As a cultural historian, I relish pop-culture productions for their ability to grasp social issues with a subversive twist. As an educator and a scholar devoted to understanding the current failures of the American public educational system, who also happens to be French (speaking of the failure of public education, we wrote the book), I open-mindedly went to see the new film Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake.
The teaser for Jake Kasdan's movie suggests that this crude comedy is highly provocative, subversive and even indielike. The outrageous spin is the only thing "funny" about this crowd-pleasing exercise in teacher bashing that neither Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker nor New Jersey's Chris Christie would have disavowed. It deserves an A-plus, though, for openly declaring what Waiting for Superman instilled more subtly: The problem with education is teachers.
Sure enough, Bad Teacher, "the number one comedy in America two weeks in a row" after its opening, is an unpretentious, goofy comedy aimed at the whole family. I could not have expected this story of a Chicago teacher in an average Illinois high school to touch on big issues like the under-resourced public schools that plague minorities of color. But this flick, I thought, could be the comic counterpart to thought-provoking dramas that have recently offered innovative public school narratives in the U.S. (Akeelah and the Bee, Half Nelson, both from 2006, or Freedom Writers from 2007).
When the 2008 Oscar-nominated French movie The Class, about a low-income Parisian middle school, got much praise in the U.S. (a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the opening slot in the New York Film Festival helped), I was concerned about its depressing doculike realism, likely to mislead the audience about the degree to which France's republican ideals have been led astray.
The ethnic resentment among the students in the film and the helplessness of teachers were indeed a rather gloomy rendition of the state of mind in French schools. But many American commentators correctly grasped the bitter truth underneath: The making of French citizens (chiefly of immigrant descent) through public education is no longer working.
Both Bad Teacher and The Class, although utterly dissimilar, offer a Manichean opposition between good and bad teachers, and ultimately, both protagonists appear to be merely drops in the bucket. Confronting the decay of public education, both cultural productions convey noxious subtexts: We feel sorry for the worthless French teacher, whose resignation is also ours, and infer that the French system cannot be fixed. We feel outraged by the American teacher who — as stated by the movie's catchphrase — "does not give a f—-," and are compelled to hastily take action to get rid of the black sheep.
Neither French elitism nor American burlesque is a sphere free of politics. In Bad Teacher, none of the troublesome words (merit pay, tenure, union, layoffs, charter and so on) are heard. And yet the movie is heavily on message: Teachers are losers. All of them. As I left the theater alongside kids and parents who seemed to have enjoyed themselves, I was struck by the ideological innuendos with which we had been subliminally bombarded, made all the more efficient through gross caricatures that made people laugh.
Even the best of them, Ms. Squirrel, a model teacher whose students score the highest at state tests every year, is in reality a mentally weak woman as shameless as the cynical Ms. Halsey, who rewards a snitching student with extra credits. The principal is a naive pushover; the state bureaucrat in charge of testing is corrupt; the motherly colleague who befriends Halsey is a sex- and pot-deprived old maid; and the newcomer in the game, Mr. Delacorte (Timberlake), is a brainless pedagogue. The only educator who is not beyond redemption — a chubby gym teacher unable to climb the rope — opens up about teachers' lame lives: Like all his peers, he wanted to become someone (a gym teacher … at Harvard), but he gave up his unrealistic expectations and embraced his mediocrity by being a cynical but contented high school teacher.
Needless to say, Diaz's character takes the cake: drug user and alcoholic, child abuser and test cheater. She entertains the strongest disdain for the teacher condition to which she has been downgraded. Thankfully, state testing and merit pay force her to do her job, at least momentarily. She ends up as an education counselor, since in the public system, as we are invited to think, "You can't get rid of bad teachers."
The scorn for teachers is masked as humor, which can be amusing at times. Fair enough. But some insinuations are unmistakably embarrassing. Subjecting minority students to bad-taste jokes did not crack me up. The only black student featured in the movie is a stereotype, hollering about the respective merits of LeBron James and Michael Jordan. At the end of the film, the good teacher gone bad is exposed by her evil colleague, but she keeps her stoic composure and declares that her purgatory will consist of — we shudder as she announces it — teaching at "Malcolm X High School!"
Is the rhetoric of Bad Teacher the new American zeitgeist? From this simplistic depiction, I was left with the sour taste of having being subjected to a new form of class hatred. I understand comedies, and I like them. But the educational crisis that the United States faces today demands truth: The inability of the public system to correct social disparities, and the blatant underachievement that dooms poor students to remain wedged at the bottom of society, are a collective responsibility.
The motive for cheating on tests in this movie is as simple as black and white: greed and a lack of ethics among unworthy teachers. In real life, the unfolding cheating scandals in Atlanta or Washington, D.C., are much more complex. In the context of drastic budget cuts that are undermining public service nationwide, scapegoating teachers for the sake of ideological reform policies or making people laugh by comforting them with harmful clichés is not funny. It's politics.
Sylvie Laurent is a cultural historian, a W.E.B. Du Bois Institute Fellow at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.