John Hughes's Lessons
"Bueller. Bueller. Bueller."
As an untenured professor I live in constant dread that my voice will (like Ben Stein's in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") morph into an endless monotone that will meet an equally endless silence, and that things will get so desperate that only a choreographed rendition of “Twist and Shout” during a German American Day parade in Chicago will shake me and my students out of our stupor.
As the generational distance between me and my students grows (they’ve probably only seen these Gen-X defining scenes) on DVD or YouTube, if at all), it seems as if Bueller moments are unavoidable.
But for all of the examples of generational disconnect in the movies of the late director John Hughes -- particularly those produced when my junior colleagues and I came of age in the mid-1980s -- Hughes (who died this month) also offers cues for avoiding the Bueller Triangle where meaningful interaction among adults and youth simply vanishes. In this light, Hughes’s films are revelatory for educators.
For example, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” affirms the pedagogical strategies of effective teachers. Students want to take ownership of their learning. Like Ferris, they don’t want to be passive receptors of information but active creators of meaningful knowledge.
They don’t just want to study the historical, economic, political, psycho-sexual, and post-colonial contours of the red Ferrari. They want to drive it. We’ve got to enable them to go where their passions and curiosities lead them, and learn to teach them the significance of our “ologies” and “isms” from the passenger’s seat.
Living up to expectations landed the popular girl, the weirdo, the geek, the jock and the rebel in “The Breakfast Club.” Ironically, Saturday morning detention provided safe space for conversation without which these otherwise disparate characters would not have discovered the right blend of commonality and individuality needed to resist life-threatening pressures.
Professors who provide safe spaces in and outside of the classroom for discerning conversation successfully bridge the gap between our expectations of students, and students’ expectations of us. Free of ridicule and judgment students are liberated to ask themselves the eternal question on the road to adulthood: “Who do I want to become?” For further reading, see “She’s Having a Baby.”
“That’s why they call them crushes,” Samantha Baker’s dad explains in a rare Hughes moment of adult clarity and compassion in “Sixteen Candles.” “If they were easy they’d call them something else.” More than just re-telling a tale of teenage crushes, Hughes illuminates the struggle for authenticity when it comes to romance, dating and sex. What was glaringly absent in 1984 is also missing today, especially in the collegiate “hook up” culture. We need more open-minded adults willing to listen to students before pragmatically proposing a list of dos and don’ts.
And adults like Andy Walsh’s broken-hearted father, Jack, or her eclectic boss, Iona, in “Pretty in Pink,” who teach young people by demonstrating what learning looks like -- neither relating to them as peers nor hovering to try to protect them from life’s inevitable failures -- provide the materials students need to make their own prom gowns, a now classic metaphor for navigating the drama of adolescence.
How many times did Hughes depict the power of privilege and the misuse of teenage social capital? Millennials have to navigate social differences, many of which may be more divisive than they were 20 years ago in “Some Kind of Wonderful” because they are more subtle. While it is true that we “can’t tell a book by it’s cover,” to quote the protagonist Keith Nelson, relational power plays continue, to use Watts’s retort, to reveal “how much it’s gonna cost you.”
Taking responsibility for privilege so that we might use it wisely involves understanding and owning our particular contexts rather than simply rejecting them. In fact, Hughes’s films provide ample fodder for unpacking Peggy McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack of privilege,” given his preference for white suburbia and demeaning portrayals of ethnic minorities.
So if we don’t want to forget about Hughes we should not only reminisce about the way his characters spoke directly to our various adolescent selves. We might also remember how not to behave as adults when it comes to engaging our successors.
After all, we’re no longer writing the papers for Mr. Bender in detention. We’re grading them.
Maureen H. O’Connell is an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University and a participant in the 2009-10 pre-tenure teaching workshop at Wabash College's Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.
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