Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hooray for Hollywood?

What do the following films have in common?

Chasing Holden
Dead Poet's Society
The Emporer's Club
Finding Forrester
Lost and Delirious
School Ties

If you knew that each of these titles is set in a private school, you've probably been watching way too many movies. You'd probably also know that each film depicts its respective school as an ivy covered bastion of privilege. Which is hardly front page news. One need not be a professional film critic to conjure up the stereotypical portrayal of private education, Hollywood style.

From the classic Goodbye Mr. Chips, to the camp School of Rock, private schools are most often presented as opulent enclaves earmarked exclusively for the scions of the upper crust. Castle-like buildings dot expansive quads and lush, immaculately tailored grounds. Middle-aged male heads of school speak in affected British accents. (OK, the head in "Mr. Chips" was a Brit, and his counterpart in "School of Rock" was a ditsy female.) When he isn't acting in service of the script, one senses that the head of school's most important function consists of quaffing brandy with a coterie of well heeled trustees in front of the massive fireplace adorning his spacious, dark oak paneled office. After having returned from the polo match.

Yes, I'm exaggerating. There is, however, a kernel of truth to the observation that Hollywood has helped to shape public perceptions of private schooling that are both misleading and superficial. To put it crudely, Hollywood allows for the impression that every private school is a Phillips Exeter Academy, without according Phillips Exeter Academy due respect. (I've referenced this particular school because its name is exceedingly well known. While Phillips Exeter Academy can proudly identify its unique attributes and achievements, a number of other schools could be substituted to illustrate the same point.)

If every school in our nation could but approximate Phillips Exeter Academy in any one of a variety of ways, wouldn't it be grand?

At Phillips Exeter, twelve students to a class sit with their instructors around oval shaped Harkness Tables, an innovative classroom environment feature intended to facilitate teaching and learning in the form of an interactive conference. The use of Harkness Tables, which was first pioneered at Phillips Exeter, has become increasingly popular in schools throughout the nation.

The school boasts a world-class faculty, as befits a community of learners whose students hail from twenty-three different nations, and speak twenty different native languages. (Phillips Exeter offers instruction in no fewer than ten foreign languages.)

Phillips Exeter's educational program is comprehensive, offering more than 450 courses of study across nineteen subject matter areas. If a student is looking for breadth and/or depth in the humanities, social sciences, math, science, or fine arts, it's available, not to mention an athletics program that would be the envy of many a college. At this school, it's clear that the whole person is engaged in constant, multi-dimensional learning.

There's much more, including more racial and ethnic diversity (fourteen percent of Phillips Exeter's student body is either Black or Hispanic) than is found in a vast number of public high schools.

Then there are the intangibles: more than two centuries of tradition and culture, the highest of expectations, an environment in which individual achievement and group identity are not only compatible, but mutually reinforcing. (No, I'm not an alum. In fact, I've never so much as visited the school, much as I'd love to.) Watch this five minute video, and, like me, you'll probably end up wishing you had attended this great school, or that your kids could do so.

Regrettably, if understandably, Hollywood typically provides viewers of its products with little more than caricatures of great schools like Phillips Exeter. In fairness to producers and directors, I have yet to see a screenplay adaptation of a Teachers College Record article, and I get the fact that schools, as depicted in movies, are little more than settings.

But couldn't we see a little more...what's that word that Hollywood types tell us is so important...oh yes...diversity on the silver screen?

Yes, Catholic schools were featured in "Sister Act," and "Doubt," though neither film focused on any actual, you know, schooling. (I enjoyed both.) And a yeshiva may have played a cameo role in "The Chosen," produced nearly thirty years ago.

For every private school that bears so much as a remote physical resemblance to Phillips Exeter Academy, there are scores of urban private schools that are shaping and inspiring young lives in much the same way. Maybe when they get around to making "The Sonia Sotomayor Story," we'll get to see a more representative picture.

Ron Reynolds


  1. Thanks for this contribution, Ron. I couldn't agree more. For a related take using films on the subject of teaching, check out this column from Independent School magazine on Dead Poet's Society and The Emperor's Club:

    And for an NAIS article that relates to your themes about myths about private schools, check out this blog:

    Patrick F. Bassett, NAIS President

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