Chinuch 101 at Sky High:
A Hilariously Effective Look at a Critical Topic

            Chinuch, the command to educate one’s children in Jewish Law and Philosophy, is an unusual law[1]. The responsibility to fulfill it lies solely upon the parent but the repercussions of not fulfilling it are, practically speaking, gravest for the child. If a parent fails to educate a child properly then it is the child who, unable to remain a child forever, will one day be held accountable for his or her inability to fulfill the obligations of a Jewish adult. Does this imply that a child’s relationship with God is in the hands of his or her parents? Or, does it imply that a parent has little bearing on a child’s relationship with God?

            Sky High is a Disney movie about superheroes and their offspring. It has the usual mushy love story, coming-of-age story, and Disney’s famous supervillains who, for all their pontificating, wouldn’t stand a chance against an unarmed New York mugger. However, if you look a little closer, the movie isn’t about romance or asserting teenage independence. It isn’t even about making fun of other superhero movies (although, if it was, I would recommend it just for that because Disney is always surprisingly good at satire). No, Sky High is really all about Chinuch, in a metaphorical sense, of course.

            The story centres on Will Stronghold, the only son of The Commander and Jetstream, the world’s most powerful superhero team. Will, a late bloomer, struggles with the difficult task of living up to both his parents -- they don’t set the bar that high: all they ask is that he save the world – and, horror of horrors, he doesn’t even know what his superpowers are yet. So, when he goes through power placement the first day of high school, a slightly arbitrary streaming system that divides new students into “heroes” and “sidekicks,” it makes perfect, albeit painful, sense that he joins the lower level super-tweens in the latter grouping.

            Okay, here’s when I’m thinking: “Will’s got no powers at all, might never get any powers, so what is he still doing at Sky High? Shouldn’t he be transferring out and joining the rest of the powerless world?” That’s when I get my first lesson in the importance of Chinuch. Not all children are going to be born with the ability to understand a page of Talmud, I mean really understand, and not all children are going to grow up to fly faster than a speeding bullet. If parenting were only about genetics none of us would have so many memories of being sent to our rooms. Will’s parents raised him to see the importance of trying to save the world; they taught him to want to save the world. And they taught this lesson well, so well that Will believes in being a part of saving the world to the extent that he is willing to suffer the indignity of being the first Stronghold placed in “hero support” (the p.c. term for sidekick) rather than not being a part of the good fight at all. That’s the power of Chinuch.

            Still, Chinuch does have its limitations. At least, you hope it does. Otherwise, the child of a villain, who just happens to be an excellent pedagogue, would be doomed to villainy. The fate of the world would depend upon an evil person never imparting his or her evil ways to the next generation and, given a villain’s traditional penchant for loyal followers, that’s not much to rely upon. Furthermore, we jump back to the question of who is responsible – we would be unable to hold any villain who is the son or daughter of a villain culpable for doing what daddy and mommy taught him or her to do. Yet, we do and there is one very good reason for that: children aren’t robots[2]. If they were they’d come with an instruction manual.

            Let’s shift the spotlight away from Will for a second and take a gander at Will’s schoolmate/arch enemy Warren Peace. His father is a supervillain and his mother is a superhero; as you can imagine, Warren is a little mixed up. Still, what becomes clear through the course of the movie is that Warren is not going to follow his father in the family business. On the other hand, no one would accuse him of being a momma’s boy (and definitely not to his face). No, Warren is striking new territory. He is Sky High’s resident rebel and lesson number two: rebellion is not always wrong. Sometimes rebellion is an indication of faulty Chinuch, sometimes it’s an indication of Chinuch that’s too good (think of a kid who actually listens when a parent says “do what I say and not what I do”), and, sometimes, rebellion appears to have nothing to do with Chinuch. The point is, rebellion is not always the opposite of Chinuch and is not always a sign that a parent has failed. Good to know, right?

            On the other hand, there are plenty of ways to rebel. Warren may have rebelled against his father but he seems to be pretty in line with his mother’s choice of sides and there is indication in the film that, before a first fight with Will, Warren never saw the inside of a detention room at Sky High. All in all, Warren’s the kind of rebel you want on your team – as long as your team is the good guy’s team. Still, Sky High has a detention room for a reason – it not only produces the world’s future superheroes and sidekicks; Sky High also teaches the world’s future villains and henchpeople.

            Okay; when I realized that, that’s when I had my second major question for the movie. Whose bright idea was it to have an open door policy? You notice that the kid in your homeroom class who can shoot rockets out of his ears is using his power to torment the rest of the students, how much of a super genius do you have to be to realize that chances are, in another five years, he’s the next major supervillain? You call his parents, suck his powers out of him, expel him. You don’t teach him how to build a ray gun from his earwax. Or, maybe you do – if you think that you have an obligation to try to teach him the proper path.

So, maybe schools feel the responsibility of Chinuch as much as parents, but that doesn’t mean they have the same capacity to succeed. That’s the bonus lesson of this film – schools are not meant to be the redemption of parental failings. Bluntly put, they don’t get paid enough. Sure Principal Powers’ words of wisdom may get through to Will and Warren but that has a lot to do with who they were raised by and even more to do with who they are. Teachers aren’t superheroes…even when they are superheroes. Chinuch is a command on a parent but a good parent recognizes that it often takes a team to educate and that’s when a school or a rebbe or a mentor can be a wonderful supplement. Emphasis on “supplement.” Sky High presents itself as a good school but even a great school can’t produce pillars of society without good foundations. Chinuch always comes back home whether a child goes to school down the block or on a different continent (or, in this case, in a different level of the atmosphere).

So, after all this, do I recommend the movie? It’s clever; don’t expect Shakespeare, but don’t expect Disney’s recent shlock. It offers a lot to think about in regard to the educational relationship between parents and children and it does so while being very entertaining. Given the fact that Chinuch plays such an important role in Jewish life, I think that every parent, every future parent, and every person who will ever find himself or herself in a position to do Chinuch, should see a movie about education at some point. Sky High doesn’t have to be it but I think it should, at the very least, be a starting point. Most of the other top edification films (Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Club, To Sir With Love, etc.) are dramas. Sky High is funny, top notch Disney funny, and to be funny about teaching and still successfully transmit the lesson is a rare talent. As a student, aware that the law of Chinuch on my parents and teachers does eventually metamorphose into the guidelines of my life, I am of the belief that a teacher who possesses such a talent should not be easily overlooked.

Dodi-Lee Hecht


[1] For the purpose of this review, I am using the term Chinuchin its broader sense. The technical definition and subsequent Halachic details are beyond the scope of this article.

[2] Still, many sources agree, who a child’s parents are, as with other special circumstances in a child’s life, can mitigate a child’s later culpability.

 

2005 NISHMA