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False freedom

Television | Boston Public's teachers are rebels, not guides to timeless knowledge

Issue: "House hunting," May 11, 2002

Television isn't always an indication of popular sentiment-but it is at least an indication of what the liberal elite believes to be popular sentiment. So what does the popular television show Boston Public reflect about liberal elite opinion on education?

Nineteenth-century academic thinker John Henry Newman wrote of the university student, "He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects.... Hence it is that his education is called 'liberal.' A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom."

Trying to make Newman's thoughtful statement applicable to the boob tube's "intellectual" approach to education may seem laughable. But watching a show like Boston Public (which airs Mondays at 8 p.m. Eastern on Fox) with Newman's ideas in mind proves instructive.

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While conservatives identify the gradual, or sometimes radical, breaking with tradition as being at the root of our education crisis, the simplistic liberal response found in shows like Boston Public sees tradition, or "the system," as the primary culprit.

Boston Public chronicles the experiences of the teachers and administration at Boston's fictional Winslow High School. It is a show created and scripted by David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal), so there is no shortage of over-the-top plots. But beneath the histrionics, a pattern of thinking emerges, and Newman's "intellectual tradition, independent of particular teachers" is nowhere to be found.

Perhaps, if the teachers in Boston Public were not all such dominant personalities, there would be no reason to frame a show around them. But there's more to it than that. The role of the teacher is not that of an intellectual guide, a gateway to a pool of knowledge deeper and richer than present experience. The teachers in Boston Public are rebels-at least the good ones are. They are fighting against a system that is far too dependent on stale tradition and racial and class exclusivity.

The teachers on Boston Public depend entirely on personal connection, most often to marginalized students seen as square pegs in a system of round holes. In last week's episode, assistant principal Scott Guber (played by Anthony Heald), in a climactic moment, is soundly rebuked by the school's principal because Guber is "all about" rules, order, discipline, tradition, and budgets. Principal Harper (Chi McBride) says he doesn't "really know" who Guber is, because of this.

It's implied that-although a dedicated school administrator-because Guber hasn't taken on some personal cause that falls outside of the scope of these structures, or, more likely, identified himself with some victim group, he can't be a fully effective educator.

As expected, a liberal education means something entirely different to David E. Kelley than it does to John Henry Newman. But it's not simply that the word has taken on a political meaning, as in "liberal indoctrination."

C.S. Lewis reminds us that "liberal comes of course from the Latin, liber, and means free." The freedom gained from a liberal education is that of being unchained from ourselves as "an unregenerate little bundle of appetites" and becoming "the good man and the good citizen." It is, in other words, freedom in a very Christian sense.

Shows like Boston Public also see education as an avenue to freedom, but not freedom from ourselves or our appetites. Instead, the ultimate goal of the teachers on Boston Public is to give their students the freedom to be themselves, or find themselves, or do whatever it is the current self-obsessed psychobabble requires. (In the show scheduled for this week, a transvestite student places himself in the running for prom "queen.")

To be fair, a big part of Mr. Kelley's show recognizes the problem with the loss of legitimate authority in high schools, as weakened, unsupported teachers deal with an out-of-control student population (sometimes referred to as "animals" on the show). But while this Wild West mentality makes for good drama, a real solution to the problem is never recognized. It's as if Mr. Kelley is able to see the inherent problems in the radical liberal, anarchistic mindset that has helped create the current education crisis, but can't allow himself the freedom to also recognize a conservative solution.

The online magazine Salon calls Mr. Kelley a "neoconservative" because the students that populate his show are not all simply victims of the system. Perhaps, but only if the label "neoconservative" means that Mr. Kelley has the ability to see the education problem through a semi-conservative lens, but only offer a liberal solution.

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