During the domestic hullabaloo that opens Sixteen Candles, suburban dad Jim Baker (Paul Dooley) gets shut out of the bathroom by his getting-married-tomorrow daughter, who tells him, “I happen to have a serious problem.” Enter twelve-or-so year old Mike (Justin Henry) to explain things to his father.

Mike: She’s got her period. Should make for an interesting honeymoon, huh?

Jim: Where are you learning that stuff?

Mike: [with a smirk] School. [exit]

Jim: Good. Getting my money’s worth.

Sixteen Candles tells us quite a lot about the town where the Bakers live – Evanston, Illinois – through this line. While we can ascribe some of Mike’s worldliness to the pedagogical power of hierloom issues of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler, that information isn’t in the movie. What we do have is a line of dialog that says “sex ed in middle school.” And Jim Baker, suburban dad, is totally cool with it. In fact, he’s satisfied that his kid is learning something in school.

I find it difficult to imagine this scene in a film made in the last fifteen years, mostly because American public education decisions are one of the last holdouts in the move toward greater inclusion.

This more or less tossed-off dialog exchange led me to think about what high school looked like for 80s teen dramas. To look at John Hughes’ other high school films: Sixteen Candles also has study hall, mentions of a class called “independent development,” and gym class (including a scene that lingers over a headless nude female torso while still managing to retain a PG rating). For all the group therapy in Breakfast Club, the classes they talk about are gym (Andrew), shop (Brian and Bender), and physics (Brian). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off feature’s Ben Stein’s economics/history class. And Weird Science has science and gym class. Curiously, there’s no literature class in any of these.

Nor is there in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which orbits around a hodgepodge world history class. Say Anything opens with Diane Court (Ione Skye) being introduced as excelling in “history…oceanography…creative writing…and biochemistry” as a way to drive home how smart she is, but there’s no classroom for creative writing, although we do get to see Corey (Lili Taylor) workshop her songs. Better Off Dead mines French class for some of its jokes. Finally, in a more serious vein, Stand and Deliver is about a calculus class.

And here an article is a waitin to be born. Of Reagan’s Secretaries of Education — Terrel Bell, Bill Bennett, and Lauro Cavasos — Bennett seems to be the person to look at for a sense of what the national conversation about education policy looked like. The other figure to consider is ED Hirsch, who published Cultural Literacy in 1987. After I refamiliarize myself with these two gents and their contributions to the debate, I’ll have more to say.

 

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