In Which Our Heroine Agitates For Mutant Educational Reform

4 May 2003

Like 63.2% of the other geeks in the world, we went to see "X2" this weekend. Had quite a good time, but Nick's entry (which contains spoilers) was right on about the ending. I still managed to have fun, and I didn't think about some of the picky stuff at the time (some of it I did), but the ending was pretty unavoidably badly done.

I haven't read the comics, so it was all new to me. I came out of it wanting to read them, but after talking to Mark and Timprov, I don't any more. What I wanted to see was some relationship among X-Men that had nothing to do with romance. I wanted to see how Storm and Jean related to each other, in particular. Or Wolverine and Storm. Or Jean and Rogue. Whoever. These people all live together in the big ol' house. If they don't really relate, that's something notable in itself. But what I really want in a movie about freaky people is freaky people relationships, and that's exactly what I didn't get.

Small things would have satisfied me. I don't think it's any kind of spoiler to say that there is a point in the movie where two men who love a woman are concerned for her safety. They end up hanging onto each other. This was my favorite moment in the movie. It's that level of detail that would have worked in the other non-romantic relationships. It's not just that I'm a sucker for inter-freak dynamics, although I am. It's that I find movies and books that could have them and don't a bit hollow.

I also thought that Rogue was handled generally poorly. The movie didn't make it clear where her contact-death-powers came into play -- the comic readers at my house say that it's hands and lips only, not skin in general, but I didn't see that clarified in either movie. While I don't expect them to do hot-and-heavy safe-sex love scenes, it seems like there are other things two teenagers could figure out if kissing was going to kill one of them. A gloved back-rub, for example, is better than nothing at all. I don't mean to sound like I'm un-fond of kissing -- I love kissing. I think it's really great, and I'd be quite upset if I had to do without it. But if the reason I had to do without it was that I would kill my partner if I kissed him, I would figure out alternatives, for heaven's sake.

And the idea of leaving the teenagers back in the X-Jet was one that a tactical thinker in what's essentially a world-wide siege/war situation would not have had. The sanctity of pubescent life is a luxury we can afford in comfortable countries. Look at the Middle East, for heaven's sake; look at the more politically upset parts of Africa. If they had a 16-year-old who could shoot fire at people or smack up walls of ice on a whim or suck life force out of someone just by grabbing that person -- you'd better believe they'd put the kid into the battle plan. Of course they would, because it makes sense. The only reason we accepted the fact that they didn't in the movie was that we're used to Thinking Of The Children, and we're taught to think of people as useless until they reach 18 or, better yet, older. And that's not a mindset you can afford when you're fighting a war on two fronts, one of which is against a more numerous and more entrenched power.

And speaking of things that happened just so that the plot could advance, why did Iceman/Bobby "come out" to his parents as a mutant? Why didn't he have some story prepared (because he didn't know they wouldn't be home when he got there) about how Professor Logan was taking the students to an art museum in the area? It was Boston, for heaven's sake; they've surely got art around there somewhere. Other than "they wanted to do a coming out scene, and they needed to do the Pyro/police/X-Jet thing," why bother?

The audience cheered when Pyro was blowing up the police cars. I don't know if they were just cheering explosions, or if it was the stupidity of the specific actions, or if it was the blowing up of police cars in general. Hard to tell. A little disturbing, though. Also, there were small children running up and down the aisles screeching at various points in the film. So that was perhaps sub-par. The theatre was lovely, though, and we had good pizza at Zachary's after. And Michael and Elahi (Elohi? She didn't introduce herself with spelling) were cool, and then there was good gelato/sorbetto at Mondo Gelato (banana sorbetto and dark chocolate gelato -- oh my), and since Amber was riding with us, we got the chance to trade gossip that would have been too cliquey to do in front of Michael and Elahi. So. Much fun had by all, despite or because of pickiness.

Mark decided that if he was going to be an X-Men, he'd be Overclocker and have control over digital devices. I said, "And twitch a lot." He admitted that he does tend to fidget a bit, but it all fits in with his mutant superpowers, so everyone is happy. Or at least happyish.

The Merc had a game for its readers to play, the "balance California's budget" game. Some of the most useful choices were not listed, and others...well. They had one guy write in to say that he counted his own grade school class picture and saw 55 kids, so he didn't think 30 was unreasonable for a class size. And that tied right into a discussion Timprov and I had on Thursday about the way history is taught in different schools.

