The mind of one freethinker can possess a million ideas, the minds of a million fanatics can be possessed by a single idea: — Anon.
Interviewed on UK Television the director and former Monty Python Flying Circus member Terry Gilliam said he did not like anything among the recent output from Hollywood. While this made a refreshing change from the usual sycophantic, self regarding babble we hear from Hollywood people, Gilliam’s point was had a wider significance that a mere comment on recent movie releases.
“I don’t know what they are about,” he complained, “there is a car chase, a few fights, a threat to civilisation and the hero saves the world.” Continuing to critique the formulaic Hollywood blockbuster genre Gilliam said films, books and plays ought to be about ideas.
His own work has never been short of ideas, the vision future society portrayed in “Brazil” made in 1985 and now hailed as “prescient” due to so many of its depictions of social breakdown having become reality, is a fine example of how his films tackle abstract themes that ought to be difficult to bring to the screen even for directors with Hollywood blockbuster sized SFX budgets to play with. Gilliam manages to pull off such unlikely fantasies as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys or Baron Munchausen and the more recent extravaganza The Imaginarium of Dr.Parnassus on much smaller budgets simply because he understands the philosophical notions his works are vehicles for. Realism and authenticity go out of the window but the images communicate the essence at the heart of surreal fantasies successfully.
If novelist Franz Kafka had been an animator and film director and perhaps a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus he might have made films like those of Terry Gilliam. Brazil depicts the kind of outrageously dystopian satire one could easily imagine Kafka creating. Time and again Gilliam captures visually the paranoid-subversive spirit of Kafka’s The Trial in this nightmare-comedy about a meek government clerk named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in a bureaucratic dictatorship, whose life is destroyed by a simple bug. Not a software bug but a real bug of the same genre perhaps as Kafka’s Metamorphosis insect, that gets squashed in a printer and causes a typographical error unjustly identifying an innocent citizen, one Mr Buttle, as suspected terrorist Harry Tuttle (Robert Di Niro).
When Sam becomes involved in unravelling this bureaucratic tangle, he himself winds up labelled as a criminal. The movie presents such an unrelentingly imaginative and savage vision of late 20th-century bureaucracy and it’s implacable demands and for conformity and total compliance with myriad trivial and pointless rules and regulations that it almost became a victim of bureaucratically minded studio management itself, until Gilliam surreptitiously screened his cut for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, who named it the best movie of 1985 and thus coerced Universal into releasing it.
But how did Gilliam learn to make such movies? Surely he must have attended some very special school or perhaps at art college been a student of somebody who studied under Salvador Dali or Luis Bunuel. Actually no, he had a standard renaissance education based on the same model as Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, JMW Turner, Ludwig van Beethoven and Thomas Edison. Sometimes known misleadingly (but accurately) as the liberal arts education this model curriculum aims to provide a broad grounding in language, mathematics, natural sciences and culture that will equip the pupil to pursue a variety of interests in later life. The aim of this education method is to produce well rounded individuals by encouraging pupils to learn by themselves rather that force feeding a diet of dry facts and forcing curious, lively young minds to specialise at far too early a stage in their development.
One of the reasons why education has “dumbed down so much over recent decades is that the shroud of a giant central bureaucracy rests heavily on the minds of pupils and teachers alike, imposing dull conformity, obsessing over targets, statistics and league tables instead of teaching.
As an information technology manager I used to notice the marked difference between young people who came to us from private schools or areas in which the local authority had retained some independence and still operated a selection at eleven policy, and those from areas whose schools operated the standard state education curriculum. Sending the pupils with a more abstract mindset (not necessarily the brightest ones,) into a system in which they would receive that broad education and benefit from it, seemed to work. The people who came from private schools were gobby, confident, sometimes a pain in the arse, the ones from select schools were confident but not as arrogant and often were in love with learning, glad of the privilege of being able to ask experts in a field about developing software, managing data and operating networks in my department, in others about engineering, business administration, design, research and development and a range range far beyond the designated field of practical inquiry governed by the the need to pass an impending test.
The ordinary state school pupils were more usually sullen, resentful, liable to go missing for whole days, and at first generally disinterested. Many changed once out of the full — time education environment, largely because when they asked why they must do something, it would be explained rather than their being told, “Because the curriculum says you must.”
