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Video: Mr. Chips, join the NEA

Video | Videos on teachers mirror American educational decline

Issue: "Urban mission fundraising," Sept. 27, 1997

The teacher's work is a godly calling, according to the biblical perspective. But trips to the video store to rent popular movies about teachers from the 1930s, 1940s, 1980s, and 1990s show a dramatic decline in the spiritual character of the educator.

MGM's 1939 adaptation of James Hilton's novel Goodbye Mr. Chips tends to be thought of in Hollywood circles as a sweet melodramatic relic of a past "as dead as Latin." But thanks to video, audiences can enjoy a revival of not only classical curriculum but classic faith as the film traces the career of Latin master Mr. Charles Edward Chipping (Oscar winner Robert Donat) from the day he departs for Brookfield School to the day he departs this life.

Mr. Chipping's first mentor is the stern headmaster, Dr. Wetherby (Lyn Harding), who threatens to dismiss him if he cannot bring his students under authority. Strong words-but seeing the headmaster pray for faculty and students as servants "to the greater glory of God and piety in learning" makes it clear that Dr. Wetherby means more than the authority of the teacher.

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This film is saturated with a biblical mindset and presents characters who are in right relationship with one another. The parents are supportive of the school; their children are prepared to learn; and the faculty, in turn, honors and respects the families. There isn't antagonism here-there is mutual encouragement. When Mr. Chips suffers his greatest loss, the children gently pay their respects, and in a turnaround years later, Mr. Chips mourns for them and comforts their families as World War I devastates their ranks.

The famous 1945 Bette Davis film The Corn Is Green represents the first in a flood of films that idealize the humanist and dispose of the monotheist. Miss Davis plays a smart, high-minded heiress, Miss L.C. Moffatt, who gives her all in the noble struggle to raise the status of poor Welsh coal miners by means of classical education. In 1895, before our century's dumbing down of the curriculum, that included reading, writing, calculus, and Greek.

But the Miss Moffatt of this film is out of place with her setting. She doesn't belong to the turn of the century-she's a woman of the post-World War II era, filled with "modern" ideas. The virtuous educator has subtly metamorphosed into an agnostic and antagonistic pedagogue-at-large. Miss Moffatt repeatedly clashes with the citizens of Glasarno but emerges victorious because she outwits them all.

The two Christians in this film are cardboard caricatures. One, a teacher assisting Miss Moffatt, is without initiative and quick to condemn sinners, and the other-a former thief, now a member of the Militant Righteous Corps-is used for "hilarious" effect when she accosts unknown people with the question, "Are you saved?"

Of particular note is the resolution of a subplot involving a child of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Not only does Miss Moffatt hide the knowledge of this child from the father, her favored student, but she decides to become a single mother to the child, pressing the point that young adults must not delay their pursuits to raise their children. 'Tis nobler to let your teacher be the single parent of your child. Where could this be going?

Two recent box-office successes stand as evidence of the complete reversal in our culture's concept of educators, and both films also happen to be products of Disney's conglomerated companies. For those not already participating in the boycott of this corporation, a review of Disney's "good" work should be informative.

The modern counterpart of Mr. Chips is Robin Williams, starring as John Keating, the beloved master of literature at Welton Academy in 1989's Dead Poets Society. This time, the teacher finds soulmates among the children and mortal enemies in the administrative offices. Mr. Keating hangs a portrait of "Uncle Walt" Whitman at the top of his classroom, extols the epicurean's appetite, and gets in trouble when his mantra of carpe diem begins to take effect.

Introducing the sinister element of family faith through the scenario of school chapel, the film equates God-fearing parents with spiritual hypocrisy, blind allegiance to empty tradition, greediness, hostility to the arts, and child abuse. Of course, the parents are responsible for all evil and for the unjust downfall of Mr. Keating.

Last year's Dangerous Minds slumps to the scholarly nadir. Michelle Pfeiffer, as (former Marine) Miss Johnson, tackles the education of "at risk" (i.e., cursing, slovenly, homicidal) teens. Following in Miss Moffatt's footsteps, Miss Johnson aims to save the poor by virtue of her will and higher knowledge. Unlike Miss Moffatt however, this academic neophyte must lower her sights; forget the Greek poets, she teaches Dylan-Bob Dylan-in her English class.


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