I was recently at the cinema and watched a new production based on the biography of political theorist Hannah Arendt. The film portrays Arendt primarily as the author of the controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book that provoked a wide debate about the nature of evil, responsibility, and nationalism, and nearly cost her her university position. In the culminating scene of the film, Arendt holds an open lecture in the university auditorium in front of a large audience of students, colleagues and (former) friends. In it, she is portrayed as an astute speaker, a convinced and convincing teacher, passionate, articulate and inspiring.
I take with me that picture, and perhaps another one, a short scene preceding the grand finale of the lecture, when Arendt is pressured by the university leadership to give up teaching and she finds support not in her colleagues but in her students. I was inspired and moved by those scenes, and I secretly wished that I would also enjoy the same type of support and special bond with my students.
I recognized suddenly that the image of the good teacher awakened in me by the Arendt film is partly shaped by my previous experiences at the movies. Everyone remembers Robin Williams as the charming, passionate but also naïve and somewhat odd John Keating, teaching English in the “Dead Poets Society” (1989). The image of Robin Williams is complemented by the charming Julia Roberts as Katherine Ann Watson, the art history teacher in “Mona Lisa’s Smile” (2003), a non-conformist, free-thinking person who wants to challenge the conservative conventions of her time (1950s) and to open the lives of her female students to more options than was acceptable then.
What image of the teacher do these films project? The obvious shared feature is the non-conformist streak. The teacher/professor fights against the norms of her/his institutions, and is progressive, almost a visionary. The teachers on film are heroes of reform, free thinkers, unfettered by the old-fashioned university/college/school rules. This non-conformist attitude is reflected also in their personal style: Arendt chain smokes during her lectures, John Keating the English teacher, walks around campus whistling classical music, and Katherine Ann Watson is unmarried despite being 30 years old.
Secondly these teachers are very adept at establishing good contact with their students. Despite their oddities and idiosyncrasies, they are touching the lives of their students in a more personal and direct way in comparison with colleagues at the same institutions. Students, simply put, love these teachers, and are devoted to them; the emotional bonds between teacher and student are strong, and when the conservative educational structures want to punish the visionary teacher, the students show solidarity, affection and care.
Thirdly, the films present the teachers as somewhat eccentric, living outside the “real world”, not completely isolated but in a bubble of their own. The world of ideas is where they belong, and even though they are inspiring and motivating and even loved by students, they are not made of the same material. To some extent, their non-conformism is both their charm and their failure, as they do not integrate in the “normalcy” of the everyday life.
The image that emerges from these films (and others, surely) is both inspiring and scary. Cinema sets a measuring stick for teachers – the inspiration, the vision, and the student contact. At the same time, it describes them as a minority of eccentrics, whose free-thinking is acceptable as long as their numbers are low. I must confess that I do not approve of this image. Good teachers are not outside the society, but belong right in its middle.
Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.