RACE TRAITOR - treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity

 

Teachers As Saviors, Teachers Who Care
by Robert Lowe

 

Dangerous Minds was a major box office attraction that failed to win over film critics. They viewed it as a predictable, trite, saccharine, credulity-defying retread of movies that showcase a teacher confronting the educational problems of urban children. In contrast, High School II, Frederick Wiseman's film of East Harlem's Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), won plaudits for the director, the school itself, and for Deborah Meier, the school's founder and perhaps the most renowned educational reformer in the United States today. These contrasting reviews are hardly remarkable, given the different genres the films represent. One is a Hollywood confection successfully designed to reach a large audience. The other, a PBS-aired documentary by a distinguished film maker, is stripped of viewer-friendly conventions. Without narrator, music, or a focus on the dramatic, it sets down nearly four hours of footage that captures the interactions between teachers and students. Yet there are similarities between the two films that go beyond matters of educating urban children. Each, for instance, is closely tied to a book. Dangerous Minds is based on My Posse Don't Do Homework, LouAnne Johnson's narrative of her teaching experience, and Deborah Meier's The Power of Their Ideas explicates the work of CPESS. More importantly, both films depict white educators who are dedicated to working with children of color. If this were standard practice for white people, there would be little interest in films that portray such a dynamic. Instead, white educators too often question the intellectual capacities of such children and write them off.

On the face of it, then, these films appear to offer white teachers models to emulate that might advance the project of racial justice. Yet how the work of these educators is framed can either support a vision of racial equality or justify white supremacy. This essay views the latter as the dominant message. It will contend that Dangerous Minds is a blatantly racist film that counterpoises LouAnne Johnson's commitment to educating her students to African-American adults' indifference or even hostility to this effort, and, more controversially, it will argue that the text of High School II captures a subtle racism within CPESS that appears to stem from a failure to question the power relationship between the schools' white leaders on one hand and students and parents of color on the other. In both films the construction of white teacher-heroes depends on distorting or silencing the voices of African Americans and Latinos. Ironically, the essay will maintain, the sometimes repugnant Dangerous Minds partly subverts the dominant framework by evoking a strong ethos of caring that appears to be largely absent from the sophisticated but sterile practice High School II documents.

 

Trials of a White Hero
The opening footage of Dangerous Minds captures in black and white a scene of early-morning urban desolation and desperation. Students board buses in this hopeless-looking environment, and when they arrive at LouAnne Johnson's school in the sunny suburbs, the film turns to color. The point of debarkation bears no resemblance to the real East Palo Alto, California, where many of Johnson's African-American and Latino students lived. Though economically stressed, it is physically beautiful and maintains the semirural feel of the utopian farming community it once was. Dramatically speaking, however, the racially suggestive play of dark and light over urban wasteland and lush suburb prepares the viewer to identify with LouAnne Johnson and the teaching challenge she will face.

In perfect keeping with such imagery, this refined white woman, a novice teacher played by Michelle Pfeiffer, meets an out-of-control class of color that has driven away her predecessors. A candidate for the same fate, Johnson succumbs to taunts on her first day, fleeing the room minutes after the class begins. That night she strategizes, considering and then rejecting as absurd the assertive discipline technique of writing down students' names who misbehave. Instead she chooses to pose tough, telling the students she was a marine and offering to teach them karate moves. This captures the students' attention, and, with the exception of the Black males in the class who consistently are portrayed as clowns or borderline thugs, the students quickly become attractive individuals whom Johnson encourages to perform by offering them extrinsic rewards like candy, a trip to an amusement park, and dinner at an elegant restaurant. Many fine teachers offer similar bribes, but Johnson does not have a very sophisticated sense of pedagogy to counterbalance the crudeness of this sort of incentive to achieve. What she does academically is sketchy, however. There is some conjugation of verbs, some Bob Dylan poetry, and later some Dylan Thomas, but there is little evidence of probing discussion, serious writing, or literature that ties into the cultures of her students.

