The 1974 feature film Conrack explores then-common beliefs about the Geechee people on South Carolina’s barrier islands. Based on the book The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy, the story follows his trek into this isolated culture when he accepted teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse. As a white teacher in an all-black classroom that holds grades five through eight, Conroy quick finds two major hurdles to his work: first, the children are barely educated at all, and the school’s other teacher – a black female principal – vehemently expresses her views that these children are stupid and incapable of being educated. If those aren’t enough to stifle him, the white schools superintendent wants to counter Conroy’s lively and inclusive teaching style with an insistence on rigor, discipline, and corporal punishment. However, the determined young man pontificates daily in his own playful and vigorous way, and thus manages to instill some learning into the children’s lives, and in doing so, gets himself fired.
Though it is a quite a good movie, which exposes unfortunate realities from its time, Conrack traffics in early 1970s white liberal ideals about “saving” people in poor black communities. Pat Conroy, whose mispronounced last name gives us the film’s title, is the unorthodox instructor who will bring light into darkness through a potent mixture of caring, stubbornness, and joi de vivre. No ordinary teacher would accept this assignment, and our hero is no ordinary teacher. This narrative – now popularized in films like 1995’s Dangerous Minds and 2007’s Freedom Writers – tells us that impoverished schools in communities of color are completely hamstrung by the system and its operators, and so a wily interloper must open the door to knowledge and wisdom by defying the system. (These myths have been further perpetuated by other feel-good films featuring non-white educators, like 1988’s Stand and Deliver and 1989’s Lean on Me.) In Conrack, we also see two more stock characters that emerge again and again in these narratives: the realistic but hopelessly exhausted black educator whose aspiration is only the bare-bones basics, and the closed-minded superintendent whose willful allegiance to conformity pits him against any efforts at improvement.
The South’s schools are notorious for their comparatively low standing among American schools, and that fact is even more pronounced in rural communities and in communities of color. Seeing Southern states litter the bottom of the annual education rankings only reifies the common belief that the South’s people are stupid, backwards, ignorant, or all three. Thus, we have a narrative that says that only teachers who defy authority can transcend accepted Southern norms, because the typically compliant and bureaucratic-minded teachers fail utterly. This narrative suggests that most teachers and other school officials are satisfied with failure, as evidenced by the results of their work— which is not true. While the tug-of-war between the uncommon educator and the rigid superintendent may be more interesting to watch than the daily practice of teaching and learning, this narrative omits the fact that the vast majority of teachers do their best with what they have, which is not much in poor communities, rural communities, and communities of color. Stories like the one in Conrack may show us the tension between the two extremes, but ultimately, it’s not the story of education in the South.