material, arguing the purpose of school is to make them efficient workers able to compete in the 21st century. But I never thought public education was intended to turn children into hardworking little machines. Back when I went to school that’s what they did with the hopeless kids who weren’t bright enough for an academic course—they went to a “skills center” three days a week and learned carpentry, or how to drive a forklift, or assemble electrical components on an assembly line. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but I was grateful that I was getting an education in history, literature, science, sociology, music and art. As my college advisor Sari Thomas told me, as Gregg Toland told Orson Welles, you can learn how to be a button-pusher later, in a long weekend.

To be fair there are many teachers who’ve voiced their displeasure. But even their arguments are not, to me, as strong as they could be. Rather than point out that it’s important to “engage” the imagination, and that beauty and feelings are necessary too (they are, but you rarely win with a mushy liberal argument like that) they should point out that Figaro helped usher in the French Revolution, and for that reason was banned in Austria and other countries. (Remember that confrontational scene in Amadeus between Mozart and the emperor?) They should mention that whenever a dictator seizes control, artists and writers are among the first people he rounds up and imprisons or executes. I doubt the writers of technical books get tortured, though judging by some of the manuals I’ve read, they should be. In fact, countless technical manuals would be better-written, eliminating costly mistakes to industry as well as serious safety breaches, if technical writers were better-versed in reading and writing comprehension. Some of their efforts would be funny, if billion dollar decisions weren’t being made on them.

Rules of the Game - ChristineI would wager if half the MBAs in this country were replaced by English lit grads, the bottom line of the Dow and the NASDAQ would actually be improved. As recently as the late 80s, conservative businessman Harvey Mackay, in his bestseller Swim With The Sharks Without Being Alive, urged people to master the written and spoken language by reading voraciously, saying that anyone who was good with words “had it made.” Judging by the wealth of literary references in this and other books he’s written, he’s well-educated and no stranger to the canon of Great Books. He also had no technical training whatsoever and has led one of the most successful (if not the flashiest) companies in the last half century, Mackay Envelope.

I’ll close with a borrowed thought, from two columnists at The Washington Times. Their excellent article on the Common Core Standards ended with this:

We lost our literary heritage once — when Rome fell and the world descended into the barbarity of the Dark Ages. The great works of antiquity really were lost in this period, physically lost. How sad that after our medieval ancestors took such pains to recover and preserve that heritage, we are starting again to lose it. Yet the books are no longer lost.

We are.

That hit me so hard that I’m going to repeat it.

We lost our literary heritage once — when Rome fell and the world descended into the barbarity of the Dark Ages. The great works of antiquity really were lost in this period, physically lost. How sad that after our medieval ancestors took such pains to recover and preserve that heritage, we are starting again to lose it. Yet the books are no longer lost.

We are.

Part I of this blog post is here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s