I think when this guy went to school, from the looks of his photograph, history was probably taught as a list of facts to be memorized. (Science the same. Also English grammar, geography, etc.) Not in every classroom, mind you, but the default mediocre history teacher's assumption would be that their minimum job was to produce kids who could rattle off the dates of the Constitutional Convention, the Battle of New Orleans, etc. when quizzed. Somewhere along the line -- before most of my teachers finished college -- a lot of educational theorists decided that this wasn't doing very many people very much good. Possibly because it wasn't. And they decided that what history students -- in fact, students in general -- needed was context and an understanding of the process.

Which would be great if that's what they actually had gotten. Unfortunately, mediocre teachers make up a biiig chunk of the work force, and context and process are things they don't understand all that firmly themselves. So instead of a list of facts to be memorized, the mediocrities started teaching a list of interpretations to be internalized. And many textbooks were written as if the kids had already done a K-12 education in 1955 and were going to do another corrective one in 1985. We spent a week and a half on one particular war between a Native American tribe and the American government in my high school American Studies class, and two days on the Civil War. Fine for someone who's already been through a curriculum that pretended Native Americans didn't exist or were just savages etc. Not so hot for a bunch of 15-year-olds who think Stonewall Jackson was someone Disco Stu was pretending to be the other night on The Simpsons.

The really good teachers went on giving kids context and teaching them to understand the process, as they probably always had. Within the limits imposed upon them by their specific school districts, of course....

So here's the thing: we went from history teaching as facts without interpretation, roughly, to history teaching as interpretation without facts. Same happened to science in a lot of places. I'm not saying that the old system was better, or was devoid of interpretation -- I would have hated memorizing lists of atomic weights, and I understand that which dates you tell kids are important matters. But I think that it's futile to regard either system as a rigorous education.

And then the class size comes in. Because mediocre teachers can give a group of kids an indifferent grasp on the facts or interpretations du jour in groups of 5 or 50. But really good teachers will have a harder time showing a group of 50 students why their subject is worth studying and even loving than they will a group of 5 or 15. If you have a class of 50 students and one of them has something challenging to discuss, or another of them has something that didn't quite make sense and wants to go over it again more slowly, they're more likely to get lost in the shuffle -- whether the teacher is good or mediocre. Doubling class size doesn't really harm the mediocre teacher's work, but it can devastate the good teacher. In fact, it can turn the good teacher into the mediocre teacher.

How do you find out if students understand a complex issue in its context? You have to let them tell you about it in an essay, an oral exam, whatever. You can't just give them a multiple-guess question about Plains Indians' uses of the buffalo and assume that if they get it right, they understand the ecological impact of the horse on Native American cultures. The more kids you have, the harder it is to find the time to deal with extensive essay questions for all of them, much less interviews, extensive projects, or other ways of expressing knowledge -- until even the good teachers are stuck with multiple-guess and short-answer questions.

I'm torn when it comes to public schools. In a lot of ways, I don't believe in them. I had a pretty crappy public schooling experience and had to fight my way out with my brains and sanity more or less intact. I know I'm not the only one. The simple tests they give people of various ages tell me that public education is not doing the job it would hope to do, nationwide. But the transition between that and another system would be pretty darn shaky.

The biggest problem I see is that a lot of people do not care about their kids' education, that they leave it to professionals and don't get involved. If you have a curriculum centered on fact-memorization, an involved parent can give a kid context at home. If you're getting a lot of interpretations in the classroom, an involved parent can ground them in fact or challenge their orthodoxies. Involved parents can challenge systemic injustices or remove their kids from bad situations, can overcome pretty nearly any bad curriculum. But no amount of educational reform in the world can involve people in their kids' education if they don't think it's up to them.

When some guy writes into the Merc and says that larger class sizes are fine with him, I sigh. The budget does need help somewhere. That may end up being where. But "it was good enough for me to have 55 kids in my class!" is not a very persuasive argument for me. If nothing else, what's good enough for this fella is quite probably not good enough for my future kids.

To say nothing of their Mormor's future grandkids.

I wish I could say, "They won't go to school in California anyway, so I don't have to worry about it." They won't, but the Upper Midwest is not exempt from budget crunches, either. Sigh.

I think what I really want to say is that a lot of people keep an eye on how something will affect a group average, and I agree that that's important. But there are enough people doing that and not really enough asking whether a given action will put limits on the best we can expect from what we're doing, whether it's public education or something else entirely. That's an important question, too.

And to bring all this full circle to the X-Men, I'm not all that impressed with Charles Xavier's school, honestly. It seems like exploration of mutant powers and their limits should be pretty high on the list, but I kept coming up with better ways they could use their powers. Educational Reform for Mutants Now. Isn't that something we could all get behind?

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