Teaching standards and Hollywood

Yesterday, we watched Valentine’s Day (2010). Besides being disappointed that David Boreanaz was nowhere to be found, I found it to be passably entertaining but too crowded with characters for my tastes.

One of the characters is an elementary school teacher, played by Jennifer Garner. One of the scenes involved the “history” of Valentine’s Day. Miss Fitzpatrick relates the story of Claudius II the Cruel banning marriage to keep men available for the army, and St. Valentine being beheaded for illegally marrying women.

In the movie, this is presented as factual history, as it is on many Catholic websites. Note that WhatHeSaid.com uses the words “history” and “sources”, but links to an article on Bayside Patch, which tucks in the words “according to legend.” In turn, Bayside Patch links to the History Channel, which clearly states “one legend contends” at the front of the paragraph.

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the story of Claudius and Valentine is a matter of historical fact. As far as secular historians, though… not so much. It’s a legend. Which means: Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. This is not a trivial distinction.

As a hopeful future teacher, I was bothered by this scene because it reminded me of the expectations that we as a culture hold our teachers to. Perhaps by now some of you reading this have thought, “Big deal, it’s elementary school, it’s a cute holiday story.” Yes, it’s a cute holiday story. I’m not even bothered that it was a legend created by the Catholic church, since I’m just as bothered when teachers present the utterly secular (albeit drippingly moralistic) cherry tree story as historical fact instead of apocryphal myth.

I understand that children may not understand the difference between legend and fact, and so dwelling on the distinction might be frustrating and fruitless. But how long, really, does it take to say, “Well, according to legend…”? Would the scene in question have really been changed for the worse for the audience if she’d started, “How did Valentine’s Day start? Well, nobody knows for sure, but some people believe…”? It wouldn’t have taken any more screen time, it would have depicted her as an elementary school teacher who actually cares about the history/legend distinction, and it wouldn’t have strained the brains of the fictional children any.

There’s a current drive in pedagogy, particularly urban pedagogy, of holding children to high standards. But we also need to hold teachers to high standards. Yes, the movie was fiction, but realistic fiction communicates expectations on reality.  And, at least in this movie’s expectations, elementary school teachers are expected to tell entertaining stories to children as if they’re historical fact, reality be darned.

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