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Archive for February, 2011

Photo Credit: Associated Press

The teacher protests currently taking place in Wisconsin are clearly significant for a variety of political and educational reasons. The events unfolding in Madison have amplified ongoing debates about unionism, the crisis in U.S. education, and the politics of state budgeting. The protests arrive after several years of escalating public criticism of teachers. And the outcome will potentially impact the contours of our national debate about education policy. What is happening in Wisconsin is also significant for cultural reasons. It is important to remember just how rare it is for Americans to see photographs and television footage of tens of thousands of teachers gathered together in one place. The uncommon images coming out of Madison are profoundly disruptive to our common sense about teachers and schooling. From a cultural perspective, the portraits of teacher protest now circulating in the mass media are especially striking for the ways in which they challenge traditional representations of the teacher in American society.

Historically, the teacher has been depicted in American culture as one of three types: the schoolmarm, the bumbling pedagogue, or the lone hero. The schoolmarm is typically an older, unmarried, rural woman who dedicates her entire life to her pupils. She is the Miss Dove character, or the prairie schoolteacher, or the imagined head of the classroom in the little red schoolhouse of yore. The bumbling pedagogue is usually male, often effeminate, and either clownish, pedantic, or otherwise socially awkward.  He is the Ichabod Crane of our popular memory, the Mr. Kotter, the Scott Guber of Boston Public. Finally, the lone hero is the renegade who operates in isolation. He or she employs a nontraditional pedagogy—often in opposition to an unsupportive administrator—in an effort to educate the students everyone else has given up on. From Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds, the lone hero is a staple of many Hollywood films.

Throughout the years, these stock images have mostly served to denigrate the profession of teaching, depicting it as a lonely, all-consuming, non-specialized career.  These fictional teachers rarely if ever complain about wages, benefits, or the excessive demands placed on them. They seem to willingly sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of their students. And they are almost never imagined as members of a teacher union. Such popular depictions also tend to suggest that teaching requires little if any formal training; in fact, many of these iconic pedagogues become teachers because they can’t do anything else. Most importantly, these images have worked to normalize the idea that public schools are crisis-ridden environments in which teachers must act in solitude, as outsiders, if they hope to accomplish anything.

Interestingly enough, these three dominant representations of teachers have subsided from view in recent years, supplanted in the media by images of tough, pragmatic, business-minded reformers.  I am thinking in particular of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C. For a while, Rhee became a media darling who was profiled in Newsweek and Time (where she was photographed holding a broom) and was featured in the pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman.  In a similar vein, business luminaries Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have been spotlighted as the new philanthropic saviors of U.S. education (the Facebook CEO recently donated $100 million to Newark public schools).  The media celebration of these corporate reformers has conveniently dovetailed with broader calls to privatize public schooling and introduce more business-inspired models of incentive pay and accountability into school systems.

At the same time that our iconography of school reform has been crowded with the likes of Michelle Rhee for the past few years, U.S. popular culture has propagated a more deviant image of the classroom teacher. Television shows in particular have featured teacher protagonists who presumably mean well but who must of necessity supplement their educator salaries with illegal activities.  Take, for example, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who cooks and sells methamphetamine on Breaking Bad, or the history-teacher-turned-male-escort on Hung.  Just this past week, the trailer for the forthcoming film Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz as an apathetic, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed schoolteacher, went viral (curious timing, to say the least). Teachers like these reinforce the perception that we need no-nonsense leaders like Michelle Rhee to sweep schools clean of them.

All of this explains why the images coming out of Madison are so culturally significant. First, these images show thousands of teachers united together in solidarity.  Here we see not one teacher working alone, but a mass of teachers, a community, working together toward a common end.  Second, these depictions of non-elite, everyday people taking to the streets in the name of public education contrast sharply with the lone power suit administrator or the billionaire philanthropist imposing top-down reforms on supposedly inept teachers.  To best illustrate this second point, I can’t help but compare the pictures of thousands of teachers protesting in Madison with the Time magazine cover of Rhee standing alone with a broom back in 2008.  The new imagery overwhelms the old, draining the Rhee photograph of its symbolic power.

Finally, these many iconic images of Wisconsin teachers project strength—not bumbling hesitancy, or shoulder shrugging resignation, but conviction and fortitude.

Without question, these cultural representations matter. As the editors of the 1994 book Schooling in the Light of Popular Culture remind us, education in the United States is “likely to be understood in ways that are at least in part beholden to popular images and ideas embodied in widely disseminated texts.”  The cultural stories we tell ourselves about schooling can shape how we discuss education, debate policy, and perceive teachers. Today, at least, the quaint faces of Ichabod Crane and the frontier schoolmarm have been replaced by a bold faculty of thousands. Long after the impasse in Wisconsin is resolved, the images emanating from there are sure to resonate in our popular imagination.