Yet what Johnson does is a far cry from the transmission of inert information. She teaches her own passions, which happen to include Dylan's lyrics, and though these are distant from cultural expressions of her students, it is perfectly plausible that her emotional connection with the words and cadences of Dylan's songs will be infectious and a legitimate way of evoking an understanding of metaphorical language. She also at times connects her preferred literature to themes that resonate to the experience of her students. Furthermore, as the movie progresses, Johnson relies less on extrinsic rewards, more on the intrinsic value of learning. At one point when a students asks what the prize will be for making sense of a poem, she responds, "Knowing how to read something and understand is the prize. Knowing how to think is the prize." She continues in this vein, identifying ideas with power in much the same way that Deborah Meier talks about the power of ideas at the end of High School II.

Whatever its limitations, it is not the curriculum that makes the film offensive educationally, but adult interactions that conspire to portray LouAnne Johnson as the only caring educator in the school. The ones who do not care include the pinched-looking assistant principal who tosses an under-prepared Johnson to the students who have devoured their previous teachers, and they include Hal, her closest (and apparently only) colleague, whose cynicism suggests an idealistic teacher gone sour. Although both these characters are white, an absence of caring is not identified as a characteristic of white people in general, but it is identified with African Americans. The two Black adults in the film are portrayed as the greatest obstacles to Johnson's efforts to teach her students effectively. One is a parent. When Johnson visits her house, concerned about the week-long absences of her two sons, this woman refuses to shake Johnson's hand and says, "You're that white-bread bitch messing with my babies' minds. My boys don't go to your school no more and that's going to be it . . . I saw what they were bringing home, poetry and shit, a waste of time." To Johnson's suggestion that graduating from high school would be an advantage for the young men, she replies, "That's not in their future. I ain't raising no doctors and lawyers here." This bizarre inversion of African Americans' perennial struggles for educational access and equity casts the sole "militant" Black person in the movie as someone who appears to be more militantly against education itself than hostile to the educational orientation of a white teacher.

An equally unfortunate portrayal is that of the African-American principal, Mr. Grandey. He fits the too familiar stereotype of Black male as cardboard martinet. When Johnson wants to jettison My Darling My Hamburger as too infantile a novel for the students, Grandey objects, telling her she must teach the approved curriculum. Grandey's commitment to rules rather than students comes through most forcefully in the way he treats Emilio, the class rebel whose intellectual gifts Johnson has helped tease out. In mortal danger, Emilio musters the courage to enter Grandey's office to ask for help, but the principal summarily dismisses him for failing to knock before entering. Emilio's murder ineluctably follows, and Grandey's callousness is responsible.

These blatantly racist representations are not present in My Posse Don't Do Homework. The African-American mother simply does not exist, and Mr. Grandey (Mr. Grady in the book) is more humane. He appears to be somewhat stiff and rule-bound, but allows Johnson to bend the rules when doing so could help a student. Thus he permits her to keep a student who officially faces mandatory expulsion. In addition, the conflict between Johnson and him over requiring My Darling My Hamburger does not occur. In fact, it was Johnson who introduced the book to a class that considered it too juvenile, and consequently her students chose a work by Shakespeare instead. Furthermore, the episode in the movie when Grandey refuses entry to Emilio does not take place in the book, and Emilio does not die.

Unlike the book, the film version of Johnson's experience panders to the stereotype of Black men in authority by portraying Mr. Grandey as an unfeeling disciplinarian. For good measure, it plays to the stereotype of uncaring Black parents by inventing an African-American mother who has no regard for the education of her children. The viewer is invited to feel contempt for characters who represent Black leaders and Black parents. These obdurate figures serve as foils for Johnson who quite alone and through heroic effort must save her class, comprised of mostly African-American and Latino students. Dangerous Minds, then, conveys the message that only heroes are capable of educating children of color, that these heroes are properly white, and that they must battle against reactionary African-American parents and educators to rescue their students. In the world the film creates, educational change cannot take place beyond the good things that can happen in the isolated classroom of a white teacher.

