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Radical Reversal

By Jonathan Burack — January 01, 2002 5 min read
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What was once a hit movie among progressives is now conservative fare.

Recently, I had the pleasure of revisiting an old friend. That friend was, and still is, one of my favorite motion pictures about education. The 1974 film Conrack, directed by Martin Ritt, is the story of a young, idealistic white man who goes to teach a group of culturally isolated black kids on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The film is based on The Water Is Wide, novelist Pat Conroy’s autobiographical account. In the film, Conroy is played by John Voight; “Conrack” is the name the kids force him to adopt.

Conrack is still a thrilling and inspiring film, but revisiting it in 2001 was an odd experience for me. I first saw the movie when it was released in 1974, when I was involved in an alternative school in the Midwest. At that school, we were all striving (not too successfully, I fear) to embody and realize the same sort of educational vision that is so movingly presented in the film.

What’s strange about seeing the movie now is realizing how old-fashioned and unacceptable a teacher Conrack would appear in the eyes of so many “progressives” in the field today. His harshest critics would, no doubt, be those liberals and educational radicals who celebrated the film when it first came out. How the mighty have fallen.

From the moment Conrack begins to teach, for example, it’s clear that his approach is both teacher- and subject-centered. His concern for his charges and his warmth while interacting with them never once lead him to defer to their worldview or allow their uninformed impulses to serve as guides for his educational practice. Today, the triumph of student-centered rhetoric in schools would render many of Conrack’s moves deeply suspect.

His emphasis on facts, for instance, would be reviled as drill-and-kill stress on rote learning. He is constantly shouting out questions—“What country do you live in?” “Who was the greatest ballplayer of all time?” “What’s the longest river in the world?”—at one point doing so vigorously as his kids jog behind him on the beach. Far from boring them, the drill is inspiring, as it can and should be in any good classroom. It takes on the musical cadence of call-and- response, infectiously pulling into the group’s activities even the most withdrawn of Conrack’s students.

The film offers little insight into the way in which Conrack organizes his lessons or how he contextualizes facts to make them meaningful. What is clear, however, is the effect those lessons have on his students. They function as crystal-lear beacons, illuminating a world of which the kids have been kept ignorant. Conrack’s tapestry of facts teases out the natural curiosity lying dormant in these children. It offers glimpses of the wonders that await those ready to work hard to learn more. In other words, the emphasis in the film on content over process is striking. Conrack, the quintessential radical teacher of the late ’60s and early ’70s, is in this way presented as far closer in spirit to E.D. Hirsch Jr. than to the proponents of whole language, discovery learning, or constructivist pedagogy.

Conrack, the quintessential radical teacher of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, is far closer in spirit to E.D. Hirsch Jr. than to today’s progressive educators.

Worse still for Conrack’s reputation today is his unabashed celebration of the best of Western civilization and the dead white males who created it. The most moving scene in the film, for me, is when Conrack plays “a song” by Ludwig van Beethoven—the Fifth Symphony—after engaging students with the idea that the opening notes are “death rapping at the door.” His charges sit enthralled and overwhelmed by the music

Today, Conrack would be raked over the coals for failing to use blues, rap, or at least Duke Ellington to awaken the pride and self-regard of his young black students. Likewise for his constant quoting of ancient English poets, Isaac Newton, and Paul Revere. True, Conrack does include several African Americans in his repertoire. (At one point, it becomes clear that the kids have identified Jackie Robinson as the greatest ballplayer of all time.) But he fails utterly to place racial identity center stage, as today’s relentless drive to enhance self-esteem and rescue victimized pride would dictate.

In this sense, Conrack is far more in sync with the spirit of W.E.B. Du Bois than with the precepts of the separatist form of multiculturalism so pervasive today. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong- limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

The film presents Conrack as a rebel, and the school administrators come down hard on him for his anti-authoritarianism. And, yet, Conrack is, in fact, deeply respectful of authority, the rules, and another current educational bad boy, competition. In an important scene, he angrily pulls the kids out of a free-for-all pileup on the football field. He scolds them bitterly for failing to understand football as a game of rules and a thing of beauty played by gentlemen on a field of honor.

The movie forces one to realize that the “progress” advocated by all too many progressives has actually transformed itself into the regress of retreat.

As this scene and many others make clear, Conrack is also unhesitatingly forceful and physical with his kids. He hugs them, wrestles with them, and hurls them into the sea to force them to learn how to swim. Today’s harpies of political correctness would have had him up on child-abuse charges after his first day on the job.

At the same time, this movie hero is remarkably monogamous and old-fashioned when it comes to sex. He unswervingly endorses an abstinence-only stance in the one key scene where the issue is relevant, telling a 13-year-old girl that she’ll be glad she refused to give herself to anyone but the one man who will one day prove worthy of the honor bestowed on him.

In short, what made revisiting Conrack so disorienting for me was the realization that the many liberals and ’60s radicals who once praised the film now champion ideas that its main character would reject outright. The movie forces one into a sad encounter with the fact that the “progress” advocated by all too many progressives has actually transformed itself into the regress of retreat. Death rapping at the door, indeed.


A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2002 edition of Teacher as Radical Reversal


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