Gunning Down the Dream

My students and I had such interesting talks yesterday about Nathan Heller’s meditation on the career of Natalie Portman, especially as it’s illuminated by Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne’s monster 1995 essay “Culture as Disabiity.” Why are we (or at least Heller) uncomfortable with Portman’s maintenance of so many identities, so many role positions? Is she really a striver, an organization kid – or as med schools would call it, a “gunner”? All ambition, without an ability to close any of her options by committing fully to one of them? And how is the culture disturbed by her generation’s holding off on those commitments until later, refusing to slot into an identifiable role so we all know what to do with her?

Of course, there are good reasons for Natalie ‘s – and my students’ – decision not to pull the trigger too quickly on a life’s path. The staggeringly few entry-level opportunities available, coupled with their own judgment of what their parents’ earlier commitments got them, add up to different sums than my generation got. It is easy to romanticize pushing back against your parents’ choices – to take James Dean’s side against his square father and go make out with Natalie Wood instead – but still, they have a point. Plus there’s all that talk about the new skills and dispositions our new information and collaboration-rich world requires, and how different they are from what is taught in school (here’s one that people keep talking about, and then this video that’s been forwarded to me more times than I count).

But these are both counterculture samizdat that contradict the official line on what education should be these days. The rhetoric of striving and achieving in measurable, predictable ways is at the core of Race to the Top as surely as it was No Child Left Behind, and even with all the chatter few are noting the disconnect between only counting what can be counted and cultivating dispositions of curiosity, cleverness, imagination, etc. Good old John Dewey even got into the mix this week. As many students noted, if education is in fact “a process of living and not a preparation for future living,” then best preparation for the future is about these harder to measure capacities: capacity to engage, to attend, to be interested, to follow one’s heart.

And an important part of acheiving those outcomes is supporting students as they find their way to what most matters to them. “I tend to run toward things I don’t understand,” Paul Haggis notes this week in his confessional of a lifetime with the Scientologists. It’s a heartbreaking story, and perhaps in hindsight he wishes he had not run so hard toward that goal. But respecting his core curiosity – the willingness to keep looking – is at the heart of what we do, even if it sometimes leads down strange paths.

I wonder, then, if we can’t recognize Portman’s diffuse ambition as a very desirable outcome of our educational work. When so many opportunities are more available than they have been historically, shouldn’t our students be more willing to explore more byways than we were, precisely because they can? Are they willing to give up “all their father’s golden factories, just to see who in the world they might be?” Nice work if you can get it, as a past generation dismissed their kids’ dilettantism. Maybe our students are the first generation who CAN get it, and we should stop scolding them for trying.

Heller gives Portman a grudging respect at the end, wishing that the role-cementing he predicts will come from an Oscar win weren’t inevitable. But McDermott and Varenne say he’s wrong: we all need her to settle on what she is, because the maintenance of the culture’s roles depends on it. Only wholescale role change will make things otherwise. And while the opportunities to make such changes are unequally distributed (that’s next week’s class), still: should we not support our students in making the most change they can?

What do you think?

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