 

An Innovative School
In a number of respects High School II presents a more optimistic vision of educational possibilities for those who have been poorly served by schooling in the United States. While the opening frames of Dangerous Minds stress the neediness of the students' home environment in order to help set up LouAnne Johnson as their hero, High School II begins by presenting a vista of East Harlem on a sunlit morning that banishes thoughts of dire living conditions. CPESS appears to be housed in a structure as plain as the buildings that surround it, save for the brightly painted student work on the entrance that hints at transforming educational practices within. The film proceeds to capture scenes from CPESS, a highly praised model of educational reform, that show a staff that is unified behind a commitment to the intellectual development of students. Before graduating, students are expected to be accomplished in exercising five habits of mind, which co-director Paul Schwarz lists early in the film. They include understanding the perspective through which a subject is being presented, examining the evidence that undergirds a position, recognizing the interconnectedness of knowledge, speculating on how things might have been different, and contemplating why an inquiry matters. These generic elements of intellectual engagement are far too infrequently called upon in college-level work, let alone in most high schools.

What takes place in scenes from classrooms predictably often falls short of these goals. In a seminar on King Lear that turns to a discussion of different types of love, it is obvious that most of the students have read the play, but the teacher cannot elicit much thinking of any sort on the part of students. Often the nature of teachers' questions appears to shape the extent to which students' thinking is released. Thus, on the one hand, perhaps the best work is being done by a science teacher whose questioning guides a student in accurately projecting what percentage of fruit flies will have vestigial wings under different circumstances. It is clear that he is really learning something about genetics. On the other hand, a student is completely stumped by the requirement that she produce a thesis statement for an essay. The teacher patiently explains what a thesis statement is, but the real problem, I think, is that the student understandably has no convictions about and no access to ways of thinking about the question that was to prompt her thesis: "How and why do law and morality effect changes in each other?" Elsewhere opinions are offered and teachers probe for evidence, but the disciplined inquiry proposed by the habits of mind is rarely evident. Whatever the gap between intellectual vision and practice, however, the lecturing and rote learning that typify instruction in most high schools are absent, and the school is organized to promote engagement. In fact, the configurations of staff members and students look downright unfamiliar, unschool-like.

By using space in ways that suggest elements of both kindergarten and graduate school, CPESS defies our sense of a "real" high school, an institution that has been notably resistant to the waves of progressive educational reform that have sought to make schooling more student-centered. Rather than the large body of students LouAnne Johnson and most other high school teachers face and must often treat as an undifferentiated mass, students stand out individually at CPESS. In much of the film, for instance, there is no evidence of traditional classes taking place. Students either work independently or interact with teachers individually or in small groups. In counseling sessions students typically are outnumbered by the staff members present. The work of the school also reflects this focus on the individual. Instead of completing paper and pencil tests for passing grades required to graduate, each student is expected to complete a number of exhibitions that demonstrate in-depth knowledge and presumably showcase their acquisition of the habits of mind. At the beginning of the film a student engages in one such exhibition, acquitting himself fairly well in an attempt to argue from a socialist perspective that class is a far more meaningful social category than race. In this exercise, three adults are present to probe the understanding of a single student.

Meier explains in The Power of Their Ideas how the school is able to maximize contact with students. Part of this explanation is purely logistical. The school is small, and most teachers are expected to teach two subjects to the same group of students, allowing interdisciplinary classes that effectively halve the number of students they otherwise would teach. In harmony with the perspective of the Coalition of Effective Schools, of which CPESS is a vital part, course offerings are limited, as depth rather than breadth is emphasized, and blocks of time for the courses exceed those of conventional schools. In addition, all staff members work with students in counseling/tutorial sessions, bringing the teacher-student ratio down to 1 to 15 for such activities. Organizing the work of the school differently from conventional public schools is not the whole story, however. Teachers are committed to the mission of the schools, choose their own colleagues (a privilege typically denied by union contracts), and clearly are willing to work unusually hard.

