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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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The Bling Ring & The Challenges of Edu-Culture

By Rick Hess — August 07, 2013 2 min read

Caught Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring a couple weeks back, and been meaning to share a few thoughts. For those who missed the whole deal, this is Coppola’s take on the Calabasas, California, teens who burglarized the homes of a bunch of Hollywood celebrities in 2008 and 2009, stealing around $3 million in cash, clothes, and property. The flick is slow-moving and there’s not much in the way of conventional plotting (it’ll feel familiar to anyone who’s seen Coppola’s Lost in Translation or The Virgin Suicides). That said, it’s an unflinching look at these teens and their banal fascination with celebrity, designer stuff, and desperate desire to find a place to belong. School barely registers in the lives of the teens involved, but the film still sparked a few edu-thoughts. For what they’re worth:

Ever-more ubiquitous celebrity culture makes it tougher to convince youths that they ought to value hard work and earned success. Today, kids are daily seeing someone publicly win the lottery -- and be celebrated for doing so, with money, fame, and all that comes with it. That keeps raising the level of difficulty for parents and teachers trying to sell adolescents on the appeal of homework and self-discipline. Indeed, I fear that little in popular culture celebrates humility, discipline, or modesty. (Speaking of which, just this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit just this week decided that students have a constitutional right to wear “I (heart) boobies” bracelets to school. Right. Because it’s so hard to think of a justifiable, constitutional, in loco parentis rationale for restricting such accessories.)

Most of the celebrities idolized and targeted by the bling ring were famous without having demonstrated any obvious talent or skill. They were mostly famous for being famous. Seems to me it’s much tougher to preach character, delayed gratification, and meritocracy when so many visible “successes” are people who’ve become well known for sex tapes, physical appeal, or being part of the cast of craptastic TV shows.

The characters (and, more significantly, their real-life counterparts) demonstrate an impressive ability to rationalize their felonies as minor missteps and to still see themselves as good people. They’ve decided that individuals are granted great leeway so long as they (like any good celeb) pay homage to vague, big, good things like fighting poverty and protecting the environment. It’s a reminder of how easy it’s become (in a world of fleeting interactions and social media) for individuals to disconnect their grand ideals and sense of self from the smaller, grittier, and much less fun business of being a good, reliable, responsible person.

Adults come across as enablers and handlers for the kids. Leslie Mann’s doting mom, with her great faith in the infomercial teachings of “The Secret,” is a depressingly familiar figure. Her real-world model succeeded in getting her family onto reality TV, and she is only too eager to wedge herself into her daughter’s paparazzi media moment. The handlers and p.r. types that settle upon the bling ring kids are eager to promote a sellable tale of redemption, and to help parlay short jail stints into lucre and fame.

Not a pretty picture. All reminds us how culture ultimately shapes the world. I’d love to see those advocates and reformers hopeful that schools can rectify social ills spend more time asking how to help forge a culture that better supports parents and teachers when it comes to raising young scholars and citizens.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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