How to Teach, by Miss Jean Brodie

Miss Jean Brodie (center) and “her girls”

Richard Sahn

“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) starring Maggie Smith, who won the academy award for best actress that year, challenges, at least for a moment, pedagogical orthodoxy.  In this fictitious story Jean Brodie is a teacher in a private secondary school for girls in 1932 Edinburgh.  From the beginning it is obvious she is the most popular as well as the most controversial teacher in the school. The rigorously traditional head mistress regards Miss Brodie as a maverick who has consistently demonstrated that her methods over the years of her tenure are starkly incompatible with the goals and values of the school. Jean nurtures a romantic attraction to social, political, and military upheavals. In her classes she avoids talking about the political and moral ramifications of historical events, seeing them as obstacles to her view of history as drama. Showing her students projected slides of classical architectural structures and paintings to engage their capacity for aesthetic appreciation is also a major feature of Miss Brodie’s classes. Engaging her students’ emotions is more important to Jean than detailed historical facts. 

In first day of class for the new semester Miss Brodie describes an imaginary scene of a former lover dying on the battlefield in World War I. She seems to delight in exposing her girls (her students are “my girls”) to the emotional realities of war by providing them with the opportunity to romanticize death.  Listening to the description of the former lover’s death in battle one of her students bursts into tears. At that moment, the head mistress enters the classroom to see how the first day is going. She is perplexed by the student crying, declaring: “You shouldn’t cry during a history lesson.”          

“Truth and beauty” is what Jean Brodie claims she is teaching her students. To challenge her students to appreciate the romantic qualities of even ghastly historical events seems to be a goal. But what she means by “truth” is not necessarily empirical facts. Beauty is truth, Miss Brodie adamantly believes. Even war is an aspect of “beauty” because people die heroically. It doesn’t matter what the reason or cause is as long as passionate feelings can be engaged in the presentation of the lesson.

At one point in the film Jean is called to the head mistress’s office to explain her teaching methods. The head mistress suspects—and rightly so—that Jean is not giving her students the standard information regarding the subject matter. Miss Brodie argues that the meaning of education comes from the Latin word “e-ducare” which means to lead out of.  Her job, she believes, is to elicit her students’ inherent love of learning.  She seeks to stimulate her students’ inherent capacity to see macro and micro events, especially of war, as an art form.  A scene on the battlefield in Spain is to be admired as one appreciates a Giotto painting.

Throughout the movie Jean keeps telling her students they are the “crème de la crème.”  When she asks Mary, a new student at the beginning of the semester what her interests are the student says she doesn’t have any.  Miss Brodie promptly tells her she will give her interests. Later in the school year that same student goes off to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War after Jean had told the class that one is not fully living until one is engaged in major social and political events, events which elicit passionate responses. The student drops out of school and join’s Franco’s fascist army. She gets killed before the school year is over. (Jean has obviously omitted discussing with her students the moral purpose of the war in the first place.)

So, what can educators learn from the character of Miss Jean Brodie? Jean’s teaching style—you have to see the movie to really appreciate it–surely leaves something to be desired. But Miss Brodie’s love of teaching itself and her desire to engage her students’ emotions in the learning process is to be taken seriously. After all, her students love and respect her highly, as almost every scene in the film demonstrates.  But Jean’s failure to acknowledge important facts in favor of the aesthetic and the romantic aspects of political events—Mussolini is a beautiful leader, she proclaims–is what brings her down. She is ultimately dismissed from her teaching post.

The film raises an important question in liberal arts education, both on secondary and post-secondary levels. Do teachers and professors need to engage students’ capacity to become emotional, even passionate, about the subject matter? Should the role of the educator be to provide students with interests, as Jean insists her purpose is, at the expense of factual information? Put simply, does the story of Miss Jean Brodie have something significant to offer educators despite Jean’s playing fast and loose with empirical reality?

For myself—I’ve been a professor of sociology for decades–the importance of emotive anecdotal examples throughout the teaching process when the subject matter pertains particularly to human behavior and socio-historical events can’t be overstated.  The teacher of social sciences and history as artist and poet is a very plausible mixture. At any rate I felt very much inspired by the Jean Brodie character.  She genuinely wanted to reach her students to inspire them to live passionately.

Yet, as the movie suggests, passions unguided by a sound moral compass may prove deadly.