Setting up the school to maximize contact between faculty and students can facilitate positive relations between the two. Meier, for instance, writes eloquently of caring and compassion (63), and by refusing to let students slip through the cracks and demanding that they perform, the teachers at CPESS demonstrate that they care more than teachers who forgive poor performance because of children's unfortunate life circumstances. The opportunity to know students well also pays off in a remarkable scene from the film in which an English instructor is helping students with essays. She is addressing one student whose face is almost completely hidden in the crook of his arm. Somehow the teacher resists the impulse to scold him - hardly easy under normal circumstances, but particularly tough given the presence of a camera that records this apparent lack of respect for her and her lack of control over his behavior. It ultimately becomes obvious, however, that the student is paying close, if unconventional, attention, and that a reprimand from the teacher would likely have broken their connection. Here an understanding of a student's idiosyncratic behavior and an ethos of caring enable the teacher to avoid a disruption of teaching and learning that would result from mistaking form for substance. Unfortunately, this moment in the film is exceptional. Though the vessels for positive interactions are in place, the exchanges that fill them at times suggest that the anonymity of conventional high schools has its solaces. This is particularly the case in counseling sessions led by either of the co-directors.

Meier writes that "new students often find so many caring adults a nuisance... 'in my face,' as they say" (32). But the "in-your-faceness" of the staff often seems less about caring and more about control or surveillance of students who implicitly are viewed as a danger to the smooth running of the institution. Meier, who, like co-director Paul Schwarz, can properly be seen as a lead teacher in the original sense of "principal," first appears some thirty minutes into the film. Indistinguishable in attire from the other teachers, occupying no authority-conferring space, and referred to on the same first-name basis as the other adults, she is part of a group of four white staff members meeting with a Latina student who recently had a baby. The student is accompanied by her brother, who also goes to CPESS, and her mother. Meier seems remarkably different from the author who writes so persuasively of caring and of knowing the students well. Her voice lacks warmth; her introductory chitchat appears forced; and she seems to know little about the new mother and her brother. She wrongly guesses the gender of the baby, for example, and, after being corrected, she repeats the error. Her questioning suggests that she is not so much interested in how to support the sister and brother but how to avoid disruption. She is quite concerned that the brother might get into a physical confrontation, most likely with Frankie, the child's father, who is a student at CPESS as well. The brother quite convincingly maintains that Frankie is not completely to blame, and if trouble did begin, he would try to avoid it. Nonetheless, Meier continues to press the brother for assurances. It does not occur to Meier and the other staff members to ask him how they might help him cope with the situation. An absence of support, however, is more glaring in the case of the teenage mother (whose name nobody mentions). Although she makes it clear that she wants to continue at CPESS, Meier not only offers her no real encouragement to do so, but suggests she might be better off transferring to a school where students can bring their children. The student's mother responds by saying that she will take care of the baby during the day, but Meier again raises the possibility of a transfer.

 

Whose Power? Whose Ideas?
There was no overt racism in the way Meier treated the Latino family, but there was a distinct absence of caring and compassion, and there was a concern with security that may have been heightened by racial assumptions about the students' volatility. In this and other situations, the existence of a pervasive, if subtle, racism may account for the somewhat claustrophic, faintly punitive, and totally humorless feel of the school. The case for racism starts from the assumption that this is a tendency among white people in a society where persistent racial inequality is a defining feature. Confronting racism, then, becomes a necessary counterweight to such a tendency. This especially is the case in a staff-controlled school like CPESS whose co-directors and majority of faculty are white, and whose governance structure yields no authority to parents who mostly are not white. Yet like the student exhibition mentioned above that trivializes race in understanding how society is organized, matters of race simply are not taken seriously in the practices of the school the film recorded. One sign of this is that much of the curriculum, like that of LouAnne Johnson's, appears to be at significant remove from the voices, experiences, and struggles of the majority of students. Only one work by a person of color is discussed: Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. And the part of that discussion the film captures considers the American dream without any reference to race. Another sign that race is inadequately addressed is Meier's reluctance to support a student demonstration in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict because she questions its educational value. Here her habits of mind - assuming that is what she means by educational - have no more vitality than worksheets, and they discredit a passionate response to racial injustice by shrinking the King case into an academic exercise. Ironically, in the entire film the most eloquent, thoughtful discourse by students takes place when two of them debate how best to protest the acquittals of the cops who had beaten King.

