Thoughts on Whiplash
Is Abusive Teaching Worth It?
I recently saw the movie Whiplash.
The movie centers on the life of aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman as he studies under the tutelage of the abusive Terrence Fletcher.
(For those of you who haven’t seen it, I do recommend it, although one should be aware going in it contains strong themes of emotional and physical abuse.)
While the effects of Fletcher’s abuse on Neiman are horrible, the film raises questions about the nature of abuse and its place in (or relationship to) greatness.
Before getting into the details, we need to clarify what we mean by “abuse” and “greatness”.
Definitions: Abuse and Greatness
In the movie, Fletcher employs a variety of mental, emotional, psychological, and physical abuse.
In no particular order, he:
slaps Neiman at the tempo he wants Neiman to drum at
viciously insults Neiman, along with other members of the jazz band
threatens Neiman with constant expulsion from a prestigious band
alternates being nice to Neiman with haranguing him for his failures
throws a chair at Neiman’s head
The key elements here are that
Fletcher has power over Neiman due to his position as Neiman’s teacher and the gatekeeper to career success in Neiman’s field, and
Fletcher uses that power to purposefully break Neiman down physically and psychologically.
Neiman wants to be one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. That is his clear goal and motivation.
Here, we’ll define greatness as something akin to “all-star”, “greatest of all time”, or “historic”. Neiman mentions at one point that he wants to be remembered - that he wants to have such talent and ability that his accomplishments will outlast his life.
This is the sort of greatness we’re talking about. Not just being the best in a field at a given time, but being remembered as one of the best long after you’re dead.
The Three Questions
With our definitions squared away, we can move on to the questions.
Whiplash raises three questions worth exploring:
Is abusive teaching capable of creating greatness?
Is abuse in teaching necessary to create greatness?
If abuse is necessary to create greatness, is that worth it?
Is Abusive Teaching Capable of Creating Greatness?
Trivially, the answer here is yes.
At some point in human history, some great musician or mathematician or athlete or whatever was taught by a teacher that abused them as part of the pedagogy, and became a great musician/mathematician/athlete/etc. Specific examples are hard to find, often because a) the line between strict coaching and abuse is not always as clear as we might wish, and b) people don’t tend to talk about it, but it has to have happened before.
This is what’s called an existence proof: proving that something is possible because it happened.
Less trivially, we might ask: does abuse in teaching contribute to greatness? It takes immense pressure and heat to turn coal into diamonds - does intense pressure do the same to people?
Is Abusive Teaching Necessary For Greatness?
Once again we have a trivial existence proof: of all the human greats, surely at least one of them had to have been trained without the sort of abuse in Whiplash.
So no, abuse in teaching can’t be necessary to produce the sort of skill that goes down in history.
That being said, there can be a certain value in strictness or harshness when teaching. Military basic training is known for being harsh, as is elite special forces training. In some sense they can be said to attempt to break someone down by subjecting them to emotional and physical hardship.
Drill instructors are rather famous (at least in film) for abusing their recruits - in fact, Fletcher’s abuse is similar in a lot of ways to the depictions I’ve seen of military training, and yet I denounce Fletcher’s methods and sanction the military’s.
Harsh Training for Harsh Jobs
Military training is harsh because military reality is harsh. Soldiers are subjected to terrible hardship in combat, and their training reflects that expectation. War is a matter of life and death, and if harsh, seemingly-abusive training makes a soldier better able to survive, that seems like a reasonable cost.
Being a jazz musician is not a matter of life and death. Nor is being one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. While the pressure of succeeding in that field may be enormous, the stakes are surely lower than in the military.
Military training is harsh because it needs to be to give soldiers the resilience to survive; Fletcher’s training was harsh because he thought it would get results and didn’t care about the collateral damage.
On top of that, the military mitigates the damage its harsh training does through several methods, most notably community: a recruit can see their peers experiencing the same hardships, and bond over it with them.
Fletcher, on the other hand, isolated Neiman from others in his life in order to break him down further.
While being a great jazz musician may be a demanding and pressure-filled job, it does not seem to justify Fletcher’s teaching methods, even if they increased the odds of Neiman’s success in the field.
