If you want to see a caricature of the student-teacher relationship, watch a Laurel and Hardy movie. These films are hilarious, but can be hard to sit through if you start making analogies to the classroom. Oliver, the know-it-all teacher type, lords it over Laurel, his humble student, who inadvertently manages, through dramatic ineptitude, to undermine Ollie’s pedantry. The duo exposes the fraudulence that so often characterizes the interactions of students and teachers, in which posturing and role-playing can be a cover for incompetence, laziness, and stupidity.
But it might be salutary for us teachers to admit that we have a little Ollie in us after all—that we can be reduced to homina homina blather, that we can cling to our authority as to a raft we hope will take us to shore, pretending to understand things we don’t. At least once a year I have realized while speaking to a class that I was saying nothing—definitely an Oliver Hardy moment. To recognize this is humbling. The most recent time it happened, I stopped and told students I had no idea what I was talking about. They laughed and didn’t seem to respect me less for my admission.
But getting back to Laurel and Hardy. The duo happens to be responsible for one of the greatest of all pedagogical satires, their 1940 film, A Chump at Oxford. In an outlandish premise, the two are sent to Oxford for a whirlwind education. They arrive in their familiar personas: Ollie as know-it-all, Stanley as know-nothing. But when a window falls on Stanley’s head, he is suddenly transformed into Lord Paddington, the greatest scholar and athlete in the university’s history. Stanley becomes a posturing expert, fawned over by everyone at the college. Ollie, for his part, is demoted to the position of valet and referred to by the august Stanley as “Fatty.” At the end of the film, the window falls on Stanley’s head again, transforming him back to his original knuckle-headed self.
I love this movie for its masterly sendup of the pedagogical dynamic. It turns on the idea that teacher and student are roles that could, in many instances, be reversed. Ollie teaching Stanley is the blind leading the blind—and what teacher hasn’t felt at times like a posturing Hardy to so many bumbling Laurels?
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