Waiting for Superman

Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for Superman, also directed Al Gore’s Oscar- (and Nobel-) winning picture, An Inconvenient Truth back in 2006, and the new film resembles the earlier one in its attempt to stir people’s emotions about a matter of political interest without offering much in the way of a plausible course of action for dealing with it. Mr Guggenheim is apparently used to addressing people who want to think well of themselves for their concern, their empathy, their compassion towards the less-fortunate — or, in the case of An Inconvenient Truth, towards the whole planet. But he also recognizes that the way to drum up an audience, especially among the overwhelmingly “progressive” class of those who go to the movies in America these days, is to tell them that there is really nothing, or only trivial things, that they can do about the problem he is focusing on. Fortunately, this appears to be easy for him in Superman, for it is exactly how he himself views the appalling state of vast tracts of our public education system.

He starts, for instance, by telling us that, when he sent his own children to private school, he felt at least a twinge of guilt for “betraying the ideals I thought I lived by.” But, well, essentially a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Ideals are all very well in their place, it seems, but it doesn’t do to take them too seriously. What this confession amounts to is a recognition that those ideals, which are also the ideals on which the American educational system has been constructed and which most of the film’s audience can be relied upon still to harbor, are incompatible with reality, an insight from which the rest of Waiting for Superman appears to be in headlong flight. The liberal reaction to the movie is nicely summed up by Gail Collins in her New York Times column when she writes that “by the time you leave the theater you are so sad and angry you just want to find something to burn down.” But of course, neither she nor “you” will actually burn anything down. Or do anything else to change things, apart (in her case) from asking those in charge of the coveted Charter School places to conduct their much-too-photogenic lotteries by post instead of in a public setting where they can upset her.

Certainly we may understand there is no chance that either she or, sadly, those whose misery she prefers not to witness, will ever fail to vote for the Democrats who are mostly responsible for keeping things the way they are. As Jonathan Alter (of all people) tells Mr Guggenheim’s cameras, the Democratic party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the teachers’ unions. Of course, as Ms Collins also laughably insists, “there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back.” In this, she is probably being even more naive (or disingenuous) than Mr Guggenheim, whom she quotes as saying that his movie is “not ‘pro’ anything or ‘anti’ anything. It’s really: ‘Why can’t we have enough great schools?’”— even where the answer is as obvious as it must be for anyone without ideological blinkers on. For he, at least, cannot avoid showing some of the social evils that the teachers’ unions are responsible for, even though he doesn’t want to. For he told Trip Gabriel, also of The New York Times, that

he was dismayed to meet so many critics of teachers’ unions while filming, who argued forcefully that the unions protect incompetent teachers. “The hardest choice I made” was to include that information, he said. “A part of me wanted to avoid the whole thing.”

It shows. The film’s most chilling moment comes when Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers speaks scornfully of the much hyped Michelle Rhee as a “change agent” in the schools of Washington D.C., which are among the worst in the nation, by saying in matter-of-fact tones: “But it’s not going to change the schools.” And of course she appears to be right. With the recent primary defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was Ms Rhee’s hirer and protector, most people assume it’s she who will soon be gone, allowing the D.C. school system to sink back into its traditional torpor and complacency over the ruined lives of its pupils.

Ms Rhee implies that it is only after her run-in with the unions, who refused to submit her proposal to do away with tenure in exchange for large merit pay increases, that she realized the ed. establishment cared nothing for children: “It’s all about the adults” But who, watching this film or, indeed, with eyes in his head, can doubt it? Mr Guggenheim can hardly ignore the central role of the unions, but he doesn’t focus on this as it needs focusing on and as The Cartel did a few months ago. Also like The Cartel, Superman can’t resist the built-in drama of the lottery for a limited number of places in an even more limited number of high-performing Charter Schools. Five potential victims of the academic sink school he calls “drop-out factories” are shown putting in their applications for these schools, two in New York, both applying for Geoffrey Canada’s remarkable Harlem Success Academy, two in L.A. and one in Washington, D.C. As in The Cartel, their families’ tears of joy at success and despair at failure in these attempts at escape tell their own, unanswerable story about the system they hope to escape from. But, unlike The Cartel, Mr Guggenheim is not angry enough or focused enough on the real causes of this national scandal. Nor does he go very far into the legal and cultural aspects of the problem — including the things that are not the teachers’ unions’ fault, such as the litigiousness of parents and the foolishness of judges in allowing teachers who want to get serious about discipline themselves to be disciplined or even prosecuted for assault on the little thugs who will soon be the big thugs preventing inner-city schools from doing any actual education

Though we see some of the private and charter schools that those in the bad ones are desperate to get into, we don’t get a look inside the bad ones to see what makes them bad. Instead, Mr Guggenheim focuses on the problem of tenure and other restrictions on school systems seeking to weed out incompetent teachers and on a few other things, such as jurisdictional disputes and bureaucracy, that are really a minor part of the problem. Similarly, although there is a mention of the fact that America’s high school students test near the bottom of the international league tables in mathematics but are a solid first in the belief that they are good at math, there is no mention of the terribly destructive influence that education in “self-esteem” has been in contributing to this delusion, like so many others to which our young people are prey. Fixing what’s wrong with America’s schools, assuming it can be done at all, is a gargantuan project but Mr Guggenheim, because he shares so many of the illusory ideals their failures are based on, doesn’t appear to know where to start.

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