The pop cultural touchstone of the moment (or, at least, one of them) is the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers and currently drawing the appreciative fascination of the world. With its deliberately nostalgic tone, direct homages and references to the zeitgeist of the early 1980s, and good, old-fashioned storytelling with compelling and original characters, there’s much to appreciate about the series. But one element stuck out for me and, I suspect, many viewers: the character of science teacher Mr. Clarke, played by Randall P. Havens. The character of Mr. Clarke highlights everything good about Stranger Things without being obvious. He isn’t a direct homage to a Spielberg trope (although parts of his character definitely mirror some classic characters), nor is he just a stock character such as the school Principal. Instead, he’s a vital bridge between the world of the young boys around whom the show revolves and the world of adults in which they find themselves.
Stranger Things takes place in Hawkins, Indiana, and the main arc of the first season concerns the “abduction” and “rescue” of 12-year-old Will Byers. Along the way, the plot incorporates government conspiracies, the supernatural, super-powered beings and, of course, lots of BMX bike riding. The four boys at the centre of the drama are typically Spiebergian characters: smart, but not specifically “nerdy”, fit but not athletic and most important of all, blessed with rich imaginations and a strong sense of loyalty to each other. They’re old enough to make some sense of the world and recognize the limits of their power to shape it, but still young enough to believe that putting on a headband and a utility belt will give them the power to take on vast military organizations and win. Their families are dysfunctional to a greater or lesser extent (the Byers family most of all), but that’s not really the dramatic problem here. The point is that, for a variety of reasons, these boys feel closer to each other than they do to anyone else in the world, their parents included. Except for one adult: Mr. Clarke.
Clarke is different from how most science teachers are portrayed in popular culture. He’s neither an odd, nerdy-type, nor some stuck up authority figure who wears the lab coat and demands attention. When the boys come to him for advice, he indulges them, speaks to them on their level, always respects their intelligence and while he isn’t a member of their “gang”, he’s the one adult they all know they can trust. Compare his gentle, wise style to that of the other famous science teacher on TV in recent years, Mr. Walter White, who views teaching as a distraction, a purgatory into which he’s been thrown. White sees teaching as grabbing onto the last rung of his career ladder on the way down. Clarke seems absolutely satisfied with his chosen field, even though he clearly has the experience and education to go other places.
His basic competence is another very important quality about Mr. Clarke. I’ve been a science teacher myself, and know only too well that in many schools, course assignments are based on simple seniority and minimal qualifications, rather than on expertise. This can lead to, for example, science being taught by a phys ed teacher, or english by a social studies teacher who hasn’t read Shakespeare since they were in high school. But in Clarke we have the ideal: someone who really understands science and is a great educator to boot. He appears to be mid-career, comfortable and happy with his life. He’s not one-dimensional or especially eccentric — we’re even shown that he’s a bit of a film nerd, but he has a girlfriend and a house and what appears to be a completely average American existence. Except that he can explain multi-dimension theory to 12-year-olds at a funeral with a straight face.
In dramatic terms, Mr. Clarke is essentially an incarnation of the Internet. Back in 1983, there were only two ways to get information about advanced subjects like string theory or sensory deprivation: visit a University library or ask an expert. If this show were set in 2016, there would be little need for Mr. Clarke, and that’s a real loss. Because any information the boys could get from a Google search would lack the contextualization and richness that Clarke brings to it. He “gets”, on some level, exactly what the boys are asking each and every time they come to him for advice, and knows what he needs to say, and what he doesn’t need to say. (Notice how he skips much of the basic theory and all the math and just cuts to the closest metaphor to explain the information in a way that’s digestible.) The show would lack an important human element if all the boys had to do was look up their answers on their phones.
What we really have in Mr. Clarke is something sorely lacking, in general, in today’s world: a respected expert. There’s a sad lack of respect in the modern world for expertise. This derives partially from the ability to look up any random fact in a flash, but also from the (incorrect) assumption that information is the same as knowledge. Experts have knowledge, Google has information. Mr. Clarke shows, for anyone still confused, what the distinction between those two things truly is. But in the modern world, experts are not just disrespected (in some quarters) but are often treated with suspicion, or bald-faced rudeness. “Well, that’s your opinion,” is a charge flung at experts far too often, without any acknowledgement that, in the terms of the discussion, their “opinion” is in fact worth more than the opinions of others. That’s what expertise means. It’s derived from years of study and often of apprenticeship to other experts, not from looking up a series of random facts. It requires the ability to carefully select facts pertinent to the problem at hand and show a way forward through it. Mr. Clarke, for all of his geniality and gentleness, is a razor-sharp expert, and knows how to behave like one. (For one thing, experts rarely offer opinions unless they’re asked, whereas we all know someone who has a little information who will toss it out with little or no provocation in order to impress.)
Many have said that they “had a teacher” like Mr. Clarke, growing up. They’re the lucky ones, and it does make one wonder how many Mr. Clarkes are in the education system, and the world, today. And if anyone listens to them. Stranger Things reminds us, through him, that there’s value in having competent, educated mentors in our midst, and that we should never take them for granted.