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A Discussion of the film, The Emperors' Club

In the final Tips for Teachers of this spring semester, we watched excerpts from the film, The Emperors' Club. The first scene we watched was of a new student, Sedgwick Bell, entering an exceptionally well-behaved class in an elite boys’ preparatory boarding school. ‘Mr. Bell’, as he was called by the classics teacher, Mr. Hundert, created a true discipline problem, who, when asked to read a passage from a book, tried to make fun of the situation described in the text so as to get a laugh from his classmates and to infuriate the teacher. Later on, Mr. Hundert is writing laboriously on the blackboard, and Mr. Bell instigates all the students to slam their books shut at the same exact moment, giving the teacher a fright and dropping the chalk. Mr. Hundert brings him to the front of the room, and asks him to recite the name of the 41 emperors, and when Mr. Bell first gives the names of the seven dwarves, and then of the Beatles, Mr. Hundert tells him stupidity lasts for ever.

One teacher present at our Tips meeting remarked that she thought it was wrong to embarrass a student in front of the class, and as teachers we should instead try to win over our students. Another teacher countered this by saying these students were probably about sixteen years old, and that being embarrassed is part of their socialization.

One other teacher present, though, had a different angle on this scene, and saw fault in the way the teacher was teaching in the first place. He said that it was a terrible pedagogy to insist on memorization of facts and mindlessly chanting the names of the emperors. However, some people present thought back to the previous Tips for Teachers' discussion in which we spoke about how for facts to become meaningful, we need to rely upon memory and association, as a fact in a vacuum can not have significance, so it would be inevitable that some drill learning and memorization has to take place.

But some teachers thought there is still room for creativity, even if there is a need for memorization. For example, when Bell tried to be glib and make fun of the passage he was reading from the book, perhaps Mr. Hundert should have used this as an opportunity to step in and turn this into a discussion of the feasibility of what Bell cynically proposed. Instead Mr. Hundert fell into the trap Bell set for him of being infuriated, rather than defusing the situation and trying to find meaning within it. By Mr. Hundert not allowing Bell’s levity, and instead putting him on the spot, it automatically became a fight which Mr. Hundert would be unable to win. It is interesting to speculate what the outcome might have been had Mr. Hundert, instead of thinking of Bell as being provocative, chose instead to interpret the situation as that Bell was engaged in reading the text in an original way, which could have been pursued through continued class discussion.

Many of us thought that the very title of the film, The Emperors’ Club, was deliberately chosen to reflect Mr. Hundert’s pedagogy of memorization and rule following, so that they could all become emperors. In other words, it seemed to be a culture of elitism, and one which endorses prejudice. Their ideology seems to reflect not how the world is, but how they think it should be. One teacher said this was similar to the previous administration, which of course was interesting not only in and of itself, but also because Bell’s father was a US Senator.

This led nicely to viewing the next excerpt in which we saw Mr. Hundert pay a visit to Bell’s father in Washington, and how his father questioned the point of learning the classics, and told Mr. Hundert categorically that it was not the teacher’s job to mold his son, but was his own job as his father.

It seems, though, that things turned around when the class had to take a series of tests to see, according to a school tradition which has lasted for more than seventy years, who will have the scholarly honour of being nominated as Julius Caesar. Mr. Hundert lends Bell his old book and tells him before the test, what particular chapter to read to be best prepared for the questions on the test. He later overrides what Bell is told by a librarian about not being able to take a book out of the library, and says that Bell should indeed be allowed to take the book.

The very archaic nature of this inherited tradition of continuing the Caesar quiz could imply that Hundert’s pedagogy could be both inherited and inevitable, although even so one wonders if he could have been more creative around the necessity of memorization.

What became an even bigger point of discussion, though, was the question of testing and grading. In terms of testing, it seemed that Hundert went completely against his upright, ethical principles by giving Bell an unfair advantage, both in terms of lending him his old book and telling him the chapter that would be on the quiz, and also by insisting that the librarian give Bell the book. Why did he do this? If a student comes for help, thus initiating the process, that is one thing, but is it right for a teacher to step in unasked, and inequitably assist one student by giving him special privileges? Is it because as teachers, we feel we are not successful if our students are not getting good grades? Or was it also because, in Hundert’s case, he wanted to become the headmaster? This could have persuaded him to single out Bell for help, especially because of the political position of Bell’s father, and also because his family was giving the school a large endowment. Or was it simply because Hundert regarded Bell as a challenge, and he wanted to succeed in getting through to him and helping him to become a good student. After all, he did say to Bell’s father that Bell is intelligent but just not applying himself.

After this, Bell indeed starts working very diligently, and we see him really trying hard when taking the quizzes. Were Hundert’s methods of intervention therefore paying off? But this then leads to the second question; that of grading. Not only did Hundert assist Bell in his studies, but also he changed his grade on his last of the five quizzes, from an A- to an A+. This elevated Bell to the position of one of the three finalists, which also had the result in pushing one of the legitimate finalists off the list.

We then watched the excerpt of the question and answer session for the three finalists, each dressed in Roman togas, and with much pomp and circumstance. The winner of these questions would be crowned Caesar for the year. In this scene, we see that Hundert recognizes that Bell is cheating. He reverts back to his former ethical standards, and informs the headmaster of the cheating, but the headmaster tells him to ignore it. Hundert, clearly wanting justice at this stage now to be done, realizes that Bell probably saw the questions ahead of time and has prepared his answers, so Hundert gives him an entirely new question which was not previously prepared. This stumps Bell, and so he is out of the competition after all.

So, even though Hundert remembers his ethical standards, it seems that the modus operandi of the school, as seen through the headmaster’s response, does not. Not only was Bell unfairly placed as a finalist who was prepared to cheat to continue getting ahead, but also the one boy for whom being a finalist was so important as his father had been Caesar when he was at the school a generation before him, was denied his fair chance to perform.

We finished our Tips meeting by watching the final scenes of the film in which Bell, now 25 years older and living in grand style, invites Hundert and the other boys from his class to his glamorous estate, to have a rematch of the Caesar quiz. Perhaps he still had not recovered from not having won it when he was at school. Cheating was now firmly entrenched in his personality, but unfortunately, because of time constraints, we were unable to discuss this last passage of the film.

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