“An Education”: Best Film of the Year

2 11 2009

poster_an_education

I don’t usually write movie reviews, but never has a film been so right up my alley as this one.  

An Education” (screenplay by the immortal Nick Hornby) takes place in London in the early 60’s, just prior to the cultural revolution.  Jenny (played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan) is a precocious, Oxford-bound high school senior who is bored to death with her cookie-cutter life in the suburbs, writing A+ English papers, taking Latin lessons and playing cello in the youth orchestra.  When she is seduced by David (Peter Sarsgaard), an exciting, much older man who sweeps her into his bohemian underworld of concerts, art auctions, sex, gambling and weekend trips to Paris, she is forced to choose between the possibility of an Oxford-educated future and a thrilling, colorful life with a man old enough to be her father.

Even without the brilliant screenplay and performances, the soul music and stunning vintage costumes in this movie would be enough to seduce me.  But what really resonates with me is the question that Jenny is ultimately posing to her parents and educators: namely, what’s the point of burying your nose in books until you’re 25 when you could be spending your youth living life, listening to beautiful music, eating delicious food, traveling, meeting interesting people and exploring what else the visceral world has to offer?  In other words, what is the real value of an academic education, and what should we be willing to sacrifice to achieve one? 

Jenny’s teachers and parents fail to answer that question for her, but the film ultimately answers it for us.  I won’t spoil the movie by telling you how it ends; instead, I will implore you all to go see it, and then call me.

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12 responses

2 11 2009
bros

is saaaarrsgaaaaaaarrd believable as a man old enough to be anyone’s father? he has such a perpetual babyface.

2 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Nose in books…It doesn’t seem real because it isn’t. Higher education today, meaning anything post grammar school (literacy and simple math) is still largely based on what the upper class did with their kids until they were old enough to appear in decent society and not embarrass their elders. Mass public education, grammar school, met education for elites, prep schools and university around the turn of the century. There wasn’t that much to learn in the 19th century anyway, I mean, they had to learn Greek and Latin b/c there just wasn’t enough good stuff in English yet. Factual knowledge is growing at an exponential rate, yet formal education is still centered on memorizing a set of facts taht is now too large for anyone to actually retain or use in their lives. Rather than teaching how to learn and to self-direct taht learning, we still mostly teach what other people learned and hope the good part still happens. It does for some students, but mostly only those with parents who model the behaviors. Studies confirm that the vast majority of those who run the formal education systems today that have developed in the last 150 years are SJ’s a la Myers-Briggs. Happy to memorize systems of facts and then repeat them. Low tolerance for original thinking or discovering anything off-task. SJs love routine and structure. Even if you aren’t one, the system co-opts you (Me! Oh fuck did it co-opt me!) Hard to set minds free while enforcing a bell schedule. Happy Pavlov? Skinner is spinning in his grave.
So what might save us? Serious gaming: Take the Virginia SOL and give it to the Sony Playstation game development nerds and say here is your game content, now make the game structure. Situated cognition: Apprentice high school students in actual work environments. Send them to farms and national forests and social service programs or labs or factories and certainly vocational trades. Finally, break up the artificial colonies of teenagers who are a big fat target for advertisers. Word of mouth is the most effective advertising method for consumer capitalism, and we cultivate it in the historically unprecedented and arguably unnatural high schools and undergraduate programs of today. But hell, even if we are doing it wrong, we might as well be cost-effective. So we pit one teacher against 30 members of this rightfully unruly mob who are fueled by PoWerDRank and texting frenzy. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

2 11 2009
bros

r u on ketamine?

2 11 2009
districtramblings

HAHA Geof, regardless of whether you are on horse tranquilizers, can you please summarize your point for us? I read it three times and am still totally lost, but I have a feeling you’re onto something.

2 11 2009
Jayne Yomamasfreind

geof Boyle,,,,now I’ll just kill myself

2 11 2009
Liz

Seriously, Geoff, that was intense. Its good to know that you have been liberated from all those years of forced internment at your top-down, by-the-book, oppressive high school. Those are the first things I think of when I meet someone from HB Woodlawn. What a decayed, outmoded institution.

I think that the point here might have not have been the tragic state of the education system. Rather, I believe the movie was trying to get people to take a step back from education as a means to an end, whether that end being a career or a “successful” marriage. If it didn’t help you get a high-paying job or marry wealthy, would you have still gone through it? What is the intrinsic value of the knowledge gained? Can that knowledge be gained outside of the current system?

We all sat next to those students who studied so hard and memorized and got great grades and couldn’t put two sentences together to save their life. We have also watched brilliant people drop out of college and throw their lives to the wind. I think that this movie advocates both and neither of these choices at the same time. An Education is all about Balance. What good is learning about the complexities of the mind and human experience if you can’t test it out? So, as I prepare to spend the next week pulling statistical data from the World Bank Development Indicators and generating graphs, I will think back fondly on last week when I braved the rain to watch drag queens hoof it down 17th St, celebrate a friend’s birthday and repeatedly paint my face and put on glittery spandex in homage to one of the true music icons. Gotta embrace the balance.

3 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Liz, don’t think your subtle sarcasm slipped by unnoticed. Regarding my liberation from HB, and considering that the College Board centrally designs, determines administrative procedure, and grades AP exams with no contextual knowledge of the students taking the tests, wouldn’t a running #1 in the DC challenge index indicates a good deal of top-down, by the book learning? They aren’t exactly writing their own curriculum over there anymore.

2 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Ha, that doesn’t read as clearly as I had thought. Summary: society needs to purposely blur the line between formal and informal education and recognize that the most authentic learning happens in authentic contexts e.g. if you want to learn a language do you a)study it in school or b)go there?
Also, implied by this line blurring business is the notion of treating teenagers more like adults. The teenager is a cultural invention that is perpetuated by the marketing of consumer items. Sort of like the Diamonds Are Forever bullshit invented by deBeers and some Madison Avenue suits.
KBR wouldn’t understand this, but just as you would structure things in such a way as to protect the particular vulnerability of women to rape in a war zone, society could make sure teenagers aren’t taken advantage of, while still giving them much more control over their learning/experience paths.

2 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Lisa says this is how my brain works:

2 11 2009
bros

but geof,

diamonds ARE forever.

3 11 2009
shley

Geoff! congrats! you nailed it. There are a couple of interesting points in there. You can tell youre an insider veteran of the flawed educational system. I have been leaning in your direction but your rant gave shape to many things I haven’t been able to formulate yet.

Keep going!

3 11 2009
shley

I have also been struck by the lack of practical experience in our formal educations. What happened to apprenticeship? The only profession that seems to appreciate the necessity of such practical training in the medical one. Shatter the glass of the academic bubble! it would make school much more interesting, dynamic, and relevant.

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