In the midst of radical de-investment in education across all levels and a turn away from principles of liberal education toward increasingly profit-conscious institutional demands, we think it’s time to remember and celebrate the teachers that have captured and nurtured our imaginations.
Despite the supremacy of STEM in the political discourse around education funding, it is the humanities and the arts that occupy our ideas of what it means to have a good education. Our books and movies are populated by teachers whose interest in meaning, history, language, creativity and self-exploration have inspired us with interest in ourselves and the world. The stories we tell are rarely about the math and science teachers of our high school experience, but rather about the passionate, savvy, absent-minded, tweed-sporting humanists of our dreams. While STEM teachers are consistently represented as geniuses or nerds (occasionally both), they are rarely drawn as the custodians of meaning or soulfulness.
In our collective imagination, all English teachers are bright, unflappable salt-and-pepper types with elbow patches and the more profound passages from Shakespeare ever on their lips. Fortunately, this image of the stalwart humanist is as false as it was compelling to our teenage selves. Acro Collective is full of brilliant humanists that not only look very little like the traditional image of one, but are also far more interested in interrogating the zombie as metaphor than in exploring the Meaning of Life.
So below in handy list form we’ll classify the tropes that structure our ideas about humanities teachers from least to most believable. For those invested in semantic precision, you should be warned that we use “humanist” here in the broadest possible way.
7. Professorial Adventurer
Topping the list as the least believable academic to grace the halls of the Ivy League, we have the strikingly handsome and intrepid adventurer who takes breaks from globe-trotting artifact hunts to teach the occasional class before a bunch of fawning co-eds. Think Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code hero Robert Langdon who, though played by the unimposing Tom Hanks, is described in the novels as “Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed.”
Although Indiana Jones carries daddy issues, a fear of snakes and a cocky faith in his own handsome righteousness—honorable humanist pastimes if ever there were any—his pec muscles and capacity to throw a respectable punch put him far outside the spectrum of believable academics. Robert Langdon at first glance fares slightly better. Having invented the wholly fictional academic discipline of Symbology—a field that, as far as I can tell, consists of performing cursory close readings of canonical European art in an attempt to verify various conspiracy theories—he seems to be precisely the image of an academic humanist. But, like Indy, Langdon’s life contains altogether too much gunplay and not enough violent departmental politics to be a true portrait of an academic.
There are men who go on Nazi-punching adventures and there are men who catalog artifacts. These are not the same man, and if they were they would not have Harrison Ford’s jawline.
6. Messianic White Lady
Photo from citizenthymes.com
Without ancient magic or papal intrigue, the Messianic White Lady trope feels slightly more authentic than the Professorial Adventurer. She belongs to a genre of film dedicated to assuaging White Guilt by celebrating “choice” while also insisting that the choices of poor and non-white youth are by necessity in need of reform. “There are no victims in this classroom!” Michelle Pfeiffer proclaims to her students in Dangerous Minds when they remind her that she doesn’t understand the mechanisms of non-choice in their lives.
With nothing but a leather jacket and grit, these white ladies teach their students that rap is just poetry, that the color of your skin is just a cheap excuse for failure, that if you learn to appreciate the immortal language of more dead white dudes you will finally have transcended your circumstances.
What this trope fails to represent is that the awful conditions of schools without resources are deadening to both students and teachers, and that noble intentions and a blind insistence on the individuating pressures of “choice” cannot overcome decades of concerted effort to de-invest in poor black and brown students.
5. Magical Waifs
On the spectrum of benign white ladies, the Magical Waif stands at the opposite pole from the women you find in movies such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. Sweet-voiced and pure of heart, she is the nurturing custodian of childhood. Matilda’s Miss Honey and Jane Eyre’s Miss Temple, for example, usher their charges into young adulthood with grace and care. She is the daydream corrective for every child’s dawning awareness that the world is a brutal and sorry place.
