Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Superman" An Important Topic, A Mediocre Film--Tuesday Journal

I could write all night about public education and its failures.  One of the best histories of American education, and of the origins of American contempt for the educated, is Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life", a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1966.

The book analyzes an early American attitude that educated people, usually  from the European countries of origin for many settlers, were "elitist" and "decadent".  American teachers were often picked from the dregs of society; or the profession was seen as a soft, "feminine" occupation  not worthy of workers of professional caliber.  Populism and practicality, and brawn over brain, were what were required to build a nation.  (Read some of the passages and substitute the word "homosexual" for "intellectual" and the meaning becomes more sinister, and relevant to "now".)

From Christopher Hefele's review on Amazon:

"...Turning to education, Hofstadter points out that broad public education in the US was started not for developing the mind or the pride of learning for its own sake, but for its supposed political and economic benefits. Children were viewed not minds to be developed, but as citizens to be trained for a stable democracy..." 

While that may be necessary to some degree, President Obama's Community College Summit today was an uncomfortable example of this notion, taken to the extreme.  We have all but given up on our respect for learning for its own sake.   Smart people are threatening.  We laugh off  ignorance.  Now that we are suffering the waste brought about by America's benign neglect of intellect, and are slipping in world stature as an educated society, we are of necessity looking at higher education as simple job training, and not as a way to enlighten, and make more civilized, our society as a whole.

Since we have not insisted on the importance of serious learning and thought, we now have the tools and technology for unsurpassed communication and sharing of knowledge, but have not developed the minds to use these tools to their greatest potential.  Instead, we play games, make "friends", satisfy our appetites... in short, the tools have become ends in themselves.  Much of our intellectual currency is spent on creating gadgets for our entertainment.   

And we haven't the time or capacity to examine the fallout from our neglect and contempt of education: the idea of right to privacy, what constitutes free speech; the protection and ownership of original thought; the harnessing and regulation of hate; the ignorance and passivity of the electorate; the emergence of unchecked misinformation passing as truth; the rampant and all-pervasive evil of corruption.

And, like the economy, bullying has gone global...with horrible results....Whereas teasing and bullying were once confined to the school and neighborhood, where victims had a reasonable chance of dealing with it as a natural annoyance of growing up; it's now possible to humiliate a classmate on the world wide web.  Bullies, it seems, have emerged from the schoolyards and taken over the world.  There are economic bullies, religious bullies, and  fear- mongers of all kinds.  And, like teachers on the playground who might exercise reasonable controls, our society's checks and balances are missing or complicit: an objective press; an honest government; a trustworthy economic system.

So I was totally invested in the subject matter of the new documentary "Waiting for Superman", which purports to examine what is wrong with public schools, mostly in distressed areas of America, and what we can do to save schools, communities, and students. 

Sounds like others find this topic important too, as well they should. But I fear the praise garnered by the documentary is for it's attempt, but not for its result.  I thought the film mediocre, unfortunately.  It's thin on facts and serious discussion, and heavy on heart-tugging, using filmmaking techniques that I find dubious in the documentary form.

I knew going in that the system is broken, that there are incredibly gifted teachers doing innovative work, and that a chain of poverty, despair and crime have held many schools hostage.  I wanted to get more thoughtful discourse on how cultural attitudes, that have been with us for decades, can be untangled; and how teachers can overcome the monumental problems of violence and cultural complacency.

The best I can say about the film is that it stimulated thought and conversation.  But the movie missed many opportunities to clarify, and build upon the arguments it sought to make.

For example, it is stated that educational reformers, who once thought good communities made good schools, now believe that good schools actually improve the surrounding communities.  But nowhere does the film develop this notion. 

The idea that good teachers are required is common sense. Yet, the film never defines what a good teacher is.  Teachers' unions like the one in Washington DC are justifiably called to account for not allowing discussion on the idea of merit pay for good teachers, opting instead to preseerve the status quo and give all teachers equal increases, regardless of skill or classroom success.  But the film, so eager to create a scapegoat, seems to make the lazy assumption that teachers' unions are the central enemy. 

We are introduced to several young students and their families, the parents and grandparents, who lend their opinions about the state of their kids' schools, often within earshot of the kids, who no doubt pick up on these attitudes.  We follow the dilemmas of parents who must work multiple jobs, or deal with low pay or getting laid-off.  When a little girl is not allowed to attend her parochial school graduation because her mother missed a tuition payment, I felt like the filmmakers ought to help out in some way. (I had a similar reaction in "Hoop Dreams" when the basketball players' homes were cut off from electricity, but the filmmakers kept the cameras rolling.) 

I kept looking at the camera placements, and thought how the mere presence of the filmmakers rendered most of this footage stagey and less than honest.  It was as though the filmmakers set out to create an emotional atmosphere and shot the footage they wanted, rather than cover the material objectively. 

It's hard not to be moved to tears by the dilemma faced by many of these kids, as their chance to escape their circumstances and attend  well-run charter schools is determined by the whim of a lottery.  The point is made early; but the film presses these lottery scenes for easy emotion.  And then the film undermines this message---that lotteries are inequitable, humiliating and depressing--by asking us to cheer for one of the kids who gets admitted off the waiting list.  The whole phone call is doubt, staged and set up in advance.  Kids, too, learn early how to "act" in front of the camera, and much of the spontaneity and genuineness is lost.

I liked the film best when it delivered data about reading and math proficiency (but again it failed to fully define these terms in context), or about the terribly unproductive way that tenure has evolved to protect teachers who are consistently late, abusive, or don't present the course material.  A lot is said about the effectiveness of schools in countries like Finland. I wanted to see what these countries were doing that we weren't, either due to resources, politics, or differences in cultural diversity and attitudes. 

About 20 minutes before the film ended, I suspected that there would be a web site, and an appeal for financial support from the filmgoers.  There was.

One critic said we need more films like this.  I agree.  But we need them produced and created by intelligent people who can untangle the complexities and provide compelling arguments based on good data, definitions, and examples.  I applaud Davis Guggenheim for an honorable try, but the finished product gets a B-minus from me.

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