Freedom and Responsibility
In an old 1992 Isuzu Rodeo commercial, we can see a nerdy old, sweater vested, bespectacled, caricature of a teacher with a bow tie. He walks slowly and methodically between the rows of traditionally arranged desks in an elementary school classroom. Students are dutifully engaged in a coloring book activity. The teacher chants a directive of compliance – “stay within the lines”, followed by a propaganda based motivator designed to evoke compliance – “the lines are our friends”.
He chants this mantra, like a broken record, over and over, as if it were some hypnotic spell. We see a single redheaded girl incredibly focussed and engaged in the activity not because of, but in spite of of her teachers demands. However, the girl makes absolutely no attempt to comply. She wantonly, recklessly, demonically, purposefully crosses the lines in an expressionistic jubilation, a la Jackson Pollack. However, we can note by the rest of her drawing, that she’s capable of coloring well. We even see how this teacher’s mantra has somehow lingered in this girl’s subconscious memory years later, not as a directive that she embraces, but as a reverse barometer of action to be rebelled against repeatedly, throughout her life, as a raison de etre. Years later we see her transfer this anti-lesson into her driving. Though her expression is intended to look joyous and jubilant, it actually looks maniacal as she swings her Isuzu rodeo off the road and into the rough scrub brush of a southwestern desert, bouncing over rocks and swales and cacti.
Watch the commercial here.
The advertisement is obviously intended to be cute and humorous and sell Isuzus by pointing out their off road capabilities. But the educational metaphors and lessons in this short 30 second spot are many. There is the wanton disregard and destruction of the desert ecosystem. There is the horrific comic book stereotype of the nerdy, out of touch teacher that would make any of us cringe. This along with his broken record style, his disingenuous and dishonest attempt at persuasion, and his teacher centered controlling directive of a creative activity make it nearly offensive. There is even the unintended consequences of his lesson, and how it has been transferred from childhood experience to an adult, real world, application that seems disturbed. There is also the teacher’s obliviousness to the child’s performance and therefore needs, and his inability or unwillingness to offer feedback, direction, or corrective action to the child, thus reinforcing her unintended behaviors. But, what really sticks out as the overriding theme in this commercial, is the sticky problem of compliance in education and in life.
The lines are our friends…
There are times when parameters should be followed, and times when they may not. There are times when the following of rules and/or protocol are essential, even a matter of life and death, and times when they should be consciously and actively rebelled against. There are times when parameters are strict and specific, and times when there is room for infinite interpretations within the confines of the rules.
The questions become, how and why are rules established?
The bigger problem is that all of the answers to these questions are subjective. It’s difficult to find absolute agreement on any of them, in life or education. Educationally, however, we may hone in on the answers by considering what’s best for student development in the context of their own life, and as an active contributing member to their society.
Maybe we’re being unfair to the teacher.
It’s easy to mock the teacher in this ad, Isuzu wants us to because they want to emphasize individual freedom over compliance in order to sell their SUV. But maybe we’re being unfair to the teacher. Maybe he is a beloved memorable guy who’s presence in the classroom is intentionally goofy and ironic as a way of engaging his students. Maybe his repetitive commands are also intended a bit ironically, and is an attempt at a soothing focussing mantra during an individual activity. Maybe he isn’t offering feedback or corrective action to noncompliance, because that’s not the point. Perhaps the activity isn’t all that serious or intended for compliance. On the other hand, maybe it’s a summative assessment and it’s all about compliance. What we need to focus on is context and intention. Coloring in a coloring book doesn’t seem like much of an art lesson, unless of course the lesson is all about color palate and combinations. If it’s an experimental exercise, then it’s quite ingenious. If it’s a lesson about line drawing, then it’s absurd. Perhaps it’s an exercise for practicing fine motor skills or even a test of compliance itself. In any case, for the activity to be effective, the objective would need to be clearly established. Furthermore, any feedback or assessment would be dependent on the objective, and the students performance within that context. So is the redheaded girl artistic, a rebel, or a struggling student who has failed this activity? Is this student’s noncompliance something to be applauded or corrected? Why?
There are clues within the student herself. Her focus, which seems oblivious to her environment, is focussed on what she has chosen to do, without any regard for the instructions. It’s possible that it’s her own warped interpretation of the instructions, but it’s more likely that she is simply not complying. While this may be cute in the commercial, it actually raises concern in our culture. Consider how she chooses to transfer the lesson as an adult. She recklessly drives her Isuzu off of the highway that she’s on, and into the desert scrub. The concerns here are both cultural and educational. We live in a culture that overly romanticizes, even worships, freedom, rebellion, and non-compliance. Ads sell us products based on this principle. Novels, movies, television, entertain and engage us on this principle. Let me be clear, I am not a pollyanna rule follower. I am as rebellious as they come and live by the maxim that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. However our attitudes towards freedom, in life and in the classroom, have devolved from a sense of self-reliant and self-determined independence, into a puerile infantile selfish freedom that smacks of stupidity, dependence and irresponsibility. It is oblivious to cause and effect, consequences and consideration. It is selfish, solipsistic and self-indulgent. And it yields humans that are unworthy to be a part of a collective society. Lesson number one in my classroom is – with freedom comes responsibility and when you take on responsibility, you’ll acquire true freedom.
CO-FOUNDER & President
John Madden has been teaching for the past 18 years. He entered the field after working for a General Contracting and Engineering firm in the Greater Metropolitan area for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University. John’s work over the past 5 years specifically, as both a teacher and the Instructional Leader of the Humanities, has centered on the creation and maintenance of the Classic Academy. This program is designed to elicit and privilege the passions of its students, and culminates in a major presentation of public work. John resides in New Jersey.