by Christopher Paslay
While teachers should work to make lessons interesting, schools must hold fast to academic rigor and fight to undo the negative effects violence is having on learning.
The Hunger Games, a film set in a future where the government selects a boy and girl from each district to fight to the death on live television, has been the number one film in America for over a month. The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 “for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images—all involving teens.”
Entertainment has come a long way over the past half-century. In 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho was released in theaters, America was a different place. One of the reasons Hitchcock decided to shoot Psycho in black-and-white was because he thought it would be too gory in color. Interestingly, the “goriest” part of the film was the famous shower scene, which involved no more than a man slashing through a shower curtain with a knife, a woman screaming and raising her hands to block the blows, and blood, which was actually Bosco’s chocolate syrup, gurgling down the drain. Nevertheless, the scene shocked and horrified millions of Americans, leaving some, such as my grandmother, outraged and speechless.
That was gore in 1960. Today gore is a bit different. Horror films in the 21st century are beyond graphic, prompting directors to employ special effects crews who can convincingly hack-off heads, explode torsos, drive power drills through chest cavities, and cut legs with chainsaws. In such cases, blood and guts are everywhere, orange-yellow leaking from oozing intestines and dark purple flowing from gushing arteries. If my grandmother were alive today, I wonder what she would think of all this? I wonder how she would react to seeing the movie Hostel, or any of the various Saw films?
Through television, film, Internet, video games, and music videos, students today have an ample opportunity to develop a high tolerance for violence, not just a tolerance for it, in fact, but a taste for it. It’s true. I hear my students talking about it all the time. Over the years, I’ve heard kids in my homeroom passionately discuss the scene in the film American History X where the skinhead makes the black guy bite down on the curb and then stomps on the back of his head, killing him (this, by the way, has become known in the urban lexicon as a curb stomp).
I’ve heard them brag about their prowess in the video game Grand Theft Auto, explaining how they pumped so many people full of holes with a semiautomatic weapon, leaving them to die in a puddle of blood. I’ve heard them proudly recite the lyrics to their favorite songs, either rap or metal or some hybrid of the two, songs with a message about shooting or killing someone or about back-slapping a bitch across the face because she didn’t act right. I’ve seen them huddle together in their desks and talk about the crazy Internet sites they visit, the ones that show actual footage of real war, real murder, real suicides.
In light of the violent culture of 21st-century America and young people’s fascination with it, how should educators proceed with education? How do teachers and schools compete with the adrenaline rush of blood and guts and death when it comes to classroom instruction? With so much distraction and desensitization, how do teachers get on a student’s radar?
Reading teachers have been fighting this battle for years. The further society pushes the envelope when it comes to violence, the more desensitized youth become. Lessons that were once spicy and provocative slowly become tame and fail to stimulate. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet is a perfect example. Ten years ago, my students sat captivated by the opening scene, which depicted a full-scale gun battle at a gas station between the Motagues and the Capulets. Today, when the film is shown to freshmen, too often they are less than enthused.
This lack of enthusiasm carries over to the literature in many public school textbooks. There’s only so much a teacher can do to make Henry David Thoreau’s 1848 essay “Civil Disobedience,” which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s 11th-grade curriculum, fun and interesting. There’s only so much a teacher can do to spice-up Ralph Waldo Emerson’s tedious 1841 essay “Self-Reliance.” There’s only so much a teacher can do to get 16–year-old inner-city teenagers excited about The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, even when they focus on the bloody fist fight between Douglas and Mr. Covey, the slave master. Teachers might spice up the reading by facilitating discussions about racism, dignity, and self-respect, but ultimately, because teachers need to give their lessons rigor and work on language and critical-thinking skills, students must read the story and analyze it through real, structured writing. And this is where many kids begin to tune out.
Group work may help and so might a more hands-on, project-based lesson. These instructional strategies can only get a teacher so far when it comes to literacy, however. Young people must be taught to come out of their comfort zones and accept the fact that academics isn’t going to pack the same adrenaline rush as the film The Hunger Games; to combat this problem, many schools across the area are making the young adult novel The Hunger Games part of the curriculum.
Teachers are there to inform, not necessarily to entertain. While teachers should work to make lessons interesting, schools must hold fast to academic rigor and fight to undo the negative effects violence is having on learning.