Reel Guidance: Midcentury Classroom Films and Adolescent Adjustment
This thesis examines the cultural and political messages found in "social guidance" films, a genre of films produced for pedagogical purposes in the United States following the Second World War. Educational film producers relied on social science consultants for legitimacy and employed plots that addressed ordinary challenges of daily living encountered by teenagers. Shown in high school classrooms nationwide in the postwar years, these films advertised to young people the usefulness of a psychological understanding of personality adjustment. These films reflected the influence of ideas from both the progressive education movement inspired by John Dewey and the theories of mental hygiene from prewar psychologists. By viewing these films, students encountered advice about improving their individual productivity and they received guidance for developing skills needed in social settings. By parsing the cultural and intellectual messages embedded in these films and relating them to interwar and postwar developments, this thesis shows one way that social experts mobilized to shape the socialization of adolescents. Social guidance films intended to employ the specialized knowledge of the social sciences to promote the production of healthy and successful personalities.
More importantly, this thesis shows how social guidance films, in addressing ordinary teenage concerns, also addressed the political needs of American society at the dawn of the Cold War. The practical advice presented in these films showed adolescents how to tread the line between the preservation of individuality and commitment to the group—the essential problem faced by post war political theorists. Educators looked to the confluence of school, psychology, and film to guide the socialization of youths for their future roles as citizens of a democratic society. This thesis argues that the messages of psychological adjustment in social guidance films provided one means of promoting democratic values to counter the postwar threat of totalitarianism.