JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Professor Norman Cornett (Director/Writer: Alanis Obomsawin) - May 25, 2009
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Professor Norman Cornett

4.5 4.5
81 min.

Reviewed at the 2009 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
Up the stream of consciousness without a paddle

Just as “the state has no business in the bedrooms of its citizens” (Pierre Elliott Trudeau), unbridled, “anything goes” teaching has no place in the accredited institutions of learning.

In Alanis Obomsawin’s latest documentary (cross-references below) the plight of McGill University graduate (PhD in Church History) and former-employee professor Norman Cornett is thoroughly examined.

Thanks to student footage from eight years of his classes, viewers receive a firsthand education in Cornett’s “dialogic” approach to learning. With the overall goal of teaching young minds how to think for themselves rather than systematically digest then regurgitate facts, this academic rebel-with-a-cause swam against the tide of publish-or-perish/tenure at all costs for fifteen years before the system sent him packing without a word of explanation.

Tragic to the students who revelled in his techniques (artists of all stripes, politicians, religious leaders came to class, sharing insights from their areas of expertise; the young minds were charged with crafting written “reflections” on what they saw, heard, understood or felt; they were also encouraged to choose new names—rather like creating a persona in Internet chatrooms), they got a sense of self that is as rare as true academic freedom in the 300+ larger classes that have become so economically common in mainstream subjects. From the abundant interviews with his pupils, the respect, admiration and thanks for their new-found skills/confidence of expression and ability to appreciate that the “right” answer is not always the best answer is palpable.

Not surprisingly, no one from the powers-that-be in McGill (as opposed to many of his colleagues who looked forward to participating in these classes) would appear on camera. Despite numerous written requests and legal actions, no reason was ever given for the dismissal. Undergraduate Leon Mwotia whose love of the university was deeply shaken at the sudden firing said it all: “The whole affair was shameful.”

To ease the pain, like her indefatigable subject, Obomsawin has wisely included much music in the production. Jazz lovers will enjoy the flying fingers of Oliver Jones (“Dancing Cheek to Cheek”) and David Amram’s French horn, scat and keyboard skills (notably “Pull My Daisy”), DD Jackson’s “Lushly,” J.S. Bach’s “Prelude” from the First Cello Suite (played with style and conviction by Matt Maimovitz) and Xin Ben Yu’s thoughtful interptretation of Franz Liszt’s Libestraum No. 3.

Cornett’s wife, Laura, adds her especially moving perspective as she grapples with her principled husband’s unemployment and rapidly progressing cancer. Her scenes at home, in the garden, painting therapeutically, celebrating a grandchild and sending her children on a special red, white and grey quest to the Grand Canyon are an education in themselves.

But perhaps the most telling moment comes when Cornett reads aloud one of his charge’s "reflections" (this is always done anonymously to encourage am open and honest response to the subject matter). At once, the energized professor is on stage, delivering the lines with pauses, inflection and variety of tone that can’t help but add his own interpretation to whomever penned the “script.” Deprived of this forum in the spotlight of his adoring audience, there’s little wonder that Cornett, like a fading actor whose agent no longer calls, will do anything to regain his own life-giving position.

Aye, there’s the rub. This type of mind-engaging, self-esteem building is at odds with the strict obedience that is demanded by our educational factories. Rather than bemoan his abrupt departure, Cornett should be thankful he lasted so long, and then—similar to Amram who is working on the composition of his first piano concerto despite an already storied career—should find another forum for his considerable ability of inspiring emerging minds to think without the box. JWR

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