Dangerous Minds (1995) is the account of a white teacher LouAnne Johnson who takes a job teaching a class of low-income black and Hispanic students in an inner city high school, and encounters a variety of social issues such as poverty, racism, drugs, gang violence and segregated schools and neighborhoods. Most of the teachers and the school authorities care nothing about these students and their problems, and are simply passing them along without teaching them anything. Miss Johnson does come to care about them and uses highly unconventional teaching methods as well as showing great concern about their personal lives. Although she had wanted to quit and give up on the first day, in the end she becomes so involved in trying to teach these students who have been marginalized and thrown away by society that they plead with her to stay. In absolutely every case, the quality of education available to poor and minority students is demonstrably poorer by any measure than that of their white peers in the suburbs, as researchers like Jonathan Kozol have pointed out many times. This is not caused by genetic or cultural deprivation but by the fact that the U.S. has always been and remains a highly segregated and unequal society based on race and social class.
In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol offered an absolutely horrendous description of public schools in inner city ghettos that at times reduced him to tears and rage. Chicago, Detroit, East St. Louis, Camden, Jew Jersey all have crumbling public school systems serving mostly black and Hispanic students funded at levels far below those of white suburban districts. These ghetto neighborhoods also lack banks, supermarkets, parks and other public services, and have high levels of crime, gang activity, unemployment and drug dealing. Kozol asks rhetorically whether Americans even believe in equality at all, and judging from the condition of these public schools the answer would seem to be negative. Everyone even slightly familiar with these urban public schools knows very well that they are “closely tied to class and race” (Kozol 60). Most of them lack adequate textbooks and equipment, and even functioning playgrounds and bathroom facilities. Almost none of their students will go on to higher education and dropout rates are often as high as 80-90%. Those who graduate from these places will be lucky to read at an elementary schools level, and they realize by 5th or 6th grade that they are being cheated and do not have nearly the same educational opportunities as whites in suburban schools. States paid about 50% of the budgets in these inner city schools and the federal government about 6%, but these funds are never sufficient to even come close to evening out the disparities with white suburban schools. Since funding is based on property taxes and the value of property is much lower in these segregated ghetto communities, this is “the decisive force in shaping inequality” (Kozol 55). He points out that of course “there are wonderful teachersalmost everywhere in urban schools, and sometimes a number of such teachers in a single school”, but this is not the norm by any stretch of the imagination (Kozol, p. 51). As shown in the film, inner city school teachers are older and badly paid compared to those in the suburbs, and the cities rely on poorly paid substitutes and temporary and part-time teachers as well. They have no funds for remedial classes, sports facilities, libraries or textbooks.
This movie is an accurate depiction of to social and economic problems of minority youth in inner-city schools, where they are confronted with a system that they know is hostile or indifferent to their needs. As they tell Miss Johnson, she is the only “light” they have and they plead with her not to abandon them. She can help a few of these students, of course, but changing the larger structural and institutional problems is beyond her control. Most of the teachers have given up on these students, and simply make them read books like My Darling, My Hamburger while several have simply quit already. This school also does not even have enough money to buy pencils, books and paper for the copying machines, although it does have its own private security force. To say that the students are alienated and mistrustful of the entire system would be an understatement, since they are all intelligent enough to know that they are only being prepared to stay in the inner-city ghettos. Even the creepy and soft-spoken black principal, Mr. Grandey, seems more like a bureaucrat who fears lawsuits and the school board, and would just prefer that she teach the curriculum. Many of these students have not even been taught what a noun or a verb is, and they do not know who any of the 20th Century presidents of the United States were.
Miss Johnson’s teaching methods are unconventional, such as giving the students all A’s at the beginning of the term or taking them to an amusement park and paying for it herself, despite threats from Mr. Grandey that she should be fired. She organizes a poetry competition and rewards three of the students who won with a dinner at an expensive restaurant. Only Raul was able to come, though, and she found that he bought a stolen jacket on the street for $200 so that he would have something to wear. Rather than have him commit a crime to repay this money she loans it to him, on the condition that he repay her on the day of graduation. She tries to help Callee stay in school when she gets pregnant, even though Mr. Grandey wants to send her away to a special program for unwed mothers. Miss Johnson is told that these poor black girls never want to stay in school anyway and view unwed motherhood as some kind of status symbol. She also tells Callee that she was married to an abusive husband and that she finally divorced him and had an abortion. Little by little, all the failures and frustrations pile up on her and leave her demoralized, such as when the mother of two black students tells her that teaching poetry is a waste of time when the family has bills to pay, and that she should go find some other poor boys to save. What finally demoralizes her most is when Emilio is threatened by a drug addict who has just been released from prison and she persuades him to go to Mr. Grandey for help. In his quiet, eerie way, Grandey tells her that he just sent him away because he did not knock on the door of his office, and Emilio is shot dead later that day. At that point, Miss Johnson is ready to quit and walk away, but the rest of the students plead with her saying that she is their only hope: “We’ve been working hard and we stayed in school. What about us?”
As Kozol and many other critics have often pointed out, even the worst of the inner-city schools have a few excellent teachers like Miss Johnson, who really care about the students, but they are hardly typical. Truly systematic change in the inner-city public schools requires the empowerment and mobilization of low-income, minority, youth, and other marginalized and under-represented groups who are being poorly served by the present segregated system. Major decisions that affect the poor, the marginalized and minorities from major public policy decisions require the active participation from all sectors of society. It also requires changes in the curriculum and pedagogy so that these will reflect that values of strong democracy and maximum participation by groups that are presently ignored and marginalized. This would mean renewed efforts to integrate the inner-city and suburban schools, through busing, exchange programs, or attracting larger numbers of whites or immigrants back to the inner city and abandoning the system of property taxes and also seek more funding from the state and federal government to equalize the per capita student spending in urban and suburban schools. Curriculums should become more innovative and progressive to empower the students and assist more of them in moving on to higher education. This curriculum will emphasize civics and active participation of citizens in political and economic life, as well as the history and contemporary struggles of the poor, minorities and the working class. Pedagogy must be changed to move away from the teacher-centered to the student-centered classroom and more active participation of students and parents in the learning process, as well as the school administration and the development of the curriculum. Finally, there will have to be more state, federal and private funding for improved textbooks and other learning resources, computers, school supplies and laboratory equipment.
Dangerous Minds. Dir: John Smith. Prod: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. USA: Hollywood Pictures, 1995.
Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. Harper Perennial., 1991.
Ryan, W. Blaming the Victim, Revised Edition. NY: Vintage Books, 1976.