Movies in the (Catholic) Classroom

Lots of parents worry about their kids spending too much time watching TV — it is undeniably a commercial wasteland. At our house the often used command “turn off the TV” started to be greeted by “can we watch a movie?”

Is This What We Are Paying For?

We had a small inventory of decent videos we’d bought and often borrowed from the library or a neighbor so our kids had ready access to some alternatives. A movie became a permissible diversion, but only if the homework and chores were completed. What we didn’t realize was how many movies were increasingly being watched by our kids outside of our home. Not at a friend’s house — but at school.

With only two weeks remaining in the school year my high school freshman announced at dinner that her Latin I class had been shown Liar, Liar during the 90 minutes scheduled for instruction. I made light of the news with a question to her. “Do you mean Lyre-Lyre?” My wife smiled. Our daughter looked at me with furrowed brows, not understanding my joke. We explained what a lyre was and included that the instrument was actually from ancient Greece, not Rome. She still looked confused.

Then our serious question was asked. “And with final exams one week away, what did you do during the playing of the Jim Cary movie?”

“Oh, I studied,” she said.

Her mother and I rolled our eyes. “Sure.”

Tuition at the parochial high school in Southern California at which my children pursue what is described as a “college prep” course of study is pricey. At $7000 per student it works out to be around $40 per school day. That’s a lot of movie rentals.

What started this craze — showing commercial movies in classrooms in addition to teachers presenting traditional subject material — may be hard to track down. I remember listening to my aunt who was a teacher in the public schools during the 1960’s and 70’s telling me about assignments to her inner city junior high school students which included writing stories about television programs in place of assigning book reports. Her excuse was that she was getting kids to write about something — anything — that interested them. In retrospect, the aunt’s motives seem a lot better than those at the prestigious high school. Nowadays, the movie serves as a quasi instructional tool.

Just how prolific these screen gems are was demonstrated a few days after the dinner conversation with our daughter. I was substituting with the car pool. During a lull in the conversation on the ride home, I asked the question: “How many movies do you guys watch at school?”

“Which class?” came the response from one of the four girls in the car as the others started naming movies, all talking at once. I clarified my question and slowed down the girls with “How about English class?”

To Kill a Mockingbird, Shakespeare in Love, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, The Simpsons.”

The Simpsons?” I questioned.


“And in Algebra?” I asked. “Stand and Deliver,” my freshman chimed. I cringed. “But that was when we had the substitute,” she added.

“What about Religion class,” I asked.

Walk to Remember, Seven Years in Tibet, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Fiddler on the Roof.” they volunteered.

Fiddler on the Roof is about traditions,” one of them clarified.

“Did you watch the entire movie?” I asked.

“Yea,” they answered.

“And what was the teacher doing while the movie was playing?”

“She watched it,” they responded.

I wondered why teachers complain that they never have enough time to present the entire curriculum when there was so much time for … movies.

In parish school one of my daughters was taught the Civil War and American History in the 1800’s with showings of the movies Glory and Roots. Not snippets of the films but full showings with quizzes. That was in 7th grade.

Whose Interpretation?

School courses taught in this way are no different than teaching from a newspaper opinion page instead of a textbook or other researched materials. Movies are usually interpretations of a written story whether fictional or based on fact — but a story none-the-less. Add to that the screen writer’s POV (point of view) when he rewrites or adapts the story, the director’s POV, the actor’s POV and the viewer’s POV and what you have is interpretation and very little else — except entertainment.

I pointed out my frustration to that 7th grade History teacher but the man left the school for another job and I never got the chance to query him further. Now I feel embarrassed at not investigating the proliferation of movies at school more thoroughly.

About the same time, in her high school History class, my then 10th grader was shown director Oliver Stone’s JFK as the class reviewed the 1960’s. Pollsters consistently report that more than one in ten people in the U.S. believe that Elvis Presley is still alive, so movies such as Stone’s fabrication of the assassination of President Kennedy and the film’s implication that evil forces within the U.S. government were responsible should not be filling the academic day, even in a broad brushed attempt to teach discernment. But there it was in a History class.

This semester in Science, the same freshman daughter who says she studied during the Latin class showing of Liar-Liar, got to see most of Jurascic Park. I contacted the Science teacher with a strong objection and he admitted an error in judgment and abstained from showing the rest of the popular movie the following day. He also said he was new at the school and just doing what others did. Still, parents shouldn’t have to patrol each classroom for movies.

In writing this article I did a Google search for any previously published work on this subject, but the only concern I could detect was with the rating of the movies shown in classrooms, not the showing of movies per se. Several of the web references I explored offered teachers sample consent forms to be sent home which pledged to parents that nothing more racy than a PG film would be screened without their permission.

But what if the parent didn’t want movies to be part of the syllabus at all? Did the schools think to ask that question? Some parents might object to the sexual romps and nudity in Shakespeare in Love. After all, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their published review, label the movie as suitable for adults but point out its R rating. Do the schools consider the Bishop’s advice?

