- They Turned a School Into a Jungle! How The Blackboard Jungle Redefined the Education Crisis in Postwar America
In December 1954, Hollywood reporter Erskine Johnson described the main teacher character of MGM’s forthcoming film The Blackboard Jungle as a “frustrated and bloody Mr. Chips.” In Johnson’s syndicated “Stage and Screen” column, he predicted that the feature film about novice teacher Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford) trying to connect with unruly vocational school students would leave “shocked faces in movie audiences.” This shock would result from watching Dadier’s growing aggravation—”a young teacher with ideals who sees all of them destroyed”—as well as the violence enacted upon him by his “classroom of young hoodlums.”1 The film was released in March 1955, and the columnist was right on both counts. In The Blackboard Jungle, Dadier is frustrated by unmotivated students, burned-out colleagues, an unsupportive administration, inadequate school facilities, and an ineffective teacher education program, which he feels did not prepare him to deal with low-achieving students or classroom discipline. To make matters worse, Dadier’s school is also dangerous: he rescues a female teacher from an attempted rape by a student in the library; he and a male colleague are attacked by a teenaged gang in a back alley; and in the climactic classroom scene, he combats a student wielding a switch-blade knife. Throughout the spring and summer of 1955, The Blackboard Jungle was debated, denounced, banned, and scapegoated on account of its violent content and its sharp educational critique. For postwar audiences, the tale of Rick Dadier powerfully illuminated two of the most pressing social issues of the time: juvenile delinquency and the public school crisis.
Today, we seem to have a much more narrow view of the film that so profoundly shocked audiences more than fifty years ago. In our scholarly and popular imagination, we tend to recall the bloody Mr. Chips far more than the frustrated one, for The Blackboard Jungle has primarily been studied and remembered as a cultural artifact of the postwar juvenile delinquency scare. In the 1950s, juvenile delinquency was widely discussed in the United States; commentators typically blamed the perceived rise in youth criminality on the mass culture industry, which was allegedly inculcating young people with violent notions through comic books, music, and film. A number of scholars have inscribed The Blackboard Jungle into this specific historical context.2 In their view, The Blackboard Jungle exemplifies an emergent cinematic genre, known as the “juvenile delinquency film,” and the controversy surrounding the picture is interpreted as an upshot of the mass culture debates—namely, the debate over whether “teenpics” like The Blackboard Jungle were corrupting America’s youth.
Without question, The Blackboard Jungle was absorbed into the moral panic about youth deviance in the postwar era, but this popular text also resonated with educational debates of the 1950s. It offered a powerful cinematic image of a broken public school that complemented popular discourse about the so-called education crisis.3 After World War II, in the shadow of the Cold War, the American public engaged in a deeply critical re-examination of its educational system. This national soul-searching [End Page 21] uncovered a massive teacher shortage and an alarming lack of classroom space, sparking lively debates over educational philosophy. The idea that schools were in “crisis” first became conventional wisdom in the media in the late 1940s and continued throughout the 1950s. In 1947, for example, The New York Times published a widely discussed series on the “Crisis in Education.” Based on a six-month survey of public schools, the exposé announced that the nation’s educational outlook was “not a pretty one.” The twelve-part series combined statistics and first-hand reports to paint a harrowing picture of postwar schools: Seventy thousand teaching positions remained unfilled; one out of seven teachers served on an emergency or substandard certificate; six thousand schools would have to close because of lack of teachers; school buildings across the nation were in deplorable states; curricula and teaching methods were woefully outdated; and teacher morale had dropped to a new low.4 A number of U.S. magazines also began to...