Amy Heckerling’s 1995 Clueless tells the story of 15-year-old Cher Horowitz and her misadventures. Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the film substitutes Beverly Hills for Yorkshire, high school classes for the class-based vitriol of high society, and the presumptuous naiveté of an indulged American teen girl for the presumptuous naiveté of an indulged English young lady. If Emma is a bildungsroman, the movie literalizes its protagonist’s social education: Cher attends the telegenic version of an American secondary school, where cliques constitute an impermeable caste system, grades are negotiable, and no one seems to do any real work at all.
A darling of avid readers, Clueless, like much of Austen’s writing, simultaneously radiates caustic bite and sentimental optimism. Heckerling offers the viewer the opportunity to be both seduced by and critical of a protagonist on the threshold of Austen-esque enlightened self-consciousness. “I loved Josh!” the heroine eventually exclaims of the overlooked hero. But the means of enlightenment originate in a tiny hidden detail. Rather than Hartfield High or Highbury High, à la Austen, the teenagers of Clueless attend Bronson Alcott High.
At the 19:06 mark, the camera pans past a yearbook emblazoned with the school’s name; three minutes later, the protagonist confirms it: “We decided,” Cher announces of her new, “adorably clueless” friend, “to show Tai the ropes at Bronson Alcott High School.” Why?
Here’s the 411 on Bronson Alcott:
He was born in 1799 to a farming family in a rocky, unprosperous region of Connecticut. Alcott was an autodidact–his formal schooling ended when he was about thirteen. Throughout his long life, he peddled wares, taught school, organized the communal society of Fruitlands, worked as a manual laborer, and toured as a professional conversationalist. In other words, he earned minor ducats at a series of more or less thankless jobs. Today, we mostly remember him because of his daughter, Louisa May, who was so sapped by meeting the financial needs of her family that she died of a stroke at 55, two days after her father’s death.
Nevertheless, Bronson Alcott has a covert but persistent legacy in our popular imagination. There’s a reason that his name tells us something important about Clueless, and about ourselves: the debate that he ignited about education is one that we’re still having.
Many of Alcott’s enterprises, Fruitlands among them, failed spectacularly, but none elicited such harsh public condemnation as the School for Human Culture, which opened in 1834 in Boston’s Tremont Street Masonic Temple.
The so-called Temple School emphasized conversation and introspection rather than memorization and recitation. Alcott led the class in a series of conversations on Gospel readings, which he introduced by saying, “If we all say what we think…we shall teach each other.” With the help of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Margaret Fuller, he published two volumes of the transcribed Conversations with Children on the Gospels.
The books were lambasted, infamously, as “one third absurd, one third blasphemous, and one third obscene.” Alcott’s Conversations took the teachings of Christ and the values that proper Bostonian society derived from them—modesty, humility, humanity, benevolence—and subjected both to the scrutiny of children. Children! Speaking!
Not surprisingly, the modern coddled child has its origins in this cultural moment. The 1830s witnessed the dawn of the cult of the child, with a deluge of parenting books, unsolicited public advice, and didactic children’s literature. Yet America’s one-room schoolhouses also guaranteed an entrenched pedagogical practice: schools continued to expect students to be very quiet, sit very still, and recite their lessons very accurately, even if they did not understand a word. An anti-corporal punishment movement was stirring, but teachers still wielded the ferule, like Ichabod Crane, to help “some tardy loiterer along the flowery path of knowledge.” As Alcott noted, “There are always those who think it prudence to oppose every thing new.”
What made the Temple School controversial—Alcott closed its doors in 1838—is what makes Clueless compelling as educational commentary now. In a space where the youths speaking outnumber the adults mediating, the former hold forth on significant topics about which they know almost nothing. The film touches on immigration reform (“if the government could just get to the kitchen and rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians”), Shakespeare (“that Polonius guy”), altruism (“we should do something good for mankind or the planet for a couple of hours”), and natural disaster relief (“Daddy, some people lost all their belongings, don’t you think that includes athletic equipment?”).
Tai, naive enough to be impressed by her friends’ supposed verbal sophistication, notes nervously, “You guys talk like grown-ups.” In this sense, the precocious, privileged teens of Clueless are not so different from the Temple School students. The most irreverent moments in Alcott’s Conversations occur when children, some of them as young as six, sagely hold forth on conception and birth (“naughtinesses, put together, make a body for the child; but the spirit is the best part of it”), the voice of conscience (“I might as well pretend not to hear a cannon”), and the wedding miracle at Cana (“If he had not done any other miracle, I should have thought that Jesus brought the wine himself”).
Critics of the Temple School—there were many, and they were loud—believed that this license to speak freely functioned as just another form of licentiousness. The English writer Harriet Martineau sniffed of Alcott that he did a disservice to his students, “relaxing their bodies, pampering their imaginations.”
This critique was true—the Temple School was quite cushy—but Alcott also institutionalized a process of intellectual development that we prize when we can make it work. This process, the components of which we identify now as “self-expression” and “critical reading,” is about nothing so much as reinventing the wheel, guiding students to think and learn for themselves even if they wind up at interpretations and ideas articulated by others before them.
If education in the 1830s had not yet developed a vocabulary for thinking about the use value of self-expression, by the turn of the last century education could not escape critiques of its twisted tendency to imbue children with a reverence for what they have to say. From her mispronunciation of “Haitians” to her claim that Ren and Stimpy is “way existential,” Cher possesses an utter, insular, and completely misguided confidence that she knows what she’s doing.
Fans revere the film, source of a totally ’90s vernacular, for its linguistic silliness, but this silliness underlies a more sophisticated argument. After all, how clueless does Cher really turn out to be? On the one hand, her enthusiastic, confident, tone-deaf chatter—conversation is how her cluelessness reveals itself—points up the erstwhile indulgences of progressive education. On the other, her character develops traits that teachers of language and literature strive to replicate: self-centered, guileless, “superficial space cadet” Cher gives way to sympathetic, self-reflective, critical Cher. She becomes a person who enlists in larger causes, recognizes wisdom, and is capable of deep emotion.
The paradox of American education has always been how to reconcile a national obsession with individualism with the often soul-crushing realities of institutional life: if all citizens in a democracy necessarily stand on equal political footing, then why must citizens be schooled to attain the very status that they inalienably possess? One reasonable response is that we must learn to be citizens as well as individuals. In the end, the self-expressive and critical practices Alcott introduced to the classroom are less about individualism than about a kind of enlightened humanism, understanding how one fits into an expansive pattern. Cher’s triumph lies in learning to read the world more critically and finding it messy, exhilarating, and much larger than herself.
And—hello?!—the final take on the man largely ignored by history, whom Louisa May biographers love to hate? Alcott’s radicalism is what we tell ourselves American education is at heart and, at least in theory, what we want it to be. As Cher tells Tai, “Oh, well, this is a really good school.”
Jessica Collier: breaks away.