Morality Play

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Ken Smith takes a serious look at funny old classroom films.

Dating: Do's and Don'ts. Keep Off the Grass. Highways of Agony. If you're older than 30, chances are you remember these short educational movies or one of the estimated 3,000 more like them. "Social guidance" films flickered to life in postwar classrooms as progressive educators looked to technology to teach increasingly independent-minded teenagers to dress neatly, duck and cover, and drive safely.

Ten years ago, writer Ken Smith rediscovered these classroom films as an editor for the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) in New York City; his job was to dice and splice them into 30-second, humorous vignettes that the channel ran before commercials. Smith became convinced that the campy creations offer more insight into American education than meets the eye, and he recently published a book on the subject, Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945 to 1970(Blast Books). In late January, Smith and Rick Prelinger, a preservationist whose archives is the final resting place for many of these forgotten films, fired up the 16mm projector for a social guidance film retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York. The two-day event drew the largest audience in the museum's history—more people showed up for it than for a Stanley Kubrick festival hosted by the movie director himself.

Smith recently talked with Managing Editor Samantha Stainburn about social guidance films, past and present.

Q. Do you remember watching social guidance films when you went to school?

A. I grew up in New Jersey and graduated from high school in 1976. Specifically, I remember watching a film called Don't Push Your Luck, a safety film. We saw it in shop class to get us to wear safety goggles.

Q. What were some of the narrative techniques used in these movies to encourage proper behavior?

A. In the early films, such as Are You Popular?, we see an ideal world. You know, Wally and Caroline go out for a first date, Wally's very polite, and Wally and Caroline are both well-dressed, very neat, clean, and Wally comes over and meets the parents and shakes Dad's hand. And Mom says, "Why don't you come back home afterward for brownies and milk?" "Gee, that sounds good!" And the film ends with everyone throwing snowballs at each other. So it's this kind of ideal world, and the kids were supposed to watch it and, because the characters looked like them, place themselves in this world and say, "Oh, that's the way to act." At the time, there was this feeling that you can't show anything bad because if you show something bad, students will imitate it. But the films weren't working—kids were misbehaving anyway—so this whole new genre came in. These movies showed teenagers acting badly—smoking cigarettes, necking in cars, going hitchhiking. Of course, the kids would suffer horrible fates—they'd be killed or kidnapped or end up drug addicts. Scare the pants off the kids, that was the teaching method there.

Q. Are there films you think are particularly sinister?

A. Some of them were more ruthless in their approach than others. Habit Patterns is a very, very dark film. It follows a day in the life of a teenage girl, Barbara. The purpose of the film is to get you to like fitting in, going along with the crowd, and being part of the gang. But it's just brutal: Barbara has messy habits, and the narrator's going on and on: "You knew this was going to happen, Barbara. You only get one chance to fit in, and because of your sloppy sweater, you don't." And at the end of the film, Barbara breaks down in tears.

Q. Did the filmmakers consult educators about how to best influence young people?

A. It varied from company to company. Coronet Instructional Films was the biggest company. It was based outside of Chicago, and its producers worked with the University of Chicago, so they were well-positioned to spot the new trend in education, what the educators were saying we needed more of. I get a sense that it worked like this: Some Ph.D. at the University of Chicago would say, "You know, we need to emphasize family relations," and they would create a new curriculum. Once the new curriculum was in place, Coronet would make films. The filmmakers themselves were not driving the trend; they were facilitating and producing films to accommodate it.

Q. Why do you think it's important to drag these films out of obscurity and analyze them?

A. For many years, the films were considered an embarrassment to the educational establishment—in the late '70s and '80s, when all these movies were being thrown away, they were regarded as hopelessly hokey. And they are. But there's a lot you can learn from them, above and beyond what they try and teach you. They teach you about ourselves, the way we approach problems, the way we think about our children, the way we educate—complex, deeper issues. I think that's what makes them so interesting. It's also important because it makes you aware of how we are manipulated today. We still have mental hygiene with us in various forms, certainly in schools.

Q. In what way?

A. I would brand Channel One as mental hygiene as well as large corporations like McDonald's sponsoring school lunch programs. They're grooming future consumers. You could even say forced medication of children is mental hygiene—it's using technology to achieve a social end: "Give the kid Ritalin, give the kid Prozac, he's too antsy." If you think about it, that's kind of creepy.

Q. If mental hygiene dispensed through the classroom is not an effective or positive way to teach social behavior, what is?

A. Guidance comes from the parents, from the home. If your teenager is uncontrollable at 14, that goes back to very early nurturing. It's not socioeconomic, it's not technology; it's all issues from mom and dad, or mom and mom, or dad and dad, or whatever the arrangement is these days.

If you're going to make mental hygiene, make it for parents. Because the parents are the ones who need to learn. Mental hygiene exists today for the same reason it did in 1945: Parents are scared and confused, and they don't know what to do. It's what drove the movement to begin with—the notion that there are these Ph.D.'s out there, a magic formula, to remedy the complex and scary world that kids are going into.

Q. In your book, you argue one of the reasons social guidance films failed to work was that teachers did not use them properly. Explain that.

A. A film like Are You Popular?, which ends very happily, was supposed to be a self-contained film: You watched it, you learned, and that was it. Later films did not give you a tidy ending but raised questions about characters' moral choices for discussion afterward. There was a procedure, very detailed, to get the message into the class's head: The teacher was supposed to look at the curriculum and her lesson plan, pick a film, pre-screen the film, write notes about the film, tell the class about the film, show the film, discuss the film afterward with the class. But teachers didn't do that; it became very quickly a break. They graded papers while the kids watched the movie; the film was over, and class was over.

Q. How do today's social guidance videos compare to the mental hygiene films made between 1945 and 1970?

A. The guidance video business right now is immense. There are guidance videos for everything. Titles like My Father Is an Alcoholic, Rage Suppression, films dealing with teenage pregnancy. They make a pretense of being real life, showing real kids who have these problems, but it's the same idea of guidance through technology, which is something that freaks me out. Technology being used as this cure-all for social problems—we do that in America. We've always done that in America. We want technology to solve our complex problems.

Vol. 11, Issue 6, Page 16

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Morality Play
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