The Chair

Sandra Oh as the new Chair, Pembroke College English Department / A Role Made for Her

Miles Davis / “In A Silent Way”

It comes as little surprise that today’s greatest cultural wars are being waged within our educational system. The battles of this war are fought in all segments of the American educational system from our secondary school system to our colleges and universities. We read about scrimmages in the universities. But the heat of this battle is now focused on secondary schools. This started with some elite secondary schools with parents questioning what they were getting for their $50,000+ tuition they were paying each year for their children to attend. Each day on new videos or social media or tv and radio news. There are the parents who appear at school board meetings and question the various curriculums and ideas like Critical Race Theory. 

The parents of students in the secondary education system are pulling together into a powerful political force. Expensive private secondary schools (prep schools) depend on high tuitions to offer their private education away from the public system. The power of the secondary parent movement comes largely from communication between child and parent about what is happening in the classroom. The child brings home stories of his day in school to his or her parents. Or, they bring home literature to read. Sometimes objects to teach. All provides evidence to parents that things are changing quickly in our schools. Let’s skip putting a political definition on all of this right now and just say that things are changing quickly. This seems a statement that everyone can agree on today with their eyes only half open.

I would argue that the secondary education system is at least under parental scrutiny more than ever. Which is not saying all that much because it never was under much parental scrutiny through its entire history in America. It was scrutinized and studied by teacher’s colleges and those studying the science and discipline of pedagogy or the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept. The theorists in secondary education continued their work but it was always hidden from parents of students. They wouldn’t understand in the first place. Besides, they were not all that interested in what was being taught in the first place. They entrusted their precious children into the warm, loving, caring hands of “teachers” who were part of a group held in high esteem for most of the baby boom generation. At least through the years up until about 2015 when they were grandparents with children and grandchildren within the secondary education system. 

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In 2021, there has been the beginning of a movement of parents of elementary children to question schoolteachers and administrators about curriculum their children are being “taught” each day by their “teachers” in secondary “school.” Quotation marks are around these words because they have changed beyond recognition from the words the baby boom generation understood them to be. The movement has national leaders and begins to form a type of new opposition to the great teachers’ unions in America. 

The parent group comes up against the unions of course. Battles on the secondary educational battlefield are fought in increasing shows of power. The new parent group. Never formed before. Against the great teachers’ unions who live to fight this type of a fight. The parents who have been asleep for years are now waking up and want to know what is going on at the place they send their child to all day, five days a week. It’s not a bad question. They have much ammunition. There is the “evidence” of curriculum posted on the Internet or in printed materials often brought home by their children.

The Fictional Pembroke College in The Chair

But something big happens when their children leave home and go away to colleges and universities. This all happens at the same time they leave the parental, homebound world of secondary education and enter the world of non-parental college education. Of course, one might expect there to be some inner, psychological changes when secondary school teenagers enter the college system. Perhaps a key psychological aspect of this period for high school students entering college atmosphere is the need of transference of the real parent of secondary school for a substitute parent of college. 

So, we have some concern and focus on our secondary school system right now. The children come home and tell them things about their school days. Each day. They hear first-hand what is being “taught” by their “teachers” today. 

With college, those secondary children living at home now live in a place far from their homes. There is less communication with the parents. Sometimes, none. A mix of new-found freedom of a particular era in one’s life. Freed from home for the first time. The psychology of this change never even considered in analyzing colleges today. 

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The setting for the brilliant new series on Netflix titled The Chair takes us to the less examined but probably much more important to a college campus to play out this act in a story many have been wandering about this college system today. 

It is early winter at some eastern school. Here, in the Netflix six-part series or three-hours in total, a story that takes place at a lower tier Ivy League school. Written by two women, it captures the feeling and truth of much happening at our colleges and universities today. 

The quick transition from secondary to college education brings with it a psychological transfer of symbolic “parents” for the student, child of the secondary parents. Is there any wonder why “teachers” or “professors” in college maintain a powerful psychological pull over most entering students from secondary schools? It should be argued that all of this presents the potential for a general experience of the psychological transfer of an event where secondary students transfer their parents to faculty and those associated with college. What part does the psychology of this life cycle play on influencing them? What part does propaganda play and relate to the psychology of this life cycle? 

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If one takes the above in mine, they might conclude that the real, subtextual, psychological battle of a story about colleges today should take in ideas of psychological transfer of mentor roles at times in the life cycle of students. 

The much-lauded Netflix series The Chair frames this educational conflict not at the “disposed real parents” of secondary school and the “new parents” of their college years. Teachers and others. 