Now defenders of the state system might say that the pupils I found rewarding enjoyed comfortable homes and a high standard of living provided by affluent parents at all times, had access to books and the Internet, and benefited from the latest technology to assist them in pursuing their studies.
At the same time those from poor homes had heard left wing politicians talking about how the system was failing people in poor areas, how much more money needed to be spent on schools, and all the usual excuses for the failure of progressive education. Eventually the old mantra of the left satirised by Steven Sondheim in West Side Story with the line “I’m depraved because I’m deprived,” became reality.
But did the children from poorer homes not feel an even greater incentive to learn and so increase their chances of getting out of the poverty trap. Alas it was not so. They had no introduction to stimulating ideas you see, their education, with it’s heavy emphasis on , equal rights, social justice and other irrelevancies had inculcated dependency on the state and the authorities. It had been drummed into them that individual enterprise was somehow to be frowned on. They had learned we are not being fair and egalitarian if we have ambition.
Another thing I noted, to get back to Terry Gilliam’s point is that in their literary studies, the privately educated pupils had been introduced to the classics, were familiar with Chaucer and Milton, could discuss religions and ethics critically and usually had an understanding of our intellectual history, incorporating the wisdom and intelligence of the larger culture that ultimately sustains us, the world in which we live and which so many are encouraged to take for granted. This caveat applies to members of the teaching profession which has largely surrendered to the idiotic notion of student “empowerment” and other politically correct notions as a way of maintaining the status quo. By failing to teach ways of learning so that rather than being the stock — in trade of the education system, learning becomes a lifelong process and pupils continue to develop as individuals after leaving full time education. As the brilliant Frank Zappa once said, “If you want to get laid, go to college; if you want an education go to the library.
As well as upholding a system that is simultaneously busy undermining social structures, personal independence, intellectual rigor, and the quest for determinate truth, pedagogical rationale inculcated by teachers and lecturers is passed off as “social justice” and “postmodern indeterminacy,” but is really encouraging solipsism. Academics who advise government on education policy tend to be regarded as “experts in the field,” but as Primo Levi said in The Monkey’s Wrench,’ “I never saw an expert who was any good.”
It is worth mentioning that the set reading on the school literature curriculum now shows a strong left wing bias. Novels about racism, trade union struggles against the evils of capitalism, turgid feminist tomes, books about disability and a whole library of stories about poverty and oppression abound. There is nothing there to present a broader picture of human life, to suggest that other points of view may be valid.
Educationalists, and the teachers lower down the pecking order do not understand the private education sector cannot provide enough highly educated people to keep a modern society running not can those people contribute enough in taxes to support the great uneducated mass who have been given only one idea, that they should never have to do anything they do not want to do, to steer them through life.
The bond between teacher and student has completely unravelled. The unwritten covenant between the participants in the noble game of intellectual discourse has been superseded by a mutual understanding that the life of a “disadvantaged person” should by right be based on the instant gratification of impulses and that to try to offer another way based on self discipline and personal responsibility is a violation of human rights. The teacher has to assume the role of surrogate parent, counsellor, therapist and nursemaid to classes of unwilling, disruptive and easily distracted who “know their rights” but little else.
This malaise extends into the university system. Few graduates emerge without having their heads fill with Marxism — lite ideology while employers are complaining that degree studies are so dumbed down they no longer offer an advantage in the jobs market. With occupations such as writing, acting or film making now being degree entry professions is it any wonder Terry Gilliam complains of a dearth of ideas. Experience has been replaced by indoctrination. What we are seeing is the paranoia of the new elite in action. Having emerged as a new social class the managerial and public sector professions now fear losing the control they have established. Knowing their ancestors struggled out of poverty and drudgery only two or three generations ago they now fear the descendants of those who were left behind.
As technology puts the squeeze on skilled jobs and globalisation means the labouring classes are priced out of the market, the professional and managerial classes are eliminating the competition through supporting state education policies that dumb down the children of those who cannot afford to go private. In the 1950s and 60s, when I was growing up, there was far more social mobility, more opportunity for people from the lower levels of society to improve their lot, than there is now, in spite of all the politically correct blabber about fairness and equality. And ideas were traded freely, developed, personalised and cherished.