Friday, December 18, 2009

Responsible Learning

In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called Rope. Based on a stage play the entire film is set in a small apartment, and the whole film is one continuous shot. But holding the well done technical aspects of the film together is an amazing story of an outrageous idea. In this story, two recent Ivy League graduates, Brandon and Phillip, decide to kill an acquaintance of theirs, David, who they see as an inferior person. They are attempting to test out the theories of their education. Believing that they are superior men, they have advanced “beyond good and evil,” and so they can kill and cannot be held responsible for the consequences, in fact they are doing society a favor.

Brandon and Phillip then invite over a few friends, the victim’s family, and their esteemed philosophy professor, Rupert Cadell for a dinner party. All the while David’s dead body is in a chest in the living room. The climax of the film comes when the professor returns because of the suspicion that something is wrong. He has noticed one of the killers acting strangely throughout the party. On his return he confronts his students. They defend themselves by repeating back the professor’s own Nietzschean philosophy. They say that they killed because they learned that if they really were superior to the victim than it is not morally wrong to kill him. The professor then has a critical moment of clarity and realizes that his theory has consequences- that his classroom extends beyond its four walls into real lives.

In the end, Professor Cadell tells his students that they have taught him a great lesson, that his ideas must be in line with his ethics, that ideas inform our everyday actions and decisions. He abandons his belief in superior and inferior people; he concludes that all human beings must be treated with dignity and equality and that everyone has worth.

We are not all that different from Professor Cadell. It is simpler to just separate out the ideas and theories that we discuss and argue about in the classroom, from our everyday routines of eating, sleeping, and hanging out with friends. And as Brandon and Phillip illustrate connecting ideas and actions can be dangerous, even criminal. The trouble is: How do we navigate the bridges and intersections of the ideas that we learn about and the way we live our lives?

What we need is a better story- a vision of what it means to be human in a world shaped by the knowledge of good and evil. We are not just minds in bodies. As whole creatures created by God we were meant to live lives of integrity, integrating our thoughts about how it should and can be with the way we live. Of course we have fallen, and now we live with the tension and struggle of working toward learning. We must be careful and responsible with our learning; it’s a fragile gift, not a license to kill.

--Greg Veltman

Greg Veltman is currently a PhD student, studying higher education and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh and a Film Critic for Comment Magazine.

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