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.   

Culture War!

W.J. Astore

I saw another article this weekend about culture war in America. Supposedly, America is deeply divided, and I’m not denying there are divisions. But when you ask Americans what they want, what’s surprising is how united we are, irrespective of party differences. For example, Americans favor a $15 minimum wage. We favor single-payer health care. We favor campaign finance reform that gets big money donors and corporations out of government. Yet our government, which is bought by those same donors, refuses to give Americans what we want. Division is what they give us instead, and even then it’s often a sham form of division.

What do I mean by “sham”? Well, our so-called divided government is strongly united in support of huge war budgets and endless war. Strongly united in support of Israel. Strongly in favor of, and obedient to, special interests and big money in politics. Strongly in favor of business as usual (with a stress on “business”), with sham elections every four years between the center-right Democrats and the increasingly unhinged-right Republicans. Sadly, when it comes to policy that impacts the working classes, there isn’t much difference between Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. They are unified in what they deny us.

It’s a war of the have-mores versus the haves and especially the have-nots, and the have-lots-more are winning. Why? Because they’ve bought the government too.

Of course, we do see examples of so-called culture war in the U.S. Consider in the realm of history the “battle” between the 1619 Project and the 1776ers. The 1619ers want to stress the many violent and tragic legacies of slavery to America’s history. (1619 was the first year an African slave was brought to the colonies.) The 1776ers want to stress the ideals of the American Revolution, the proud legacy of George Washington and other founders, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and so on.

What’s the solution to this “culture war” between the 1619ers and the 1776ers? I’m a historian, and I’ve taught U.S. history. The solution is easy. You teach both. America is a land of contradictions. Any U.S. historian worth her salt is going to talk about genocide and the Native Americans; is going to talk about the violent and bitter legacies of slavery; and is also going to talk about the ideals and idealism of the founders, however imperfectly they put them into practice, and the promise of the Constitution and the spirit of liberty. To ignore slavery while singing the praises of the founders would be as flawed and one-sided as focusing entirely on slavery without ever mentioning the proud achievements of those same founders.

America is a complex and contradictory place — and any historian is going to address those complexities and contradictions because that’s precisely what makes history interesting, fascinating, enthralling. Few students want to be comforted by feel-good history or assaulted by feel-bad history. They want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, and historians should be able to teach the same. There’s simply no need for a culture war here over the content of history.

I said there’s no need, but that doesn’t mean a culture war isn’t wanted. Polemicists love culture wars, and so too do the already privileged and the powerful. For if we’re fighting each other, if we perceive we’re divided and simply can’t find common ground, we’ll forget we have so much in common, like our desire for a living wage, affordable health care, and politicians who’d actually represent us instead of the special interests.

Forget culture war. Let’s make war on those who keep us apart and who refuse to work for those so desperately in need.

Readers, what do you think?