A Zestful Response to Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar

And now for something different.

Have you recently looked back on a film and been amazed by how much thinking it provoked you to do? I recently attended a chef d’oeuvre by Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar (based on a play by Evelyne de la Chenelière.) It has rightfully earned a nomination for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category (winners to be announced on Feb 26, 2012). After seeing the movie, you will know that, while it is a story through-and-through, it is woven with cognitive ‘pointers’ that get you thinking about important questions, issues and problems. In this post, I discuss some of them. 

But first, what does film have to do with CogZest? Well, CogZest is all about your cognitive productivity and your cognitive enjoyment. Cognitive productivity has to do with producing cognitive products effectively and efficiently. And that requires a lot of information processing. Information processing (reading, viewing, thinking, imagining, reflecting, etc.) is a major source of enjoyment for our customers. To understand what lies behind your processing of conceptual artefacts (theories, specifications, procedures, instructions, etc.), which may be a big part of your day job, it is also helpful to understand something about your nightlife processing of other ‘abstract cultural artefacts’ (poems, films, songs, music, software code— anything you can copyright). Sure, you won’t process artefacts of one type exactly the very same way as the other.  But you will bring the same mind, or ‘society of mind’, to bare on them.  We need to understand the intersection as well as the complement of these sets. CogZest is also about beautiful minds and how they process information. I can’t say I have deep insight into the mind of Falardeau, though there was a memorable (but awkward) occasion in 1985 on which a high school teacher extracted from me a well-founded compliment of it. What I have seen of Falardeau’s work only confirms my previous impressions. I believe, in addition, one can learn about mind by studying the experience of his film.

There are two perspectives from which I’d like to look back at this film. The first, which is the vantage point of this post, is to explore the issues, questions and thoughts that this film raised for me and my companion. This exploration illustrates how an unassuming film can subtly set in motion all kinds of cognitive and affective processing—if we’re willing. The time for this mental work can come from ignoring less ‘potent’ material. (The web is proof that many—even amongst the overworked—have ‘disposable’ time.)

The second is much more ambitious: to analyze an experience of the film in terms of information processing (cognitive science). That is a Big project that to my knowledge has not been done with any film. I don’t think we can fully understand our experience of a film without doing this type of analysis.  In particular, I want to see how the design-based theory of cognoscenti learning I am developing could help understand one’s experience of (the) film. I have never taken this theory, which I will publish later this year, for a spin to understand the experience of art—and I have never seen its ancestors applied in this way either. When the time comes, you’ll need to bear with me as I tend to some of the mechanical problems I will experience along the way. The second perspective is for a later post.  

When your goal is to learn, and your time is limited, you may want to select only the most potent information for processing, and then to dig into it more deeply and longer than you would the rest—i.e., distill it, savour it and learn from it. Life is too short for just skimming and there’s too much Good Stuff out there to justify overemphasizing the rest. That goes for art as well as other learning resources. Not that you’ll want to write 3,500 words every time…

A novel or a film like Monsieur Lazhar is first and foremost a story. But what is one to do with such a story from a psychological perspective? Try the negative. If there is something that almost put me off English lit at university, it was being asked to uncover a story’s true meaning. That makes the reader feel like an imbecile because he cannot accomplish the given task; if he’s lucky, he will realize that the task itself is the wrong one.  So I won’t go there; nor do I aim to describe the film itself (apparently, responses of that type abound).

Your inclination for analysis may differ from mine—consider it a matter of taste. I dislike lecturers who try to pour knowledge into my mind as if I were a bucket.  I sometimes need light theatrical diversion; but, I rarely watch movies, so I usually stay clear of films that staunch analysis by either failing to implicitly raise questions or by asking questions whose answers they (or the ride home) provide to my satisfaction. There is more pleasure in being left wanting—which does not entail that one feels dissatisfied or unsatisfied—au contraire. One of Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite French quotes is apposite: “L’art d’être ennuyeux, c’est de tout dire.”

Monsieur Lazhar provided the pleasure I sought. It is, to me, first and foremost a Good story, meaning I was completely engrossed in it. But the mind, like the brain, processes some information in parallel. So, I developed a growing background awareness that this particular story offered rich, accessible seams to the intellectual prospector.  The open-ended themes easily came to our attention. 

The film points to boxes of problems, issues and concerns that are universal. By “universal” I do not mean applicable to all; I mean applicable to populations (as understood in applied statistics). Each viewer is part of some of the implicated populations, and apart from others. One is both the observer and the observed. 

Here, then, are some of my responses to Monsieur Lazhar.