What appears to be a conviction that race does not matter is communicated on a more personal level when co-director Paul Schwarz, accompanied by another colleague, conducts what is more an interrogation session than a counseling meeting with an African-American student and his mother. Schwarz begins the session by stating that "It's a high school that works best for those people who really want to be here." Then he quickly becomes accusatory when he asks the student, "Do you see this as a white school, as a school run by white people? Would it be different for you if more teachers were Black or Latino?" Cowed a bit by the proceedings, the student rather meekly agrees and says he thinks he would be more likely to respect Black teachers. This could be an opportunity for the two white staff members to uncover through careful questioning why the student feels the way he does, and this line of inquiry might enable them to help the student cope better, or it might even lead to changes in the school. But Schwarz clearly is not interested in what the student has to say or why he says it. Rather than giving him the opportunity to express himself fully, Schwarz retorts, "I disagree." Since Schwarz cannot be disagreeing that the school is run by white people, he must be saying that this fact makes no difference. The student has been effectively silenced. His mother, like all the parents who are present in the film, supports the position of the staff. Perhaps she is speaking from the heart, but the power relations evident here would have made dissent difficult. Meier asserts in her book that "kids and parents show up at family conferences to complain about things to our faces and risk the necessary confrontations" (58). This does not take place, however, in any of the conferences captured by the film. Rather, the dynamics of these conferences suggest that it would take exceptional courage to risk those confrontations since staff members are unwilling to listen to the students. Furthermore, the white staff dominate all these sessions but one. The insistent message that the school belongs to the white educators who unequivocally know what is best for students is hardly likely to encourage overt disagreement from students and their parents.

Meier most likely would reject this characterization of the school's social relations. She takes pride in the democratic deliberation among faculty members that students have the opportunity to witness and model. She writes, "The deep immersion in a value system that places mutual respect first and encourages a climate of diversity and disagreement becomes enormously powerful over time, and not just for the staff. The kids know we're serious" (58-59). Even if rich democratic discourse does take place among the faculty, however, the film conveys a sense that "the power of their ideas" should properly refer to ideas of a predominantly white staff who unself-consciously exercise power over students and parents, mostly of color.

Certainly the selection of scenes Wiseman included in the film might distort the way CPESS deals with matters of race, and these scenes are open to interpretations quite different from my own. Yet Meier's comments on race in The Power of Their Ideas tend to confirm a failure to come to terms with the matter. For instance, she states:

We know that the school's pedagogy doesn't always rest easily with parents, some of whom wonder if we're not creating difficulties for children already handicapped by racism or poverty. We're not always going to be convincing but we need to provide evidence that where we disagree we do so respectfully, that we're not out to frustrate the aspirations parents have for their kids, or to blame them for what goes wrong. . . . At their best, family and school are allies, however cautiously, but the kid is the performer (52).

Meier, it appears, is referring to the concern of many parents that a progressive approach to education might not require students to master necessary content and skills. She is suggesting, however, that there is no problem with the school's pedagogy, but merely with parents' understanding of it. Teachers should try to convince the parents that they are right, but whether or not they succeed, parents have no standing to challenge the teachers' approach to education. Here is a notion of a good school based on the faculty's pedagogy. It is a notion quite different from the good school that derives its reputation from community support. Vanessa Siddle Walker, for instance, writes about the good segregated school in the pre-Brown era. She emphasizes the seamless relationship between the Caswell County Training School and the surrounding community, maintaining that the school incarnated the aspirations of Black parents. Meier, in contrast, assumes an opposition between school and community where families at best are allies and where the school merely tries not to frustrate the aspirations of parents. This perspective has colonial implications since the school derives its legitimacy not from the values of parents of color, but from the pedagogy of white educators. Meier, however, does not appear to see the disenfranchisement of parents as evidence that racial inequality is woven inextricably into the skein of the school.

