Thursday, June 16, 2005

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

(long entry, I know it's not good blogging etiquette, and I understand if you want to stay in your naive little world where Maria Von Trapp is a heroine). Yes, I'm following the trend of naming posts after lines from songs in The Sound of Music

Lately, I can't watch The Sound of Music without feeling uncomfortable, and annoyed. I can't think of a scene that I think works--bad acting, bad writing, whatever. Much of this, of course, is because it is a musical, and few things (among them perhaps wicked special effects) kill good acting like knowing that whatever dialogue is currently happening is going to develop into a song in the next minute or two. The same principle applies in real life as well.

But I want to focus on the heart of what offends me: Maria as educator. As a foil against this, I have become more and more impressed with Dewey Finn (Jack Black's character) in School of Rock. So I want to contrast these two models of educators. Many of my thoughts could be viewed as simply a preference for a contemporary model educator (one who guides learners as they construct and produce vs. one who instructs learners what to do) only Dewey Finn is unique even for model teachers in recent movies (see for example Coach Carter, Dead Poet's Society, and Lean on Me)

The scene that tips it for me is after the goat-herd puppet show. Maria has been the lead voice, and has been shouting directions to the Von Trapp kids, which they follow, and they put on a good show. After it is complete, the kids have left and the Captain, Max, and the Baroness remain and the Captain (Georg) says something like "That was great work Fne. Maria!" And Maria responds, "They're your children!" Gabby pointed out that this scene can be disturbing, but she completely rejects my further claims. So I thank her for opening this up, but she shouldn't be lumped in to the rapidly growing group of people that watch Sound of Music and School of Rock this way--but I hope and pray she will some day.

What is disturbing about this scene? The most basic is the false self-effacing (What?! You're congratulating ME?! I had hardly anything to do with this!! They were YOUR children captain, I simply supported their enthusiastic creativity!) The other contributing factors are just what was the back-drop for this false self-effacing: For starters, she had the lead role, no? It seems clear, or is at least suggested that she choreographed--produced--the production. The focus moments for the performers were Maria coughing from the foam-a-float, and Maria directing Gretel (?) to move the castle-mote person, and the new backdrop. Maria is the heart and engine of the effort. In an important and disturbing sense, the children are acting as Maria's puppets. I see the same features in her teaching "Doe, a deer" and music and singing in general--Maria is the center, do as she says and you will be beautiful. Even in the scene after they return from their outing, and the children are singing (without Maria) to the Baroness, Georg comes in and Maria waits by the side and motions to give the flower to the Baroness. This motion to deliver the flower says to me that Maria is still running the show. The children are doing as she has instructed them.

Some disclaimers: Of course what the children do under her teaching is impressive. They seem happier, they are obviously better singers, and they are in general more relaxed (but they didn't really have a direction to go except more relaxed, right?)

Now contrast Dewey Finn: The moment for me in the movie is when Dewey is playing the song Zach wrote with the kids ("...Maybe we were making straight As"), then steps back and watches the kids play. Even the words to the song seem to cut against Maria and her mis-guided teaching approach: "don't take much to memorize your lies...feel like I've been hypnotized". At this moment, Dewey is struck, and surprised, and he is transformed. The show is no longer about Dewey winning battle of the bands, it is about putting on a rockin' show. Dewey still plays a unique and important role, he is still a teacher--he knows more about rock-n-roll, and what goes into a rockin' show than the students, but it is now their production as much as it is his. After this epiphany, he asks if he can come in with a guitar solo. On the surface, this may appear that he is taking the center back from the students, but it is not like that at all. This request is the biggest compliment he can give--he shows that he takes these students seriously, he has been inspired by the music that they wrote, he asks if he can do the solo because he feels one coming on from their music. Contrast this with Maria directing to deliver the flower to the Baroness.

After the show, the principal congratulates Dewey, and he doesn't give some lame "They're your students!" He responds with something like: "Yeah, that was a rockin' show!" Not taking nor avoiding (un)due credit.

A few brief contrasts:

On initial thoughts and intents:
Maria: "I have confidence in me!" she is going to influence for good these kids.
Dewey: "Could I maybe get out a little early? I got some stuff I gotta do." He is not seeking to influence or be influenced. He is open and naive to the situation.

On setting the agenda:
Maria: After the kids have played some pranks (one could think to have fun) she guilts them into crying. They can have fun, and a lot of it, she shows them, if they do it on her terms: On her bed, in her clothes, with her songs. I get the sense that whichever students were there, Maria would give the same instruction.
Dewey: After he hears them rehearsing for their classical orchestra, he starts talking about making a rock band. This is all self-serving for Dewey, but at least it is in response to the students. They bring something to the table, they are each accomplished musicians. Had Dewey not heard them, he would not have recruited them for the band--he would have stuck with the fliers on light-posts

On original teaching approach:
Maria: Let's start at the very beginning...She teaches, and the students follow her instruction.
Dewey: At first, Dewey does the same sort of thing as Maria (do this! Now raise your goblet of rock!), he teaches and the students follow his instruction.

