Everything I Know, I Learned From “Clueless”

The title of the post is a complete exaggeration: I can attribute a majority of my professional knowledge to the faculty of the College Student Personnel Administration program, the Office of Residence Life staff, and many of the students at Marquette University, especially in Schroeder Hall. Also, thanks to my dear friend Amma Marfo for inspiring this post.

By Ryan Manning —  Quite possibly my favorite movie of all time is Clueless. Sure, that may make me seem completely vapid and tasteless, but it’s true. I mean, my other top films include widespread favorites like the The Empire Strikes BackTootsie, and Toy Story, but my heart has a soft spot for the adolescent favorites of the 90’s and 2000’s, from 10 Things I Hate About You, to the less renowned though just as lovable Can’t Hardly Wait. We all have our guilty pleasures, I suppose.

If you’re not familiar with Clueless, I suggest you add it to your Netflix queue or perhaps pick it up at your local Redbox. The film, based (loosely) on the Austen’s Emma, follows Beverly Hills teenager Cher Horowitz as she navigates her way through being the most popular girl in school, negotiating her way to better grades, and being the best person she knows how by playing matchmaker for a pair of lovelorn teachers and her new friend Tai. Along the way, Cher gives herself a spiritual makeover, as she learns that there’s more to her happiness than her popularity and wardrobe.

But besides being a truly enjoyable film, Clueless, and films like it, provide an excellent case study for educators to better understand their students. Granted, films may sensationalize the developmental processes of today’s young people, but there is certainly a nugget of truth to them. For instance, Cher’s developmental journey in Clueless is an ideal case study for Kegan’s Orders of Consciousness, an indispensable tool for college student educators that illustrates a person’s interpersonal, intrapersonal, and cognitive development. Cher goes from a girl who measures her self-worth in the admiration of others more than her opinion of herself, and her level of intelligence based solely on the grades she receives (even though she haggles her way from Cs to B+’s). By the end of the film, through a blend of challenge and support from her peers, family, and teachers, Cher makes a clear transition from Kegan’s 2nd to 3rd Order (in dramatic) and other’s perceptions of her become secondary (Object) to her own perception of herself (Subject).

And who says movies can’t be educational? But in all honesty, pop culture, when it portrays adolescence as accurately as possible, has been an excellent supplement for my graduate education, allowing me to applying theoretical concepts to practical situations. For instance, Mean Girls, with its portrayal of teenage girldom as tantamount to the Serengeti, provides a real-to-life example of the effects of the human aggregate on the educational environment. For a more current example, check out the not-too-successful Accepted, where a group of students design their own college and discover the strengths of the student-centered learning model. And it doesn’t just have to be movies: after listening to Bruno Mars’ hit single “Grenade,” I would love to have a conversation with him about what a healthy relationship looks like. The point is, movies don’t always have to have a moral to the story to be educational. They can sometimes show you how to do your job.

In a profession like education, where the characteristics and needs of your students are consistently changing at a rapid rate, it is important to always stay current on new developments in the field. Finding scenarios through pop culture and applying student development theory to them is how I like to make sure I’m always conscious of the best ways to approach education.

What’s your favorite teen-centered movie and what has it taught you about working with young people?

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