Teachers are increasingly being tasked and burdened with the role of entertainer. Under the pressure to be "innovative", as well as orient themselves to a "student centered" classroom, educators across grade levels are forced to abide by increasingly draconian rules regarding testing and "learning outcomes" while facing the surveillance (and harassment) that comes with pleasing the "customers".
The prime directive for the business that is now public education is that parents and students are to be pleased and satisfied at all costs. It would seem that this dynamic is occurring both among public schools as well as elite private institutions as well.
The Dalton School, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, has apologized after screening a satirical movie about a world in which the South won the Civil War.
The film, titled “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” was shown to sophomores at a presentation of history projects on Monday. Its edgy and comical treatment of slavery quickly led to complaints, and on Wednesday, the school met with students and parents to apologize.If one of the most prestigious private schools in the country is retreating in the face of intellectual cowardice, then matters do not boad well for public schools which have far less latitude and freedom than Dalton.
“C.S.A.,” released in 2006 and directed by Kevin Willmott, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, is presented in the style of a documentary, nearly 150 years after Ulysses S. Grant surrenders to Robert E. Lee, following the film’s conceit.
The movie is a hodgepodge of commentary by fake historians and altered footage, including an image of a Confederate flag on the moon. It freely uses racial stereotypes, with the not-so-subtle message that attitudes toward black people in the real world are not so far off from the imagined 21st-century Confederacy...
In interviews, Dalton students said that some felt the film was insensitive to the struggle of blacks and made light of slavery.
In a statement on Wednesday, Dalton’s leader, Ellen C. Stein, pledged to redouble efforts to speak with students and staff members about race.
“We believe in the highest levels of respect and sensitivity for the diverse nature of our student body and community,” she said in a statement. “Monday’s screening should not have taken place and we sincerely regret that the film was shown.”
[There is much more going on here than a simple complaint about a movie. For those who know more about the Dalton School and this incident, please do chime in.]
I have used the movie The Confederate States of America in my own courses. It is a provocative and smart film. However, it is not a satire in the conventional sense; The Confederate States of America is a counterfactual that attempts to demonstrate the enduring power of white racism by offering up a world that should be very different from our own present--but of course is not.
In deciding to show the movie The Confederate States of America (or attempt other more "innovative" or "challenging" approaches to teaching), lecturers and instructors are governed by the vague catchall phrase and question, "is this pedagagically sound"? As we explained to me several years ago, the shorthand logic and question in practice is really, "can I defend what I am doing in this seminar if someone complains?"
Unfortunately, in the neo liberal present when education is now simply a good in the market like a McDonald's hamburger, academic freedom is being subverted by how the customer (read: the student and their parents) may take offense at being forced to confront uncomfortable truths.
I have made students cry in my classes by presenting information which they have found upsetting. I have faced formal complaints by students who have been angered by the fact that I show them, visually, the human costs of America's military adventures and how policy is not an abstraction. One young woman even cursed me because I explained that Rosa Parks was not a little old lady on a bus whose feet were tired, but rather that Sister Parks was a trained political activist, one with agency and choice.
The idea that black folks were agents in our freedom struggle was too upsetting for said student...and she was a young woman of color.
Screening The Confederate States of America for a group of students, at any educational level, requires a good amount of preparation and contextual knowledge about the American slaveocracy, and Jim and Jane Crow, for them to properly understand how "satire" is a device for discussing painful facts about our own country's past and present.
Showing a film is not a substite for rigorous teaching and learning in the classroom. And using a film like The Confederate States of America as a primer for a conversation about white supremacy in the present--if one has not properly prepared and trained the audience--is akin to how amateurs shouldn't try to disarm explosives using only secondhand knowledge gleamed from the Internet.
In both cases, matters will not turn out well.
Educational malpractice via the use of cinema is likely more common than not in today's public schools, colleges, and universities.
Teachers are often told that they should "meet students where they are". Perhaps, the movie The Confederate States of America was too far ahead of where the students at Dalton are at present? But is not the role of the educator to push students forward, to make them uncomfortable by challenging their priors?
Or is that an antiquated norm in 21st century America?