  • Monsieur Lazhar, the character, just blew me away! His speech flipped an ‘on’ switch in me in the same way that attending Cyrano de Bergerac or listening to Jacques Brel does. Alas, this experience will require extra work of you if you rely on the subtitles: You will need to amplify your perception of Lazhar’s verbal fluency and intellectual might. (As an aside, I understand that translators need to consider multiple exacting constraints in developing subtitles. And all of competitors for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film award are likely on an equal footing with respect to translation. But I envision a better day, when each audience member will be able to input their psychometric profile into a digital media player and be presented with appropriate subtitles: Fast, intelligent readers equipped with a munificent vocabulary will get the Full verbal Monty.)
  • Lazhar quipped in passing “Je trouve ambitieux de vous faire apprendre une seconde langue alors que vous ne maîtrisez pas la première” (“It seems optimistic to me to expect you children to learn a second language given that you have not yet mastered your first.”) This reminds me of the late Canadian Prime Minister (an intellectual and champion of bilingualism, multiculturalism and rationalism), Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, who expressed his consternation in the 1970’s that Québec nationalists were imposing French on all its residents, by saying that they themselves hadn’t even mastered the language. Lazhar’s quip points to boxes of problems, questions, issues, etc.
  • What is Lazhar thinking when he walks by his neighbour’s (Claire’s) classroom while she is leading a spiritual activity of sorts? I supposed that Lazhar was stunned to see the teacher spending classroom time teaching children material he considered as optional. Or maybe he was thinking that Claire should not have drawn an inference out loud that was for them to produce. But my partner had an opposite impression, that Lazhar was longing for something which he, as an intellectual, lacked. (Shortly after this, he started applying his wife’s stickers to his students’ work.) Only one thing is certain: There’s another box!
  • Lazhar responds to the principal at one point, “C’est la vie qui est violente” (“It’s life that’s violent”). Now there is a box for you. Should children be ‘shielded’ from discussing ugly, difficult topics even those that they are obviously grappling with? Why is native spirituality okay but the teacher’s death off limits? What should and should not be dealt with in class? 
  • In more ways than one, Lazhar is not your ordinary teacher. Adults know, from real life and from stories like Monsieur Lazhar, that one complication sometimes triggers another, as in dominos. But is Lazhar someone whose decision-making went awry because of the circumstances? Or does he have a long standing fatal flaw or two? We aren’t spoon fed the answer to this and so we can explore possibilities, which implies that Monsieur Lazhar is not just an audio-visual experience, it encourages the interesting (i.e., interested) viewer to actively explore possibilities. 
  • Did his circumstances ethically justify his choice to take on this classroom? What about people we meet, or just read about, who make decisions we are tempted to quickly condemn? What was their past? What were their constraints? Did Lazhar conclude at some point that he had made a mistake in taking the class on? Where is the evidence? 
  • How does Lazhar feel (how ought we to feel) about the risks to the children, not regarding his license, but regarding his inevitable departure? One classroom. One school year. Two losses. Is this why Lazhar wants them to deal with their grief: so that they can better deal with their next and subsequent losses? “La vie est violente”, so let us prepare them for what matters most as some Buddhists might? Falardeau leads most of us to empathize with Lazhar, but this is true art and this character suggests plenty of questions.
  • And how is Lazhar handling his ghosts, his guilt, his grief? 
  • Young Simon was also caught in a bind. He, too, made a critical decision. His action, also, was part of a stream of unfortunate events. We know that the loss of the first teacher will haunt all of these kids forever. But Simon, like Lazhar, was at the heart of a predicament. 
  • There’s almost no end to the questions and concerns we might have for Simon, who (to me) is not just a character but a pointer to children who get snared in the trap of  the psychopathology of an adult (a parent, leader, whoever) in authority over them.  Compare the son whose parent has a psychiatric disorder but who continues, through his or her (deliberate or tacit) exploitation of principles of “attachment” (which, of course, are also central to grief), to cling to her. Or the child who fails to protect a younger sibling from an abusive parent. There may be no real Simon, but there are real variants of him.
