Education Opinion

Poor Reception

By John Leonard — March 01, 1998 21 min read
Why do people tune out television shows that feature teachers and schools?

Like television, I’m going to tell some stories so that maybe from the mustering of a few intimate details we will arrive at the Bigger Pixel.

There was Jonathan Kozol on public television on a Thursday night in September 1996 talking about how little money our nation spends on educating the children of the poor and how much we seem to resent even these pinched pennies. The splendid rage of this Citizen of Virtue—Robespierre came to mind, so did Spinoza grinding lenses—reminded me of 30 years ago in Boston, where the very same Kozol had shamed me into teaching reading and composition to an attic full of teenage girls in an Episcopal church in the Roxbury ghetto. These quick-witted, slow-burning, high-flying Caribbean birds of paradise had been discarded by Boston’s School Committee: bagged, tagged, and trashed. Yet they’d show up two nights a week in our attic to read Paule Marshall and Ralph Ellison, to discover metaphor in the lyrics of Bob Dylan, to proceed from diary keeping to short story writing, and to tell me things I had not wanted to know about the streets. Much later, I would receive invitations to several graduations from colleges such as Spelman and Shaw. But this was some years after all we yogurt-faced do-gooders had been told to leave Roxbury in the spring of 1967, pursuant to the secret resolutions of the Newark Black Power Conference. Or else.

As furious as I was to be bagged, tagged, and trashed myself, I was also relieved. Teaching was harder work than writing novels. I would try it again, for a year in the late 1970s, commuting by Amtrak Metroliner between New York and Philadelphia for a fiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania, which was harder than writing articles for the New York Times. And I would try teaching for a third time for several years in the late 1980s at Columbia University, traveling by bus to Morningside Heights for weekly seminars on practical criticism, which was harder than reviewing books for National Public Radio, television for New York magazine, and the politics of culture for New York Newsday—especially because all the journalism grad students wanted from me were trade secrets on the trick of attitudinizing, as if they already knew how to think.

I miss Roxbury, but not teaching. The pay’s lousy, and not only do students talk back, but they’re also needy. They have alcoholic fathers, passive-aggressive mothers, problems of sexual identity, and anxieties about money. And I am not worthy. I know just how unworthy I am by looking around me. I am surrounded by real teachers.

My wife teaches history and political science at a private school in Manhattan. My daughter teaches the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and my daughter-in-law teaches comparative literature and postmodern theory to college freshmen on the Left Coast. My stepdaughter, when she isn’t writing for slick magazines, tutors troubled kids in English, French, and math. They are heroic, and there is no good reason why they shouldn’t be celebrated on prime-time television at least as much as doctors, lawyers, cops, and cowboys. Most of us, after all, will spend more time in school than we will in hospitals, courts, or prisons, not to mention on a horse.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Though the TV schedule is subject to periodic seizures of enthusiasm for the classroom as a contested site for competing narratives—for instance, five new teacher series in the fall of 1996—the audience resists. The audience has always resisted. Gunsmoke moseyed on for 20 years in prime time, and Perry Mason kept winning cases for 17, but you won’t find a single teacher show in the top 100 TV series since 1948. Mr. Peepers, with Wally Cox teaching science and Tony Randall teaching history, lasted three years in the 1950s and got its highest rating when Mr. Peepers married the school nurse. Our Miss Brooks, with Eve Arden teaching English and Richard Crenna teaching biology, lasted four in the same decade, though Miss Brooks didn’t get to marry Mr. Boynton until they made a Hollywood movie. Mr. Novak, with James Franciscus teaching English and Dean Jagger and Burgess Meredith as principals, lasted just two seasons in the 1960s. Room 222, with Lloyd Haynes teaching history and facing up in the inner city to drugs, dropouts, and racial bias, had a comparatively long run of four-and-a-half seasons, through January 1974.

I don’t miss teaching. The pay’s lousy, and the students are needy. They have alcoholic fathers, passive-aggressive mothers, and problems of sexual identity. And I am not worthy.

