I don’t enjoy stories or films about abusive teachers. Maybe the fact that I am a teacher makes this a sensitive topic for me. But I don’t think there is any excuse for tyranny in the teacher-student relationship. The film Whiplash might be seen to condone such abuse for the cause of higher art. A despotic teacher tyrannizes an aspiring percussionist—he yells, throws objects, shames, humiliates, and physically abuses. Members of the band he conducts are terrified by him, yet they put up with him in hopes of being discovered—of getting the big break that will give them entry into the music industry—and their teacher constantly holds up this possibility in front of them.
Fletcher is the teacher—J. K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for this portrayal. His student is Andrew, played by Miles Teller. Fletcher’s abusive nature is equaled, perhaps, by Andrew’s ambition to be a great drummer. He practices until his hands are bloody. He breaks up with his girlfriend because, he tells her, she will get in the way of his ambitions. He does nothing but practice and as Fletcher goads and shames and tempts him with the first position among percussionists in his band, he drives himself towards a breakdown. When he oversleeps on the day of an important competition, he drives recklessly towards the rehearsal room where he is supposed to be, wrecks the car, arrives injured and bleeding, only to be ejected by Fletcher for his tardiness. A fight ensues. It is difficult to feel much sympathy for Andrew, who is headed towards becoming some a version of Fletcher.
This film’s conclusion tempts us to believe that, after all, abusive tyrannizing and hyperactive ambitions are justified in the name of art. Abuse your students. Isolate and deny yourself. Nothing else matters. Art justifies all. Not so.