Austria, Germany, 2013, 107 minutes
“We do have the power of imagination. I believe we system-atically destroy this capacity in our children routinely, unthinkingly.”
Ken Robinson is an educational scientist and his voice, following the images and sounds of an ultrasound, opens the film Alphabet. He states, supported by images of dry desert landscapes, the point of the film: we are on the wrong track when it comes to educating our children, as we destroy their capacity for creativity and divergent thinking, and only teach them to be productive economically. What follows is a series of interviews and observations that illustrate this point and show an alternative, based on the idea that eventually, humans will develop whatever talent they have in combination with what arouses their interest.
The film starts off in China, where educational scientist Yang Dongping contemplates the non-competitive society of the past, and our present, increasingly competitive one. Upward mobility is the new popular flavour. Early on in the film, one of the problems charted is the tendency to test and examine. The examination business has become a huge industry, including stock market businesses. According to Yang Dongping, exams kill off creative thinking, seeking only standard and pre-set answers. This idea is further personified in protagonist and German educational researcher Andreas Schleicher, who works for the Programme for International Student Assessment, (PISA).
A bunch of experts then reiterates this message; the views of a German neurobiologist, a German-French pedagogue, a German student, a German HR executive are all interwoven. Two examples of alternative possibilities are presented: André Stern, son of the above-mentioned pedagogue, who never went to school and became a musician and guitar builder (and wrote a book about it) and Pablo Pineda Ferrer from Spain, the first European citizen with Down syndrome to get a higher education degree. Statistics are also presented to show that people lose their capacity for divergent thinking as they grow older.
The message is underscored visually. In preparation for the CEO of the Future event, organised by McKinsey, neat rows of chairs with papers and pens all put exactly in same place are taken by participants all neatly dressed in similar dark suits. The sessions take place in anonymous, dime-a-dozen office buildings. The ideal top manager should be performance-driven, and the rest does not matter. At all. The various experts who oppose the current economy of education however, appear in informal interviews while en route, moving, going somewhere, rather than stuck in situ.
The film gives away its point in the very first minutes and moves on to present examples. It seems to follow a state-explain-illustrate format: it states its point, explains what that means and then illustrates it with examples. This is usually a strategy to convince an audience. But in the case of Alphabet, as a narrative and argument, it does not work well. The explanation is too long and repetitive, and the (counter)examples are too exceptional. Most people will not have a talent like Stern junior and most people with Down syndrome have less intellectual capacity than Pineda Ferrer. That doesn’t mean the system should not be questioned though. It is to Wagenhofer’s credit that he does that, but discussion of a convincing idea of what would work for the majority of people is lacking.
Alphabet scrutinizes the current educational system that governs how we educate children both in the West, and increasingly in other societies, arguing that the current system was created in response to the Industrial Revolution, but is outdated for contemporary societies. It can be seen to reflect an upcoming consciousness about how individuals relate to the larger systems that govern society; an emerging public debate that transcends education and also involves healthcare, for instance. Although some kinds of systems might seem necessary to organize the mass of people sharing this earth, the question is: to what extent? But even more important is the question “what should govern such systems: economic profitability or human growth?”
Alphabet raises a very relevant issue, but omits discussion of a feasible step forward. Presenting two successful exceptions to the rule does not suffice here. It tells us to change course but it doesn’t really tell us where to go next.