The riddle of education: Why is it the last priority?
Originally published in The Boston Globe, March 2, 2009
Although it wasn't favored to win, and it didn't, "The Class" was film critics' "should win" pick for best foreign-language film. Because this deeply engaging movie addresses the subject of teaching underserved public school students, it points to the obvious larger question of why education itself so often should win, but doesn't.
In the compromised version of the economic stimulus package, it was reported by the Los Angeles Times, education spending was "one of the main sticking points" in securing the necessary votes. While protecting funds for other needs such as healthcare, housing, transportation, green energy, infrastructure, the auto industry, and even banking, why cut education? Why are teaching and learning so routinely deemed expendable when everyone agrees they shouldn't be?
In a bracingly effective way, "The Class" confronts this riddle with the vivid example of a middle school French teacher in an immigrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. François Bégaudeau is this teacher as well as the author of "Entre les Murs," the acclaimed novel/memoir on which the film is closely based. Onscreen, he and his actual students make the hectic "ordinaire tragi-comique" of the book three-dimensional. And under the sly direction of Laurent Cantet, their fragmented classroom interactions yield a film celebrated as "seamless" by actor Sean Penn, who headed the jury awarding it the Cannes Festival's Palme d'Or for best picture.
An English-language edition of the book will be published next month by Seven Stories Press, and though the American Academy failed to give the film its highest recognition, perhaps this vigorous translation by Linda Asher will recharge the conversation in a substantive way. "The Class" dramatizes many issues of universal importance, as in the example of its faculty meetings about discipline problems, when a teacher protests the premise of a system to punish "uncivil" behavior by arguing, "I'm sorry, but among the bad kids there are lots who are not poor students at all."
I know the anguish from my one year as a middle school teacher in a rural New Hampshire district where I taught first-, second-, and third-year French to 125 students a day. Trained in the so-called Direct Method, I was taught never to speak a word of English in the classroom. But in late October, this pristine strategy yielded the absurd revelation—"What's this 'je suis'?" a student whispered to me in the corridor—that I'd failed to convey how to say "I am"! This explains my permanent admiration for those who have persisted in this brutal line of work, but it also underscores my enduring conviction: There is no more important work than to help adolescents learn to express themselves—in any language.
"I like French class even if the teacher is no good," says Khoumba, one of the girls in Bégaudeau's class. To clarify their power struggle, she adds, "People say I am mean-tempered, it's true, but it depends if I get respect."
Another student says about French class, "Sometimes I like it, and sometimes I think it is totally useless to wonder about questions that have no answers." A majority of the kids in "The Class" speak other languages at home, and when one admits after class, "I don't understand anything about what we're doing," Bégaudeau tries to comfort her but feels "like a doctor reassuring a hypochondriac who's really sick."
The film version of "The Class" begins with Bégaudeau impatiently admonishing his students with a melodramatic calculation of all the minutes that are wasted by their not making productive use of the full hour. Khoumba notes with an impertinent accuracy that the class slot is only 55 minutes long anyway, to which the chastened teacher proves capable of replying, "Good point."
His classroom is not a stifled dictatorship but a nurtured meritocracy, is the point, and this provision of opportunity leads back to why it's wrong when school funds are bargained away in exchange for votes. Education is the "should win" in the economic stimulus package because all the other spending categories are dependent upon it. And if this is the problem, as the politicians are finding, it's also the solution.