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What Breaking Bad Reveals about Teaching Virtue

Today we have a guest post from Rachel Pietka, who is currently in the PhD program in English at Baylor University.  She studies colonial and nineteenth century American literature with a special interest in women writers and religious issues.

Last fall, the highest-rated TV series of all time, Breaking Bad, came to its tragic end with the death of drug lord and former chemistry teacher Walter White. As we embark on a New Year and new semester, one aspect of this show that educators would do well to remember is how the teacher-student relationship reveals the importance of educating students for virtue.

As Breaking Bad takes Mr. White from a dull classroom, where his students are neither engaged nor invested in learning, to a glamorous laboratory where his student perfects skills only rivaled by his teacher, producer Vince Gilligan demonstrates the specious appeal of utility-driven education bereft of moral and ethical principles.

Gilligan thus engages the much-discussed question of whether virtue can and should be taught. For example, Meno asks Socrates, “can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?”  Or, more recently, Stanley Fish engaged the debate in his 2008 provocatively-titled book Save the World on Your Own Time, addressed specifically to teachers and administrators of postsecondary education. Rather than make colleges and universities responsible for “cur[ing] every ill the world has ever known,” Fish argues that educators should be concerned only with what they are paid to do: pass on knowledge and teach discipline-specific skills. He states, “You can’t make [your students] into good people, and you shouldn’t try.”

Breaking Bad broaches the question from a different angle: do teachers make their students into bad people when utility becomes the goal of education? Breaking Bad shows us that a teacher can cultivate excellent skills and a sensibility for high standards but that these values can be extremely dangerous if they are not undergirded by virtue. Moreover, when utility is the end of education, anything can be justified: murder, money laundering, and the corruption of innumerable victims who are impacted by Walt’s famous blue meth. Divorced from any sort of virtuous foundation, it is this practical, utility-driven perspective on life that takes Walt from the meth business to the empire business to finally admitting that he did it all “for me,” to feel “alive.” Along the way, he turns his student Jesse Pinkman, who actually has great moral potential, into a thief, a murderer, and ultimately a man enslaved by his guilt and the skills he developed a la Mr. White.

As Pete Spiliakos notes, Mr. White has so twisted his student’s education that by the end of the tragedy, Jesse needs “to choose moral and intellectual freedom from Walt.” Not only does Walt teach Jesse to do things that hurt and corrupt other human beings, but the skills and knowledge he imparts to his student lead to his captivity. The last few episodes of the series feature Jesse as a meth-making slave. He lives in a cage from which he is regularly released to a laboratory where he cooks methamphetamine while locked to a cable.

The situation in which Jesse finds himself at the end of the series is the ultimate expression of how an education that aspires to teach skills and knowledge for the purpose of using them to make money or to gratify one’s desires results in slavery on multiple fronts: moral, intellectual, and physical. These enslavements explain why Jesse ends up driving around Albuquerque angrily flinging cash out his vehicle window. With this act, Jesse rejects Walt’s practical perspective, but freedom lost is not so easily recovered. Although Jesse, at this point, decidedly eschews any involvement in the meth business, his skills and knowledge lead to his physical enslavement, a dramatic aspect of the series that suggests not all knowledge is power—some knowledge, in fact, is slavery.

Education, conversely, that combines moral and intellectual instruction for a higher purpose like civic virtue or spiritual formation actually offers students freedom. It offers students the freedom to make decisions based on moral principles rather than what is cost-effective or yields the greatest return. It shows them which skill-sets and bodies of knowledge are good and worth developing or knowing.

Admittedly, practical, utility-driven education is very attractive, for both students and teachers. It’s easier for teachers to tell students they dock their grades for absences because this offense would warrant the loss of a job rather than to try and convince them that skipping class means they missed an opportunity to learn. In the same way, an education that emphasizes the practical gains that come from mastering material and skills is easier for students to understand and buy into. To wit, Walt did not have success with Jesse in the classroom (or many other students, it seems) but once he and Jesse start cooking crystal meth to acquire money, an endeavor that requires them to solve numerous real-world problems, like how to steal methylamine —undetected—from a train, Jesse performs and learns.

Just as viewers are tempted to stay on team-Walt long after he has abandoned every vestige of morality he possesses, Breaking Bad tempts us to view utility-driven education as the best way to teach. When we compare Walt’s experience in the classroom, in which the practical gain of learning is not at the forefront of instruction, to his time with Jesse in the lab, which is clearly tied to real money and clout, we can’t argue with his results.

But teaching is not a business and results are not the telos of the profession. Forming human beings for higher purposes is the proper end of education, but when we look at popular conversations about education and trends in the field itself, we see a diminished view both of education and human beings. Most prospective college students and their parents hunt for a “bargain” when selecting a postsecondary institution, which means exchanging as little money and effort as possible for a diploma with maximum earning potential. As Patrick J. Deneen notes in his critique of the Common Core, making career preparation the end of education reduces students to workers, thereby articulating “a desiccated and debased conception of what a human being is.”

Maybe we can’t make our students, as Fish states, into good people. It certainly is difficult to measure virtue as a learning objective. However, Breaking Bad suggests that a utility-driven education is a morally deficient education and may create bad people, a possibility that should give educators reason to try forming their students both intellectually and morally.

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