Despite or perhaps because of her remarkable commitment to children, she is also a queer figure. Her gift is to build communities outside of the biological family and without hetero sex or reproduction. As the product of a prepubescent imagination, she exists without desire as a figure of pure maternal offering.
Her saccharine charm is a palliative to the narcissistic child in us all, but for my money, Miss Trunchbull is a far more compelling figure for the beleaguered adult imagination.
4. Tweed with Passion
Do you remember that moment in high school when you read Walden and realized, perhaps for the first time, that you were an individual whose beautiful and unique essence was under siege by the homogenizing pressures of Society? Do you remember the first time an author’s language seemed vital and alive, and you felt as if the words of a long-dead writer spoke directly to your experience, as if you were the intended recipient?
That moment produced Robin Williams’s performance in Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating speaks directly to the teenage soul for whom authenticity and individuality seem like radical gambits and the repression experienced by a bunch of mid-century prep schoolers feels like a vital problem.
It’s hard not to be charmed by this trope. Being told that the aesthetic experience of beautiful language is a viable substitute for political action is enticing, especially to my teenage self who liked to believe that the individual was the most powerful avatar of freedom. We all want that teacher who told us that standing on desks and reading poetry in the middle of the woods is the best way to overthrow institutional authority.
Carpe Diem, motherfuckers.
3. Hot Teacher
Troped most extensively in porn and gross-out comedies featuring teenage boys, the hot teacher/librarian who introduces the pubescent boy to lust is standard fare. She wears pencil skirts and horn-rimmed glasses and chews beguilingly on the end of her pencil when she talks.
J.Lo.’s Claire in The Boy Next Door is a funhouse mirror version of this trope in which her sex appeal becomes horrific rather than joyfully provocative. Though her understanding of first editions is sadly flawed, her version of foreplay consists of quoting The Illiad with young men whose identification with Achilles does not seem to terrify her in the slightest.
Though I suspect rare in most high school experiences, Hot Teacher is mid-list because we’ve all known the embarrassment of crushing on the smart, older authority figure in school.
2. Sensitive Liberal Arts Guy
Photo from The Lyceum Theatre
Here we have Hot Teacher’s masculine counterpart: Sensitive Liberal Arts Guy. We’ve all met SLAG—many of us have dated him. He identifies vocally as a feminist, he has a beard, and he likes earnest conversations about Sartre, tea infusion, and his favorite bars when he went to college “in Boston” (not Tufts).
He may or may not have an affair with a sophomore in his Introduction to Western Philosophy class. This relationship will make him feel authentic and remind him there is joy outside of his own jaded ennui, and somebody—probably Woody Allen—will make a movie about him. He will be played by Josh Radnor or Hugh Grant.
By all rights, he probably deserves to be number one on this list, but I’d rather not end on a depressing note.
1. Miss Geist and Mr. Hall
It is possibly the sticky sweetness of my nostalgia talking, but I think Clueless’s Miss Geist and Mr. Hall are precious and relatively authentic images of high school humanists. Mr. Hall is jaded and curmudgeonly and Miss Geist is impassioned and adorably frumpy. Neither are profoundly effective educators, but both inspire the kind of affection in their students reserved for the hopelessly unhip.
Miss Geist’s enthusiasm does not arouse her students to desk-jumping passion, but rather reminds the selfish and self-involved Cher to look momentarily beyond herself. Mr. Hall’s snarky indifference does not belie a serious intellect, but simply represents a man coming to terms with his own mediocrity. Their romance is not brilliant and unlike many of the other figures on this list they are regular looking people whose sex appeal is totally lost on their students.
To them teaching is a day job that can’t afford them nice clothes, and nothing seems more true to a humanities teacher than that.
Sybill Trelawney (Harry Potter), who reminds me remarkably of one of my high school English teachers.
Mary Albright (3rd Rock From the Sun), whose mediocre scholarship and need to share an office with an obnoxious goon because of sexism rings profoundly true.