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.   

Of MOOCs and Technology: Why True Education Is Not Content Delivery

Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society"
Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”

W.J. Astore

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are one of those “pedagogical practices that are current and relevant to the new generation of learners,” to use a description featured prominently in promotional literature. Sure sounds trendy, doesn’t it? But education is not simply about content delivery. Education is about inspiration. It’s about lighting a fire in the mind (and maybe the belly too). Call me skeptical, but I don’t think a MOOC can do that.

OK, I haven’t tried a MOOC, but I have experienced distance learning. As a military officer, I took ACSC (Air Command and Staff College) by “correspondence.” The Air Force sent me the books and study materials, I did the reading and studying — and learned absolutely nothing. Why? First you memorized content, then you took multiple-choice tests to measure your “mastery” of that content. I passed with flying colors — and retained nothing.

As a professor I’ve also advised a graduate student via distance learning. It was an adequate experience for the both of us, but we never met. The mentoring experience was impoverished. I felt little connection to the student, and I’d wager he felt little connection to me.

Distance learning and MOOCs reduce education to content delivery. And it requires an exceptional student to get the most out of them. When I query my students in class about on-line courses, most of them are ambivalent or opposed to them. When they favor them, they say things like: “It was easy to skate by” or “I took it only because it fit my work schedule.”

To be blunt, administrators are looking for ways to reduce costs, and on-line learning is being pushed for that very reason. No classrooms needed. Little or no cost for electricity, facilities, classroom materials and the like. Combine cost-cutting imperatives with growing privatization of education and you have a recipe for education delivered as a commodity driven by the profit motive.

What’s wrong with that, you say? Nothing. Just say “goodbye” to any radical or even fresh ideas being pushed by profit-driven vendors.

Even as we’re overvaluing MOOCs and distance learning, we’re overhyping glitzy technology in the classroom. When it’s appropriate, I use technology in the classroom, but not because I’m trying to be trendy, i.e. not because I think Twitter or Tablets or other gimmicks and gizmos are how you “connect” with today’s students.

Indeed, exactly because my students are perpetually staring at screens, I often use an old-school approach of engaging them in class with vivid stories and amusing anecdotes and open-ended discussion.

Today’s students don’t need more technology; they don’t need more PowerPoint and computer-based learning platforms. What they need are enthusiastic and talented and creative teachers and professors who see education not as a job but as a calling.

I bet every person reading this remembers a teacher or professor who truly inspired you. And I bet he or she did so without glitzy technology and without genuflecting before “current pedagogical practices.”

My father was fond of saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Give me passion in the classroom. Give me a teacher who throws off sparks, and students with combustible minds. Give me that, and I’ll show you true education.

An Addendum: After writing this, I came across a Northeastern University survey featured at the Chronicle for Higher Education that addressed MOOCs, among other issues.  This is what the survey found:

“Slightly more than half of the respondents believe that MOOCs will fundamentally transform how students are taught, but just 27 percent think the online classes are of the same quality as traditional, in-person education. And yet more than half of the respondents predicted that in five to seven years an online education would be seen as of equal quality to a traditional one.”

So whatever I think about MOOCs, I think it’s fair to say that they are here to stay, and that their influence and reach will continue to grow.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and The Contrary Perspective and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.