HIGH SCHOOL, Directed by Fred Wiseman. Distributed by OSTI (264 Third Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
"Every teacher has bad moments and any director can select shots of these times and claim to have an objective film." With this comment, made within moments after viewing Fred Wiseman's High School, a guidance counselor lightly dismissed the significance of the 80 minute experience he had just been through.
High School is a documentary about life in a modern middle-class public secondary school. It is truly a documentary in that it neither makes use of professional actors nor of a narrator who might sonorously flood the viewer with his own interpretations. Mr. Wiseman has even resisted the temptation to include the hallmark of too many contemporary films, a dubbed-in folk guitar. The film consists of a series of short vignettes of high school teachers in action. These episodes cannot be dismissed as "bad moments." This reviewer has seen variations of the episodes occur with high frequency in high schools all over the country.
High School does, in one sense, portray an unrealistic image of today's schools. The film is interesting. It moves. Schools are dull. Time stagnates. Mr. Wiseman does hint at the boredom of formal education, but of course could not communicate this fully to the viewer without jeopardizing the success of his film. Someday a film maker should shoot a full 50 minutes of a single classroom lecture. Most of the audience would probably walk out. A privilege not granted to students.
Although High School is an interesting film, there is no laughter. You could laugh at the English teacher tediously plowing through a reading of Casey at the Bat. Her students are too kind to do so. You could laugh at the balding male teacher as he plays a policeman's role in checking hall passes and chasing students away from the pay phone in the hall. His students don't laugh (at least not in front of him) because he has too much power. Several of the teachers, such as the home economics teacher demonstrating how not to walk, attempt to be funny and you could laugh with them. You could, until you realize that the few students who are laughing are laughing at them, not with them. These teachers are pleading, "Watch me. Watch me." Few teenagers respect a clown. The most pathetic clown is the gynecologist performing in front of hundreds of boys in the auditorium. His presentation is primarily braggadocio about vaginas he has examined. If this is an example of enlightened sex education, then perhaps the critics are not completely groundless in their attacks
Other examples of sex education are equally disturbing. The female addressing the auditoriumful of girls enlightened them with the statement, "You don't pop pills in your mouth like candy." It is doubtful that she changed anyone's behavior with the questionable analogy that just as you have to control your urge to eat sweets because of danger of pimples, you have to learn to control your sexual urges. It is also doubtful that the gynecologist changed any of the boys' behavior with the puzzling truism, "Virginity is a state of mind," or with the specious data showing a straight-line relationship between frequency of premarital intercourse and divorce rate. Much to the credit of the students, it appeared that many of them had tuned out both of these "authorities."
The film gave this reviewer an unsettling feeling about the inconsistent treatment accorded to the students. In several episodes students were browbeaten and treated as if they were expected to unquestionably obey all directives from teachers. One administrative official told a student that regardless of the reasonableness of a teacher's command, the student must take these orders to show that he is a man. On the other hand, another student was castigated for her apparently harmless "messing around" because she ought to know how to make her own judgments about right and wrong behavior. When is a teenager supposed to act as a reasoning human being and when is he supposed to blindly follow orders? Being a high school student must be a very confusing task.
The treatment given these students makes one wonder at what point it is assumed that children change from objects into human beings. The incident of the overweight girl who was required to stand on a stage while the home economics teacher pointed out to the class how "the girl with the boy problems" should design her clothes and the incident of the mother and principal discussing the personality weaknesses of a young lady while she sat embarrassedly by, leads one to infer that educators believe that teenagers are not yet human.
How you will react to High School will depend on your prior mind set. You will almost certainly have some reaction. Let us hope it is not the reaction of a university student preparing to teach in a high school who said, "The trouble with that school is that the teachers are not strict enough. If they had more discipline, they wouldn't have problems." Is such an incomprehensible interpretation some indication that he will develop into the type of administrator shown in High School: a weak man that fulfills his need for power by subjugating young people? Is there no hope for the future?