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The great irony of the The Social Network, of course, is that its central theme is not connectivity but disconnection.  A film about the genesis of a technology designed to bring people closer together features a main character who experiences the painful dissolution of social bonds. The plot is driven by protagonist Mark Zuckerberg’s exclusion from social groups, the end of his romantic relationship, and the collapse of his close friendship.  This sense of disconnection is pervasive despite the fact that The Social Network is a crowded movie: characters are almost never seen alone (only when they are individually “wired in” to their computer screens), and certainly never seen enjoying a moment of quiet solitude. Instead, the characters are regularly packed together in small places—a legal office, a dorm room—or in big, loud impersonal places—a nightclub, a drunken party. But these spaces, despite their capacities, are repeatedly portrayed as lonely and alienating.

While the characters may inhabit a decidedly unsocial non-network beneath a façade of constant social interaction, the film itself serves as a remarkably vibrant cultural network. For the student of American culture, The Social Network is a fountainhead of intertextuality.  Perhaps appropriate for a film about Facebook, The Social Network functions as a busy crossroads of cultural referents, many readily recognizable, others unstated but nevertheless present.  The movie obviously plays on our familiarity with Facebook, but it is also features appearances by Bill Gates and the creator of Napster (both portrayed by actors), a musical score by industrial rock luminary Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a Harvard setting (even though campus scenes were mostly filmed at The Johns Hopkins University).  It is also directed by David “Fight Club” Fincher and written by Aaron “West Wing” Sorkin.  One of the students on Zuckerberg’s Facebook team is played by Joseph Mazzello, the actor who starred as the little boy Tim Murphy in Jurassic Park.  In other words, what is really “social” about The Social Network is the way in which it serves as a pulsating intersection for a range of icons, myths, and expressive forms that circulate in the audience’s collective imagination.  It is populated by cultural detritus and ephemera with which we are friendly, if you will.

I imagine these multiple and varied cultural associations may in part explain the source of the film’s pleasure for viewers. The experience of viewing The Social Network is akin to data-mining.  It rewards a 21st century audience accustomed to scanning mounds of digital information and quickly categorizing that information into familiar frames of reference. For example, the brief appearance of Bill Gates evokes our Horatio Alger myth of success and the American dream.  The presence of Sean Parker of Napster infamy conjures associations with the lone rebel, hacking the system and sticking it to the man.  And Zuckerberg himself comes across as a nerd pulling one over on the Olympic jocks.

Reznor’s musical score triggers memories of his earlier work on such Nine Inch Nails albums as Pretty Hate Machine (1989).  That record opens with the line, “god money I’ll do anything for you/god money just tell me what you want me to,” and builds to the chorus, “head like a hole/black as your soul/I’d rather die/than give you control.” Pretty Hate Machine, with its loud synthesizers, drum machines, and vocal wails, is not unlike The Social Network: an expression of male adolescent angst and rage confined inside an electronic world.

And there are still other resonances: Fincher’s directorship reminds us of his previous explorations of masculinity and antisocial behavior in Fight Club, The Game, and Zodiac.  Sorkin’s dialogue echoes the brainy loquaciousness of the political characters he developed for the television show The West Wing. Nearly twenty years ago, in Jurassic Park, actor Mazzello played a child victimized by a technology abused and gone awry.

As I watched The Social Network, I even found correspondences with The Lonely Crowd (1950), the sociological study of “other-directed” social character that became a bestseller in postwar America.  Co-authored by David Riesman and his team, the book argues that Americans are increasingly motivated by the need for peer acceptance.  More and more, our “inner gyroscope” is set in motion not by individualistic self-reliance, but by the drive to win approval and fit in.  Consequently, our time is spent trying to decode what is popular and adjust our personalities accordingly: “The other-directed person acquires an intense interest in the ephemeral tastes of ‘the others’… the other-directed child is concerned with learning from these interchanges whether his radar equipment is in proper order” (74). What is The Social Network if not a depiction of a lonely crowd?  Indeed, isn’t Facebook itself a kind of lonely crowd?

I can’t help but wonder if this way of reading the movie—this pleasurable scanning of its cultural allusions—in some way works to conceal its underlying critique of 21st century connectivity. The film’s central theme of social dissolution is undercut by its teeming network of familiar, friendly signifiers.  Its “ephemeral tastes.”  Yet we are “friends” with these signifiers in as much as we are “friends” with hundreds of people on Facebook—another text, by the way, that we scan with the same data-mining mindset.  As portrayed in The Social Network, Facebook doesn’t really bring people closer together in any meaningful way; it facilitates casual hook-ups in bar bathrooms, or it breeds addiction, as one character confesses, or it quickly delivers trivial information like the results of a crew boat race. You would think The Social Network, with its depiction of Zuckerberg and his creation, would compel a mass exodus from Facebook, or at least spark critical public reflection on our complicity with this technology of the lonely crowd. But instead it rewards and reinforces our ways of reading: our ingrained habits of consuming images, scanning information, reducing human experience to pannable nuggets of gold.

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