“If anything I have said here sounds “elitist,” you might consider the vast movement we see occurring in this country’s politics, especially on the far right, where any learning at all is equated with elitism and any experience in public office is equated with being tainted. When our educational system is being systematically downgraded, expecting people to learn things is simple common sense.” – Kristin Thompson
The above quote is the final thought in a recent post at David Bordwell’s blog, in which Thompson muses over the fact that people who have little working knowledge of film — let alone expertise — try to engage her (and other film buffs and scholars) on the topic of movies, when the end result is almost always the same. To wit, the film expert comes across as an elitist snob, and the average viewer awkwardly shifts to another bit of small talk. It’s a common occurrence; I’ve experienced the same thing. Over and over. (And over again.) I’m not even a proper expert, as Thompson or Jim Emerson (whose blog post inspired hers) is. Thompson takes a few stabs at possible psychological motives, but it’s all anecdotal. There’s no substantial body of research she cites one way or another. What she says seems consistent, on the whole, with what I’ve observed in my own interactions with people who do not share a crazed enthusiasm for cinema.
Those final thoughts struck a chord with me, though, of some big things that Thompson leaves unsaid. Perhaps “unexplored” would be a better word.
I don’t intend for partisan politics to be a big part of this blog, so I’m not going to respond to Thompson’s right-baiting. She is dead on, though, in a sidelong kind of way, about anti-intellectualism and the degradation of the educational system. Regarding anti-intellectualism specifically, I’ve talked before (more obliquely) about how there is a latent mistrust of higher film education among religious conservatives. In general, my observation of average, non-film-geek Americans (right, left, and middle) is that they don’t equate all education with elitism, but they like to practice a kind of reverse elitism of their own, preferring to label movies that don’t conform to conventional Hollywood formulae as “pretentious.” Perhaps the religious ones will carp about how Christians and God are always made to look bad. Perhaps they throw up their hands and talk about how “the story made no sense,” not bothering to analyze how the plot and emotional/thematic arc are two different things, and how perhaps the filmmaking technique emphasized breaks in continuity for effect. In the U.S., the religious majority may not understand that nationalist ethnocentrism underlies the kind of laziness that manifests as an aversion to subtitled films from other countries. Some of these characteristics apply to people who are not particularly religious, of course. Many are actually self-identified atheists and/or liberals. But if you’re reading this blog, you know the type.
These are the people who are resistant to change as a point of pride, if not principle. In the circles of religious conservatives with whom I grew up, and in the character of other practicing Christians I’ve met over the years, there seems to be an uncanny overlap between the intractable disdain for “pretentious” pop culture and a defensiveness about religious doctrines and dogmas. The whole idea of a theological idea being doctrinal is that it is set in stone, just like the tablets Moses schlepped down from Mount Sinai; it doesn’t change, and therefore, one’s belief in it shouldn’t change. Not only do most people hate to watch art house cinema, they often have a very fixed (and equally uninformed) opinion of what’s “good” in mainstream cinema. Once this is decided — and, like religious doctrines, often inculcated early in life — it’s done. It doesn’t have to be explained, articulated, or properly defended. It may be inflicted on others at will whenever the subject (cinema, religion, whatever) is brought up. It becomes a facet of a person’s identity. Taste and faith are often understood in very similar ways.
Subjective taste, then, becomes doctrinal in nature. “I hated Mr. Bean’s Holiday, therefore anyone who liked it is stupid and doesn’t know what a good movie is.” This is its own kind of elitism. And as any good elitist knows, the best way to attack other forms of elitism is to brand those elitists as elitists. You can’t restrict this tactic to the ranks of conservatives or liberals; it bridges religious boundaries. But it’s something that could only have its roots in a culture that has been deeply seeded with the attitude of religious conviction… which most cultures have been, but especially the United States of America.
