On Yay Math's newsletter community, I asked our friends to watch the film Captain Fantastic. If you haven't seen the movie, I suggest that you stop reading at the end of this paragraph, watch the movie when you can, then return here and read my thoughts on it. To all our wonderful Yay Mathers, you're always invited to reach out to me directly (sign up for our blog at the bottom of the site) so that I can learn of your thoughts on the film as well.
What stands out about this movie is that it brings into focus an unanswered question that has been lurking in my subconscious for years now. That question, which I'm in the process of incrementally answering every day of my life, is "What IS education, really?" Even the most hard-core loyalists to our institutions would concede that a complete education reaches far beyond scholastic aptitude. No one is discounting the deep importance of schooling. But for those of us working within schools, we live by an unspoken parallel reality.
That reality is our loving wish to shield our students from becoming engulfed by those very institutions they participate in. As teachers, we spend so much unscripted time explaining to students that they are not their SAT score, nor their GPA. We commiserate with them about overload, knowing that inundating young minds with an interminable barrage of to-do's reduces play and family time, and increases anxiety and helplessness. I'm all for working hard and having responsibilities, but within reason. Thus within the system we find ourselves in, we constantly work to keep our students' spirits separate from the system.
Then this movie comes along, and puts forth one vision of what a complete education could look like. The father, played by Viggo Mortensen, demonstrates so many qualities I aspire to, both as a father and as a teacher. First of all, he always answers his kids' questions. He honors their curiosity by giving them complete and well-thought out responses. Next, he creates an environment in which his kids must reflect deeply about what they believe in, and then articulate their thoughts to completion.
The scene in the bus when his daughter speaks about her current book stands out in particular. At first, she describes the book as "interesting," to which all the kids on the bus immediately jump down her throat, reminding her that the vague word "interesting" isn't permitted within their discourse. So she reflects for a bit, and then is able to describe her true feelings of the book, using more poignant words such as "disturbing." She goes on to explain her love/hate feelings for the main character – how she hates him, but simultaneously feels pity for him. When she completes her explanation, we in the audience see her dad smiling in the rearview mirror, satisfied that his daughter successfully captures nuance and context.
Another quality that Mortensen's character displays during the movie, which is by far my favorite, is how he simply allows his kids to experience every flavor of life's emotions, without his impeding, filtering, or shielding them at all. When he tells his kids about their mother's death, his son Rellian erupts, and in a fit of rage and profanity, brandishes a military-grade knife right at his dad. But dad stands there in silence, even when it seems possible that Rellian would plunge the knife into his dad's gut, merely inches away. Yet dad just stands there, watching him calmly, keeping his body available, not backing away, thereby just letting his son go through it. Then when Rellian snaps and repeatedly stabs a cabinet nearby in fury, dad and the siblings again do and say nothing. They just let him do whatever he needs to do.
I'm mesmerized by that concept: just letting young people experience their emotions in full color and volume. The age of technology, I and many argue, is responsible for robbing us of having even a fleeting moment of unadulterated human emotion. The tech has become a crutch for just about every emotion, positive and negative. Bored? Take your phone out. Excited? Take your phone out. Restless? Take your phone out. Lonely? Take your phone out. The scene where Rellian gets to lose himself in rage and despair, effectively letting that demon pass through him, is a reminder that the human condition not only equips us to express such behavior, it demands that we express it, in order for us to become fully aware of who we are and where we are heading.
My only qualm about this movie would have to be its watered down ending. In an apparent attempt to come full-circle and create balance, the audience sees how the family now lives in a house, and that the kids attend a traditional school. The original spirit of the movie is a deep-dive into the possibilities of taking education into our own hands. Such a drastic shift away from that spirit undermines the film's basic premise. Perhaps they could have lived in a house, sure, but then continue their "training" out back, in the woods just as before. Addressing the extreme lifestyle they had is an important aspect of the film, but it could have been done while still honoring those parts of their lives that were already transcendent. This type of reckoning was actually done successfully earlier on, when they decided that the oldest son, Bodevan, could only progress on his life's journey by trekking out to the world on his own.
Other answers to "What IS education, really?" come in the forms of physical education, connection to nature, meditation, self-defense, and an ever-present readiness to advocate for personal freedoms, whether or not such freedoms are socially or legally acceptable. The film does a sensational job depicting all these forms of valuable learning, and as an educator, it has made an indelible mark on me.
What do you think of the film? As fellow partners in education, do you extract messages speak towards your values? Or against them perhaps? I look forward to learning what you have to say.
Photo courtesy Bleecker Street Media