The 'Make-Believe World' of Lean on Me

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Referring to Joe Clark, the Paterson, N.J., high-school principal who made himself famous wielding a bullhorn and baseball bat, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett once said, "Sometimes you need Mr. Chips and sometimes you need Dirty Harry."

Dirty Harry, Rambo, and Rocky have nothing on Mr. Clark, who is assured his place in folklore with the release of the motion picture Lean on Me. During the weekend of March 11, the film grossed $4.5 million, becoming the nation's number-one box-office earner.

Directed by John Avildsen, of Rocky and The Karate Kid fame, the movie is inspiring and exciting--but also simplistic and misleading. The film's popularity shows how badly the public can be deceived when offered easy solutions to its fears of teenagers, blacks, Hispanics, drugs, and crime. In fact, the public support Mr. Clark has gained for his tough-guy antics may well demonstrate the fragility of democracy.

Middle-class teenagers who would be horrified if their own principal humiliated, manhandled, or suspended them as Joe Clark does his students cheer during the film and rave about their new hero as they leave the theater. And black parents who would not be happy if their own children were victims of Joe Clark's whimsy applaud his methods on screen.

The most inspiring part of the movie is the ending. Between the Grecian columns of Paterson's City Hall stands the triumphant Joe Clark, cheered by hundreds of loyal students. His enemies, devious politicians and scheming authorities, have just freed him from jail in order to stave off a riot by his young minions. He had been jailed for illegally chaining the fire doors in his building, allegedly to keep out drug dealers. Joe Clark, the hero of law and order, had broken the law for a higher purpose--his own.

I have been fascinated and horrified by Mr. Clark's public acclaim ever since he suggested that he ought to wring my neck. This incident followed our debate about school violence on the "Donahue" show in 1984, during which he claimed I made him sound like Adolf Hitler.

He was particularly enraged when, with support from the few educators in the audience, I indicated that he wasn't truthful in reporting that he had doubled test scores at Eastside High in less than a year.

The make-believe world of Lean on Me provides Mr. Clark a powerful medium to advance the myth that he could raise test scores by denigrating and rejecting those students and faculty members who refused to submit to his demands for reflexive obedience. In fact, however, the research on school discipline and educational leadership--as well as the actual scores in Mr. Clark's school--belies his claims to success.

How is it that this exemplar of authoritarianism and claimer of the unclaimable strikes such a resonant chord for the American public? How is he so able to manipulate the media to promote a philosophy that most Americans would consider repugnant in any setting other than schools or prisons?

Joe Clark typifies the demagoguery of the charismatic authoritarian who offers himself as the answer to social crises. He identifies a common enemy as being re6sponsible for complex problems and pushes draconian methods of controlling this enemy. Most people, he knows, will not complain about the suspension of a few civil liberties of obviously undeserving groups.

The would-be czar rationalizes that the end justifies the means--and thus legitimizes the wholesale use of half-truths and outright lies. Finally, he takes advantage of a willing media to accomplish his goals.

For Joe Clark and his followers, the "enemy" is teenagers--minority adolescents in particular. Historically, adolescents have been suspect in American society. Since the advent of child-labor and universal-education laws, they have been more commonly perceived as liabilities than contributors to family and society.

For generations, fundamentalists, right-wing authoritarians, and their fellow travelers have carped about the immoral excesses of teenagers and the need for stricter punishments; it is no coincidence that we are the only Western country in which juveniles may be subject to the death penalty. These constant calls for harsher discipline blur the evidence revealing the repeated failure of such policies in the past.

And in the common stereotype, black teenagers are muggers, drug users, and pushers. Violence and the drug culture in inner cities strike terror in the hearts of many Americans. The answer seems simple--counterstrike with the use of force.

Yes, some blacks, Hispanics, and poor whites are part of the drug culture--but that culture would be relatively impotent were it not for the middle- and upper-class white teenagers and adults who drive into the city for their supplies of crack, cocaine, and marijuana. Yet these buyers play a comparatively small role in the public's perception of the problem of inner-city youth.

Nor do we want to marshal the long-term economic resources or make the complex social-policy changes needed to address the real causes of drug use in a poverty culture. It is cheaper to tell kids to "just say no" to drugs.

Lean on Me clearly identifies the enemy. As in a John Wayne Western, we immediately recognize the good guys and the bad guys when Joe Clark arrives "in town."

