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Back to March Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 182 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS MARCH 2001

Tom Hanks, You're No Robinson Crusoe
By Diane Ravitch

This week's No. 1 movie is "Cast Away," starring Tom Hanks as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. The critics are raving about Mr. Hanks's performance; many call him our everyman, a stand-in for the rest of us as he faces the exigencies of life on a desert island. He plays a FedEx efficiency expert, Chuck Noland, who survives a plane crash in the South Pacific and washes up on an uninhabited island. For four years, he makes do with tools he forges from items salvaged from FedEx boxes that also drift ashore. An ice skate becomes his knife, a volleyball serves as his mute companion and a piece of netting from a fancy dress supplies material for trapping fish.

But if Chuck Noland is handy, he is certainly no Robinson Crusoe. The only thing that makes the movie plausible is that so few viewers have ever read the Daniel Defoe novel and therefore lack grounds for comparison. Robinson Crusoe, once read by every American youngster, is no longer part of the school curriculum because of its hero's racial insensitivity and politically unacceptable behavior. Crusoe was engaged in the slave trade when his ship sank in 1659; Noland was only delivering packages. Although the attitudes expressed in Robinson Crusoe are historically accurate, American youngsters are no longer allowed to read such tales.

The differences between the two fictionalized stories are stark. When Crusoe survives the shipwreck and finds himself safe on land, he thanks God for saving him. Mr. Hanks's character offers no prayers, but shouts "Anyone? Anyone?" Crusoe continues to thank God for having spared his life, while Noland expresses little more than loneliness.

During his four-year stay on the island, Mr. Noland understandably frets about getting back to Memphis, but he doesn't seem to face any real dangers on his island. After a few bumpy days he settles into a routine, and is able to survive without even killing anything (unless one counts innocent fish). Robinson Crusoe, however, lives in constant fear of wild beasts and savage men and never ventures out of his hut without arms. He slaughters goats, turtles and birds for his sustenance, and even murders some cannibals and mutinous sailors.

Chuck is far inferior to Robinson in ingenuity and enterprise. Chuck survives mainly on fish and coconuts, and gets very excited when he succeeds in making fire, an accomplishment that Robinson takes for granted. Robinson, alone for 28 years, teaches himself to grow crops, raise animals, make pots, fashion a canoe and otherwise recreate a modicum of civilization. Chuck endlessly studies a photograph of the girl he left behind, even copying it on the walls of his cave; Robinson reads the Bible, keeps a journal and reflects on the state of his soul.

Emerging from years of isolation, Chuck takes just a few weeks to readjust to modern civilization. Although he is sad to discover his former love has married in his absence (her grieving period was profound but brief), he seems unchanged by his ordeal. Robinson's return to society follows years of thinking about his sinfulness. He knows his soul and returns a new man. Robinson Crusoe's story is a classic of trial and redemption; Chuck's story has no meaning, because Chuck learns nothing, except that he needs to look for a new girlfriend.

Chuck Noland is truly a man of our times, lacking any inner life, having little to think about other than a lost love. He has no sense of religion and is utterly incapable of seeking meaning in his experiences or his life. Perhaps Noland really is our everyman, a thoroughly modern man, sensitive to the environment and to relationships. But he is no Robinson Crusoe.

Diane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and a former assistant secretary of education.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.


 
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