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September, 2005 : Essay:

Back to SF School

Speculative Education at the Movies

One of the theatrical trailers for X2: X-Men United made it clear that at least part of the film's action would be taking place at Dr. Xavier's School for the Gifted, the secret school in Westchester County, New York, at which mutant children are taught to harness and use their mutant powers. And at one particularly exciting moment in the trailer, the camera zooms in on a young boy, maybe 11 or 12 years old, his brown hair tousled with nervousness and his eyeglasses askew — he's clearly terrified as the school comes under attack by antimutant forces. The first thing that popped into my head at the sight of this wide-eyed preteen was: "Oh, no! Harry Potter went to the wrong school!"

I said it out loud in at a multiplex screening room packed with a geeky crowd there to see some genre blockbuster, and I got lots of laughter in response. The visual reference on the part of the X-Men filmmakers (as well as on the part of the trailer creator, who typically has no connection to or direction from the filmmaker) was, I have no doubt, deliberate, a treat thrown to fans, partly because Harry is his own huge phenomenon who would be instantly recognizable to fans. But there's another reason why Harry — and the idea of Harry at Xavier's — would tickle the overlapping audience for both Harry Potter and X-Men films:

School failed many science fiction fans.

It's almost a requirement of fandom: fans of serious SF tend to be pretty darn smart and intellectually curious, and kids like that are well down the righthand slope of the bell curve, well beyond the middle range of the curve that most schools are equipped to deal with. It's a sad irony for those smart, curious kids, because a school should be the one place where their particular hunger could be nourished. It's probably why many of us ending up discovering SF in the first place: it engaged our minds in a way that our schooling wasn't able to do.

So fantasies about schools for very special, very gifted kids — places that embrace and encourage their uniqueness and extraordinary talents, places at which those kids aren't the freaks but the stars — are practically fine-tuned to appeal to us. Who wouldn't want to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or Xavier's School for the Gifted and have our specialness celebrated instead — as was most likely the case for the vast majority of people who self-identify as science-fiction fans — derided or, at best, ignored? Magical ability and mutant powers are but metaphors for simply being too damn smart to fit into the one-size-fits-all approach of mass education... and, it should be noted, even these fantasy worlds recognize that those with extraordinary talents are very rarely gladly received by the general populace: Hogwarts and Xavier's (or at least the real purpose of Xavier's) are secrets jealousy kept from the world at large. (The recent, and agreeable, film Sky High, about the school for the children of superheroes, at which, of course, their powers are nourished and honed, must be kept so hidden that it floats high in the atmosphere on a platform that can be moved as needed.)

Our educational experiences were, perhaps, more like that depicted in the 1999 film October Sky, which isn't SF but nevertheless is of immense appeal to SF fans. It's science fact, about the teenhood of real-life future rocket scientist Homer Hickam in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia, where a young man like Homer (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is expected to go into his father's line of work — coal mining, of course — and not get uppity ideas about getting above his station and dreaming grander dreams of a life that's been perfectly fine for his family for generations. Many of us, though, may have also had a teacher like Homer's (here played by Laura Dern) who encouraged us in our dreams nevertheless.

That may have been the best we could have hoped for out of high school — one or two teachers who recognized our talents and made time to aid and abet us in our intellectual nonconformity. For even some of the movies we love do not exactly offer positive portraits of smart, bored geeks taking educational matters into their own hands. In 1986's The Manhattan Project, a precocious teen builds an atomic bomb for a science fair, partly for the challenge of acquiring the fissionable material and partly to show how easy it is to do once you've gotten over that tough spot. I love this film and tend to see the bomb-building teen as something of a hero; the film itself is less enamored of him. The similarly themed WarGames, from 1983, is about a smart, bored teen who breaks into government computer and accidentally starts a nuclear war; I empathize with him a lot more than the film does, and I suspect lots of other people who were once smart, bored teens feel the same way.

Brainy kids fare a little better in 1985's Real Genius, in which they get to extend a little smackdown to those who would take advantage of their intelligence and enthusiasm. But for every film like 1969's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, a silly comedy about a supersmart college student who thwarts local gangsters, there's a Harrison Bergeron, the 1995 cable movie about a young man whose intelligence exceeds government-dictated limits; for every Charly, from 1968, which celebrates intelligence and the pleasures of learning and intellectual pursuits, there's something like 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which is about the intellectual misadventures of two sweet but very dumb high-school students who manage to ace a school project not in spite of their stupidity but because of it — the film is admittedly a cinematic delight, but that only adds a stamp of approval on "uncomplicated" stupidity.