On their eventual teaching approach:
Maria: She is a static teacher. She does not change. She is the source of truth, knowledge, and wisdom. The students and family transform to accomodate her, but she sings in the hills to begin, and sings in the hills at the end.
Dewey: He is a dynamic teacher. He is transformed by the students. The students are also transformed and these transformations take place at the same time. They come to understand each other better.

Overall, School of Rock is much more hard-core and rockin'.


  1. you write too long
    and you are insane
    (but so am I )

  2. Wow, I'm not sure what I am more surprised with, how long a blog this is, or that I actually read it all. I think the world needs both Maria and Dewey to balance each other out. Imagine middle school with 7 periods of Dewey Finn. Too much for me.

  3. I'm sorry. I had to take a nap during the middle of this and sort of lost the direction of the thing. But I'd like to point out that I played Franz in SOM at Tuacahn.

  4. Good contrast Ben. I see the same contrast in parenting techniques. This is why I have such a problem with the majority of parenting books. They all seem to be about basically bending the will of the child to conform to the parents ideas (ala' Maria). I support a more Dewey Finn approach. I'm impressed with how you and Gabby parent (much more like Dewey Finn than Maria).

  5. Frankly, I wish this post were longer and, frankly, I would take an Almond Joy over a Baby Ruth any day and, frankly, I named my own son Benjamin because I just like saying "benjerbomboom."

    When it comes to Dewey Finn posts I raise my goblet to the gods of rock and say, "The longer the better."

  6. Dear David, Salem, and Steve:

    Sorry. Was that too long? I'm so sorry.

    Salem: Yeah, in a similar vein, the world needs both Satan and Jesus, so you are right. Actually, what does Maria do that Dewey's approach couldn't? Maybe you are taking the wild Dewey Finn--the pre-transformed Dewey Finn as the model for what I'm saying?

    I agree that we shouldn't learn Rock and Roll for every period, but I think a good school could base every class on the approach of Dewey Finn, that is responding to students, helping them develop their work to closer resemble the work of more experienced craftsmen.

    If your response is to my portrayal of Maria and Dewey, you are arguing that schools need both static teachers that are insincere control freaks and dynamic teachers that are changed (or 'touched' as Dewey says) in the process of teaching by the students. Maybe its not realistic to hope for a school with only teachers that follow Dewey's approach. But I don't think it is necessary to have both. Keep in mind, Dewey's students achieve as much or more discipline, expertise, real-world awareness, etc. than Maria's.

  7. Erin: Parenting books are the extreme, it's enough to make me sick. One thing that I struggle with in New York is the prevalent Maria parenting techniques, and the eagerness parents feel to push such techniques on other people's children. On the one hand, we talk about how great childhood is, on the other hand, childhood, and most of its characteristic activities, are shunned, and repressed. The ideal child is the most reverent, i.e. quiet, i.e. least child-like.

    I love how you teach piano, that kids start composing and playing around with piano and music from the get-go. I wish I would have had you as a teacher.

    Kacy: Amen. It's fans like you that motivate me to write longer, and longer entries. Stay tuned! I am thrilled that you call your son Benjerbomboom, it makes for a real powerhouse leader mentality.

    On Baby Ruth's: Whenever I reflect on Baby Ruths, the word that keeps coming up is: stale.

  8. Interesting contrast. The rock pupils were part of a free society. The Van Trapp children were living under a Nazi regime. As was Maria. As far as she knew, what was most effective was to convince the masses that she was their salvation. This could be done with large posters, giant parades, and mandating salutes to herself from the children over whom she was appointed dictator.

    It was what the children needed as well. Your ideal approach was that of the previous nannies who had all left running with their tails between their legs. Had Maria given the children ownership of that production, we would have a much different story.

    It is not hard to imagine the chaos that would have taken place. By the end of the show, Grettel would have been in tears; Bidgette and Hansel would both be bruised and bloodied from fighting over the goat puppets; Ingrid would have been soaked from the waist down while standing over a puddle of urine; Eva would have left in a rage and spent most of the performance in her room; Gunter would have set fire to the curtains; and Lisa would, no doubt, have slipped out back during the commotion for a little fun which would surely have resulter in her being knocked up by her 17-year-old Hitler's Youth friend, Fritz, who would later have demanded she get an abortion or he would have her sent to a concentration camp. Like the Law of Moses for the wandering Israelites, she was the right person at the right time with the right methodology for these children.

    The real question is, what was Austria doing with a Navy? What kind of vessel did this Van Trapp character command? Was he in charge of a canoe which cruised up and down the Danube trying to keep people from escaping to Swizerland? No wonder these people lost two world wars in a row.

  9. Anonymous4:10 PM

    ben--cynthia, here. you are hysterical. you may not know that jack black is one of my favorite people ( as long as you don't play any tenacious d for your children). i loved the dewey/maria comparison. you are so weird, in the best and coolest sense of the word. i love it! don't go changin'!