From this comes the relevance of Thompson’s comment on the degradation of the education system. The real problem goes even deeper — at least in regards to cinema. Not only has education been consistently degraded in general, but where film is concerned, it was never really established in the first place. Not on the elementary or secondary level.
Allow me to make the introductions: Chicken, meet Egg; Egg, Chicken. Now that you’re acquainted, who would like to go first?
Institutional resistance to change has resulted in one of the most severe deficiencies in modern history. Since the advent of motion pictures as a medium, and through its subsequent development into television and Internet multimedia, the education system has never undertaken to provide a basic, comprehensive introduction to motion picture literacy (or “cineliteracy”) to children or young adults. (Thus sayeth Mr. Chicken.)
Those children grow up into adults with absolutely no grounding in cineliteracy, and are therefore not equipped to do the most basic deconstructing of movies, multimedia information flow, or even the reasons they feel the way they do about motion pictures. Since they have never been given the tools to ascribe any sort of meaning to the overwhelming presence of motion picture arts, they either relegate it to the side as “mere entertainment,” nothing worth thinking about except as a way to pass a lazy afternoon or evening, or they react with fear and hostility, condemning the motion picture arts as too pervasive, too powerful, and too out of control — and therefore bad for children. So nobody would see any need or support any serious proposal for including cineliteracy as part of any fundamental school curriculum. (Thus sayeth Mr. Egg.)
You see how this works?
In her post, Thompson is dumbstruck by the fact that even her highly intelligent, highly-credentialed colleagues could have a well-rounded background in the arts and humanities, but still reveal a stunning, perhaps even haughty (my characterization, not hers) ignorance about cinema:
David was once talking with a distinguished literary scholar who would have been appalled if someone in a university had never heard of Faulkner or Thomas Mann. But when David said he admired many Japanese films, the scholar asked incredulously, “All those Godzilla movies?”
Yup. Only the best and brightest.
I don’t think Thompson or Bordwell is really surprised whenever the disparity in cultural cachet between cinema and virtually every other established art form rears its ugly head. They’ve been doing film studies for too long. At the same time, this is a potent example of the kind of grooming that begins at a very young age in our culture. When our teachers and instructors along the road of life wax poetic about the Great Artists or the Great Artworks, they typically fall back on literary or musical examples. Shakespeare. Mozart. Hamlet. The Magic Flute. Painting and sculpture; the classics. The “Mona Lisa.” Michelangelo’s “David.” The Odyssey. There’s no substitute for endurance: these things have been around for hundreds of years, and are still regarded as vital. More than that, they are foundational to Western identity. They are vaunted and hallowed as equally in the halls of academia as a tourist trap gift shop where you can by a postcard of a detail of God’s and Adam’s fingers almost touching. You don’t even have to like or be able to appreciate fully these great masterworks. They’re too entrenched. More than that, they are “acceptable” forms of self-expression. In art class, kindergartners play with finger paint or crayons; they don’t learn how to edit images from their cell phones into a cogent YouTube video. (And you know that pretty soon they’ll start issuing complementary cell phones at birth. “A mobile in the hand of every newborn!”) Most people don’t question this status quo. It only seems to come up for discussion whenever school districts are faced with budget cuts, and arts and music programs are the first things on the chopping block.
From birth, human beings learn how to understand and speak the language in which they are raised. From the earliest level of formal education, they are taught how to read and write in that language. As the most social of social species, humans recognize the primary importance of being able to communicate successfully, so we make everyone learn how to read and write their native language; we correct grammatical mistakes in their automatic “programming” as well through speech lessons. Humans also place a tremendous amount of importance upon logic. Logic is the greatest of human inventions; our post-Enlightenment society runs on rationality, so we also learn mathematics, algebra, and geometry from a young age. Even if we don’t all grow up to be carpenters, actuaries, or physicists, the rigor of critical thinking is what enables us to continue to evolve and to find common ground with each other when all else fails. It has given us the scientific method. Through science, we learn about our natural world and the invisible laws that guide us. These are the most fundamental of subjects, and with those as our foundation, we go on to learn how the human race has developed and applied these concepts in history, geography, and social studies classes.