Which SF film best approaches the SF fan's understanding of what our schooling really was? It could well be, very depressingly, 1997's Starship Troopers, the satiric flick in which schools and military academies are nothing but factories for churning out good little conformist soldiers that would do society's bidding cheerfully and unthinkingly. We may have escaped the worst of the brainwashing... but we almost certainly recognized that that was what was going on around us in the classroom.


Copyright © 2005, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.

COMMENTS!

Sep 5, 20:28 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of MaryAnn Johanson's essay on schools in science fiction and in real life.

The article is here.
Sep 6, 08:10 by Emily Burkman
MaryAnn Johanson's take on how schools handle gifted students seems outdated to me, or at least less true than it might once have been. High schools, in an effort to give advantage to their best in college applications, have incorporated more and more honors and AP courses into the curriculum. Being an intelligent teen is not a stigma anymore. So much of science fiction has leaked into the mainstream that, unless you really are a social reject, you can be an sf geek while maintaining a healthy relationship with the rest of humanity.
Sep 6, 09:07 by Bluejack
I think that depends a lot on where you are. And even in places where smart is not a stigma, nor is it necessarily what is socially valued.
Sep 7, 10:37 by Adrian Simmons
I think that one's ability to relate to the people around you is a big part of whether you are a social reject or not. I mean, I took honors classes and played D&D and all that, but I didn't TALK about it all the time to people who clearly didn't care.

I have to admit that the temptation was hard, but usually I'd default to music or something.
Sep 9, 15:21 by MaryAnn Johanson
It's not about being a social reject -- the validictorian and salutorian at my high school, when I graduated way the hell back in 1987 were two of the most popular kids at school. But we smart kids (I was 11th in a class of 410) were not challenged in our classes. Hell, my senior year was almost all AP classes, and I didn't have to exert myself to be 11th in the class. My whole educational life, I was in gifted programs and honor classes and all that crap, and it still wasn't enough to keep me genuinely engaged.

I'm with Mark Twain: I never let my schooling interfere with my education. The best stuff I learned, I learned on my own.
Sep 12, 09:14 by Adrian Simmons
Sorry to hear that you were let down by your high school expereinces. A few things- the valedictorian and the salutatorian are usuall the first and second ranking students of a school- but not always. My AP classes ate me alive. I had to memorize and reporduce the entire Krebb's cycle. And then college, of course, was even harder, plus all the drinking didn't help.
As far as being genuinely engaged, I've noticed that science shows (NOVA, Connections, The Nature of Things) keep people 'engaged', but actual science classes tend to be very boring. Very much mired in minute (but important) details.

Sep 12, 10:59 by Bluejack
Mind you, science classes are generally constructed to teach people the scientific method and how to apply it in different domains, rather than to introduce people to the neat ways in which the world works. That is generally an afterthought, if at all, particularly since most of the "important details" about those cool features of the universe require advanced mathematics and a thorough understanding of the "boring" stuff to actually comprehend in any useful way.
Sep 19, 12:59 by Michael-Xavier Maelstrom

"Which SF film best approaches the SF fan's understanding of what our schooling really was?" -MaryAnn Johanson


Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm(n)

The film would need involve these key ingrediants:

(mainly) Starring: overbearing Painfully small-minded lower-middle-class 1 to 2 max generation removed "white trash" professionals who self-identify withand use students.

..as a means to either,

1. Compensate for their own self-recognized mediocrity (seems to manifest in an overt Godification of and self-identification with, a particular student., often at the expense of all other students)

(and these Profs are very easy to bed - Ed)

Please don't help me Ed.

or alternatively, they may (will - Ed)

2. Compensate for their own self-recognized mediocrity (by throttling students that remind them of themselves., in an desperate attempt to escape the realization that they are not lucky enough to be stupid enough to not know that they are stupid, rather they are just average enough to realize that they are not smart enough to fully recognize that they are not smart)

(though they are beginning to suspect it - Ed)

'aye.

Now take this lower-middle-muddle character and place it in Management positions about the globe from Government to Education to Corporation und have their position and authority supported by the people that couldn't even get past them in school., and give them guns.

So,

"Which film best approaches the SF fan's understanding of what our schooling really was?"

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm(n)

Andy Warhol's Frankenstein.

(for no apparently discernable reason - Ed)

At least not publicly.

Anyway, another enjoyable interesting omega-3 IROSF article.

Other films that come to mind as reflective of the schooling experience:

Dr. Strangelove.
Lolita
Jurassic Park

and of course,

Apocalypse Now.

regards,
michaelmaelstrom
Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Earth, Sometimes.

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