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Wednesdays With Wade: The Educational Walt

Wednesdays With Wade: The Educational Walt

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While he never graduated high school, Walt Disney was lauded with honorary diplomas, degrees, doctorates and other kinds of educational related recognitions during his lifetime.

Thanks to Disney Historian Michael Barrier who is working on a biography of Walt Disney, we know that the building at 3004 Benton Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri was the Benton Elementary School when Walt Disney attended it between 1911 and 1917. It was later renamed the Holmes School, for a prominent Africa American, after the racial composition of the neighborhood changed. The school closed in 2002. When Michael recently visited Kansas City doing research for his Disney biography, the building was soon to reopen as apartments for the elderly. (I highly recommend Michael's site at www.michaelbarrier.com. Make sure you visit and you can see a picture of the school before its conversion.)

In the Spring of 1965, California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Max Rafferty, stirred up some controversy when we wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times stating that in his considered opinion Walt was "the greatest educator of this century."

In his essay, Dr. Rafferty wrote:

"His name is Walt Disney and he operates out of Hollywood, or all places.....His live movies have become lone sanctuaries of decency and health in the jungle of sex and sadism created by the Hollywood producers of pornography. Walt's pictures don't dwell on dirt. They show life as something a little finer than drunken wallowing in some gutter of self-pity. The beatniks and degenerates think his films are square. I think they are wonderful.

Many, many years from now-decades I hope-when this magical Pied Piper of our time wanders out of this imperfect world which he has done so much to brighten and adorn, millions of laughing, shouting little ghosts will follow his train---the children that you and I once were, so long ago, when first a gentle magician showed us Wonderland."

This love letter to Walt Disney sparked a sharp reply from Frances Clarke Sayers who was Senior Lecturer at the School of Library Service and Department of English, UCLA:

"It is a pity, in this fairest of springs, to break into the idyllic world of Dr. Max Rafferty and Walt Disney with a blast of anger, but it must be done. I, too, am an educator, and because I am, it will take more than 'a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down' - the medicine of Dr. Rafferty's absurd appraisal of Walt Disney as a pedagogue.

Mr. Disney has his own special genius. It has little to do with education, or with the cultivation of sensitivity, taste, or perception in the minds of children. He has, to be sure, distributed some splendid films on science and nature, but he has also been a shameless nature faker in his fictionalized animal stories.

I call him to account for his debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, in films and in the books he publishes. He shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends.

His treatment of folklore is without regard for its anthropological, spiritual, or psychological truths. Every story is sacrificed to the 'gimmick' (Dr. Rafferty's word) of animation. The acerbity of 'Mary Poppins', unpredictable, full of wonder and mystery, becomes, with Mr. Disney's treatment, one great marshmallow-covered cream puff. He made a young tough of Peter Pan, and transformed 'Pinocchio' into a slapstick sadistic revel.

Not content with the films, he fixes these mutilated versions in books which are cut to a fraction of their original forms, illustrates them with garish pictures, in which every prince looks like a badly drawn portrait of Cary Grant, every princess a sex symbol. The mystical Fairy with the Blue Hair of the Pinocchio turns out to be Marilyn Monroe, blonde hair and all.

As for the cliché-ridden texts, they are laughable. 'Meanwhile, back at the castle . . .'

Dr. Rafferty finds all this 'lone sanctuaries of decency and health.' I find genuine feeling ignored, the imagination of children bludgeoned with mediocrity, and much of it overcast by vulgarity. Look at that wretched sprite with the wand and the over-sized buttocks which announces every Disney program on TV. She is a vulgar little thing, who has been too long at the sugar bowls."

The letter to the L.A. Times sparked such strong feelings that an interview with Frances Clarke Sayers, conducted by Charles M. Weisenberg, Public Relations Director of the Los Angeles Public Library was published in the August issue of F. M. and Fine Arts and was reprinted in the December 1965 Horn Book Magazine.

You can find a reprint of that interview where Sayers gets even more specific in attacking Walt Disney's credentials as an educator at this link. Which includes this excerpt:

WEISENBERG: What do you say to those people who say you are tearing down and attacking a great American? Walt Disney has become more than just a man, hasn't he? He's almost a household word. The Walt Disney imprint is accepted far and wide as a sign of quality, and certainly the Disney imprint is accepted immediately as something good for children.

SAYERS: You're like the manager of a radio station who said to me, "It's like attacking motherhood to attack Walt Disney." Just let me say that I am attacking Walt Disney in relation to children's literature, not in relation to many other things that he has done. I think he is a genius in many ways.

To the people who think that I am tearing down an American institution, that he is a great educator, and that he is a great patron saint of childhood because he's put these books into his pictures, I have just one thing to say to those people: If you read 'Mary Poppins,' you will see what has happened to it in the film. If you read 'Treasure Island,, 'Alice in Wonderland,' and 'The Wind in the Willows,' you will see for yourself how Disney has destroyed something which was delightful, which was an expression of an individual mind and imagination. I would say that before you condemn anyone who attacks Disney, read the original classics and compare. Form your own opinion. We all have that right.

And while we are talking about Walt Disney as an educator, here is a section of an interview from Fall 1966 where Walt talked candidly with the "Valuator," an official publication of the California Teachers Association (Southern Section). So as part of my goal to share Walt "in his own words," here is an obscure interview that has never been reprinted nor quoted from in the past for the enjoyment of the readers of this website.

VALUATOR: Do you find that producing children's films is limiting?

WALT: Our films are for everyone! We make films that children can enjoy along with their parents. In some ways it is a benevolent trap-and a very happy one for us.

VALUATOR: Is there any way Hollywood can serve the sophisticated tastes of adult audiences without sinking into vulgarity?

WALT: Producers constantly under-estimate the intelligence of the audience. They feel impelled to take that 'extra step' to slap the audience with a crude scene or a four-letter word. Yet, if essential to the story, the same effect can be obtained subtly. Audiences today are better educated, more aware; there is no need to scrawl every idea on the screen for them.

VALUATOR: Is there need for film censorship or movie classification?

WALT: I don't believe in governmental censorship. This usually means one or two people deciding what the public will see. The best censors are the public. Audiences have a way of ultimately rejecting sordid or tasteless film. The biggest boxoffice hits of all time will be "My Fair Lady," "Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins," films which can be enjoyed by sophisticated adults or by children. We have a loyal audience and we tailor our scripts to them.

In fact we are one of the few studios which create original stories. We emphasize good taste and imagination...We are sensitive to the feelings of our audience-to their ideals, their race, or religion. We avoid vulgarity, because this is the most destructive thing that can happen to an artist, or for that matter, the audience.

VALUATOR: How do you react to the negative approach toward life evident in some Hollywood films?

WALT: Many fine films are produced by people with a strong ethical sense of responsibility. There are always the malcontents, or the 'fast dollar' boys who rely on sensationalism. Unfortunately, the Hollywood studios are no longer run as tight, paternal corporations. They've become financial backers and distributors who purchase a 'package' from a producer. There is no longer an attempt to sustain a consistent image for quality. Studios in the 1930s and 40s under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer or Jack L. Warner were sensitive of their reputation among audiences

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