At 16, my feelings about school could best be summed up by that old Sam Cooke song: I didn’t know much about history, and certainly didn’t know much biology. None of the concrete subjects in high school interested me, I found no teachers to be particularly inspiring, and I coasted with no real passions or goals.
That is, until I took two classes in my junior year that sparked something in me and created a domino effect of intellectual curiosity. No, I didn’t have some passionate, underpaid English teacher who revealed to me the brilliance and beauty of Shakespeare, or a history teacher who made the textbook come alive with humor and relevance. The courses came from an unlikely source that the guidance counselors wrote of as schedule filler: They were film classes.
The courses themselves were not extraordinary; I can’t remember the name of one of the teachers, and the other I didn’t even particularly like at the time. But their effect on me is an example of how the subjects that are often the first casualties of budget cuts—film, art, music, theater—can have an impact on kids that is literally life-changing.
The classes, each a half-year-long elective, were called “Film as an Art Form” and “American History Through Film.” While their names were intimidating—the words “art” and “history” gave me pause and made me wonder if shop class was perhaps the way to go—I took them anyway, knowing they would, at the very least, mean less math.
I didn’t get much out of these courses at first. The films we studied (they had only been “movies” to me previously) were often in black and white, and sometimes they were even in another language. But the selections soon got better, and I found myself looking forward to class. We watched John Ford’s Western classic “The Searchers” and discussed the racist ethics of its anti-hero, Ethan Edwards. We looked at two films about Christopher Columbus: one that portrayed him as our textbooks did, as a hero, and the other depicting him as a murderous imperialist. I never imagined that movies could have so much to say about American history or that I could learn something from them.
I was hooked. Soon after these classes began, I was spending every weekend watching two or three rented movies. And instead of picking the latest popcorn flick as I usually did, I was watching the classics—from all decades and all countries. I set the family VCR to record something off the Turner Classic Movies channel almost every night. Before long, I was watching and trying (and, at 16, completely failing) to understand the films of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Andrei Tarkovsky.
A new world had been unlocked for me, and it wasn’t simply cinematic. Each film was a research project; I wanted to understand the cultures and time periods that produced the film. Chiefly, this led to a fascination with politics (later, in college, my field of study) that I never would have picked up without being introduced to the ideas through film.
My story is a love story, about how I fell in love with learning. But it’s also a tragedy, when one considers how many high school students will never have the opportunity for specialty classes like the ones I have described. My school, Cranford High School, in Cranford, N.J., is an exceptional public school in an upper-middle-class district, one where dreaded “budget cuts” aren’t a constant fear. But for too many schools all over the country, the idea of a film class is ridiculous. They can barely afford updated textbooks; their infrastructure is crumbling; they don’t even offer music or sports programs.
Add to that the Bush-era emphasis on proficiency in reading, math, and science and constant standardized testing, and the environment looks worse and worse for this type of curricular offering.
But we must not dismiss these classes as curriculum filler that takes precious time away from “real” subjects like math and science. Film, art, music—these are all pursuits that matter; they are cultural building blocks, with the potential to offer students so much more of the world than they ever thought possible.
“When film portrays history,” said Keith Carroll, my old high school film teacher, who spoke to me by phone, “it can tell a greater truth than any textbook.” He was pleased to hear about how his course had affected my life, and he told me a love story of his own. He had first learned to love history at the age of 13, he said, after watching the Academy Award-winning movie “Patton.”