  • Back to the film. Lazhar and Simon’s friend, Sophie, come through, as well as their grieving selves can, for Simon. But what will be Simon’s outcome? It doesn’t look too good. What is the right thing for all to do when faced with a child in this state? 
  • The system responds to the ‘incident’ by dispatching a psychologist whose radar does not produce a blip over his problems. The psychologist proclaims the children, as Lazhar repeated, “guéris” (cured). Now this theme was not whispered to the audience. The pointer was shouted: “It’s Question Period ladies and gentleman! Ask your questions, please!”
  • And thus the film is true to the fact that psychologists (or counselors) are reliably dispatched upon the scene of school tragedy. This measure is always taken in good faith. But the pointer makes us pause and wonder. What role can psychologists effectively play in a system in which the suicide occurred in the first place—a system in which so much is rule-governed, including physical contact? 
  • And what about the education and ongoing training of psychologists who face children in various unfortunate circumstances? Grief is an emotion. Emotion is a very difficult set of problems to characterize and resolve in cognitive science (including psychology)—for example, you’ll find many a bright scholar who, unlike Andrew Ortony, buy into the fallacious notion of ‘basic emotions’. Aaron Sloman, colleagues and I develop information processing theories of affect (including emotion). (By a tragic coincidence, Aaron lost his son just a few years after we published a paper on grief.) The steam engine metaphor (psychodynamics) still is the dominant one in North America with respect to emotions. In cognitive science, the information processing metaphor rules. But is the steam engine still running in the minds of many practicing psychologists? I am only noting questions, not criticizing: All professions and all knowledge workers, myself included, are faced with (and must face) the challenges of continuing education. Professors Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia published a book in 1993, Surpassing Ourselves, that is still relevant to this issue. And that too is what CogZest is about.
  • Empirical psychologists do not, of course, conduct experiments on children to discover how grief can best be handled. To understand grief we need to rely mainly on research on other emotions. There are those who, like Lazhar, believe that kids need active support through grief. On this point, he implicitly agrees with the psychologist. But who should do that work and how? Memory research is very clear that distributed recall practice, coupled with some understanding, is an effective potentiator of memory. There is good reason to believe that reliving trauma perpetuates trauma—the steam engine metaphor of ‘releasing emotional energy’ fails on empirical grounds too. I am not saying that the answer to the previous question is simple. I am saying that the most conspicuous pointer of this movie is also to difficult questions, not to easy answers.
  • Life triggers grief, sooner or later, in all of us. But has society lost its way in dealing with grief? In the not too distant past, life expectancies were shorter and society was more tightly knit. And there were community “processes” and “expertise” for dealing with grief head on. Our enormous societies have now sanitized the inevitable end, death. We have lost our collective ability to deal with it. We cannot apply the bandage of clinical psychology to society’s illness, which is not the death of a teacher, but perhaps our doomed attempt to disentangle ourselves from the human condition: death, touch, dilemma, play, childhood rumbustiousness, isolation, hunger, etc.
  • I assume I was not the only one who was struck by themes of childhood poverty, hunger and parental distancing from children. The drama was launched by a child carrying milk into the school. The movie points to some good and bad. The good is a school system that is organized to handle some basic needs. The bad is that there are children who depend on this charity, including the cherub of the movie, Boris, who receives a little help from Falardeau’s quietly grieving hero. I need not state the obvious questions here, nor that the answers (if any) are far from obvious.
  • Young Alice seems to me to point in as many different directions as Lazhar himself.  I’ll just pick a few. For one, there’s the relationship of children with the adults in their family. Alice’s mother, a pilot, is not only away. What a symbol! The mother is oft thousands of miles away.  Alice seems to be the one who can least handle the loss of the first teacher. Evidently, Alice had formed a significant attachment to the dead teacher. In her teacher she lost another ‘mother’. There’s no sign of the biological father.  Alice ‘attaches’ to Lazhar—who will become for her another loss. Alice’s house key dangles symbolically around her neck… One is led to wonder, more generally, about the effects of children’s isolation: Alice is a strikingly assertive child… partly because she has to fend for herself? Does the necessity of being independent make such children better prepared to deal with tragedy? On the other hand, parental over-involvement is also a common problem today. Imagine poor Alice had she been stuck with stifling parents!
