Monday, October 11, 2010

Waiting for Reason: Documentary Films and Lack of Critical Discourse

There’s an old movie starring Humphrey Bogart called Dark Passage that features an iconic and, at the time, unheard of conceit. Bogart’s character, an escaped convict, spends the first portion of the film invisible to the audience. Why? We are watching the events of the film unfold in first-person; that is up until the moment when the bandages are taken off of our surgically-altered face and we are finally able to glimpse ourselves. It is in this moment of reawakening, of a fresh start, that the film, and Bogie, really open up and fly headlong through the rest of the narrative. This critical viewing of self is what film is all about. We see ourselves in characters locked in timeless struggles, rooting for the good guys and cheering the destruction of the bad guys. In our postmodern world, this view has slightly changed. We’ve moved out of the completely fictional and into the realm of the real, too. Documentaries share marquees with the latest action thriller; unfortunately, these documentaries are swallowed as truth, not discussed with a critical eye.

I could spend paragraphs, lines, words, letters galore talking about the lack of critical intelligence in America; however, I would just be another charlatan trying to get you to read or buy something. In the end, that seems to be what Waiting for Superman is all about. Truthfully, though, I wouldn’t know. Why do I feel the need to write about it? Frankly, between Oprah’s special episode, my daily interactions with parents, movie reviews, pundits talking, the odd guy on the street who has a vision for education, and the founder of Facebook donating $100 million dollars to Newark schools, I feel like I’ve seen the movie, had the discussion, and moved forty years down the road.

What this overhyped monster does reveal is a truth that is fairly timeless (if timeless counts as the early 1800s). Horace Mann, widely recognized as the father of the American public school, wrote in his 10th report all about why people should fund public education. These reasons are the same ones we emphasize now: youth are occupied, communities are safer, and the country becomes more affluent. The only difference is that in Mann’s day, nobody wanted a public school. They didn’t mind paying a tax; just don’t spend it on that wasted institution. Mann argued, enough people relented, and the American public school was born. Now, nearly 200 years later, everyone wants everything public schools can offer for every child because it is those children’s right to go to school. Even the UN says so. They formalized it as a human right.
While education may be a human right, it cannot be forced upon people or used to promote or shape a particular political view of a people. Yet, since the early part of the 20th century, we have tried to do both. Now, we are reaping what we’ve sown.

Students get it the worst. I can think of at least one ethnography (Ain’t No Makin’ It) that shows how social and cultural dissonance can bring groups down and keep them there (feel free to check the book out; the research and argumentation are so solid, it is hard to disagree with MacLeod’s assertion that schooling can hinder as much as it helps). The children in the film are not alone in their struggle. Whereas Guggenheim, the filmmaker, holds folks like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee up as heroes, I ask what kind of heroic policies shut down public schools and offer only charter school raffles as an alternative. The crying faces of those left unselected by the lottery make an excellent platform from which to proselytize the blasé American public; however, it does us all well to remember upon whom we are standing.

This preachy, self-serving rhetoric really leads me to administrators. These middle-management folks seem to have come a long way from the classroom. I know that, as of August of this year, the combined teaching experience of one administrative team in my county was a whopping 20 years (among 5 people). I’ve been teaching longer than 4 years, I must have more knowledge of my job than my administrators; however, we continue to labor under the false pretense of principal educators and not principal managers. I bet many of my administrators wish they had time to devote to studying the content which they oversee. They are not envious of ignorance. They simply do not have the time given all of the accounting they must do to keep the school “accountable.” They, instead, spend those summers that teachers supposedly have off going to workshops, hearing an idea, and deciding that, despite a lack of evidence, we must change tactics. I have only one question: Who provides the funding for that stuff? I mean, College Board I get; professional groups, like NCTE, I get; but these other random corporations who suddenly have the answers to educational problems? I am not so sure. So the questions about the affluence of American schools—or rather lack thereof—become less about the lack of resources than the careful consideration of how to use those resources. Why does X Corporation spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this educational theory instead of providing the funding to schools that need it to hire and retain teachers, bolster infrastructure, and buy some books?

And then come the teachers. Yay! We are on the front line. Yay! We love children. Yay! We want to bring our expertise to bear and help these young people become adults; however, we have some demands. We must be heard complaining, fighting, and naysaying as often as possible. We must be allowed to possess perpetually bleeding hearts, but we cannot afford them because our pay is too low. We must be treated as professionals, despite the fact that some of us act like we never graduated from the grades we teach. We, as teachers, cannot absolve ourselves from responsibility; and yet, Guggenheim’s film will have exactly that effect on some people. They’ll get their rear-ends up on their backs and parade around as though they are blameless, as though they speak for all teacher-kind. And for the most part, we’ll let them. Not because we agree, but because we are tired.