Meier does allow that "The gap between the racial, ethnic, and class histories of the school staff is often substantial. . . . It's a gap we cannot bridge by good intentions alone" (51-52). But shortly after she states: "We can't do away with the likelihood that some of our students' families see white teachers as inherently suspect, but white teachers can reconsider our own reactions, offer alternative possibilities, and challenge some implicit assumptions" (52). Again the staff bear no responsibility for the race and class gap, but rather the gap appears to be created by the inappropriately suspicious attitudes of families. The burden on the staff, then, is not to address its own classism and racism in order to better serve students and their families, but to try to convince the families that their suspicions are ill-informed.

Several pages later, Meier appears to be moving toward real self-examination around race matters. She states:

Unresolved also is our effort to deal with racism. . . . We must deal with the issue over and over if we are to help kids who desperately need to be able to talk with adults about such difficult matters, and must do so before we have 'solved' them. We need to take chances even though making mistakes can be dangerous. We've called in outside experts on racism as well as experts on group relations to work with us on both a regular basis and in times of crisis, when these issues seemed likely to split us apart (57-58).

But then she pulls back: "A bitter charge by some parents that a white teacher was not only a racist but out to injure children of color, and the overtones of anti-Semitism that went with it, didn't produce the same instinctive response in all of us. We didn't reach a consensus, except on how to get through it safely" (58). Although Meier tries to take racism seriously, she never really acknowledges that it exists within the school, and she essentially dismisses the parents' conviction that a teacher is racist by merely calling their charge "bitter" and by saying it carried "overtones of anti-Semitism." Whatever the merits of the parents' charge, it is the predominantly white staff who get to define racism, and it is they who get through the matter safely. How safe the parents felt is left unrecorded.

Meier's thinking about race seems to have evolved little since she taught in Harlem in the late 1960s. She then wrote about attending a meeting with a hundred African-American and Latino parents who were angry about the teachers and the schools: "Vengefulness and suspicious fury had dulled their ability to distinguish targets. Anything said against schools was guaranteed to produce enthusiastic anger. Speaker after speaker expanded on how the teachers destroyed children, and the audience cheered, stomped, and shouted 'You tell 'em!'" Though she never specified who or what she thought was the appropriate target, she apparently believed that these parents - and the whole community control effort - were irrational if not hysterical in their criticism of innocent teachers. Furthermore, in talking about her support for the strike of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) the previous spring, she made it clear that parents of color had no idea what was best for their children: "While I wholeheartedly supported the UFT and felt proud of the teachers for going out on nonwage demands, their position seemed impossible to communicate to the people who most needed just what the UFT was demanding."

As troubling as Meier's writing about race is, she certainly does not subscribe to either the notion that African-American and Latino children cannot benefit from an academic curriculum or that it would be unfair to place strenuous demands on children because their lives already are difficult. At CPESS students are expected to learn, and teachers rightly do not countenance excuses from children for not applying themselves. Yet a school where the predominantly white staff rules and somehow views itself as unmarked by societal racism denies itself the opportunity to be educated by children and their families in ways that could close the class, race, and ethnic gaps that Meier acknowledges, and this denial is likely to inhibit the forging of the genuine community that Meier values. Certainly data that document the impressive graduation rates and low dropout rates of CPESS students have been disseminated widely. Although I do not question these numbers, my analysis invites questions about how self-selection may influence the successes of the school, what part of themselves students may have to give up in order to participate in the community at CPESS, and how many students survive but do not thrive because they are unwilling to assimilate to the institution.