Richard Sahn is a sociology professor who challenged and inspired his students to think differently in and out of the classroom for more than four decades.   

21 thoughts on “How to Teach, by Miss Jean Brodie

  1. Here is the linchpin: To challenge her students to appreciate the romantic qualities of even ghastly historical events seems to be a goal. Seeking an emotional connection with the subject matter and with one’s students can produce passionate involvement, which is partly the goal of education and indeed life (who wants living to be mere drudgery?) but veers easily enough over into cult-like brainwashing. In such cases, the teacher transforms into a demigod or guru — an infectious self-delusion, distortion of purpose, and ultimately betrayal of one’s students. The movie Lions for Lambs also explores this same dynamic, with students of the teacher/guru eventually ending up Afghanistan spending themselves on some pointless hill in an equally pointless war.

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    1. Have you seen “The Wave,” Brutus? German movie, 2008. It shows the power one teacher can have over others. “Die Welle” in German. Really effective in showing how people are so willing to follow a strong authority figure. Or, if not willing, how reluctant they are to speak up against authority.

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      1. Haven’t seen or heard of The Wave. Is it your understanding that these films are cautionary tales for students or training for despots or evensomething else (beyond their entertainment value)?

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        1. I’m hoping as a cautionary tale. But I suppose a few could see it as a training manual.

          It’s a powerful film. Engrossing and believable.

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          1. Never heard of the 2008 German film – at first I thought you were talking about the book or the U.S. television movie: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wave_(1981_film).

            Trying to get students emotionally involved in historical studies is a great thing (especially considering how many seem to consider history boring) but messing about with the facts, omitting context and not trying to get them to engage logically and ethically as well as emotionally would be a very bad thing.

            Tangentially related I’m reminded of how often historical movies seem to feel that just the actual historical events aren’t involving enough for the makers so they alter them and paste on various elements. A particularly egregious example of this to me was the film Pearl Harbor. This is separate from my concern over altering history to fit a particular agenda by the way, disturbing as it is when that happens. If nothing else I would have thought the actual events that took place during the Pearl Harbor attack would have had enough drama to sustain audience interest for an entire movie, but what do I know? /s/

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  2. From your description, which I realize is a summary of the movie, I would say that Miss Brodie “radicalized” her students. I will attempt to summarize the neuropsychology of that process and how it can be done in a healthy manner.

    First I define “unease” as desire and aversion. Reductions in unease are pleasurable.
    “Difficulty” refers to the more concrete tasks and demands, compared with the resources we have to deal with them.
    A simplistic way of distinguishing them is “Difficulty is how we think about something. Unease is how we feel about it.”
    Unfortunately, humans have a distressing tendency to act in ways that reduce unease rather than ways that reduce difficulty. (Procrastination for example)

    In the human brain unease can be reduced by all sorts of social and spiritual experiences, especially a sense of connection with a group, charismatic leader, ideal self, God, etc. Note that actions taken to increase this sense of connection (which reduces unease and is pleasurable) often have nothing to do with reducing difficulty, and may even increase it. People tend to do what feels “right” or “good” rather than what is actually going to be effective, even by their own definitions of effectiveness. Hence the saying in couples therapy “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?”

    Increased unease also tends to cause neural changes in brainstem centers that affect attention and cognitive processing. Attention tends to narrow, and cognitive functioning tends to become more of a closed loop, what I call “conclusion-based thinking.” The focus narrows on what is “right” and why that is “right” and observations that counter that conclusion are ignored and sometimes cannot even be perceived. Adolescents are particularly sensitive to these changes possibly due to immature neural connections to the prefrontal cortex.

    Miss Brodie uses these neural and psychological processes to radicalize her students. It is also likely that she herself is in thrall to these processes as well. She creates an emotional bond with her students. She then uses that emotional bond to facilitate reductions in unease (pleasure) in her students associated with beliefs and actions that tend to reduce unease in herself. This is not education. It is indoctrination. As adolescents her students do not have the neural tracts developed enough to resist this without external influences, which at least some of them do not seem to have. This leads them to act in accord with what reduces unease according to the limited worldview that Miss Brodie has imprisoned them in.

