USA Today, March 24, 2005
'Greatness' in the classroom
One film and one educator can teach us all a lesson or two about
reforming our education system
By Bruce Kluger
Instead of attempting to kick-start the president's
underfunded, overwrought No Child Left Behind
program, or sink more money into researching yet
another standardized test, or latch onto the latest
evangelical mission to target "homosexual"
cartoons in educational TV, I'd simply log onto
Amazon.com, order 3.5 million copies of the new
documentary A Touch of Greatness, and send
them to every teacher, principal and PTA president
in United States.
If that didn't do the trick, I don't know what would.
First broadcast in January on PBS' Independent
Lens program—and available on video and DVD
this month—Greatness chronicles the career of
teacher in the leafy suburbs of New York City from 1956 through 1966.
Intercutting archival footage from his teaching days with glowing testimonials from
his now-grown charges, Greatness paints a vivid portrait of the magic that
transpires when kids are lucky enough to land a teacher who understands the
limitlessness of the young mind.
Engaged, enthusiastic and wickedly creative, Cullum learned early on in his career
that "if I'm not having fun in class, no one is having fun." As a result, his students
were treated to a decidedly unconventional approach to academia, routinely
engaging in such imaginative activities as swimming up a giant paper facsimile of
the Mississippi River; re-enacting the Lincoln assassination and the Cuban missile
crisis; operating on "bleeding" nouns in a "grammar hospital"; and, most
impressively, reading and performing a raft of classic literature—from the Greeks to
Shakespeare—in off-site settings as exotic as an actual forest.
"Children understand the heroic aspect of Shakespeare's characters," Cullum
explains in the film, "the feathered cap and the wooden sword that we as adults
More than just a fly-on-the-classroom-wall peek at an exceptional educator,
however, Greatness serves as a cautionary tale about our nation's current
education system, and the way in which policymakers' ongoing efforts to tinker with
the process may be, at best, heavy-handed or, at worst, wrongheaded.
For instance, in the past year, the debate over social promotion reached high
decibels in school districts across the nation, most notably in New York, where
Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted rigid policies to hold back third-graders who
aren't keeping up with their classmates. But it wasn't until I watched Greatness that I
truly understood how counterproductive such a policy can be. After all, classrooms
are simply microcosms of families, and no family I know of jettisons its lesser
"I see (the classroom) as a wagon," Cullum explains early on in the film. "Your
thoroughbreds of the class are going to pull the wagon—they're the leaders. But
everyone is on that wagon, and everyone reaches the goal. No one is left out."
Granted, Cullum called roll in his classroom more than a generation before slashed
budgets, plummeting scores and hallway metal detectors would become the stuff of
modern education. But building a child's mind is inarguably as daunting a task as
building a new system, and in this regard, Cullum made the grade.
The film also offers a decent argument about the potential myopia of modern-day
standardized testing, which customarily cleaves to math and grammar as the true
litmus of our kids' smarts. Though Cullum certainly didn't abandon these areas of
study, he devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to the arts—and it paid off.
To witness Mr. C's boys and girls articulately defend their choice of history's "best
writer"—Shakespeare, Sophocles or Shaw—is a reminder of kids' impressive ability
to grasp the intangible and elusive, and how the path to success needn't always
wind through the times-tables.
Curiously, I couldn't help but notice how little an impact religion had on Cullum's
curriculum, a concept that seems refreshingly quaint in today's socially charged
climate. Despite a recent Zogby poll in which 80% of those interviewed said they
believe religion should not dictate what goes on in school, just the opposite is
gaining steam in today's classrooms, as textbooks, classic literature and long-held
scientific theories are suddenly under siege by an army of hand-wringing advocacy
Conversely, when it came to personal beliefs, Cullum seemed more devoted to
"giving each child the gift of believing in him or herself"—whether by challenging
them to collect hundreds of new vocabulary words over the course of the year, or
casting them in theatrical roles that promised a kind of field-trip to the unknown.
Indeed, the only allusion to religion in Greatness is a comment from Cullum
himself—who died at the age of 80, shortly after the film was completed—as he
discusses one student's performance in a class production of Joan of Arc.
"Every public schoolgirl should have the chance to play the part of Saint Joan
before the age of 12," he explains with a smile. "Because the older you get, the
more difficult it is to hear the voices of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine calling