February 15, 1996

From Gerald R. Lucas

Response to Mr. Holland’s Opus

Rather than approaching Mr. Holland’s Opus from the perspective of a movie critic—a viewpoint that would be relatively too critical in this case—I shall discuss Richard Dreyfuss’ most recent movie by utilizing a pedagogical approach; i.e. what made Mr. Holland an influential teacher?

Teaching was initially approached by Mr. Holland as a “fall-back” career. The belief that teaching is somehow a lesser profession is an erroneous one that is, unfortunately, shared by many. Since Americans have a penchant for judging the success of one’s occupation in direct relation to the amount of money it makes, then teaching is not a “good” occupation. Mr. Holland’s former student-turned-governor stated that “Mr. Holland is not rich,” near the movie’s end. True. He is not rich in a monetary sense; however, as she also pointed out, he is rich in other ways.

Mr. Holland discovered that the richness of teaching lies in the ability to effect another’s life in a positive direction. Although he started his teaching career in a brusque, impatient manner, Mr. Holland soon acquired the sagacity and patience to relate his subject matter to the students’ lives. Teaching is not possible if the instructor cannot speak the students’ language. Mr. Holland was able to translate his love and passion for music into his students—he made them see the art in it—the truth. Mr. Holland, in effect, turned his teaching into art.

The presence of Beethoven dominated the movie’s imagery. Like Beethoven, Mr. Holland had to overcome adversity in the pursuit of his art. His first attempt with the school orchestra sounded the dissonant chords of a barely-recognizable Symphony No. 5: Fate stumbled and fell against his door. The ever-present bust of the romantic composer glared in defiance of everything Mr. Holland attempted; yet, he was able to turn his defeat into a victory for himself and sundry students over his 30-year tenure.

A further reconciliation with his personal life, with his deaf son (another link to Beethoven), was possible through Mr. Holland’s own growth. In an attempt to touch the lives of those who cannot hear through music, Mr. Holland made a connection with his own son that no other form of communication could have made possible.

The whole question of communication runs throughout the movie. Art is the idiom by which Mr. Holland touches the lives of his students, family, and friends. His mode of communication is threatened at the movie’s end—without the arts, Holland states, people will have “nothing to write about.” Despite the importance of this issue, it seems that it is meant to be blithely forgotten in the celebration for Mr. Holland at the movie’s end. Yet, music is what makes us human; to take away the arts would be to take away our humanity. Mr. Holland knew this, but no matter hoe good the teacher is, it seems that he cannot reach everyone—especially those whose lives are ruled by the almighty dollar.

While not perfect (whoever is?), Mr. Holland epitomizes what every teacher should strive for: wisdom, passion, tenacity, and love. Mr. Holland brought his students together with his passion, and instilled in them a passion, through art, to follow their dreams.