The importance of arts and athletics in human development has long been recognized, and it’s the reason that elementary education includes gym class and rudimentary introductions to drawing/sketching, crafts, and music. It would seem like a no-brainer that the dominant art form of the last century — motion pictures — would find at least some place in this curriculum. Especially at the dawn of the 21st century, it seems that audiovisual communication techniques are rapidly supplementing or replacing older forms. People no longer simply phone each other; they text — and in a rapidly evolving form of pidgin that seems to resemble pictorial cuneiform more than proper English. People make their journals public on Weblogs, and now even written blogs are being supplemented or supplanted by video blogs. In any Internet message board, you will find people insulting or endorsing each other’s views with an exponentially increasing number of pictograms that rely upon an interlocking series of memes that now require their own database. News is no longer simply reported in the pages of a newspaper; people follow cable news networks and watch extended live videos online, or get information from expertly crafted lectures and essays presented in video form. Reading and listening to music are no longer the most popular forms of social rest and relaxation. They are both practiced, of course. But movies and TV shows are the norm. In short, it is obvious to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that the motion picture is no longer a nickelodeon novelty. It is the most important form of communication, art, and entertainment in the world.
Yet people know less about correctly analyzing a film than correctly analyzing forms of literature that are no longer written by anyone outside of a small, specialized minority. To people who aren’t English majors, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is a phrase synonymous with hours of head-throbbing tedium rather than the world’s greatest pickup line; kids are more likely to be flattered by having their physique compared to Kim Kardashian’s or Channing Tatum’s.
Education is indeed being degraded. It is vitally important that each generation be well-rounded by a comprehensive liberal education. Shakespeare is just as important today as he was 100 years ago. The problem is that a working knowledge of Citizen Kane is just as important as a working knowledge of MacBeth, but virtually nobody is making an effort to reshape the 21st century curriculum to reflect that reality.
Common sense isn’t all that common, as the saying goes, so simply expecting people to learn things isn’t going to gain much traction. Whether on the grassroots level or in the top levels, developing a film studies curriculum for elementary and secondary education is not on anyone’s agenda, largely because they have no frame of reference for understanding just how important it is. While most medium and large size universities offer courses in film studies, often even to satisfy liberal studies requirements, very few schools below higher ed do so. Here and there, a plucky teacher may develop a curriculum on his own, but that usually has more to do with the teacher deciding to cater to his/her own interests rather than volunteering to take the helm of a program being developed by a school district. (Check out Hokakey’s Little Worlds blog for a brilliant example.)
If film studies became a standard part of the elementary/secondary ed curriculum, it won’t necessarily solve the cineliteracy problem unless steps are taken to address larger, more systemic failings. But it would be a start. Even if the general taste and cineliteracy level doesn’t see a massive uptick on a national scale, it’s very likely that when Thompson attended a future cocktail party, instead of getting a blank look, her conversation partner might say, “Oh, yeah, we had to watch that in high school,” when she brings up The Rules of the Game. People in the U.S. might still generally shy away from foreign films and films with lower production values, but at least they would have a better appreciation for the sheer body of cinema that’s available. It wouldn’t come as quite a culture shock for something other than a denizen of the AFI’s myopic lists to crop up when a film buff is asked, “What’s your favorite movie?” As it happens, my stock answer is Casablanca, and it still blows my mind how many people flutter their eyelids and give me a partial squint as they say, “I think I’ve heard of that,” in a tone that tells me they’ve never heard of it. Not that prime-time TCM would replace Jersey Shore or Glee as favored nightly viewing for the average viewer, but at least folks might have a clue as to the kind of things they might find on Turner Classic Movies, should they choose to flip over to it.
