Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Re-Examined

Ferris Bueller's Day OffI went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theater the summer before I started ninth grade. We had just moved to Maryland Heights, MO, and I would be attending school at Parkway North High School in Crève Coeur in a few weeks. I didn’t know anyone. I remember feeling scared and stressed. How would I be expected to dress? How would I make friends? Why hadn’t my mother signed me up for band?

Obviously the larger message of the film was one calculated to appeal to people in my age group: the sort of carpe diem theme I would later visit in the poetry of Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell (and they were writing in the seventeenth century—there truly is nothing new under the sun). But there was also this notion of defying authority, represented in the movie by the dean of students, Mr. Rooney. Authority wants Ferris in school instead of out and about in Chicago, where he will actually learn important stuff about life. Perhaps no scene embodies the uselessness of school as well as Ben Stein’s famous economics lecture:

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Despite the fact that this film turned 25 years old (yes! I checked Wikipedia!) this past summer, it still resonates. My students were talking about it, in fact, just this week. There is no doubt that it has become a pop culture icon, and it’s interesting to look at its critical reception. Richard Roeper is a big fan. His license plate even says “SVFRRIS.” He says the film is

[O]ne of my favorite movies of all time. It has one of the highest ‘repeatability’ factors of any film I’ve ever seen… I can watch it again and again. There’s also this, and I say it in all sincerity: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is something of a suicide prevention film, or at the very least a story about a young man trying to help his friend gain some measure of self-worth… Ferris has made it his mission to show Cameron that the whole world in front of him is passing him by, and that life can be pretty sweet if you wake up and embrace it. That’s the lasting message of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Wikipedia)

Steve Almond says, it is “the most sophisticated teen movie [he has] ever seen” and added that it is “one film [he] would consider true art, [the] only one that reaches toward the ecstatic power of teendom and, at the same time, exposes the true, piercing woe of that age” (Wikipedia). National Review writer Mike Hemmingway says, “If there’s a better celluloid expression of ordinary American freedom than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I have yet to see it. If you could take one day and do absolutely anything, piling into a convertible with your best girl and your best friend and taking in a baseball game, an art museum, and a fine meal seems about as good as it gets” (Wikipedia). One of the film’s stars, Ben Stein, describes it as “the most life-affirming movie possibly of the entire post-war period” (Wikipedia). I found it interesting that such a diverse group as Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell, and Justin Timberlake call it their favorite film.

I remember the film resonating quite strongly with me and other members of my generation. It remains a cultural touchstone. We have all felt like taking a day off without permission, playing hookey, and getting away with it. But I was thinking quite a lot about the film’s message about school, particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s recent death. In his commencement address to Stanford in 2005, Jobs admits to dropping out of college after a semester and auditing classes he found interesting: famously, he credits one class he took in calligraphy for awakening an awareness of and interest in typefaces that would inform development of fonts on Apple computers. Neither Jobs or his sometime friend and rival Bill Gates graduated from college. I have heard them cited in arguments that college is unnecessary, and the message that school isn’t really necessary and actually can impede your real learning is a big part of Ferris Bueller. I’ve not necessarily heard either Jobs or Gates make that argument, but the fact is that both of them learned by taking a risk and jumping in, failing, then trying again. I’m not sure school could have taught them what they needed to know to do that, beyond the basic skills. Frankly, I have never heard anyone advance the argument that Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane would have spent their day better in school.

I don’t think it hurts us to examine whether what we’re teaching students—and the way we’re teaching them—is relevant to their lives, both in the present and the future. Sometimes I think we do a poor job of communicating the relevance of what we teach to our students. I overheard a disagreement about this issue the other day between a colleague and student, and the colleague walked away, while the student remained unconvinced. Listen, I am not sure I would have won that argument either, but I cringed a little when the “I’m the adult with the experience” card was played. Students will use math, science, art, literature, social studies, and all of the other subjects we teach. They might not know it, but they will. We can take this lesson from Ferris Bueller: we have a long way to go help students see school as compelling, and it starts with relevance. A student can’t give me a higher compliment than to tell me something I taught them was “relevant.”

Perhaps if Ferris’s teachers had thought about that issue, he and his friends wouldn’t have had to take the day off to learn.

Another lesson we can draw from Jobs is to remember our “time is limited” and we shouldn’t “waste it living someone else’s life.” One can hear echoes of Ferris Bueller’s statement that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I think it’s important that our students don’t feel time spent learning from us is time wasted. I hope instead that they feel it is preparing them for what they want to do and awakening their curiosity.

And we should feel it’s important and relevant work to spend our days teaching them.

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8 thoughts on “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Re-Examined

  1. I need to watch FB again. In fact, I'm teaching a course on literature about adolescence and I'm considering using it as a supplemental text. I loved it when I was a teenager, and I expect I'd see it in a whole different light now.

    "A student can’t give me a higher compliment than to tell me something I taught them was 'relevant.' Perhaps if Ferris’s teachers had thought about that issue, he and his friends wouldn’t have had to take the day off to learn." This is the crux, I think. The film's not telling us that school is irrelevant, only that it can be.

    • I think you would see it differently. The way teachers and authority figures are portrayed in John Hughes movies makes for an interesting study. Think of the principal in The Breakfast Club, too.

      • They probably do, especially since they're invested in their subject. On the other hand, I know that in the past I have been mandated to teach certain things I didn't think were all that relevant. We also have some teachers, and I've worked with them in the past, who might think what they teach is relevant, but they can't communicate its importance to students. The Ben Stein example is perfect for illustrating teaching a relevant concept in a way that no one finds relevant.

  2. I really hated this film when it came out – and I hate now. To me it is the anti-Carpe Diem movie. Rather than take what you have and seize the day with that – it seems to say abandon your world and find pleasure outside of that. Ferris will go back to school – he will spend most of his days in school – rather than finding the incredible, teaching, life-affirming moments in each day – in each class, he feels that he has to go outside of the life. Sadly, this is more like seizing the weekend, than seizing the day.

    I have always believed there is greatness in the everyday pattern of our existence. When I teach the Carpe Diem poets – and ask students what they think it all means – many of them ask if it means we should be drunk (high) and/or seeking other physical pleasures all of the time. I tell them (or rather I try to show them through the poems) that hedonism should not be confused with carpe diem. Unfortunately, for a generation that looks to Ferris Bueller, that confusion is ingrained.

    • Really excellent point, and I can understand why students find it confusing. I admit the message in the movie itself is confusing. I don't find Ferris's statement that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it" especially hedonistic, but his actions definitely are. Thanks for your comment on Facebook, too, Joe. Much appreciated, especially considering I wasn't feeling as coherent as I wanted to be while I was writing this.

  3. There are three movies that my Film Club insists we watch every year: Monty Python's Holy Grail, V for Vendetta and Ferris Bueller. Different kids every year, same movies. Five years ago, they wanted to know what I thought of kids skipping school and the lack of any redeeming features in the teachers in Ferris Bueller. We talk about good teaching and good learning for a few minutes every single time, too. But this past year, the major source of discussion was the tortured relationship that Ferris' best friend had with his dad. Times are changing, and this movie has become a touchstone for me in my relationships with my students.

  4. So after reading this with my husband and talking about how it's Cameron, rather than Ferris, who has any kind of character development (I mean, am I missing something? Is Ferris NOT a static character?) but Ferris is the one who can talk anyone into just about anything, which is a big part of why he gets away with so much… made me think of Tom and Huck. Tom's the lighter, more easy-to-like character; Huck is the one with depth, the one who goes on his own Hero's Journey.

    And also I think Back to the Future honestly looks at these issues and more, while telling a ripping good story to boot.

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