Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Kathryn Ecclestone finds the middle class depressed by The Class

In any current poll of ‘the great education films of all time’, it is a depressingly likely bet that The Class will soon trump older favourites like To Sir with Love or Dead Poets’ Society. At my local cinema, this film ran for 4weeks to packed audiences, way longer than the week’s run for most films (and even longer than the run for Mamma Mia). It clearly touches a cultural nerve. In the showing I was at, mostly of middle class parents, teachers and students, there was a depressed silence throughout the whole thing.

The film has been widely praised for being ‘realistic’ and ‘relevant’, the very qualities that teachers increasingly want to bring to their own classrooms. It is a stark contrast to those older films which offered images of a confident, passionate teacher who believed he could transform his disaffected students’ lives through the power of his subject. Watching those, you sensed the scale of the challenge and rooted for the teacher in doing something inspiring.

In Brendan O’Neill’s has already great review of The Class in which he focuses on the crisis of legitimacy of the French state in the face of multiculturalism and the problems this crisis presents for French schools. But there is another crucial theme which is equally telling of the current crisis of education, also picked up by Cosmo Landesman in The Sunday Times, who points out that the teacher resorts to ‘therapeutic education’ in order to gain the interest of their disaffected students and to ‘engage’ them in learning, as the jargon goes.

The film shows how a diminished view of the students’ lack of ability, motivation and basic social skills, held by almost all the teachers in the school, finally leads the main character to abandon his attempt to teach them French. Instead, he asks the children to use the ‘inspiration’ of Anne Frank’s diary to write a ‘self-portrait’. The students are initially incredulous at why he would want to know about their banal and uninteresting lives, and what educational purpose it has. He wins them over with flattery; that it will allow him to get to know them, it will celebrate their lives.

And so they spend hours putting together their portraits. Fleetingly, the task seems to win over the most difficult and disruptive boy in the class. They present their ‘portraits’ which encompass their prejudices about football, race and relationships to the class and the teacher praises them; for a brief moment, they bask in his esteem.

Ultimately, his attempt to distract them from the difficulties of learning French or from having to discipline them to do anything worthwhile is all for nothing. The disruptive boy is expelled, the teachers in the school continue to despair of their students, and the students are contemptuous of their teachers.

In the final scene, the teacher asks his class what they have learned this year. One girl has found Plato’s Republic on her own yet he shows no ability to use this truly inspirational, albeit fleeting sign of her willingness to think and learn to good educational effect. Another girl has learned absolutely nothing and is terrified of going to ‘vocational school’.

The salutary thing is that many teachers watching will probably think that the teacher’s attempt to build self-esteem and get to know his students better is a laudable thing to do in the face of the problems he faces. In the British context, children and young people are increasingly familiar with and adept at doing a host of activities to develop ‘self awareness’ and to empathise and listen to the personal accounts of their peers. And those regarded as ‘disaffected’ are used to this in spades.

Therapeutic interventions for students that teachers regard as impossible to educate might be in the early stages of development in French classrooms. Although the young people in The Class see right through the pathetic attempt to engage with them and build their self-esteem, the film shows all too depressingly the underlying diminished conditions that lead to therapeutic self-portraits and personal development.

Brendan O’Neill’s review of The Class is available on-line: