Friday, November 18, 2011

Danger: Thin Understanding!

Over a year after it came out, I finally sat down to watch Waiting for Superman. A conversation between the filmmaker and an African American grandmother from Washington DC, who has custody of her grandson Anthony, hit the issues square on the head, I thought. "Choice?", the grandmother exclaims. Taking in Anthony after his father died was no choice, she continues. He had no one else, so of course she raised him.

The rest of the movie was bunk. A case can be made for charter schools, but this film's shallow understanding of education puts its level of argument somewhere below that of a pre-service teacher at the end of one good semester of ed school. Those teachers, in other words, have a better understanding of education than Guggenheim does. When the cartoon showed a teacher pouring knowledge into the head of a child (with a comment to the effect of "it should be easy, right; knowledge goes from the teacher to the child"), I had to turn the movie off for a minute. I had to again after the movie claimed that of course KIPP schools can be scaled up -- after all there are around 80 already! -- as if this were any kind of evidence. (Even KIPP's founders deny that KIPP can be scaled up to include all schoolchildren who would benefit from such a program.) And while those were the most egregious errors, there were plenty more.

As I watched, I kept wondering if Guggenheim was aware of the irony of including that grandmother's quote. Choice? There is no choice. If there are children who need to be cared for, those who care about them take them in. That has never been a factual description of the United States, but it is certainly our ideal, our national myth. If all of us thought about schools and schoolchildren the way that grandmother thought about her grandson -- as vulnerable yet invaluable people who need care and commitment, not a menu of choices -- we'd end up with . . . well, public schooling.

This is but one of the deep and important truths that public schoolteachers understand. I'd call them the real Supermen, except, of course, most of them are not men. They're women. So, given that most schoolteachers are women, why not "Waiting for Wonderwoman"? Because there is an ugly gendered undercurrent to the criticisms of public school teachers at large in our national discourse -- and in this ugly movie. One of those other simple lessons that Guggenheim seems to have missed is that anytime you're inclined to scapegoat a group of relatively disempowered people for a national problems, you should think again.

I waited a year to see this movie, and might as well have kept on waiting. The filmmaker, I'm sorry to say, seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel.

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