Inevitably, any movement to get film studies installed as a major part of the curriculum will be met with resistance, especially now, with pitched funding battles erupting across the nation. Ironically, this represents something of a golden opportunity for the Christian community to take up the torch and lead for the first time in a long time in a genuinely progressive cause that dovetails neatly with the conservative, doctrinaire attitude that is endemic to religion.
Christians have been at the forefront of nearly every revolution in modern Western history — often divided, as is the case with any diverse group of people, but tireless nevertheless. Whether aligned with the political right or left, the unique position that the Christian religion occupies in American culture makes it ideally situated to debate and mobilize on virtually anything that is a community concern. Historically, the relationship between Christians and cinema has been fraught. This is to be expected. Many maintained a vitriolic attitude toward the novelty of cinema in its earliest stages; others hailed the wonders of the new medium and saw its evangelical potential. These early prejudices and conceptions persist to varying degrees. A lot of Christians attempt to excise “objectionable” entertainment from their lives altogether, exclusively dieting on family films and TV programming or otherwise minimizing their interaction with the media; others maintain a sort of separate-but-equal division, enjoying films on their own terms, however crude or in conflict with professed beliefs, while still living “the Christian life” in most other respects. There is very little effort within the Christian faith community (or communities, as is more often the case) to integrate an understanding and appreciation for cinema — including mainstream pop culture — to the faith life of its members. Whether they’re ostriches or cognitively dissonant, Christians seem to be content to let secular pop culture sort itself out.
This is totally backward.
Most students who attend private schools in this country attend schools with a religious background. Of these, most are Roman Catholic; a good chunk are of various Protestant varieties. While the budget margin for private schools is incredibly thin, these are the institutions that would have the kind of flexibility to develop experimental film studies curricula. Even the nonsectarian private schools could adapt their curricula to include film studies, and interfaith groups could effect change on these by joining together to advocate and recommend programs — or at least to demand some kind of film studies program. Accreditation for infant film studies curricula would be a tough hurdle, but developing the programs independently would be light years less unwieldy than the public education system trying to formulate one-size-fits-all programs.
Churches would also be in a prime position to organize screenings and informal classes and lectures for congregants. Film experts are often happy to share their knowledge with people, regardless of creed, and since many churches function as community centers, fomenting an expansion of cineliteracy in church groups would likely radiate outward into the rest of the communities.
The best part, from the doctrinaire perspective, is that denominations with a narrower interpretation of Christian truths could use increased cineliteracy as a platform to further spread the word (as they see it). A closer, more active engagement with the arts has historically only served to advance the messages and clout of the Church, and while I do not personally endorse or advocate using films merely as a springboard for proselytizing, I think that a more open-minded approach to Scripture would follow a more educated approach to the cinema. And there are certainly denominations out there that are not interested in using cinema as a tool for evangelism, who seek the expansion of knowledge and education for the sake of critical thinking, and for raising the standard of mental living.
In short, there is no down side to Christians embracing the integration of film studies into their educational curricula, and there are many positive benefits.
Just because I emphasize the benefit to Christian education doesn’t mean I’m excluding secular education. The same benefits apply just as equally, and film education is just as important in the public sector as in the parochial. My emphasis on the Christian angle is in part because (obviously), this blog is dedicated to presenting a Christian perspective on all things film related. More importantly, though, I think Christians are historically the most resistant to accepting radical change. Most societies are resistant to radical change; America is no different. Things change very slowly, and for the most part, that’s what’s great about this country. Radical change should take a long time. That way it doesn’t feel radical, even if you’re able to look back ten, twenty, a hundred years later and appreciate just how different things are from the way they were. It’s striking a balance between stability and change, while respecting the right of all parties to have a say in how that change plays out. The problem is that when you put religion into the mix, there’s a certain amount of intransigence that comes along with it, and this intransigence often carries an ideological edge. Nothing is free of ideology, but at least in a secular system of government, there is a mandate for the ideology of disparate groups to be blunted, sort of shoehorned into working together, whether they like it or not. Religious groups make no such concessions on their own turf, and that’s the primary battle here.