In their work Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (New York, Touchstone, 1994), authors William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe make an effective argument for story telling and its positive effect on building character; and in truth, movies are just another medium for doing what these authors applaud as a commonplace feature of a culture — telling stories. And I’m not arguing with those authors' point that stories have great value as teaching aids. It’s just that the junior high and high school classrooms we’re talking about here are not Film Making I or Script Writing II. Far from it, these classes are the core curriculum of the school and according to the high school’s own promotional material, offered in order to prepare the student for the rigorous life of higher education at college. College is where, the brochures and school’s administration tells us, over 95% of their students are headed.

While school was still in session for others in early June, my just graduated daughter dropped in to say goodbye to her high school choir director and take care of some administrative chores. I was driving and at the school on separate business. I went to the choir class to fetch her. The men’s choir had been depleted by graduation and with the seniors gone there were only three boys in the room for class. Underclass student final exams were scheduled for the following week but everyone in the choir room, including the teacher and my graduate, was enjoying Sister Act II. And I’m not sure any of the kids taking finals the following week had been given the choice of “studying” as was our younger daughter’s Latin class.

Technology versus Knowledge

You might wonder how all these movies can be so easily shown in so many different classrooms. That’s a good question! It’s because the school — as have many throughout the country — has been outfitted for technology. And that means that all classrooms can access commercial television, be connected to a central school sponsored transmission of video announcements, and play video tapes and DVDs on the classroom screen. It’s state-of-the-art.

The school touts its new “technology classrooms” and upgrades in the same promotional materials that brag about college preparation. But I’m not sure that the word technology hasn’t joined the other code words of the education establishment progressives that emerged during the great school reforms E.D. Hirsch Jr. chronicles in his book The Schools We Need (New York, Doubleday, 1996). Parents seem to be calmed over — even mesmerized — by a school having the newest gadgets and features of modernity for students just as they were by John Dewey and his accomplices with their phrases like critical thinking, self esteem, individual attention and developmentally inappropriate. Hirsch characterizes both as part of the Anti-Knowledge movement that sculpted the education curricula in colleges for the past seventy years and has had its effect on forming most of those who teach in the K-12 classrooms in America, even the parochial classrooms.

So if you’re a parent who is questioning why class time is being spent watching a movie you could just as easily borrow from the public library collection or rent from a store, and you ask one of these teachers why your son or daughter is watching movies in school, you’re likely to hear “they’ve been working so hard, I thought they needed a treat,” or “this really makes the lesson we’ve been studying come alive for them.” Now this may be true and I have spoken to administrators from different schools who allow “snippets” of film during class for its illustrative value. But when is enough, enough? Publicized education tests indicate that kids can’t place the civil war in the right century. How does watching a movie dramatizing slavery help that student’s perspective on federalism or the 14th Amendment?

When I was young our school classes went to symphony concerts to help us expand our experience with music. We took long bus rides to a Shakespeare play to experience the drama of live stage performance. We watched film strips about Biology and solar eclipses. Maybe movies save the schools money. But that still doesn’t explain or justify Shakespeare in Love for a hormonally active English class full of 15 year olds during school hours.

Missing in these classes and in high school generally has been the mere mention of Pope Leo XIII and such things as Rerum Novarum, the 1891 Encyclical which, in the middle of a burgeoning industrial age detailed a major religious leader’s sense of morality in commercial markets and launched a continuing modern day discussion of what we call the “Just Wage.” Fiddler on the Roof is a good movie. But where are young Catholics exposed to the intellectual brilliance of their popes and other historical leaders in their Religion classroom studies? Are their teachers even aware of these Encyclicals? Maybe I should make a movie!

Just for fun I went to the message boards of a few think tanks that focus on education issues. I asked contributors what they thought about movies in the classroom. One of them replied:

Movies are easy. I had one instructor from Kenya that declared to me one day that he should start showing movies. He was tired of preparing for lectures, debates, and coming up with examples while some other professors came in at 9 and left at 4.

It seems to me that showing movies for a specific purpose, for a specific activity, to illustrate a point would be acceptable — but during class? Professors should not read chapters from the text book during class. I would hold that it is the same for movies: assign them.

The online writer has an excellent point. Teachers are supposed to illuminate core subjects by being knowledgeable of the subject and in being good communicators. Many of us likely remember the monotone of a teacher standing at a lectern reading notes to the class. That’s not teaching — nor is turning down the lights and turning on the video.

What it is — is entertainment and diversion. And the cost in dollars and lost opportunity is extraordinary. If the movie is important, assign it for homework. That should certainly get parent’s attention and may put an end to all this cinematic foolishness at our schools.

© Kenneth Larson 2003

Mr. Larson is a parent, businessman and writer in Southern California.

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