Thursday, March 4, 2010


“He’s a great teacher”, “then what’s he doing here?” This exchange sets the tone for the entire film.  That it is hard to believe that the prestige of society would pay attention or give time to the marginalized or less privileged.  Cheaters tells the true story of the fall of 1994, where a teacher (Jeff Daniels) at Chicago's run-down Steinmetz High recruits seven students for an academic decathlon team. They work long hours, preparing for the February regional event, won for ten straight years by a privileged, preppy school. Steinmetz finishes just well enough to be invited to the state meet. When a team member steals a copy of the state test, the teacher and kids face a dilemma: to remain honest, or to cheat and score a victory for kids in underfunded schools.   The teacher decides to cheat along with all the students to make up for mistreatment and being victims of a system that continues to only allow the rich kids to succeed while the poor kids have to sit and watch.  When they do well, they must face a withering barrage of investigations, accusations, lawyers' lies, and reporters' intrusions.  To me, for a “true story” it seemed quite unrealistic or a massive disconnect in the story that a bunch of kids would be willing to sacrifice 2 hours before school and 5 hours after school every day for something they were never willing to do in the first place. The details may have seemed unrealistic but the way the story unfolds is very real. No one questions a good school when they do well, however it makes news when a poor school does well.
            Sure the story would be more inspiring and sprinkled if they had succeeded without cheating, but in this way the story paints the reality of life, that the system makes it so hard for the poor to succeed that it seems that the only way that they can succeed is by cheating. These kids are victims of social reproduction, as is the teacher as well (he can’t even make copies to rise above the richer programs in his school). If the privileged systems are the only ones that ever get a chance, there is a minimal chance of the marginalized to overcome the factors causing reproduction.  The film shadows the words of Bowles and Gintis in their book “Schooling in Capitalist America” who are famous for their words on this very subject and situation.  Social reproduction theory argues that schools are not institutions of equal opportunity but mechanisms for perpetuating social inequalities.  Bowles and Gintis acknowledge, just as Freire did, that some educators are extremely good hearted and well-meaning teachers who do indeed believe in meritocracy and try their best to deliver it. But, Bowles and Gintis argument tries to show that the fundamental structure of the school as a social institution is not this meritocratic institution, but a tool of shaping mindsets for capitalist purposes.  The school, on Bowles and Gintis' view is a secondary social institution. That is, there is a higher level of social institutions, the key one of which is the economy. The school is not an institution in its own right on their argument, rather it is a secondary institution which serves the interest and does the bidding of that higher level institution or prepare students to be dominated by the system of industrial capitalism. The authors argue that schooling has more to do with disciplining the workforce than it does with anything like critical thinking or creativity.  For example they say that as you continue to move up in schooling (Elementary to Jr. High and on to High school and University) the cultural capital and linguistic capital used (the language of the prestige) continues to change and become more and more privileged, thus making it almost impossible for the marginalized to rise above and in effect, become part of the system.  Also, that if say a student is somehow able to make it through these boundaries, there is an inflation of credentials in order to receive a degree or get hired in the workforce making it impossible to keep up with those that “have it good.”

            It is ironic to me that the teacher in “Cheaters” had the student’s trust and faith, yet he proves that he cannot be trusted by encouraging cheating. Then again the school board president also showed an irony (preached the importance of being honest and was guilty of tax evasion) in that everyone has been guilty of a lie or a cheat in their own lives; it is the extremity of the lie that convicts them.  It hit me though that initially I thought that it was unrealistic that these students would jump at the opportunity to dedicate this much time to the decathlon, but then I realized that by me doubting that such a thing could happen I was no more different that the system that doubted they could do well in the first place.

            The film presents an intense ambiguity about real life, in that the film does not ask as much about school and teaching as it does about when civil disobedience is okay and when is it not? Usually the only honorable acts of civil disobedience are those that actually played a part in affecting change. In the case of the “Cheaters” it would seem that their act didn’t change much at all, but rather was a bunch of kids and their teacher seeing how far they could scramble in their own lies. The film had a valuable spin on what occurred, but in actuality I doubt that their intentions in real life were nothing more than to win and nothing less than being afraid of getting caught.


Rotten Tomatoes give this move a 80% rating

Zoom In Analysis will 
DISAGREE with this rating and give it a 7/10.  Though it raises great questions about ethics and questions the schooling system itself, Cheaters falls short because of its many disconnects in storyline and amateur acting (aside from Jeff Daniels who makes up for a lot of it).  As a film it fails on many technical details, but as a movie meant to raise and elicit some critical thinking about the system that these students were victims of it is very much a success.

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