Although Fame, set in New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts—and introducing us to the talents of Debbie Allen, Lori Singer, Cynthia Gibb, Janet Jackson, Nia Peeples, Carrie Hamilton, and Eric Pierpoint—also lasted four years in independent syndication, it had been canceled by the NBC network after a single season, in 1982-83. The Bronx Zoo, with Ed Asner playing a high school principal very much like Lou Grant, also vanished after a single difficult season, 1987-88, during which Ed himself got shot. TV 101, a dramatic series about a high school media workshop, got the ax after one controversial season during which it had the temerity to suggest that a pregnant teenager might actually contemplate having an abortion. Nor did Montel Williams do much better, despite the help of veteran filmmakers such as Joan Micklin Silver, moonlighting from his talk show for one abbreviated season in 1995 as an ex-Green Beret teaching high school science.

Slapstick seasoned with stupidity apparently contributes to a longer run. Welcome Back, Kotter lasted four years on ABC in the late 1970s, with Gabe Kaplan indulging a Brooklyn high school remedial class of “sweathogs” that included John Travolta. Head of the Class lasted five on the same network, from 1986 through 1991, with Howard Hesseman as the substitute teacher of a class of nerdy geniuses—among them Robin Givens before she married Mike Tyson—who knew everything about physics, literature, and the density of oxygen on Mars but nothing about sex or baseball. (From Head of the Class, besides jokes about Einstein, Phil Donahue, Marilyn Monroe, William F. Buckley Jr., and “getting it on with Sara Lee,” we also learned that all the poems of Emily Dickinson can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”) We seem more comfortable spending classroom time in the company of scholar-athletes, as in The White Shadow, with Ken Howard as a white coach of a mostly black high school basketball team, which lasted three years on CBS. The Wonder Years isn’t usually counted as a school show, although, in the six-season span of this growing-up-in-the-'60s sitcom, Fred Savage spent more time daydreaming at Robert F. Kennedy Junior High School than he did at home with his bewildered parents.

Of those five new teacher series in the fall of 1996, four were canceled in the summer of 1997: Dangerous Minds, a movie spinoff with Annie Potts in the Michelle Pfeiffer role of an ex-Marine who brought to her classroom the compassion and cunning of a social worker and a nun, plus the survival skills of a navy Seal and a Zapatista; Pearl, in which Malcolm McDowell as a godlike college professor met more than his caustic match in Rhea Perlman as the blue-collar grandmother (with idiosyncratic opinions on Moby Dick as Charlie the Tuna) who had decided that it’s never too late to go back to school; The Steve Harvey Show, with the comic as a 1960s soul musician reduced to teaching music and drama to an out-of-control hip-hop generation (“I haven’t worked this hard since I filled in for one of the Pips”); and Mr. Rhodes, with Tom Rhodes as a worst-selling novelist who, between Michelle Pfeiffer jokes, would rather teach The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test than Silas Marner at a stuffy prep school. The worst of these five, Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher, survived for a second season on the fledgling seminetwork WB. Mitch Mullany played the title role, an out-of-work actor, “emotionally stunted man-child,” and Jim Carrey wannabee who substitute taught with Forrest Gump shrimp-boat jokes while leaving his needy students in the lurch whenever there was an audition for a part in a soap opera.

Never mind that most teachers aren’t former musicians, or unemployed actors, or failed novelists, or ex-Marines. They’re actually in it for the teaching, sort of like Prometheus. And never mind, either, that the five series varied wildly in quality. It was still cause for cheer that Plato, Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, George Eliot, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, and both Tom and Thomas Wolfe were spoken of in prime time as if they mattered and that, while politicians demagoggled about uniforms and vouchers and curfews and bell curves, television was reminding us that once upon a time public schools embodied the very meaning of this country—before we decided we’d rather not pay property taxes.

It’s taken most of us most of our lives ever to feel as bad for 10 minutes as the suburban high school kids in My So-Called Life feel all the time.

Annie Potts was in fact far more persuasive in the TV version of Dangerous Minds than Pfeiffer had been as a black-belt biker chick in the movie. Potts had some cool and edgy street in her. From previous duty in sitcoms such as Designing Women and Love and War, she brought not only her usual smart mouth but also a “been there” credibility to this inner-city “academy” program for grown-up-too-quickly problem children, with their high IQs and low self-esteem and gaudy, self-sabotaging behaviors, their gang colors, and their babies. She was her own subtext, teaching Of Mice and Men as if with a rodent in her pocket, teaching Look Homeward, Angel as though she’d run away with a circus. She was lots more hands-on than is strictly permissible in today’s supersensitive public school system, where an incautious hug can get you suspended for child molestation, and not above bribing kids to perform, and one began to wonder if all her students would wind up living in her house, like in an R. D. Laing therapeutic commune. But good educators always break the rules to save a child. Dangerous Minds was at least nostalgic for the bygone era when all of us had cherished teachers—instead of border guards—who sought to engage us in classrooms that weren’t impossibly overcrowded, in buildings that weren’t falling down, in neighborhoods that didn’t resemble Belfast or Beirut, back when public schools were trampolines from which we bounced into our futures instead of warehouses with metal detectors or detention camps for refugees.