    Challenging what feels good or right causes unease and most of the time people think and act to reduce the unease, reverting back to what feels good or right. Education involves learning how to form a conclusion that follows from the observations and feel right about that, AND THEN take in new observations that challenge the conclusion, which feels “wrong” and craft a new and more accurate conclusion. This is emotionally difficult and most people discard the new observations and go back to the conclusions that make them feel “right”.

    Miss Brodie would have been a educator instead of an indoctrinator if she has been able to use her emotional connection with her students to help them experience the emotions associated with social or political events to form conclusions and then broaden their scope to take in other events or perspectives. This would have caused unease in the students and the connection with the teacher can help them face that unease in the service of developing more effective conclusions. Eventually the students would have been able to face the unease associated with being “wrong” without external aid. I have the suspicion that Miss Brodie could not teach this way because she herself was incapable of accepting observations that challenged the conclusions she felt “right” about.

    For example, the idea of dying heroically on the battlefield is pleasurable to many humans, as there is a desire to be heroic. A broader perspective can show how that is heroic from one perspective, but senseless in another. One can then choose to join the army or work toward peaceful solutions to conflict. I know someone who had been accepted for Naval Flight Training in Pensacola. He started reflecting on his reasons for doing this. He wanted to serve and protect his country and also loved to fly. He then realized that he would be killing “enemy” pilots who also wanted to serve and protect their country and also loved to fly. These people were not inherent enemies and he could probably enjoy having a beer or coffee with them except for the politicians and businessmen who had no real desire to serve or protect anything but their own power and profit. He decided that this was not something he wanted to participate in and turned down the offer.

    Indoctrination is teaching people how to feel like they know something and then defend that “knowledge”. Education is teaching people to tolerate the unease that comes from “I don’t know” and use that to explore new conclusions rather than reduce the unease by reverting to what feels “right.”

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    1. I very much enjoyed and admire this analysis, JPA. You’ve hit it on the head with Miss Brodie.

      Your comments definitely shed light on the dumbing down of this country—it’s much more expedient to avoid unease on both teachers’ and students’ parts by regurgitating and memorizing the accepted body of “facts” than it is to perform analyses that might lead to different, independent conclusions.

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  3. To clarify. I do not mean that “radicalization” can be done in a healthy manner. But rather how to educate in a healthy manner rather than radicalize. Though healthy education does seem like a radical idea nowadays.

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  4. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” has been one of my favorite films since I first saw it almost 50 years ago. Maggie Smith was magnificent, and as a teenager then myself, I wished I had teachers like her (although a couple came close).

    Instilling a passion for learning is a teacher’s primary mission, I believe. Engaging with history on an emotional level obviously makes it much more meaningful, but I do agree that facts must be part of the lessons. I’d suggest that exhaustively researched works of historical fiction might fill the bill as additional reading; there are many thousands of excellent examples available.

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    1. Connecting with the human element, the feelings and effects of the historical events on the individuals is important for motivating people to avoid engaging activities that have a human cost. Otherwise we get the picture in an earlier post here of Napoleon playing chess with people’s lives.

      I recall a saying “One death is a tragedy. One hundred deaths is a statistic.” Engaging with history on an emotional level makes one realize that one hundred deaths is one hundred tragedies.

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  5. Just so, sir. I recently finished a book about WWII (Tears of Amber, Sofia Segovia) that told the stories of two German families, both of which lived near the Russian border, outside the Nazi sphere of influence, for all intents and purposes, except when the German army came to strip them of all their goods and crops. At that point, both families were terrorized by their own countrymen, on top of one family’s having its home bombed by the Allies (they’d moved to a small city). Then the Russians came, and these people were traumatized to the utmost. Many neighbors and relatives were killed or died from starvation and exposure. One father was conscripted toward the end of the war and died outside Moscow. One mother died from a heart attack.

    According to the author, the story was true, and was told to her by family members who’d managed to escape and gain passage to somewhere in South America, carrying only the clothes on their backs, after they’d turned over the last of the meager valuables they’d somehow hung onto.

    Reading this story humanized for me the common people of Germany at that time, many of whom were far from the seat of government and were frightened of the Nazis. I think such material could be presented alongside standard textbooks, to give students a fuller understanding of history and world events. As you put it, JPA, connecting with the human element.

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    1. Were the family Mennonites? The story is similar to what happened to my mother in law’s family during and after WWII which is why she grew up in Paraguay.