  • And where on earth is Alice’s extended family? How isolated are children today without it (when and before problems hit)? Contrast that with a past Quebec, which some are still alive to remember, whose large families and religious culture processed grief systematically. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s spun Quebec around only 180 degrees, from being the province whose birth rate was the highest in the Western World to the one whose birth rate was the lowest. Quebec’s Alices must deal with grief differently from their ancestors. Has Quebec society adequately adapted its processing of grief? In 1989, my Psychology professor of “La psychologie de la mort et du mourant” (The psychology of death and dying), Dr. Jean Bernabé (now himself deceased), posed this question and answered it in the negative.
  • I cannot leave Alice’s character without stating that if you have not had a young Alice in your life, a smart, well spoken, brilliant girl who ‘assumes herself’ as they say in Québec, then you are missing something.  But she gives Simon a real run for his money. 
  • Let’s switch back to purer cognition: The ‘dictées’ (dictation). At Collège St-Alexandre, Falardeau and I were blessed with some of the best teachers I have known. Amongst our language teachers, including Mona MacLeod and François Turmel, to whom I and several other of their graduates have expressed an intellectual debt (but who are not responsible for the problems with my writing, including the prior syntactically (if not semantically) ambiguous pronominal reference and this run-on sentence), dictées were very popular. And rightly so: they are an effective tool not only for learning to spell, but developing a tacit understanding of interesting grammatical possibilities, learning to construct thoughts and sentences, and learning to use words and concepts. Those real life dictées were carefully chosen, as I am sure were Falardeau’s. I venture that it is nearly impossible to learn to write correctly in French, let alone well, without having learnt its grammar and taken dictées. 
  • The film reminded me that I heard, a few years ago, a Québec university professor lament that the French language high school curriculum has been eviscerated… They’ve pulled grammar from the curriculum! They’ve vitiated sophomores’ writing skills and shifted a new burden onto University faculty.  Quebec’s hopes for producing new Falardeaus rests in the hands of its best teachers and schools, who I am sure, have not followed the leadership of surrender and indolence.
  • Speaking of the wonders of language education as it should be done, we have the Fables.  Here Falardeau tickles the memories of generations of former students. Moreover, he reminds us that if students are propitiously engaged, fables do not merely build academic skills. They provide timeless lessons in life—over centuries and over one’s lifespan. They are conceptual tools that we can use as references to make sense of our day-to-day experience and guide our decision making. While fable is essential to this story’s dénouement, again Falardeau is subtle. The issue can fly over one’s head if one were to set the film to rest forever in peace immediately after enjoying it.
  • My speciality is adult information processing and self-education. Still, one of the things that struck me after the film, as it may have you, is that some things have changed, and must have changed, in schools of late. Falardeau, in the spirit of simplicity and elegance that commands respect in all disciplines, (seems to have) used Simon’s camera as a device to evoke another tectonic shift in schools: information technology. So when Lazhar walked into his classroom, he was from a different place and I from a different era. There are of course constants: the basics of the human mind, its cognitive, social and emotional needs and its mechanisms. So here’s a question: How would someone you know from Lazhar’s generation behave if they wound up teaching a Montreal classroom one Monday morning? This reminds me of an author to whom our Mona MacLeod introduced us: Edgar Allan Poe. The story? “A Predicament”.
  • If you grew up outside of the True North, then the King of the Mountain game might not mean much to you. I can’t help but consider Lazhar to be a sympathetic character because he intuitively grasped what we Canadians know (or ought to know), i.e., that this game is an important one for boys. Lazhar referred to it as “un jeu de garçon” (“a boy’s game”, which we would at least rephrase as “A physical child’s game”). Dr. Stuart Brown (a psychiatrist whose speciality is play) would agree with Lazhar. (You can check out Brown’s very accessible book: Play and listen to the excellent Brain Science Podcast interview of him by Ginger Campbell.) So there’s another box of important contemporary issues that Falardeau, deliberately or not, alludes to in passing.

