Friday, October 15, 2010

An Education -- deceitful school of life

Director: Lone Scherfig, 2009. (PG-13)

An Education is set in London in the swinging sixties, and captures the mood, spirit and charm of that era perfectly. The story focuses on Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a smart and pretty 16 year-old who lives at home with her middle-class parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) in Twickenham, a London suburb. She attends a private girls school, and her sights are set on attending Oxford University. At least, her father's sights for her are set on that goal. To that end, all that she does is carefully structured to look as good as possible on her resume and University admissions application, even her playing the cello in a local youth orchestra. Her only problems are with Latin and her overbearing father.
At home, Jenny pines for more culture. She listens to French record albums until her father tells her to turn it off. She wants to go to concerts, but he sees no value in this. She wants to read the books she wants, rather than the books she is told to read. She feels imprisoned in his goal of giving her an education that will allow her to rise above his circumstances.

When Jenny is caught in a downpour after a rehearsal practice, David (Peter Sarsgaard, Elegy) slows his sports car and offers her ride. Well he offers her cello a ride with her walking alongside, to ensure he is not some kind of sociopathic pedophile. Actually he is that of sorts, but we only find that out during the course of the film. Mind you, David is twice her age and a graduate of the hard knocks school of life. One thing leads to another and before long, he is her boyfriend.

With David showing up in her life, Jenny's eyes are opened to the things she wanted so much: cultural activities and freedom. David introduces her to his constant companions Danny (Dominc Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). These four become almost inseparable, as David takes Jenny to concerts, smoky jazz clubs, restaurants and auction houses. This is an education she was missing out on in her cloistered schoolhouse.

Of course, charmer that he is David must use false charm and lies to win over her parents to his plans. Weaving a web of deceit that plays to their desires, he tells them what they want to hear until he has them eating out of his hand. Whereas Jack and Marjorie would do nothing to damage Jenny's future, they cannot see that allowing her to go places with David is doing exactly what they are seeking to avoid.

David has been described as "devilishly charming" and this hits home exactly. He is a snake with an oily exterior, most certainly creepy. He does indeed present an impression of Satan. When the devil turns up at our doorstep undoubtedly he appears like David, smooth and suave, telling us exactly what we want to hear so he can win us to his cause. We then compromise our convictions and beliefs, until we have slipped down the slippery slope towards destruction (Prov. 5:5). The apostle Paul says he appears as an angel of light masquerading as someone good, when he is ultimately deceptive with self-seeking intentions (2 Cor. 11:14).

An Education provides Sarsgaard with his first opportunity in his 15 year acting career to take top billing. And he does well, having good chemistry with Carey Mulligan. Mulligan herself pulls off a fine job of acting as a 16 year-old despite being 6 years older. That could have been a problem, but she comes across as the innocent and naive school girl with the emotional problems associated with falling into a love affair with an older man. Rosamund Pike acts as the comic foil to the foursome with some airhead witticisms ("Someone told me that in about 50 years, no one will speak Latin, probably. Not even Latin people.") But Alfred Molina steals the scenes he is in with his paternal protective overacting. His blustering about the cost and sacrifice that he and Marjorie have paid to help Jenny are classic ("Do you think money grows on trees?"). It is the kind of bluster I find myself blathering with my kids. I laughed at him till I almost cried, really laughing at myself.

As the film progresses, Jenny comes to see the reality behind David's mask. Little by little she makes choices that compromise her convictions. Her teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, a teacher also in Rushmore) encourages her to face the truth and not give up on her future. Her principal, or headmistress (Emma Thompson), warns her of the penalties and consequences of continuing along this path. But for a 16 year-old for whom the world has just opened up, "Studying is hard and boring. Teaching is hard and boring. So, what you're telling me is to be bored, and then bored, and finally bored again, but this time for the rest of my life?" She is not buying this advice. She will learn the harsh lessons of love and life on her own, with David.

The real crux of the film focuses on two things: 1) the value of an education and 2) the types of education. If she is to marry David and live the life of a wealthy wife, what is the point of pursuing a higher eduction, even if it is at Oxford, the finest university in England? Why not give up her dreams to live her new dreams of the renaissance life? But this is to adopt a short-sighted perspective. It ignores the red warning flags and avoids considering the risks.

When it comes to types of education, the film offers three options. David presents the school of life. He learned the hard way, working his way up from the bottom. This has its merits, especially for those not gifted or aptitudinally persuaded to book studies. A legitimate option, yet without starter funds, this path is the path of hard work climbing up the employment ladder.

The second alternative presented is that of false education. This is a kind of deceitful school of life. David promises this to Jenny and it seems so attractive. No need for start up cash; no need to start at the bottom. Join the post-education world half-way up the ladder and learn from those already educated in this school. But Jenny discovers the easy way is not usually the legitimate way. And when that happens the rungs are removed and we, as she does, fall to the ground. At that point we are worse off than in either of the other two schooling options. There is no free lunch here.

The final option is the classical education. Jenny's school taught the classic syllabus, including Latin. Such classes are invaluable. Though Latin is not popular today, it still provides benefit to the person seeking a time honored education. In her day, it was a requirement to enter Oxford. By the time I entered Oxford a decade later, it was no longer a requirement (and I took German instead of Latin). Nevertheless a classical education focused on the academic disciplines is a tremendous preparation for a liberal arts schooling. Most occupations then as now require a university degree as admission qualifications. The degree itself is more a sign of the ability to learn and to conform. It is worth the price. And the time spent away from home, learning to live as an independent person having to take care of oneself, is itself a keen part of this classical education. 

As sparkling and delightful as An Education is, it falls a little flat at the end. We don't really see what she has learned from her false education. Perhaps we are left thinking about our education and that of our kids. What do we want for them? What will we do to help them achieve it? And will we be on guard against the subtle and insidious lies of the enemy who wants to deter them and us?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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