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      1. No, they were residents of what had been East Prussia. They’d been absorbed into Germany. Interestingly enough, after Poland had been sliced and diced multiple times over the years, Poles were considered “lesser” by most Germans, and after the invasion in 1939, they were relegated to slave status, looked down upon even by most East Prussians. I hadn’t known that, but it was brought out inPrussian.

        Hadn’t known about the treatment of Mennonites, either. Was it because of their religious beliefs?

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          1. Essentially, not fully trusted by the Reich as being “true” Germans – the pacifist beliefs tended to land the Mennonites in trouble eventually with the rulers of any place they moved to because of this. Not being adherents to the majority or state religion and their tendency to stick to their own group made trouble for them too. And of course post war they were certainly on the outs with the U.S.S.R. for being German.

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  6. I tried to post (substantially) this yesterday, but apparently the tech is over my head. Please forgive me if it shows up twice.
    You give Jean Brodie much too much cred. You say, “Her job, she believes, is to elicit her students’ inherent love of learning,” but you can’t know what anyone believes, much less a fictional character. I infer from her behavior that she believes no such thing, is utterly self-involved and cares only about the girls’ adulation. You ask, “[D]oes the story of Miss Jean Brodie have something significant to offer educators despite Jean’s playing fast and loose with empirical reality?” No. Teachers who entertain adopt entertainers’ methods to compete with the entertainment world kids live in. They needn’t. They aren’t there to develop fans. Madrassas and yeshivas have taught excruciatingly dry and dull material successfully for centuries and they don’t.
    More interesting to me is that the art teacher, MJB’s married former beau, is not only still chasing her but carrying on with one of the girls. Although her school uniform makes that a bit kiddie-pornish, she seems pretty grownup, illusion-free, unvictimized and needing nobody’s hand-wringing. She is instrumental in the plot resolution with apparently multiple motives, both noble and not, just like a grownup woman. The film surprisingly presents the relationship quite uncritically, and if you believe in freedom you have to think about how you feel about it.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in on this topic, Poloniusmonk. I appreciate your assessment of MJB’s fictional character as an “entertainer” seeking the approbation of a captive cohort of upwardly nubile middle-class adolescent “girls” — and during the1930s: a decade of widespread, grinding poverty (the Great Depression), no less! And let me add, by the way, I especially like your nom-de-commentary, or “handle.” From Wikipedia:

      Polonius is a character in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He is chief counsellor of the play’s ultimate villain, Claudius, and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. … In Act II, Hamlet refers to Polonius as a “tedious old fool” and taunts him as a latter day “Jephtha”. Polonius connives with Claudius to spy on Hamlet.

      Thelonious Sphere Monk was an American jazz pianist and composer. He had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including “‘Round Midnight”, “Blue Monk”, “Straight, No Chaser”, “Ruby, My Dear”, “In Walked Bud”, and “Well, You Needn’t”.

      Very cool.

      For my part, I also wanted to comment on this thread but I got double side-tracked. First, by mention of British subjects volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War (or, abortive Spanish Workers Revolution). This led me to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia which I had not previously read. Second, by consideration of films exploring the teacher/student/subject-matter relationship. This led me to the deaf-blind Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, featuring Ms Keller’s life-long teacher-companion, Anne Sullivan, ostensibly “The Miracle Worker” of an Academy Award winning film of the same name. That the title of the film contains a noun in the singular instead of plural (i.e., “workers“) somewhat detracts from the essential role of the capable and determined student in any learning experience, but reading Ms Keller’s and Ms Sullivan’s own telling of their story sets things in their proper perspective.

      Anyway, I took some notes from online e-books and posted them on my website for future reference:

      (1) Notes from Homage to Catalonia. Beginning Parts of Chapter I and ending parts of Chapter XII, all of Appendix I, and only the first few paragraphs of Appendix II (which I will try to complete later if time and energy allow)

      (2) The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller

      (3) Anne Sullivan’s Notes on Hellen Keller’s Education

      (4) Helen Keller’s Letters (1887-1901). Introduction. Those interested in the letters themselves can peruse those online at the link provided at the end of the Introduction

      About the two films, I have seen neither and have no comment upon them as works of “art.” What I have read by the principle participants in war and education will more than likely suffice.

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