In all seriousness, color commentary aside, the whirlwind on the media has been about this coherent. So, I did some digging. And it all goes back to Dewey and Thorndike, an epic struggle for the hearts and minds of our children.

Thorndike, king of the quantitative, crushed John Dewey’s assertion that schools should be about experiential learning and the nurturing of learning experiences, or teachable moments. You think that is not true, just look at the plethora of standardized tests students are required to take anymore. This clash is also why we are constantly asking about preserving the teachable moment. Daft administrators will try and tell you that you can still do that; however, Thorndike would disagree. Thorndike believed that “whatever existed at all exists in some amount. To know it thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality” (Lagemann, 2000, p. 57). Thus, a new era in education was born. This era was one driven by quantifiable IQs, measurable standards of achievement, and paced instruction. The motto was learn it or lose it. On top of that, nothing measurable was worth doing. Training students to become better people? Show me a measurement. Training them to appreciate literature, art, and music? Pshaw. Show me a measurement. Teaching students that they could grow beyond their basic capabilities? Liar. Show me a measurement. Thorndike refused to accept that all things in education could not be measured quantitatively (Lagemann, 2000). If the lesson involved anything outside of the “simple variables” of the educational process, he could not be bothered; “observation within naturalistic settings” was a waste of time (Lagemann, 2000, p. 59). In the 1906 text, Principles of Teaching, Thorndike boldly declared that “it is the problem of the higher authorities of the schools to decide what the schools shall try to achieve and to arrange plans for school work which will attain the desired ends” (qtd. In Lagemann, 2000). In typical administrative form, he followed that line up with “the teacher is to make these changes as economically and as surely as is possible under the conditions of school life.” Ok, Eddie. How does one do that? Thorndike never had those answers. Thus, a myth was born: the teachers are the ones who mess it all up.

And so, it falls to the English teachers of the world to help set the record straight. Why us? We teach critical thinking more than any other discipline. Really. In science, math, and history, they are so busy learning the basics of their subjects, that students don’t have the time, or inclination, to read critical writing about those topics. They come to us to read Hersey’s commentary on the effects of the atomic bomb, to write about the history of the Civil Rights movement in America as portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, and to critically view documentaries on the application of math to complex social problems like public schools. If we don’t teach students to question the motives behind Guggenheim’s inclusion of the post-lottery meltdown, we haven’t taught our students. Furthermore, when they turn as an angry tide of parents and try to beat us down, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

And then we let it get away from us. Since the media frenzy following, and sustaining, Waiting for Superman, I have not seen a single public forum dedicated to bringing frustrated parents, bedraggled educators, consumed administrators, and broken politicians together to discuss the schools in their areas. Why? Let me provide you with an excerpt from one of the articles provided in September 28th’s NCTE Inbox newsletter.

Parent Renee Cooper, whose son is an 8th grader at Hudson Cliffs PSIS 187, said the film, "used real-life situations to provide a holistic look at the problems that plague our education system.
"With the resources we have as a country, there is no reason why every child should not receive an excellent education in a state-of –the-art educational environment.
"I liken the work of the director to the heroism of Harriet Tubman — it helps bring awareness of how we might escape the problems, and thereby, it contributes to the solution.”
As for her son’s school, "my view of the faculty is that, by and large they have the highest professional standards."

Within the same quotation, we go from righteous indignation, to uneducated analogy, to the familiar education-is-broken-but-my-school-is-fine response. So, while the article in question may start out saying that the audience was “seething” or “in tears” after viewing the film, our inability to think critically will create the same stagnant pool in which we currently sit. Meanwhile, a student fails the marking period and there is an unholy reckoning the likes of which has not been seen since Torquemada and the Inquisition.

While the Inquistion rages on at a theatre near you, what can we do to really open up a dialogue on this problem? Can teachers really get involved and make a difference, or is the frenzied mass simply too eager to dump this problem on the shoulders of a few bad teachers and wash their hands of it? Has Guggenheim’s film really accomplished its reformist goals or has it simply swollen an already festering sore in the social conscience of the nation?
I for one look forward to seeing the film, but I think I’ll reserve my judgment until then. Maybe I’ll even discuss it with my neighbors. Who knows?

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