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‘Conrack': Then and Now

By Jonathan Burack — October 31, 2001 5 min read
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A few days ago, 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, Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel. In the film, Pat Conroy is played by John Voight—"Conrack” is the name the kids force him to adopt.

What's odd about seeing "Conrack" again now is to realize how old-fashioned and unacceptable as a teacher Conrack would be in the eyes of so many "progressives" in the field today.

“Conrack” is still a thrilling and inspiring film. But revisiting it in 2001 was an odd and disorienting experience for me. I first saw the movie when it was released in 1974, at a time when I was myself 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 this film.

What’s odd about seeing the film again now is to realize how old-fashioned and unacceptable as a teacher Conrack would be in the eyes of so many “progressives” in the field today, and to realize that his harshest critics would be the liberals and educational radicals who celebrated this film when it first came out. How the mighty have fallen.

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

His emphasis on facts, for instance, would be reviled today as a “drill and kill” stress on rote learning. He is constantly shouting out questions such as “What country do you live in?” “Who was the greatest ball player of all time?” “What’s the longest river in the world?"—at one point, vigorously and relentlessly as his kids jog behind him on the beach. Far from boring them, the “drill” is inspiring, as in fact 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.

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.

It is true that the film offers little insight into the way in which Conrack’s factual teaching was organized or how he contextualized those facts to make them meaningful. But it is clear how they function in the lives of the children he is teaching. They function as crystal-sharp beacons illuminating a world of which they 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, 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.

Worse still for Conrack’s reputation today is his unabashed celebration of the best of Western civilization and the dead white males who made it. The most moving scene in the film, for me, is Conrack’s playing of “a song” by Ludwig van Beethoven—the Fifth Symphony—after engaging the 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, or even Paul Revere. True, Conrack does include several great 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 Conrack fails utterly to make racial identity center stage, as the relentless drive to enhance self-esteem and rescue victimized pride would today dictate he should do.

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, as is clear from this passage by du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk:

The film forces one to a sad encounter with the fact that the "progress" of all too many progressives has actually transformed itself into the regress of retreat.

“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 authorities do 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.

And 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 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, the disorientation of the film for me was in the degree to which it makes clear how many liberals and ‘60s radicals who once praised this film now champion ideas that its main character would have rejected outright. The film forces one to a sad encounter with the fact that the “progress” of all too many progressives has actually transformed itself into the regress of retreat. Death rapping at the door, indeed.

Jonathan Burack has been developing history and social studies materials for secondary schools for the past 17 years. He lives in Stoughton, Wis.

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