Ph.D. Octopus

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The Class

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Not a Gangsta's Paradise

by Nemo

Continuing my viewing adventures in French films about teenagers, last night I ended up watching the award-winning movie The Class. Unlike many schmaltzy Hollywood films that portray heroic teachers single-handedly transforming a failing urban high school, The Class gives a much more accurate sense of the challenges both students and teachers at such institutions face.

The story focuses on a literature teacher named François Marin (played by Laurent Cantet, who co-wrote the screenplay based on his own teaching experiences). François spends his working days teaching reading and writing skills to a multiethnic class of Parisian students who come mainly from poor, immigrant backgrounds. In trying to teach these students, François faces numerous obstacles: the students have little interest in being there; they frequently challenge his authority; and cultural barriers make it difficult for him to connect with their experiences. François occasionally succeeds at getting students engaged with the course material, but he spends much of his time just trying to keep order in the classroom. While he generally treats his students with respect (unlike some of the school’s other teachers, whose racism the film hints at), at a key moment his frustration leads him to act out against them with cruelty.

Unlike films like Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, or Lean on Me in which charismatic educators transform entire schools, this film highlights some of the reasons for the implausibility of individual educators creating such grand transformations. The students in The Class deal with challenges that high school teachers can do little to resolve. They come from low-income backgrounds in which their parents, who often lack strong French language skills, struggle to make ends meet. They face discrimination as Arabs, Blacks, and Muslims living in French society. Many deal with the fear of deportation. François might help improve the lives of some of his students, but no matter how great his teaching abilities are, they will not make these larger structural problems go away. The Class shows that solving France’s urban crises will take a lot more than inspiring teachers; here’s hoping that American filmmakers will take note.


Written by Julian Nemeth

May 3, 2010 at 16:22

Posted in education, film, race, religion

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