Odds of Success
Perhaps a better question than ‘Is abuse in teaching necessary to create greatness?’ would be:
Does abuse in teaching raise the odds of achieving greatness over alternative methods?
This is, I submit, an empirical question, although studying it would be difficult to do morally, even without bringing the dreaded Institutional Review Board into it.
While I don’t have a peer-reviewed study to answer the question, I suspect that abuse is not, in fact, the most effective means of pedagogy in most circumstances. While Fletcher’s abuse certainly motivates Neiman, it motivates him right into a car crash - the method of training and the result seem intertwined; unhealthy training creates an unhealthy life.
So does Fletcher’s abusive teaching increase the odds of Neiman reaching his dream, over other alternative methods?
The film leaves such questions to us. My best guess is that Neiman needed a teacher to achieve the greatness he sought, and Fletcher is sufficiently good at jazz music to serve as that teacher. Neiman very well might achieve greatness under Fletcher - but the abuse was not a necessary ingredient, nor did it make Neiman’s success any more likely. Another teacher with Fletcher’s knowledge of jazz would have sufficed, and likely left Neiman with far fewer scars, both visible and invisible.
Is Abusive Teaching Worth It?
This seems like a strange question to ask at this point - the answer should clearly be ‘no’, right?
Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that:
Neiman’s only available teacher was Fletcher,
Neiman could achieve the greatness he sought under Fletcher’s (abusive) tutelage, and
Neiman understood Fletcher’s abuse was the price to pay to achieve his dreams.
Would Neiman consider that price worth it?
Based on the movie, I think the answer to that question is actually yes. Neiman is so determined to achieve his dream that, for him, Fletcher’s abuse is worth weathering, regardless of whether or not it was necessary.
Regardless of whether or not it destroys him in the end.
For Neiman, for anyone willing to pay any price to achieve their dreams, the cost is not an issue. Only the result.
Of course, this in no way justifies Fletcher’s methods - but so long as people like Neiman exist and Fletcher can, in fact, help such people reach their dreams - there will be a demand for people like Fletcher.
The Economics of Abusive Teaching
A full treatment of this topic would be worth a full post, and is largely beyond my knowledge and abilities, but I think there’s an observation worth pointing out here.
There will, so long as there are people, be those who struggle to achieve greatness.
This creates a demand for tutelage, mentorship, apprenticeship, or whatever else one might call the training that such greatness necessitates.
There exists, so long as there are people, those who can train others to greatness.
This creates a supply of trainers.
If the supply of trainers is larger than the demand of those who aspire, then we should expect those who aspire to greatness to have their pick, and pick trainers and teachers who don’t abuse them.
I don’t think that the supply of trainers is larger than the demand for them - much the opposite. Since those capable of training someone to greatness are generally those who are either great or close to great themselves, their number is naturally limited. Those like Neiman, on the other hand, who want to be great - why, their number isn’t limited by anything except ambition, which anyone can have.
So we should expect the demand for trainers to far outstrip the supply.
Which means that all the non-abusive trainers will have their pick of students, and then there will still be plenty of students left over, all clamoring for attention from any trainer willing to give it to them, even as the behavior of the trainer becomes worse and worse on the margin.
Abusive teaching, when it comes to greatness, exists and is tolerated not because it is good, or just, or even effective - but because it can, because people who aspire to greatness are willing to endure it for a chance to reach their dreams, and they have no better options.
One of the most fascinating things about Whiplash is that, later in the movie, Fletcher is fired from his position as a teacher at the conservatory Neiman studied at.
And then Neiman, who was expelled from that conservatory, voluntarily goes to play jazz under Fletcher’s tutelage again.
It’s a confusing moment, made even more confusing as it’s made clear that Fletcher knows Neiman got him fired, Fletcher intends to take revenge by tanking Neiman’s career in front of prominent jazz critics, and then-
-Neiman turns it around on Fletcher, executing a fantastic improvised jazz drum performance, hijacking Fletcher’s intentions to display his own skill-
-and Fletcher not only helps Neiman, once Fletcher figured out what Neiman was doing, but seems genuinely happy about it.
The film doesn’t leave us with easy answers. It doesn’t take sides, or justify anything.
It simply presents a story, and leaves us to ask the questions.
And the main question - is it worth it? - is not something I have an answer for. Not personally, not for me.
What about you?
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