 

Who Cares?
The imaginative ways CPESS augments contact between staff and students at times appear in High School II to maximize control rather than closeness, to suggest more Jeremy Bentham's panoptican than a caring community. In contrast, Dangerous Minds depicts the development of a very warm connection between LouAnne Johnson and her students. Pedagogically unsophisticated and ignorant of her students' cultures - though her Spanish is deployed to good effect - she nonetheless cares about her students in a way that superior teachers do in real schools. Johnson appears to operate from the heart, and this may serve her better than pedagogical knowledge. The infectious warmth Johnson exudes in part manifests itself in physical contact with students, something that occurs only once in all of High School II. In My Posse Don't Do Homework, Johnson notes that such behavior violates proper decorum for high school teachers: " 'Never touch a student' was one of the first rules I'd learned as a high school teacher. It's a good rule and a sensible one, too, because it presents legal complications, personal confrontations, and inappropriate familiarity between students and staff. But it was a rule I couldn't follow, and breaking it was one of the best things I ever did as a teacher" (141). Johnson's warmth contrasts with the mere pleasantness of most teachers at CPESS and the coolness of their leaders.

Johnson also expresses regard for students by addressing problems in strikingly different ways from the staff of CPESS. As noted above, Paul Schwarz dismissed a student's concerns with the racial makeup of the staff and made it clear that it was up to the student to adjust to the school. In contrast to this oppositional approach to students, LouAnne Johnson, in both the film and her book, found ways of expressing her solidarity with students and their parents, even when students' behavior had been disruptive. When Raul had been suspended for fighting, for instance, Johnson visited his home, but she did not offer the litany of wrongdoings expected by both Raul and his parents. Instead she said to his parents, "I just wanted to tell you personally what a pleasure it's been having Raul in my class this semester. You must be very proud. He's very bright, funny, articulate. The truth is he's one of my favorites." This simple but surprising act solidified bonds between student and teacher, parents and child, and family and school in a way that was far more likely to spur Raul's academic achievement than admonishments.

Another example of Johnson's support for students involved a situation more directly analogous to what took place at CPESS. With less subtlety than Meier's suggestion that the teenage parent transfer out of CPESS, the administration at Johnson's Parkmont High School pressured Callie, perhaps Johnson's brightest student, to transfer out when she became pregnant. Recognizing that a transfer could limit Callie's chances for academic success, Johnson intervened in her behalf. In contrast to the leader of CPESS and the administration at Parkmont, Johnson put the interests of the student before the convenience of the school.

Unlike Meier, who had a formidable influence on the curriculum of CPESS, LouAnne Johnson acknowledged in her book that she followed an unimaginative, mandated curriculum:

When the students truly believed that I liked them just as they were, it was no longer Teacher versus Students. It became Teacher and Students versus Curriculum. Together, we hated vocabulary exercises, grammar exams, reading proficiency tests, and spelling quizzes, but we had to do them. Teaching was the best thing I had ever done in my life. Before I knew it June raced around the corner and crashed into the classroom, spinning all my students out into the summer sun (68).

Viewing the curriculum as an enemy that must be fought rather than transformed is not likely to inspire the highest level of intellectual engagement. Yet what perhaps mattered much more than the content of the curriculum was the solidarity between teacher and student, the conviction that kids could succeed academically, and the understanding, articulated by Meier as well, that caring meant not letting students off lightly. In My Posse Don't Do Homework, Johnson considers shortening an assignment and decides against it: "I loved them too much to make it easy on them" (258). Even Meier considered the proposition that the success of students at CPESS was not so much grounded in pedagogy but in the creation of a caring environment for kids: "Maybe our success is not related to our highly praised curriculum or pedagogy but to creating an intensely personal and stable place that's always there for kids" (177). Yet that personal dimension often comes across as carping rather than caring in High School II, a film that tells us much more about pedagogy and school organization than matters of the heart.

