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Colonialist Education Laid Bare in The Class

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Laurent Cantet's The Class (translated from the French "Entre les Murs) is finally a school movie that gets it right. I get so tired of the standard pattern of American school dramas. Generally the hero-teacher is a self-sacrificing Christ figure, willing the culturally deprived (read: poor) students to come out of the ghetto with her deep empathy and tough determination. This cliché plot was so well satirized on Mad TV in the famous "Nice White Lady" skit that it may never be able to show its head again.

The Class is something else again. François Bégaudeau wrote the novel based on his own teaching experiences in Paris, then co-wrote the screenplay with Cantet and played the teacher, Mr. Marin. I took my University of San Francisco students (course called "Teaching Adolescents") last week and we were stunned by the accuracy and power of it. Let me try to unravel some of the magic of this piece.

First, the camera stays, relentlessly stays, inside the classroom. While most school movies, even documentaries, create their plot outside the classroom -- in the hallways, the streets, the homes -- here the gaze is directly on what happens in the day to day interactions. This is mostly unprecedented. Everyone, even radical critics of education and reproduction, has something to say about the state of education today. But most of these criticisms float somewhere outside of schools, in the nether realms of theory, data, and wild guesses. Bégaudeau takes us into the classroom and those routine moments that define the line between engagement and outright rebellion. About halfway through, the audience begins to get restless, trapped in the claustrophobia of the modern classroom. Cantet does not let up -- just makes us endure more and more of it.

Second, Cantet brings a kind of realism that is reminiscent of Denmark's "Dogme" films, shot with numerous digital cameras at once. The crew, teacher and junior high students, simply workshopped different situations and classroom moments, then improvised. Over the course of an entire year, they captured the shape and feeling tone of the classroom, the confrontations, the seething power struggles, and the unsatisfactory resolutions. Cantet has studiously avoided stereotypes and the cheap jab. A typical example is the principal of the film's Paris school. Many would be tempted to make him a caricature, a fool, a petty dictator lost in his own self-importance. Instead, the principal is drawn deftly and simply. Yes, he is a man without imagination, without vision, without depth. But he is typical of most school administrators, well-meaning, trying to be fair, hoping to shepherd the complex project of the school year forward.

Third, Bégaudeau explores the deep, the cavernous, rift between the mission and self image of the traditional school and the world the students are coming from. This is not the France of the 1950's, white and authoritarian and homogenously Catholic. This is post-colonial France, with a student population what includes some Europeans but many more from Mali, Morocco, Algeria, and the French West Indies. Gone are the superior observations the French used to make about US racism. Now, with the colonies come to the metropolitan center, their own racism stares them in the face.

And here is where the film serves as a serious, a powerful, case study of the crisis in (European and North American) education today. For all their professionalism, all their attention to detail, even all their caring for the welfare of the students, the school staff is absolutely blinkered to the contradictions between their world and the world of their immigrant students. They carry on with the traditions, the same books, the same punishments, the same procedures that have always meant French education. But even the meanings of their words, the culture they are hoping to pass on, are hopelessly disconnected from the culture and the web of meanings the students live in. Indeed, the teachers are trying to construct a culture that is 50 years old and will never exist again. They have no idea how to change for a global culture of the 21st Century. While the staff worries about students who get in trouble or who may get deported, they are absolutely unreflective about the kind of teaching they are doing.

There is plenty to be frustrated about in the way Mr. Marin teaches. He attempts to create a casual, interactive repartee with the students. But for the most part the lessons are boring. Grammar lists. Vocabulary words. Top down stuff. One slightly effective project he assigns is for the students to create a self-portrait. In fact, this leads to the one time the resistant Malian student, Souleymane, becomes engaged in class -- as his photo-essay with text is posted on the wall. And the final booklet, a collection of each student's piece, brings about some excitement in class. Beyond that, he seldom experiences any success. A few times there are some reflective comments about their reading, such as Anne Frank. But it is pretty thin and does not go anywhere. Why does Marin teach this way? Is there nothing else that could be done to get the students out, get them talking and writing? The school exhibits no curiosity about the culture, the concerns, the passions of the students. It is all "come to me" teaching, with the European teacher as the authority in the front of the room.

The most enjoyable, and most painful, elements to watch are the complex strategies the students devise to resist, to derail the project of the classroom, to ignite a counter narrative. Khoumba, an African immigrant girl, can never read or respond to a request without a debate -- why do you call on me when there are others around? aren't you picking on me? Sandra, the defiant Arab immigrant girl, wonders why Marin has chosen these texts, why he never uses the names of colonial people in his examples. Souleymane asks, through another Malian student reading his paper, whether Mr. Marin is gay. A group of immigrant students gang up on Wei, the Chinese immigrant student who tries to respect the teacher and do as he's told. This is all the stuff of teenage life -- a passion for fairness, a questioning of adult judgment, an obsession with sex and sexuality. Marin is not flustered. Indeed he takes all the attempted detours with a sense of humor and some indulgence. His attempts to tease back, to enter the give and take of the challenging language games, end up turning against him when the students declare that he has been unfair, has used his power inappropriately.

How familiar. How painful.

One surprise for me was the reaction of my USF students after the film. All young teachers in training, they were quick to criticize the transgressions, the little cruelties, the mistakes of Mr. Marin. I'm glad they did. They are right. They plan to go into the classroom and be fantastic -- to reach those kids from all over the city and the world. But I could not help having sympathy with Marin. Unable to imagine a curriculum outside of that set by the school, he was gamely taking on the class every day, in what turned out to be a doomed project. Maybe I felt sympathy for Marin because I've been there, in those classrooms, for so many years. Even if I thought my lessons were cool, interesting, engaging, I often spent the majority of my time cajoling, threatening, teasing, and begging my students to go at least part of the way with me.

This reminds me of the problems British researcher Douglas Barnes describes in teachers who attempt to use only a "transmission" approach to knowledge, downloading knowledge from on high. Even if successful, such teaching generates in students an "artificial dependence upon the teacher's fragile, and sometimes arbitrary, authority. It seems a poor preparation for adulthood. . ." (Language in the Secondary School Classroom pp. 81-82). But, indeed, a colonialist education philosophy is about precisely that, breaking student resistance, forcing passivity to an arbitrary authority. The project of the Paris school will be successful if it trashes the culture and self-respect of the students. What appears as annoying and juvenile rebellion, then, is often a kind of resistance -- even if it is a resistance that is not strategic or even successful.

A measure of the power of The Class is that its position on school politics in cannot be easily pigeonholed. Two people coming out of the same theater can have sharply different views of each character, each situation. But for me, involved in education theory and teacher training, the overwhelming truth the film captures is the dilemma, the crisis, of education in the global communities we now find ourselves in. Clearly the old white male curriculum of American schools won't cut it; clearly the patronizing French colonialist education is not going to work. Can we relook at the project of education as a whole? Can we ask ourselves what an educated person is, what kind of world these students will be living in, what options we are responsible to give them? It is not simply a matter of making the top-down, white-centered French education more palatable or more successful with those whose cultures have been marginalized and attacked by the project of colonialism. The answer lies in a pedagogy which decenters white, European authority and draws a new map, a new world, in which this new generation is allowed to define its own direction, its own educational needs and dreams.