It gives an expression to what many parents of secondary school children are thinking about their children in college. It plays into their sense of what many baby boomer parents and grandparents see the world as. Our time in the world one might say.

Perhaps one of the most brilliant series ever put out via streaming. 

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Certainly, one of the best three hours of streaming television that anyone has ever put out. Two women. One a famous actress. The other, a real Harvard PhD. A brilliant script to these six episodes. A new star is born. Brilliant performances by the lead actor and actress in The Chair. There’s little doubt in my mind 

So much suggested by the six episodes of this brilliant series which suggest much beyond just these six episodes. 

For example, if I might briefly jump in here, the grand context of the battle in The Chair is one not necessarily against ideologies but rather against generations. In effect, the grand battle of modern college and university education shown in The Chair was really one between generations. The was the old generation, the baby boomers on the faculty. And there was the new generation. The millennials on the faculty. 

The brilliant Netflix series comes out as really a battle between these two generations. The old generation that is no longer needed today. And, the new generation, stepping up to take their place. 

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Most reviews mark The Chair as the grand hit of the year. In fact, for Netflix, the first grand hit for many years argues an article in The Atlantic


The current Netflix hit The Chair. The main context of protagonists and antagonists were the two sides we’re given at the beginning of the story. But overall, the battle within the brilliant first six episodes of The Chair. It is a battle between generations more than anything else in the first six episodes of the series. 

But the battle contains much more that might be shown in this brilliant, start-up story. Mainly, here, it is mainly a battle between generations.

Sandra Oh (center) is the new chair of the aging, Pembroke English Department

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Is this the ultimate, best, way to define where the hero of this story sees himself? Some symbol icons of a generation? There is so much more for the writers of The Chair to explore in the world they have set up. 

They have set up a battle between two generations in their first six episodes. Yet, beneath this battle between generations, there seems much going on a subtextual level. Everyone seems to think its a battle between generations. This is so easy to define and peg, like putting that pin through your 9th grand biology summer project. The infamous “bug collection.” I was late on getting mine that summer and had to purchase some “hot” butterflies from a classmate that year. 

Of course, one is to breathe life into the student body of the college and to at least acknowledge that they are living through that leaving the nest symbol all go through. 

Yet, there are powerful forces at the college that do not want the students to understand what they might be going through.

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Is there a particular hypnotic trance to this situation presented in Netflix’s brilliant The Chair? It takes us into a world much discussed today. Yet, not understood anywhere as near as much as that world of secondary education that parents are beginning to investigate and understand. 

There should be little wonder that they have continuing questions about their children when they have entered the college or university.

However, to suggest the grand battle in colleges today is mainly between generations (as we’re presented with in The Chair) seems an easy way out. The battle might partly be a generational battle. But clashing ideologies play a large part in the battles. They’ve played a part in the secondary education and they play an even larger part in higher education. There are hints of these battles in The Chair but they are avoided for the most part. This avoidance is part of the film’s satire, humor, strength and popularity across diverse audiences and media such as Forbes, The Atlantic, Variety, BuzzFeed and The Harvard Gazette. The narrative perspective places the audience as outside, omnipotent, neutral observers to the story. It is not really the story’s intent on providing an argument one way or the other.

As we suggest, the clash of generations as the great battle is an easy – yet popular – way out and speaks to a large audience of various political persuasions. Everyone can identify with the old versus new battle between generations. Yet the real battle on college campuses today is more than this. It is rather a battle between old and new ideologies and ideologies are not always so neatly attached to generations. The two were attached in the “old” mass culture of America before the “new” segmented culture of the digital world, social media and the Internet. If The Chair continues as a series, perhaps the added story time will allow this exploration of ideology on college campuses. Or, perhaps another story or series will take this challenge head on. What a story like this will lose in general popularity it might gain in pure, focused emotional power.


Some Reviews of The Chair

The Chair is Netflix’s Best Drama in years – The Atlantic

The Chair’ Was Cocreated by a Harvard PhD. Here’s How She Did It. – The Ringer

Annie Julia Wyman – The Harvard Gazette

The Chair Isn’t The Satire You Think It Is – Buzzfeed

Q & A With Jay Duplas – We Knew it Would be Dangerous – Variety

Amanda Peet on Tackling the Academic Hierarchy – Variety

The Chair Unleashes Sandra Oh on a College Campus Comedy of Errors – Variety

Rotten Tomatoes Reviews – 85%

The Chair – Wikipedia

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