I was skeptical at first about "The Lego Movie." Having now seen it, I understand why its message is so appealing to so many. The film actually had much to say about society and education.
The film’s protagonist, Emmet (Chris Pratt), an average construction worker, lives in a world where his entire waking existence is regulated by rules (cleverly called “instructions”). The first thing he does in the morning (besides saying “good morning” to his apartment) is to check the “Instructions to Fit In, Have Everybody Like You, and Always Be Happy.” He goes through his day making sure to follow all of the instructions, which meticulously detail everything a good citizen is supposed to do; from the obvious (breath, brush your teeth, comb your hair) to the not so obvious (enjoy popular music, obey all traffic regulations, always root for the local sports team, drink overpriced coffee).
Despite Emmet’s meticulous rule following, he is unfulfilled. He has no loved ones to eat breakfast with, and none of his co-workers want to spend any time with him.
There are myriad reasons why “The Lego Movie” was so successful. One reason this movie connects with people, from the very beginning, is that most everybody knows the environment in which Emmet lives. This environment stresses compliance and conformity over individualism. Following the rules is said to bring success and happiness, but only brings dissatisfaction when neither success nor happiness come.
When I tried to think of a real world environment like Emmet’s there was one example that stood above all the rest: public education.
Control Through Curriculum
The state has an interest in students learning a philosophy of state supremacy. One of its methods (though in my opinion not its most powerful) is through its selection of curriculum. Think back to your public education experience. There was likely an “American civics” type class that taught about how the government works and your “duty” as a “citizen.”
Few and far between are classes on how markets work and how the needs of people can be met through a system of voluntary cooperation. A student will be taught how a bill becomes a law, but it is unlikely that a student will be taught about the law of supply and demand, what causes inflation, or entrepreneurship.
In public school curriculum there is a pro-state bias, which is to be expected from a state-run institution.
Author and social critic Isabel Paterson understood this as well:
“Educational texts are necessarily selective, in subject matter, language, and point of view. Where teaching is conducted by private schools, there will be a considerable variation in different schools; the parents must judge what they want their children taught, by the curriculum offered. (...) Nowhere will there be any inducement to teach the ‘supremacy of the state as a compulsory philosophy.’ But every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later, whether as the divine right of kings, or the ‘will of the people’ in ‘democracy.’ Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property, and mind in its clutches from infancy. An octopus would sooner release its prey. A tax-supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state.”
Control Through Conditioning
The state’s most powerful tool in shaping compliant citizens is through conditioning an attitude of obedience through the school environment. Public education inculcates in almost every student who passes through its system a mindset of passivity. The student is the object to be regulated and acted upon. The student must raise her hand to speak. The student passes from grade to grade without needing to exert any real effort. The student is herded into the lunchroom to be fed at a specific time. The student must ask permission before using the restroom. The student must adhere to certain dress standards.
Regardless of what curriculum is taught, the lesson is clear: The public school, an arm of the state, commands and the student complies.
One of the founders of public education in America, Horace Mann, recognized the incredible formative power of the Prussian model of education (which we have adopted here in the United States). He said, “If Prussia can pervert the benign influences of education to the support of arbitrary power, we surely can employ them for the support and perpetuation of republican institutions. A national spirit of liberty can be cultivated more easily than a national spirit of bondage; and if it may be made one of the great prerogatives of education to perform the unnatural and unholy work of making slaves, then surely it must be one of the noblest instrumentalities for rearing a nation of freemen.”
What Mann did not understand is that the means of public education are contrary to the ends of “rearing a nation of freemen.” The public education system can teach some subjects to some students effectively. However, having a populace that understands math and science but has been reared through a system that teaches conformity and submission to the state is inimical to having a nation of free people.
The Struggle to Break Free
Throughout the course of “The Lego Movie,” Emmet struggles to break free of the lessons that were taught to him by stressing incessant rule-following. Just like Emmet was taught that obedience to authority is the path to success, so have most of us gone through a system that re-enforces rule-following as a top virtue. Emmet and any of the citizens of Bricksburg (just like any of us) could only have the power to build a truly happy life after breaking free of their largely self imposed fetters: by looking at the resources around and within them and taking charge of their own lives and success.
Like Emmet, I often times find myself struggling against the conditioning I received at Orem High School. Isaac Morehouse and Dan Sanchez are right in their fantastic article “Seven Ways School Has Imprisoned Your Mind”. In it they list seven mindsets that most people learned in the school system that in order to experience personal freedom we must learn to overcome.
My favorite (more accurately the one I suffer from the most acutely) is the permission mindset. The idea that we must be given permission, or even worse, invited to participate is just one way that we limit ourselves and reduce our potential, regardless of whether or not you are self-employed, or work in an office.
Among The Lego Movie’s central messages we find that if we look around us we will see endless opportunity to help both others and ourselves, and to do that we will need to un-learn some of the most powerful lessons we learned in public education.