An Education Myth

Bullying students to learn generates powerful, transformative results. True? That's the question raised by Whiplash, a noteworthy film about a gifted drummer, Andrew Neyman ( convincingly played by Miles Teller) at the best-music school in America who comes under the influence of a powerful, legendary teacher, Terence Fletcher (brilliantly played by J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is a take-no-prisoners mentor who uses his position of authority to make or break students. His band wins jazz competitions, hence his stellar reputation. His tactics include name-calling, public humiliation in front of the other members of the band and manipulation of the rules to entrap a student into public failure and bring him to tears. His abusive use of his position of power to admit or expel a player from his jazz band is analogous to sexual harassment in the workplace but without the sex, although he freely uses homophobic labeling as well as calling his all-male group "girls" in his verbal-assault arsenal. He is also not averse to throwing a chair at a musician target.

This drill-sergeant mentality in basic military training has the effect of breaking down people only to build them up. Does it work? A recent study by Joshua J. Jackson, PhD, at Washington University in St. Louis says:

"Our results suggest that personality traits play an important role in military training, both in the sort of men who are attracted to the military in the first place, and in the lasting impact that this service has on an individual's outlook on life,"

This leads to less "agreeableness" as a trait of military personnel as compared to ordinary civilians.

"It's one of the few situations in life where an individual's daily actions and expectations are completely controlled by someone else. Where, from the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night, someone is actively working to break down anything that's individual about you and to build up something else in its place."

So how do these harsh, dictatorial tactics play out on a musician who striving to become an artist -- an individual who has unique self-expression through his instrument?

As Fletcher explains to Neyman in the film: as a teacher, he is looking to create the next Charlie "Bird" Parker. He believes that the defining moment for Bird was the day drummer, Jo Jo Jones, threw a cymbal at Bird because he played a wrong note. According to Fletcher, this act of degradation only provoked Bird to work harder, thus becoming an historic breakthrough artist. This incident is a justifiable rationale for his brutality toward Neyman.

The satisfying end of the film comes after yet another public humiliation by Fletcher when he calls for a piece that Neyman has never played or even seen the music, this time in a competition in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall. The humiliated Neyman leaves the stage to fall into the arms of his father who has witnessed the debacle. In a dramatic turn-around, Neyman summons the strength to battle his cruel mentor. Instead of slinking off with his father, he returns to the stage and commandeers the other musicians by starting an opening vamp. He calls out the tune "Caravan" to the band and says, "I'll cue you." As they all join in, the flummoxed Fletcher can only gesture as if he's conducting the group while his prodigy leads the rebellion. Even when the piece is supposed to end, Neyman doesn't stop but embarks on a virtuoso solo that is physically and emotionally exhausting and exhilarating. Slowly the light dawns on Fletcher that he finally has his "Bird" moment -- a lifetime's ambition fulfilled. So, does this prove that his brutal tactics did the job?

No, it just perpetuates the myth. Bullying tactics from a teacher produce fear, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and other long-term psychologically scarring effects. This was revealed earlier in Whiplash when Fletcher mourns the untimely death of another of his talented students. He claims he died in a car crash but we later discover that he had hung himself.

Read Daniel Pink's book Drive. The motivation for breakthrough success comes from a vision of the artist who sees his/her potential long before anyone else. Such a vision provides the intrinsic motivation Pink calls "drive." It trumps external motivation -- such as the approval of a mentor, although a mentor can help foster self-belief in fulfilling the vision. Tom Landry's definition of a coach as "the person who makes you do what you need to do to help you become the person you want to be" doesn't imply using heartless and demeaning methods. Neyman's talents emerged in spite of his brutal mentor, not because of it. The scarring effect of Fletcher's mythology causes the kind of psychic pain that leads to self-destructive addictions.

Don't be fooled by outcomes.