Monday, March 23, 2009

The Class (Entre les mures)

"The classroom as a reflection of society", writes Antonis about one of the best films of the year.

"The Class" is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Subtle, nuanced, and human, it leaves you with a feeling of disillusionment and wonder about the inherent contradictions of an education system which reflects society at large.

It’s also very much about human nature, and what gives people a sense of purpose, self-justification, and the confirmation of their moral high ground. It’s the kind of film that you can take as simple story, yet it is packed with messages which go far beyond the narrow limits of the storyline.

The opening sequence is the reversal of roles: first day at school for the teachers, and like a bunch of schoolchildren, you see their excitement and awkwardness, a sense of a new beginning, gossip about who’s good and who’s bad, what to look out for, etc.

The whole film is about the power dynamic between the teacher and his students. It is an interaction of constant struggles and antagonisms, where both students and teacher compete for each other’s respect and understanding. There are moments of empathy and when some sort of mutual understanding appears, which however is utterly lost by the subtly paternalistic attitude of the teacher, endowed to him by his authority as the educator.

The classroom is a reflection of society, and as such the same social tensions are constantly in the air. The elephant in the classroom is race and class, but it is only the students who talk about them. The teacher, in true white Frenchman-style, never addresses these issues, and is amused when his students do. He feels self-justified when the few exceptions of hard-working immigrant kids manage to do well or keep out of trouble. Rather self-indulgently, when a Chinese boy (who for them is proof that the system is working and that they’re good at their jobs) is facing trouble because his family is threatened with deportation, the school’s teachers feel obliged to help out. But they are only willing to go the extra mile when nothing is at stake for them – when something is, they won’t.

Interestingly, the teacher is no Manichean-kind of guy. He is no dislikeable character. He is neither a racist old fart, nor an upper class snob. But elements of both are subtly part of the character. I truly believe that he’s doing his best – but it’s not just that this is not enough, he is also unable to do any better, constrained by a very elaborate system of power that he is (actively) part of.

There are many other elements that turn the school a microcosm of society. For example, the silly, meaningless structures of transparency and accountability which serve no purpose whatsoever than to project an image of dialogue and participation. But there is little substance to them and they are at place simply to justify the arbitrariness of the decisions taken. This rings a bell, in Labour Britain.

It’s not all gloom however. There are many funny incidents, and students are masters in being witty in order to make their voice and opinions heard.

Admirably, the protagonist is also the author of the autobiographical book on which the script is based. Such deep self-criticism is indeed rare. Highly recommended.


Mr. Divine said...

Having being a teacher I don't think the classroom is a reflection of society. Society is a lot more polite. I found teaching to be easier if you assumed the role of the dictator. The students expect it of you because all their other teachers perform this role .. it's a like the waiter in Sarte... if you perform the role you get accepted... more and more as time goes by.

When you first arrive at a school you can't assume that in all classes that you'll get their compliance. In some schools you can just walk in and they'll do what you say .. others it can be a long battle. The dynamics changes from class to class.

It's very tiring being in a battle, and there's very little scope to share that power. You have to be careful that you don't appear too nice for some classes because if you give an inch they'll take a bloody mile lad.

God i'm glad I'm not doing it anymore.

Anonymous said...

"there's very little scope to share that power"

I fully agree. As a former teacher yourself, you do get worn out. Very few of the students give a shit. Your role is seen as this kind of enemy as well as a dull/naggin sort of imposition.

Glad I'm not doing it anymore either. Great ads for teacher recruitment aren't we?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

It's been a while since the last post, but I saw the movie yesterday and I'd like to leave my comments as an educator. Here it goes.

It's true that you have to be some class of dictator in order to get the class focused. If you play the role of the friend, students will follow the logic "if you are my friend, you do what I want to when I want to". Try this with fifteen or more people at the same time. It's imposible. Most of the students don't have the maturity to see friendship in other way. I believe part of being a teacher is to show this to them, but it's really hard. Like trying to change other's believes.

I think the classroom is a preparation for society and its rules, and reflects society therefore; despite the fact that in classroom teachers most often than not are concerned about their students, while its not the case in society. And yes, society seems to gives us more choices and be more polite, but in the end it's just the dictature of those who have the power (media, enterprises, whatever).