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The Real Lesson of 'Oleanna'? : David Mamet's play is now a film, and while deftly exposing the complexity of sexual harassment cases, it also takes on another subject long overdue for study: education.

November 06, 1994|Camille Paglia | Camille Paglia's third book, "Vamps & Tramps: New Essays," has just been released by Vintage Books. She is professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia

David Mamet's controversial play "Oleanna" was an Off Broadway sensation in 1992 and went on to a long, successful run in London. The film version, directed by Mamet and based on his screenplay, opened Friday.

When it debuted in the wake of the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings on Capitol Hill, "Oleanna" seemed to encapsulate the stormy national debate over sexual harassment. In its gripping dramatization of an ambiguous, increasingly tortured exchange between a male professor and his female student, it challenged the rampant political correctness of the time.

By showing that conflicts between superiors and subordinates are far more complex than conventional victim-centered feminism allowed, Mamet dared to suggest that both parties bear equal responsibility in any social transaction. "Oleanna" forces the audience to become a jury, a voyeuristic Greek chorus who must scrutinize the behavior of the two clashing characters and weigh their testimony. Different viewers will come to different conclusions. But Mamet incisively demonstrates that women cannot--as too many partisans of Anita Hill claimed--be automatically believed simply because they are women.

In the two years since the first production of the play, the tide has begun to turn against the forces of political correctness in America. There is a powerful, bipartisan reform movement at work in the media and in academe that is systematically critiquing the excesses of feminist ideology and of fanatical special interests of all kinds. The trend toward campus speech codes has been reversed, as thoughtful liberals have begun to realize that progressive values cannot be achieved by totalitarian means.

Now that the dust is settling, "Oleanna" can be seen more clearly. The early, largely enthusiastic reviewers of the play reduced it to its terrifying Inquisitional theme: The student comes to the professor's office to inquire about her grade and ends up, with little discernible provocation, accusing him of sexual harassment and rape, hysterical charges that lead to his sudden dismissal from his job and, as the play ends, perhaps his future arrest.

But Mamet is using sex war to explore a much larger subject, one that has been amazingly neglected by contemporary artists and writers: education. For the last 20 years, arguments over American education have been polarized into a simplistic opposition between Right and Left. Conservatives call for a back-to-basics curriculum supported by traditional values of morality and patriotism, while many liberals demand a multicultural curriculum organized around "identity politics," the claims of historically oppressed groups for recognition and restitution.

"Oleanna" breaks this tiresome stalemate by isolating and examining the starkly skeletal structure of modern teacher-student relations. What is the purpose of education? Mamet asks a philosophical question that is as old as Socrates but that has moved to the center of the modern cultural agenda. Is education memorization of facts or enlargement of perspective? Is it technical training or general enlightenment?

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In "Emile" (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the founder of Romanticism whose ideas helped trigger the French Revolution, argued that children's upbringing should follow benevolent Mother Nature rather than corrupt masculine civilization--which feminism currently calls "patriarchy." Rousseau stressed emotion, spontaneity and self-esteem, rather than rules, rationality and book learning. He denied that authority figures like teachers have any special knowledge.

Rousseau's ideas remain a dominant force in educational policy and child psychology. His major disciples included John Dewey, whose thinking inspired the foundation of experimental, alternative colleges like Bennington, and Maria Montessori, whose relaxed program for preschoolers focuses on stimulating children's innate creativity rather than imposing adult expectations and concepts on them.

Mamet attended Vermont's alternative Goddard College in the late 1960s, a turbulent decade that tried to transform the traditional American model of strict classroom education, devised in the 19th Century for a rapidly industrializing pioneer nation of farmers and immigrants. Students of the 1960s counterculture were demanding "relevance" in their courses, and the most utopian among them prophesied the birth of open universities with no entrance requirements, no exams, no grades, no classrooms and no hierarchy of any kind. Strolling through idyllic green meadows, teacher and student would be friendly equals in the quest for truth.

"Oleanna" bears the traces of Mamet's long reflection on these matters. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a time warp in his characterization of the professor, who talks in a smarmy, late-1960s way about the folly of pretending to know more than the student and who denigrates the teaching-and-testing format as merely sadistic "hazing" of the young.

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