ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Walter White, the “Breaking Bad” teacher gone bad, has just been examined under a harsh new light of education philosophy and found to be wanting. He is not just a bad teacher; he is a very bad teacher.
This most recent criticism is found in an article published by Samuel Chambers, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University who teaches a class called Cultural Politics of Television.
Chambers looks at the “Breaking Bad” characters – sociopaths all – through the eyes of French writer and philosopher Jacques Rancière.
” ‘Breaking Bad’ is a story about a teacher and his student – a failed teacher and a failed student,” Chambers writes. “Walter White is a failure in his own eyes, because his career as a potentially world-famous, world-changing chemist (as a graduate student he was part of a research team that won a Nobel Prize) has turned, at the age of 50, into a career as a bored and boring high school teacher in suburban Albuquerque.”
As the student who suffers under the bad teaching of White (Bryan Cranston), the hapless 25-year-old Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is now White’s partner in the meth-making business. The two first met when Jesse, as a high schooler, took Mr. White’s class and flunked.
Chambers’ 36-page analysis, “Walter White is a Bad Teacher: Pedagogy, Partage, and Politics in Season 4 of Breaking Bad,” appears in the spring issue of the journal Theory & Event. It is as much about the philosophy of Rancière as “Breaking Bad,” and much of it is written in an academic style.
Chambers also argues that Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a bloodthirsty thug who appeared in the Emmy-winning show set in Albuquerque, “shows up and in many ways offers Jesse an alternative model of teaching,” the professor said in an email to the Journal. “Gus doesn’t presume Jesse’s ignorance but rather presumes Jesse’s equal intelligence; Gus grants Jesse the assumption that Jesse can figure it out for himself.”
Chambers argues that Walt uses the standard, traditional schoolmaster model of teaching in which the teacher is the expert. “On this model, the teacher assigns a book to the student to read, and then … goes through it and explains to the student what it means. However, in explaining the text to the student, the teacher has to assume that the student can’t understand it for himself.”
This is pure Rancière, who has argued that “to explain something to someone is first of all to show him that he cannot understand it by himself.” This traditional model of teaching is based on constant reminders of the superiority of teacher over student – at which White is adept.
In the first three seasons, White is Jesse’s only teacher. But in Season 4, “Gus Fring shows up and in many ways offers Jesse an alternative model of teaching,” Chambers says. “Gus doesn’t presume Jesse’s ignorance but rather presumes Jesse’s equal intelligence; Gus grants Jesse the assumption that Jesse can figure it out for himself.” At one point, Gus tells Jesse, “well done.” No words “more directly and succinctly express the relation of (approving) teacher to student,” Chambers says.
Ultimately, the gist of “Breaking Bad” “is not just Gus and Walt as good or bad teachers,” Chambers concludes. “The very question of teaching and learning, of a radical pedagogy that can emancipate an individual – all of this is at stake in the show, and it therefore includes larger questions about knowledge and learning, about power and teaching, in our democratic society in which the question of equality plays a crucial role.”
All this from a TV show.