If only Santa would bring as many boxes to children as Monsieur Lazhar, the film, has to its viewers!

Lest one take this admittedly long post as a complete violation of Churchill’s favourite French quote, I’ll approach its end by noting that there is more left for one to ponder in Monsieur Lazhar, such as suicide, violence, geopolitics, how behaviour is shaped by circumstance, bullying, the relationship between boy and girl, classroom banter, other dimensions of childhood psychology,  experience and development, etc.  

The book credits rolled by too fast for me to take note of them (I noticed L’énigme du retour of Dany Laferrière during the movie). The images of books and the score reminded me of the importance of that part of our intellectual lives, which can be a source of comfort, distraction, personal development and knowledge even amidst the emotional tornadoes that occasionally mess up our lives. And that, dear reader, is one of the things which CogZest is about.

Down the road, I will return to Part Two of this, as specified above, which is to analyze the experience of the film in information processing terms. 

If you would like to explore how you or your employees can optimally derive benefits from the reading and learning you or they do, please checkout our services and stay tuned for more specific content on our web site. Our services are inspired by cognitive science; but unlike parts of this playful post they are hands on, concrete and plainly communicated!

Luc P. Beaudoin
CogZest

Disclaimers and notes

  1. I have no expertise in film du tout.
  2. Philippe Falardeau and I went to high school together (Collège St-Alexandre). (But I have no idea whether the ideas discussed here were on his mind. That doesn’t matter. My purpose is neither to analyze the writer nor to describe or assess the film.)
  3. I have not yet read Bashir Lazhar.
  4. I agree with Douglas Adams on the issue of ‘aboutness’ of art, to which he alludes in his foreword to P. G. Wodehouse’s Sunset at Blandings.
  5. As a courtesy to Dr. Campbell of our initiative, the links to Stuart Brown’s books are links to the Amazon store of Ginger Campbell. We have no financial or other stake in that.

Acknowledgments

  1. Thanks to Professor Claude Lamontagne for using the expression ‘bourré de pointeurs’ in his review of a recent paper in honour of another beautiful mind, Professor Aaron Sloman. That got me thinking in terms of ‘pointers’— a meme you might find worth hosting. 
  2. Thanks to my partner for discussing the film with me. We raised most of the core issues expressed above the evening on which we viewed the show.
  3. Thanks to her as well for commenting on a draft of this document.
  4. See also Revision history below.

References (just as a courtesy)

Adams, D. (2003). The salmon of doubt: and other writings (p. 336). Pan Macmillan.

Beaudoin, Luc. P. (2011). Experts’ productive learning from formal knowledge: Motive generators and productive practice. In Jeremy Wyatt (Ed.), A symposium in Honour of Aaron Sloman: from animals to robots and back: Reflections on hard problems in the study of cognition (pp. 139-172). Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham.

Bereiter, C. (2002). Education and mind in the knowledge age (544 p.). Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Earlbaum Associates.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise (279 p.). Chicago: Open Court.

de la Chenelière, É. (2011). Bashir Lazhar (44 p.). Leméac.

Boden, M. A. (1996). Commentary on “Towards a Design-Based Analysis of Emotional Episodes.” Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 3(2), 135-136.

Boden, M. A. (2008). Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science , 2 vols. (1,631 p.).

Brown, S. (2009). Play (240 p.). Penguin Books.

Campbell, G. (2009). Why play is essential to brain health with Dr. Stuart Brown (BSP 60). Brain Science Podcast. Retrieved from http://www.brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/why-play-is-essential-to-brain-health-with-dr-stuart-brown-b.html

Churchill, W. S. (1930). A roving commission: my early life (382 p.).

Falardeau, P. (2011). Monsieur Lazhar. micro_scope.

Hawes, N. (2011). A survey of motivation frameworks for intelligent systems. Artificial Intelligence, 175(5-6), 1020 – 1036.

Minsky, M. (2006). The emotion machine: Commonsense thinking, artificial intelligence, and the future of the human mind (387 p.). Simon & Schuster.

Minsky, M. L. (1986). The society of mind (339 p.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Ortony, A., & Turner, T. J. (1990). What’s basic about basic emotions? Psychological Review, 97(3), 315-331.

Poe, E. A. (n.d.). Edgar Allan Poe: The Complete Anthology of Short Stories & Poems (with Illustrations & optimized for Kindle). (CC Web Press, Ed.). CreateSpace.

Pressley, M., & Afflerbach, P. (1995). Verbal protocols of reading: The nature of constructively responsive reading (157 p.). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Laurence Earlbaum Associates.

Roediger, H. L. (2000). Why retrieval is the key process to understanding human memory. In E. Tulving (Ed.), Memory, consciousness and the brain: The Tallinn conference. Philadelphia:: Psychology Press.

Sloman, A. (1978). The computer revolution in philosophy: Philosophy, science and models of mind. The Philosophical Review (300 p.). Harvester Press. doi:10.2307/2184449

Sloman, A. (1993). The mind as a control system. In C. Hookway & D. Peterson (Eds.), Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences (pp. 69-110). Cambridge University Press.

Winne, P. H. (2001). Self-regulated learning viewed from models of information processing. In B. J. Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 153-189). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Wright, I., Sloman, A., & Beaudoin, L. P. (1996). Towards a design-based analysis of emotional episodes. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 3(2), 101-126. doi:10.1353/ppp.1996.0022

Postscript:

2012-02-14
Book credits were listed here: http://www.micro-scope.ca/pdf/ML_Equipe.pdf
This interview with Philippe Falardeau was brought to my attention after I wrote my response. Luckily I didn’t have a chance to read this or watch the movie a second time before writing—would have had yet more difficulty stopping. Best to conceive one’s response before that, anyway.

Revision history
2012-02-14. Fixed typos. Overlaid some hyperlinks. Fixed very minor infelicities.
2012-02-15. Added an invitation. And fixed writing errors found by the real Mona MacLeod.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest.
Author of Cognitive Productivity .
Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker.
Adjunct Professor of Education & Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science, Simon Fraser University
Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp.
See About Me for more information.