The first film under the spotlight on this term’s Film and Education is School of Rock (2003) directed by Richard Linklater.
Through the liminal zone of the classroom at Horace Green Preparatory School Dewey Finn, in a desperate attempt to pay his share of the rent, impersonates a substitute teacher. Rejecting the expected curriculum and pedagogy he sets out to transform his class into a winning rock band, and while his deceit is exposed, Dewey is redeemed and his teaching style is vindicated as the class secure their place in the Battle of the Bands.
School of Rock adopts a formulaic narrative which sees the equilibrium broken for all characters, and ends with the establishment of a new, and more fulfilling one. The representations of schooling, teachers, teaching and learning reflect ongoing debates around the purpose and nature of education. Dewey literally rips up the system of rewards and demerits, grants recess and abandons the syllabus. While initially this reflects his antipathy towards his feigned role (having described teaching as babysitting), on recognising musical talent in his pupils, this is soon channelled into a child centred pedagogy. We see the children engaging enthusiastically on a rock band project, collaborating with Dewey to conceal the reality of their new school experience from the stern Principal Mullins. Yet, while the narrative predictably sets teacher centred learning against child centred learning, Dewey, the child centred protagonist is not averse to drawing on authoritarian approaches himself, while the pupils have to pledge allegiance to the band, they also have to pledge their allegiance to his creativity.
The pretence cannot last of course, and Dewey’s true identity is revealed after he fails to convince assembled parents that he has taught the required syllabus, or that rock is a suitable subject for study. We learn early on in the film that education is a market place; parents spend $15, 000 a year for a place at Horace Green Prep. They expect results and not the anti-establishment, creative expressions of a rock band. Just as it seems that the forces of progressivism have been quashed, the pupils organise themselves to rescue Dewey from returning to his former self, defying authority to play at the Battle of the Bands. They don’t win of course, at least not the battle itself. After all, they have abandoned grades, but they have won something much more significant as a new equilibrium is established with Principal Mullins and parents convinced of a more liberal education, at least in the discreet context of Dewey’s after school rock project.
Speed (2010: 101) highlights the “anti-intellectualism” inherent in this film, seen firstly in Dewey Finn’s rejection of the school system, the knowledge taught and teaching styles. Secondly, we see this “anti-intellectualism” endorsed through the popularity of Dewey and the apparent success of his approach to teaching.
Fun to watch, School of Rock explores the tensions between competing educational ideologies and resolves them, safely.
More stuff to read
Speed, L (2007) ‘The Possibilities of Roads Not Taken: Intellect and Utopia in the Films of Richard Linklater’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 35:3, 98-106