Mr. Clark had little trouble mobilizing positive public opinion when, in real life, he expelled 300 minority students and forced out the staff members who didn't show him the proper respect and obedience. He claimed that the expelled students were educationally hopeless and overage underachievers, parasites, hoodlums, and drug pushers--all code words for black youths. The movie audience, too, cheers his actions against punks and inner-city teachers.

When asked about his authoritarian style, Mr. Clark once said, "I am a dictator and they love it." And in truth, his followers--including the adoring public flocking to his movie--do love him. In the film, he wastes little time on what he calls "fruitless egalitarianism."

It is no wonder that Mr. Clark's tactics won him congratulatory phone calls from President Reagan and deification by Mr. Bennett. Since he is black, Mr. Clark can get away with making statements about poor, alienated, inner-city minority students that would be considered overtly racist if made by whites. He was the ultimate political tool of the Reagan Administration's simplistic, cost-cutting attempts to deal with school crime.

To promote stricter discipline, the Administration buried the results of a massive safe-schools study demonstrating that crime and violence are reduced by principals who are fair, firm, and consistent--the antithesis of Joe Clark. And with the so-called Bauer Report of 1983, elimination of due process in discipline cases became a major goal of the Administration, which claimed that such procedures were "tying the hands of school administrators."

A survey of secondary-school principals conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics showed that in fact these administrators did not perceive due-process requirements as an impediment to good school discipline. But the Administration ignored this finding; the data didn't fit into the scheme of making heroes out of people like Joe Clark.

Similarly, the filmmakers responsible for Lean on Me and most members of the media have not bothered to sort fact from fancy in glorifying Mr. Clark. The artistic license exercised by Mr. Avildsen and Michael Schiffer, the movie's writer, is astounding, especially in regard to the film's central theme, the raising of test scores to save the school from state takeover.

In the movie, Mr. Clark's effort raises students' scores to an undefined level that protects the school from takeover; in real life, he has claimed that he was able to double scores during his first year as principal. But the evidence about his achievement as an educator does not support these assertions. (Nor, in fact, did the school ever face the takeover threat depicted in the film.)

The scores of Mr. Clark's students on the New Jersey High School Proficiency Test were the lowest in the state for 1986, 1987, and 1988. Over this three-year period, an average of only 24.1 percent of Eastside students passed all three sections of this basic-skills test. In comparison, the average percentage passing for all other urban schools in the state was 48.2 percent. While the differences between Eastside's passing rates and those of some equivalent schools may be small, these results are hardly a model of good education.

Mr. Clark's public-relations skills also help explain the public's willingness to buy the big lie. The late Wendell Williams, Mr. Clark's former principal, was "fascinated and appalled" by him. In 1983, this respected black educator wrote in a local paper that "Mr. Clark had a knack to keep unrest brewing. ... [H]is brand of trouble was invariably aimed at disorganizing whatever was established."

"He talked like a revolutionary and dressed like a fop," Mr. Williams continued. "His language was filled with street talk and vulgarities, yet his speeches were a series of stiff, archaic phrases and infrequently used melodramatic, stage-like expressions. ... I am not surprised that he has attracted so much attention in the media by his methods and antics."

By 1983, Mr. Clark had his own public-relations firm, which promoted him as an "exciting and relevant 'hero' who speaks to the urgent needs of our youth and families."

His most recent brouhaha conveniently garnered national attention just around the time of Lean on Me's release. The principal organized a school assembly at which a female dancer stripped four male dancers down to their G-strings. When suspended for five days as a result of this episode, Mr. Clark labeled his superiors "puritanical demagogues."

Of course, now that he has made big bucks from his movie and commands hefty fees on the lecture circuit, his punishment provides a perfect opportunity to leave Eastside in indignation. In fact, he has announced he will go on sabbatical in September and, according to an aide, "may never come back."

Lean on Me is a box-office smash because it fulfills the fondest dreams of a public that yearns for the good old days of education. Unfortunately, those days never existed, except in the fantasies of those who would like a simpler, safer world--the kind promised by the Dirty Harry of education, Joe Clark.

Vol. 08, Issue 31, Page 27

Published in Print: April 26, 1989, as The 'Make-Believe World' of Lean on Me
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