Never mind, because generally speaking the public has been impatient with even the best teacher programs, whether they’re set on a college campus, at a high school, or even in a day care center. You may not even remember Day by Day, a short-lived, half-hour NBC series with Linda Kelsey, formerly a reporter on the Lou Grant show, as a lawyer who, with her stockbroker husband on the occasion of the birth of their second child, dropped out of the rat race to run a depot for tiny tots in her own home. The timing, 1988, was unfortunate, in the middle of the crazy witch hunt for satanic ritual abusers in day care centers all over the country. The TV audience found it easier to identify with Linda’s money-loving and child-disdaining yupscale chum, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who would go on to costar in Seinfeld, that immensely popular cheese doodle of urban fecklessness, Chinese take-out, and penis jokes.

I mourn even more the brief passing of My So-Called Life, which came and went on ABC in 1994-95 while persisting a season longer in reruns on MTV. Think of it as fifteensomething, a lowering of their sights from boomer weltschmerz to Gen-Y angst by the producers of thirtysomething. If you thought the folks on thirtysomething spent too much time feeling sorry for themselves, they were only lukewarming up to curdle. It’s taken most of us most of our lives and several momentous occasions ever to feel as bad for 10 minutes as the suburban high school kids in My So-Called Life feel all the time, and they have apparently felt that bad since Pampers. What’s amazing is that we love them anyway. We would have to be insensate, indeed, comatose in our comfort zones, not to remember what it felt like to open our lockers on a heart of darkness, to discover teen sex and adult hypocrisy, mean streets and betrayed friendships, black holes and vertigo, as well as the subversive texts that break the code and the subversive music that seems to sing it. When 15-year-old Angela (Claire Danes) was 12, “my mother gave me these sex talks, and I don’t think either of us has ever recovered.” Though she used to be close to her father, “my breasts came between us.” And though she’s supposed to be reading Kafka, all she thinks about instead is Jordan Catalano, a hunk so inarticulate he is either an Aztec god, a Nordic rune, or a cementhead: “Why is it he gets to be the one with other things on his mind?” From what she has seen at home and school, Angela develops grave doubts: “If we all did what was in our hearts, the world would grind to a halt.” These doubts are seconded by her closest friends.

If skeptical, morose, goofy, romantic Danes is an unfinished symphony with more phases than the moon, A. J. Langer as Ray-anne, voted “best potential slut” in the sophomore class by a poll of jocks, is light, heat, energy, and sarcasm. Wilson Cruz as Rickie, their half-African, half-Latino, wholly androgynous Third Musketeer in these high school wars, is a marvel of dignified vulnerability; gay-bashed, he will insist on eyeliner, honoring his own confusions. What’s more, mirabile dictu, they are actually learning something in school. They read Anne Frank and then discuss it with a cop who brings them home to their troubled parents. They connect the dots between a science lab experiment on a pig’s heart and what goes on in the parking lot at a school dance. They find in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” a variety of their own irrational self-loathing. As Angela navigates on sympathy and cunning through an opaque world, she has a better built-in moral compass than she seems to think and a voice as distinctive as J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn before Huck lit off for the territory on that famous raft. That the great waste of unwashed Nielsens so resoundingly rejected this series—an honorable alternative to Heathers on the one hand and to Clueless on the other—leads me to believe that it’s time we stopped asking what television has done to the attention span of the American public and began instead to wonder what the attention span of the American public has done to television.

Why don’t school shows work on television? Maybe most of us hated high school and would rather not be reminded of our psychic pimples and never again want to take another test.