As stated above, there is no reason why any particular denomination would have to sacrifice its religious principles in order to provide a comprehensive film education. Well, I suppose the Amish would have a hard time integrating film studies into their education. I respect that, if only because they have nothing to do with motion pictures anyway. For them, it really is not necessary. But for pretty much any other major religious group, the theological thrust of the education can be maintained while still providing a rigorous training in form, style, and the kinds of ideologies that filmmakers and audiences bring to the viewing/production experience. A secular education would just (hopefully) subtract the theological framework, and focus on the basics, while perhaps including theology as a part of the ideological array that is covered when students learn how to do in-depth criticism.
What I’ve sketched here is a very broad perspective on what I see as a criminal deficiency in our education system. I plan on getting more into the nuts and bolts of possible ways to redress this deficiency in future blog posts. Perhaps the biggest criticism I have of Thompson (and my diatribe isn’t really a criticism; just an extension on a topic she doesn’t delve into very thoroughly, and is mostly tangential to her main point) is that she foists the name-calling off on the political right and the failures of the public to care for its educational system. Is there a vast, virulent streak of anti-intellectualism in this country? Yep. Is it mainly rooted in the far right wing? Maybe. In my experience, the people who carp about “ivory tower intellectuals” tend to be more conservative, but that’s just my own experience. It may or may not be the case in the population-at-large. I don’t think it’s fair of Thompson to project psychological motives like ego-salving or right-wing ideology onto the problem of people thinking of film expertise as “elitist.” I’m not intimately familiar with the course catalogue or degree program requirements of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but as far as I could see, there is no program in the entire curriculum devoted to the pedagogy of film studies for elementary or secondary ed.
This isn’t terribly unusual. At least, for the average university. But UW-Madison is a world class institution. It is internationally recognized for its communication arts programs, and certainly Bordwell and Thompson have done more than their part to bring prestige to the university with their own highly influential work as film scholars. I expect that individual studies or special topics courses could be tailored to meet the needs of an education major who wanted to design a film studies curriculum for pre-university level students. And I’m sure that many of the courses included in the Comm Arts degree cover the effects and impact of the media on younger minds. But that’s not quite the same thing.
The point is that Thompson is one of the most visible and respected voices in film scholarship, and her own university offers virtually nothing that explicitly addresses the problem we face: namely, that nobody grows up with an education in film. You can blame anti-intellectual right-wingers all you want; you can speculate that people only bring up movies with film experts to validate their own taste. That’s all well and good, but if you’re going to tie these lamentations into a eulogy for the sad state of education in general… well, that just doesn’t add up.
If we want to see real, positive, and practical progress in the name of film knowledge, we have to start by teaching people how to teach film. And not at the university level. At the fundamental level. “Catch ‘em while they’re young,” as they say. Any elementary or secondary ed degree that doesn’t include a film studies component is incomplete, as is any elementary or secondary ed curriculum that doesn’t include a film studies component. If we want to stop seeing “any learning at all” equated with “elitism,” a good place to start is including a well-rounded cultural education as part of the mandatory course load for every young student.
Thompson and Bordwell, of anyone on the planet, are ideally situated to develop the rudimentary guidelines for an elementary film studies curriculum. It just seems odd to me that, with everything she said in that blog post, the idea of cineliteracy and integrating film studies into the grammar school curriculum never came up. To me, that is one thing that indicates an “ivory tower” mindset. I would like to see that mindset change, and I would very much like to see Thompson being one of the people leading the charge.
I’m not leading the charge, but I am calling for a charge to begin. This is a bugle blast. (“Hi-yo, Silver — away!”) This is an important issue, and whatever is in my power do to will be done to drive that point home. In the future, look for more on this topic and others connected to it as I ruminate from my own observations and try to pull together what others have written. I’m not alone in this by any means, but the cadre is small. Let’s see if we can grow it a little, shall we?