Captain Fantastic

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This is a great movie: from the gut reaction of shedding some tears to laughing out loud, it has us also wonder about some basic questions of parenting. Above all, this little jewel underscores the generally well-observed fact which almost no one adheres to: do not make value judgements about people and their actions, since you don’t know the whole truth. In the case of Ben, the truth is that he  made his 6 children live in the forests of the US Pacific Northwest because he wanted his wife to get better by attempting to make her lose the chains of mental illness, not because he was some type of freaky hippie.

Here are three questions-considerations stemming from some scenes in the film which made an impact on me:

  1. Is knowledge acquired from books such a bad thing?  Ben’s oldest son (Bo)  claims that he does not know anything that has not been written in a book:                                     I know nothing! I know nothing! I am a freak because of you! You made us            freaks!  And mom knew that! She understood! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!                                                                                  This is interesting, since nowadays, teachers often say  that students don’t know anything because they do not read and therefore are not appropriately familiar with any topic.  Furthermore, Ben’s 4-year old daughter knows not only what the Bill of Rights is, but she can also quote the individual amendments. Ben’s sister’s children (boys over 10) do not know what the Bill is. One could ask what the utility of knowing the Bill of Rights is while living in the wilderness. Either everything written has a value no matter where one lives (and therefore one can actually think about many, many topics and put arguments together, making one’s own mind  naturally), or nothing has a value and therefore making one’s own mind does not come easily (and one is easily persuaded). The film clearly leans on the side of usefulness of books for the cognitive growth of children, especially as the father asks the children to talk about the ideas that the book evoke (not to describe the plot).
  2. When will a “controlling” parent stop being such a parent? In the film, Leslie’s  father controls the way her body is to be disposed of,  even though it is contrary to her last wishes. What does it exactly mean when a parent/caregiver says to his/her child: “I am doing this for your own good”? Different parents have differing opinions of what this “good” means. The film attempts to give children the right to express their own “good”. In this meaning, the title of the film may be misleading.
  3. Is spirituality always connected to giving/receiving gifts? Noam Chomsky is the spiritual godhead in the film and celebrating his “birthday” means Ben’s children get gifts. Gifts which are bought in the store; therefore, the film seems to be saying that even a “wild” education falls prey to  consumerism.                                                                                                                                                                                                          One of the most entertaining  lines of the film mentions Marxists, Trotskyit, Trotskyist, and Maoist almost all in one breath, the other reflects the mother’s desire to have her body cremated according to the Buddhist tradition and then flush the ashes down the toilet.  A number of American cultural traditions and problems are either made fun of or questioned (giving some wine to children, obesity, consumerism, hypocrisy, ostentation of wealth, etc.). It would be most instructive to hear what children and young adults think of the film.  All in all, since the idea to live in wilderness as a family was not really the initial push toward this type of unconventional education, it is difficult to make judgements about it. Suffice it to say that good parenting is never just parenting: it is also (maybe above all) the relationship between the parents. The dynamics may be unpredictable (one child or more? one parent or more? religious background or atheistic or agnostic? right-leaning or left-leaning politically? etc. etc.) but in conclusion, parenting is always unwitting experimentation.
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College experience on film: “God’s not dead”

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There is no doubt that using the university classroom as a setting for any film could be entertaining and thought-provoking. The film God’s not dead misses these results since it attempts to account for Catholicism and postmodernity from the perspective of the “persecuted” and “silenced” believers placing the actions in an unreal, aseptic, conspiracy-filled setting. In a true postmodern fashion it discredits the professoriate*, and in a modernist fashion it relies on easily swayable underdog (student) body.
Although the generous reviews on the web give the film a mark of 3/5, the comments and reviews accompanying this mark tell the producers that viewers need more than was given to them in the first film. Obviously, the producers did not listen as God’s not dead 2 is to be released in April of 2016!

In any case, without getting into the content of the film marred by logical fallacies, slow pace, few examples of real suffering, and, above all, an unrealistic, static, one-sided vision of the academia, let me simply outline in three points through which the college experience in this film illustrates the amazing desire of film makers not to show the really messy, interesting classrooms of today. My more than thirty-year long academic life allows me to base these comments on facts.

1. In the film, the professor acts in a god-like manner but he is really less than smart.

Even for entertaining or teaching purposes, giving voice to a technologically-stupid and pedagogically-unprepared prof is a mistake, a mistake that obviously makes the life of the student who opposes him so much easier. It does not take much to shoot down an easy target. The prof relies on puny little white boards where his minuscule notes can hardly be read, whereas his adversary (the student) comes prepared with all the technological bells and whistles which dazzle the 80 or so classmates. What is more interesting, though, is the fact that this philosophy prof is made to miss the mark of a great prof by having students sign the statement “God is dead” (as if signing something had a pedagogical value). If the producers and directors had any insight into really great teaching, they would have had the prof make the students work (yes, thinking is work) to decide for themselves, through great teaching strategies, through comparisons, through deep reading, through writing. But all of this takes time and is as far from the day-to-day experiences of the fictional students as is the nearest galaxy for us. The makers of the film obviously did not ever step into the contemporary classroom, where technology allows students to be on the web (rather than to pay attention to what’s happening in the front of the auditorium: yes, the prof is forced to entertain), where they eat, drink, talk, comment, ask questions, send e-mails, think about their jobs to which they have to hurry after the class, etc. etc., all a far cry from the attentive student body in the film. The most unethical feature of the fictional prof’s behaviour is his letting the student “teach”: the teaching  unions in the real world would surely either slap the real prof’s hands or have the student be paid for his “work”. This, aside from not only illustrating (wrongly) but above all strengthening the postmodern view that anyone can teach.

2. In the film, the student body is easily swayed.

For all its proselytizing aims, the film makers’ biggest mistake is to show the student body as superficially savvy as the prof. In real life, there would be lots of objections and there certainly would not be a unanimous decision which sides with the student. There would be comments which show that some students did not pay attention at all, there would be attacks ad hominem, etc. On the one hand, students (whether fictional or not) will side with anyone who subverts the perceived god-like powers of the prof. On the other hand, in the film, the students are made to sign a statement to which only one of about 80 objects, therefore they side here with those powers who give them marks, showing their pragmatic view of what they expect from the course.

3. In the film, teaching is talking and learning is siding with whoever seems more popular.

One thing the film got right: if you are a boring prof. who is not passionate about what you teach, you might just as well let a student do your job. So beating up a dead horse, so to speak, is easy. But the old paradigm, shown in the movie, of teaching as pouring some knowledge into the learner’s head is long gone, replaced by the teacher being a facilitator of learning, thinking, critiquing, especially in the humanities.

It is clear that films are entertainment, but nowadays people “learn” from multimedia products, so any film also carries some type of teaching, reinforcing or subverting ideas, likes, dislikes, tendencies, and actions. Given the three points outlined above, it is clear that something is wrong with a not-so fictional society which 1. accepts a piece of paper containing one’s signature as a statement of one’s beliefs; 2. makes teaching/learning a popularity contest. What is the conclusion as far as the college experience on film is concerned? This film is not the answer to the real need of a well-though out, profound depiction of academic life today, with all its messiness, challenges, and excitement.

 

*By the way, Willie Robertson: the phrase God’s not dead has four, not three words.