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Posted at 1:15 PM ET, 09/24/2010

The education of Oliver Stone

By Valerie Strauss

This is another entry in my occasional "Talking Out of School" series of conversations in which people from different walks of life talk about education. Movie director Oliver Stone is a three-time Academy Award winner whose often controversial work focuses on political and cultural issues.

The inspiration for his early war movies came from his experiences in Vietnam--as an English teacher in South Vietnam and as a soldier. He requested combat duty and was an infantryman in the U.S. Army from April 1967 to November 1968. He was twice wounded in action and won awards including the Bronze Star (with “V” for valor for “extraordinary acts of courage under fire” and the Purple Heart.

Stone is known in the movie industry not only for his topics but also for using different camera techniques and film formats, sometimes in the same scene. Stone's new movie, “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” being released today, is a sequel to his highly acclaimed 1987 film “Wall Street,” about the financial industry. That movie starred Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen; Douglas stars again in the new movie as Gordon Gekko.

Stone finished the movie a few days before we spoke earlier this year. This post first ran in January.

Other entries in this series include conversations with Attorney General Eric Holder, musician John Legend and legendary producer Quincy Jones, Zac Efron, and chef Paula Deen.

Q) Where did you grow up and go to school?
A) I grew up in New York, went to [private] Trinity School but graduated from The Hill School [an exclusive college-preparatory boarding school in Pottstown, Pa.,] and went to Yale [University]. I dropped out of Yale, went to Vietnam, and went back to Yale, but dropped out again.

Q) Why?
A) It’s so complicated. The first time I dropped out I went to Vietnam and was a teacher in a Chinese high school. The second time I served in the [U.S.] military.

Q) Let’s go back to your early schooling. What do you remember about it? Did you like going to school?
A) It was an organized activity. It passed the time.

Q) Did you have subjects you loved?

A) I loved history and English and to some degree mathematics. I liked math except for Geometry and loved calculus and algebra. It is satisfying to get an answer, to get a yes or a no....There are no answers in English or history. And I liked chemistry for that reason, and biology. I had a hard time physics and a terrible time with economics. A horrible, boring subject. I got a C in economics... If I had stayed at Yale I would have majored in history or English.

Q) Any teachers you remember?
A) At Yale, Professor Curtis. He was a British historian. He taught European history. In hindsight he certainly slanted toward the British point of view, but all education is slanted at some point. He was a wonderful, wonderful teacher.... I also had many good teachers at Trinity School.. Hill School was a tough four years of rigorous homework and hard work. There were many teachers I remember, including the headmaster, Ed Hall. He taught advanced English... And then I lucked out when I went to film school at New York University. [Film director] Marty Scorsese was one of my teachers.

Q) What was The Hill School like?
I hated the Hill School at the time. It was monastic. Horrible food, no girls. It was truly one of those Charles Dickens’ types of experiences.. And I really hated it. Years later I came to appreciate it. I think the inquiry and above all the discipline, of studying and concentrating and sitting down and doing it. It was embedded very strongly at the Hill School ... I also liked the camaraderie... I went there when I was 14 and I had the shock of my life. I was competing with kids from across the United States. And the same thing happened at Yale.. We did have a classful of people who are entitled... George Bush was in my class in 1968...

Q) When did you go to NYU?
A) I was coming out of Vietnam. I was a mess. It seemed a good way to get a degree on the GI bill. I was older, 24. It was strange to go to college with younger people. They were 19, 20. It’s a big gap at that age.
[He graduated from NYU in 1971.]

Q) Where did you send your own kids to school? How old are they now?
A) I have three; 25 and 18 and 14.. All of them went to a private school... My older son went to Princeton.

Q) Why did you send them to a private school?
A) I think I went with the herd. When you have to send your kid to the top schools I didn’t buck the system, although I had myself. I gave them best education I thought they could get... But I realize you have to go through some suffering and pain. People don’t appreciate education unless they are an immigrant or coming up the hard way. It’s a sense of entitlement.

Q) What do you think kids need to be learning today?
A) Interpersonal skills.

Q) What else?
A) They should learn approaches to thinking. I think most of the courses I took were terribly American ethnocentric, America first. History was taught through the American lens... European history was taught with the Anglo-Saxon system at the center. We never questioned the role of America or Britain’s empires.

Q) Your movies all seem to be some kind of an education. Is that your intent?
A) I’m trying to document my feelings as I go along through life. Movies have become revelations to me too. You don’t know what you are going to do next. Life is quite a surprise you know... You open your eyes to things. And that’s what I’ve tried to document...I’ve gotten into a lot of hot water. Sure. But a man can be judged by the quality of his enemies. Some of the people I’ve pissed off have been establishment morons. They are in very high places. They all went to Yale and the right schools... I do wish some of those kids went to Vietnam. It would have helped. By avoiding Vietnam we entered into this mixed understanding of what that meant.

Q) It’s interesting that you are doing a second Wall Street.
A) The 2008 financial crash put another framework on it. I’m very pleased.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 24, 2010; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  Talking Out of School  | Tags:  Talking Out of School; Oliver Stone  
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Mr. Stone should have majored in history. Then he would understand that there are SOME "right answers" in history. Interpretation is fine, but certain things happened and others didn't, and his movies don't indicate that he knows that.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | January 15, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

opinionatedreader expresses my sentiment exactly. Mr. Stone is not highly regarded among the historians I know.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 25, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I've found Oliver Stone's movies interesting, especially his series on Viet Nam.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 26, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

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