Christy, a 1994 CBS series based on Catherine Marshall’s lovely, if sentimental, novel, was another mass-market failure in the teaching sweepstakes. It was based on an idea as old as the Republic and as recently expressed as the Peace Corps and Vista programs in the Great Society ‘60s: You can’t afford to waste a single child, and the privileged young invest themselves, and everybody learns how little we really knew about each other. Kellie Martin, who grew up as Becca in the wonderful series Life Goes On, starred as Christy, an idealistic 19-year-old who left genteel Asheville, North Carolina, in 1912 to teach in a missionary school in Appalachia. There to assist her in her own education were Stewart Finlay-McLennan as the widowed doctor who gave her a dress to wear; Randall Batinkoff as the handsome young minister who started the school; Tess Harper as the mountain woman Fairlight Spencer who can do everything but read; and Tyne Daly as a gun-toting Quaker surprise: “Were you meant to come here and serve, or were you only running away from home?” Plus, of course, the children, all 12 grades of them, as young as or older than Christy; sleepy, because they got up before dawn; barefoot, because they couldn’t afford shoes; a girl who wouldn’t talk; a boy who lied all the time; hogs un-der the floorboards; and a pet raccoon.

In one episode, Christy’s failure to understand the local moonshine culture caused her school to burn down. In another, having acquainted her class with where they’d come from—chiefly, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scottish Highlands—she had to depend on a bagpipe-playing ghost to save a wayward waif. I’d have thought we’d all identify with Christy—ache for the misapprehensions and the condescensions, the quick temper and quicker despair, the huge ambition and modest results, the terrible doubts and romantic entanglements—and then rejoice in her ability to bounce back because, of course, one of these children was secretly reading David Copperfield, and another would grow up to write his own novels, and a third would maybe invest herself in passionate teaching, and, out of moonshine, cabinet making, history lessons, cartwheels, bagpipes, and an ax, the Republic would compose its music. But Christy, after such promising ratings for its two-hour pilot, fell off the charts into an occasional holiday special, like the long-gone John-Boy Waltons.

Why don’t school shows work on television? Maybe most of us hated high school and would rather not be reminded of our psychic pimples and never again want to take another test. Maybe most of us are cowboys, preferring the saloon tart to the civilizing schoolmarm. Maybe the culture itself thinks teachers have it too easy in the Darwinian tooth-and-claw, taking the summer off to read books and plan courses, which is also why we underpay them. And maybe the answer is as simple as our pulp appetite for brutal closure. Like many another noble noodle, instead of one more cop show I’d personally prefer a series in which social problems are solved through creative nonviolence after a Quaker meeting by a collective of vegetarian carpenters.

How we loved Christa McAuliffe. We loved the TV movie about her almost as much. We had dreamed of ourselves lifting off to probe Mars or the music of the outer spheres.

But our abiding narratives are deathward—and have been since at least those first westerns, the Old Testament and the Iliad—all about clout, turf, sexual property rights, and how to look good dying. And America—from Wounded Knee to lynching-bees, from the Knights of Labor to the Ku Klux Klan, from Haymarket and Homestead to Harlan County and the Black Hole of Ludlow, from race riots and Ghost Dance Wars to Hell’s Angels, Black Panthers, Attica, and Altamont—has a history of violence as gaudy as any in the industrialized world.

Oddly enough, we now blame television for promoting this violence among our youth, whereas once upon an earlier time we blamed the public schools for tantrum-yoga culture that measures everyone by his or her ability to produce wealth and morally condemns anyone who fails to prosper, blames its angry incoherence not on itself but on anything else, from original sin to recessive genes, alien abduction, demonic possession, Arab terrorists, Madonna, and the designated hitter. But I digress.

How we loved Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who left New Hampshire for the stars in our stead, on board the Challenger. We loved the TV movie about her almost as much. We had perhaps dreamed of ourselves as lifting off to probe either Mars or the music of the outer spheres.

On January 28, 1986, with the children of America watching on television, for 73 seconds McAuliffe was airborne. And then the seven Challenger astronauts were dead. And Peggy Noonan wrote a lovely eulogy for the president to lip-synch. And everybody talked about O-rings in the solid booster rocket. And maybe that’s what happens to teachers in the real Darwinian world when they put on airs.

