Off to See the Wizard (Again)

The concept of “deep learning” is very big these days in critiques of our educational system. Some argue (and I for one agree) that our voluminous public school state-mandated curriculum requirements are in fact too broad, and don’t give students the opportunity to go in depth into particular areas of interest. The argument continues that immersing oneself in the details of a particular area of great interest inspires a person to “learn how to learn”. Outside the context of something really interesting to sink ones teeth into, learning to research a topic in a library or on the Internet can be a dry and boring exercise, and inhibit or retard the development of a very critical skill.

Anyway… when our son Eric was four or five, we bought him a VHS cassette of the movie “The Wizard of Oz”, starring Judy Garland, and featuring Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, and the rest of the stellar cast. As anticipated, Eric was quietly glued to the screen the first time through watching this cinema classic. What we had not anticipated, was that he would want to watch the movie over and over again. I’m tempted to say a hundred times (though I tend to exaggerate), but definitely many, many times.

It is certainly a timeless and metaphorically powerful story. Dorothy, the naive but determined young woman, separated from her family and her entire world by a cataclysmic storm, journeys and survives various ordeals to find her way home. Along the way she befriends and allies with others seeking that missing part of them that would make them complete. They each are powerful archetypes.

* The resourceful and perceptive scarecrow, who is stigmatized because he has no actual brain

* The tinman, so kind and gentle, yet with a hole in his chest where the heart should be

* The cowardly lion, who unlike the prior two is pretty cowardly, but rises above his fear to help Dorothy

* Finally the seemingly awesome wizard that in reality is only the old man behind the curtain (from my feminist slant, a profound critique of patriarchy)

Then there are all the horrendous cataclysms that are still burned in my brain from my own youth watching this movie. I recall it was shown once a year when I was a kid, just often enough to rekindle the terror of the snaking tornado, Elmira Gultch on her bicycle turning into the witch, later the witch’s purple smoke entrance to Munchkin-land and final “meltdown”, and then those god-awful flying monkeys. I still today have a phobia of large flying insects and bats.

This is a story well beyond the narrative scope and metaphorical punch of talking choo-choo trains or purple dinosaurs, and our son Eric digested every bit of it. And I must say, the many times I sat with him and watched it, I never tired of its iconic scenes and those classic lines, including…

* “Follow the yellow brick road”

* “…and your little dog too”

* “Toto too”

* “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”

* “What a world… what a world… where a little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness”

* “There’s no place like home”

Without having been introduced to the concept yet, what I believe I was witnessing there in front of the VCR and TV set was a kid’s “deep learning”. Taking all the necessary time to process every profound bit of this narrative masterpiece. Finding something of ones own limitations and longings in each of the compelling characters. Watching it over and over as long as there was something more to be gleaned.

Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School, and an advocate for greater youth agency, argues that starting at about age four, kids are able to start taking responsibility for their actions and charting their own course, including the course of their own learning. Thus the school he and others founded has an enriched learning environment but no curriculum other than what the students (ages 5 to 19) decide for themselves.

But our son Eric would not have the opportunity for that sort of school experience. Instead he attended schools where there was a very extensive external curriculum, which many progressive educators argue is so broad that it makes it difficult or even impossible to do any learning in depth. Eric found this approach to education, in his own words, “Boring and pointless”. What he wanted to do is to dig deep into something compelling (to him) and find the profound and possibly universal truth there that might be applicable to all aspects of life, to honor an inner compass rather than rely on others’ sense of direction.

Eric would later find that “deep learning” experience, on the Internet, outside of school, plunging into the world of designing, inhabiting and facilitating multi-player, on-line role-playing games. Collaborating with friends (some he knew in the “real world” and others he knew only through the role-playing world) to create a virtual fantasy world with its own context of history and character narratives.

So back to the subject of those movies you can see over and over again. Part of it, the “deep learning” part, is getting some new insight from each viewing, but another part I have to admit, is just relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the familiar, the memorized scene beautifully wrought, the compelling characters in action and the satisfying ending which confirms things that are good about life and the human condition.

What did this movie mean to Eric’s development? Maybe I should ask him that question directly. Maybe he has a specific thought on that. My thought is that in the characters particularly of the scarecrow and the tinman were two models of male-type people that Eric could (and maybe did) emulate – resourceful and gentle, honest and humble, not the least bit macho or ego involved. Entities learning to be comfortable with who they were, whether stuffed with straw or encased in metal, and learning to make a difference by assisting others. Maybe also it whet his appetite for fantasy and the stories one could weave in a fanciful world of ones own creation.

There would be other movies along the way that would play a similar role in our kids’ developmental process, some more unlikely than the consensus cinematic classic “The Wizard of Oz”. Two that jump out are “Short Circuit II”, the sequel actually of the story of the sentient robot “Johnny Five”, and “Ever After”, a feminist re-visioning of the Cinderella story. Not classics maybe in most people’s book, but full of compelling characters, great scenes and classic lines themselves… diamonds in the rough.

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