As important as caring is to good teaching, unilateral caring is unsustainable. Dangerous Minds conveys a sense that Johnson has genuine feelings for her students by showing that they reciprocate. She is not merely sacrificing the possibility of a personal life for the sake of the kids. The kids care back and keep her from resigning at the end of the year. When her friend Hal asks why she decided to return, Johnson, who had previously given her students sweets and helped them discover the Dylan Thomas passage, "You've got to rage against the dying of the light," replied, "They gave me candy and called me the light." Of course, it is easy to inspire warm, reciprocal feelings in fiction and more difficult to capture them in real school time. Consequently, a documentary of Johnson's class may have had more the feel of the CPESS documentary than Dangerous Minds. Nonetheless, the affective message Dangerous Minds sends can inspire teachers to re-envision the way they relate to students and partially heal the fissures born of race and class inequality.

By reminding us of the gift we make of ourselves and the gift we accept from our students when we engage in authentic teaching and learning, the cinematically undistinguished Hollywood film has something of educational value to impart. Paraphrasing Richard Rorty's perspective in Truth and Progress, Carlin Romano writes that "Stories, not principles or definitions, lead to moral progress. . . . Instead of theories, we need 'sentimental education' of the sort that movies, journalism, and novels provide, which will expand the set of 'people like us.'" Dangerous Minds offers a sort of "sentimental education" that guides educators to expand what historian David Hollinger calls "the circle of the 'we.'" Unfortunately, this message is compromised by the racist stereotypes that afflict most of the African-American characters and by the depiction of Johnson as the only one who cares. The message is further attenuated by the absence of a historical context to account for how racially coded unequal power relations made plausible the casting of communities of color as passive clients and a white educator as the savior of their children. This lack of context also affects the representation of Meier and her colleagues in High School II.

 

The White Image in the White Mind
LouAnne Johnson taught students enrolled in a special program for underachieving students and subsequently directed the program. Many of the students came from East Palo Alto, once a predominantly African American community where there had been major battles over education in the 1960s and 1970s. Ravenswood High School was built there in 1958 with gerrymandered boundaries designed to enroll all the Black students in a very large, affluent high school district. Subsequent to the failure of sustained Black community efforts to achieve desegregation, a movement for community control in the late 1960s succeeded at Ravenswood in removing unsympathetic teachers, strengthening the academic program, and producing dramatic increases in attendance, grade averages, and college admissions. These gains were compromised, however, in 1971 when the school board turned Ravenswood into a magnet school designed to attract countercultural white students. Five years later Ravenswood was closed. Black students were bussed to the remaining schools in this far-flung district, becoming a small minority in each. This completely ruptured the connection between schooling and community aspirations, and academic failure for African Americans became the norm.

If white district officials did not have the power to terminate the experiment in community control, there might have been no need for Johnson's special program, and her students would not have had to rely on what appeared to be a single advocate. Similarly, had the community control effort in New York City survived, it is unlikely that Deborah Meier would have emerged as the rescuer of city children and of urban public schools. Meier, however, helped make herself indispensable by supporting the teachers' union that undermined community control. The silence of the films on these matters of history makes it appear natural that white educators are the heroes. Such a perverse sense of the normal is fed by public amnesia. Whites typically bring to the films no memory of African-American and Latino struggles for just schools or white resistance to these efforts. Given this vacuum, the films merely confirm whites' self-image as the benefactors of other people's children.

In the end, no matter how great the energy expended and personal sacrifices made by Meier and Johnson, their stature as saviors of kids of color depends on massive failure stemming from the educational disenfranchisement of the students' communities. For the foreseeable future, of course, white teachers will predominate in most urban schools. Paradoxically, perhaps apolitical teachers, like LouAnne Johnson, who care for their students and respect their parents, are more likely to see the need for fundamentally redistributing educational power than politically progressive educational reformers who are ideologically committed to the right of whites to run schools for African-American and Latino students.