The 1990 ABC docudrama Challenger was a meticulous account of the six-month NASA training period for those seven astronauts. It hurt to watch. It seems to me unfair of the producers to have cast Karen Allen as McAuliffe. In the opinion of many of us, Indiana Jones went downhill after Raiders of the Lost Ark because Allen wasn’t in the sequels. Frizzy-haired and freckled, with a smile like a field of sunflowers, she so much embodied McAuliffe’s eagerness to please, to experience, to share, that we ached all over again. No wonder everybody was always giving her an apple. Not that the Challenger space shuttle wasn’t an equal-opportunity disaster. The flight deck was also stacked with another woman, a Japanese American from Hawaii, and only the second African American ever to be sent into outer space, Ronald McNair—perhaps the most complex of the astronauts, a sax player, a karate black belt, and a laser physicist.

Education is in increments, not explosions. It’s about making distinctions and connections; about surprise, wonder, passion, and regret; about citizenship and critical intelligence.

As the docudrama moved these astronauts around, however, from Houston to Huntsville to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, and introduced both their families and their contractors (Lockheed, Rockwell, Morton-Thiokol) and advised us of gale winds that forced recovery vessels back to port, of the lowest temperatures ever for a shuttle liftoff, of so much solid ice at the launching site that it looked on the TV monitors “like something out of Dr. Zhivago,” we were also moving around some mythic baggage. The rest of them were pros; this was their career. McAuliffe was an amateur, a stranger in this strange, boy’s-book land so full of hardware and mysticism, Sputniks, and Star Wars. And thus, when they slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God, she was our innocence. To gravity’s rainbow we lost our teacher and were no longer permitted to be children. That’s narrative: No school tomorrow.

This, I admit, is a harsh reading. But education is in increments, not explosions. It has been better served by television as a 24-hour machine for grinding out narrative, novelty, and distraction, surprise and empathy and news and laughs, an electronic classroom of high-culture snippets and vulgar celebrity, a place to celebrate and a place to mourn, a circus and a wishing well, than by television as a representation of what teaching really feels like. Via public television, that remedial seriousness, we commune with the spoon-billed bee-eaters and the midwife toads. From the networks, we ought to have learned to recognize the predators and parasites in Washington and on Wall Street. Commercials themselves are a crash course in advanced capitalism: overproduction and forced consumption. Whereas the humble little red schoolhouse or concrete bunker, well, when it’s not about baby-sitting and vocational guidance and guns and drugs and pregnancy and AIDS, it’s about making distinctions and connections; about surprise, wonder, passion, and regret; about citizenship and critical intelligence.

After serving her time in public schools from Oakland, California, to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, my wife ended up in a Manhattan private school for girls and still feels guilty about it but is nonetheless determined to teach internal contradictions to the daughters of the ruling class. Which explains her long afternoons of coaching debate or running off to another symposium on multiculturalism, her longer nights of planning and grading, those frantic phone calls from seniors needing college recommendations, the predawn spice smells of Chinese or Mexican food for a classroom banquet after the latest Third World survey, the missing weekends when she’s gone to Washington with busloads of the best and brightest for a protest demonstration or to Bard College to bring back a whole new way to teach reading, her disappearance for two years into meetings of the committee on faculty development and evaluation as if into the black hole of a dead star, those summers she spends pretending to look at palaces and pyramids while secretly dreaming up entire new curricula. So many children, in the kitchen, in the garden, on the stoop, their eyes the true color of Byzantine icons, of smoke and flame.

Before we were married, I thought history was what white men did in the daytime. Imagine, then, living with a Braudelian, an Annaliste: Weather, she will explain, and infant-mortality statistics; the compass and commode; plague and gunpowder, sewage and forks, the Inquisition and the invisible hand; the Paris Commune, the Industrial Revolution, gunboat diplomacy, women’s suffrage; surplus value, false consciousness, bad faith, brainwashing, and foot binding. On the occasion of her birthday several years ago, her 8th graders staged a surprise party in the classroom, and this is what they sang to her, just like Judy Collins:

As we go marching, marching in the beauty of the day, A million darkened kitchens a thousand mill lofts gray, Are touched with all the radiance that the sudden sun discloses, For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

There is, of course, a second verse:

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men, For they are women's children, and we mother them again. Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

This, alas, is the sort of education we seldom hear about on television, where no teacher ever seems to have more than one class, instead of the usual seven, as well as the sort of education we seem to have stopped insisting on in the true colors of the scorching day.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Poor Reception