A Convenient Lie
By C. Aiden Downey
Waiting for Superman is a misnomer, as director David Guggenheim not only finds Superman (played by Jeffry Canada) but also Wonderwoman (Michele Rhree), both of who are already trying to saving children from what Rhee, chronically tangled up in her own truth lasso, confesses to be a “crappy education.” “Documentary” is yet another misnomer, as this movie is more an emotional informercial full of feckless heartstring yanking that would make a weepy Sally Struthers smile. In a nutshell, Guggenhiem follows the quickly curdling storylines of five families’ plights to get their kids a less crappy education, all the while splicing in entertaining yet inane cartoons and film clips to go along with mercilessly massaged charts, graphs and histories meant to incite rather than inform us, to get us mad as hell at ________.
Waiting for Superman is like one big test prep course aimed at getting us to fill in this blank correctly. First, though, Guggenhiem tries to get us to see fixing education in America as akin to a breaking the speed of sound, as having already been figured out by Canada, Rhee and other members of the Hall of Superheroes, and therefore something we as a country must get up the guts to do. According to Guggenhiem, fixing schools is all about ferreting out who is failing kids. To this end, the charts, cartoons and blurbs running like commercials in between cute kids hurdling towards an educational cliff form one big giant finger pointing at-drum roll please- bad teachers and the unions that protect them! Together, these two entities make up the League of Doom for Guggenhiem, an educational Al qaeda in which the union supports “sleeper” cells of bad teachers who carry out indiscriminate attacks on innocent students.
Take Guggenheim’s use of a film clip from the original Superman television series in which the man of steel saves a school bus full of children careening down a steep road, only to find the the driver asleep at the wheel. Shown beside footage of teachers sleeping in the infamous New York rubber room, the clip makes no bones about who is asleep at the wheel and what this is doing to kid’s futures. Throughout the movie, Guggenhiem spares all complexity to frame teachers as the problem, and unions as doing nothing more than protecting these teachers, who he animates as little dancing lemons principals toss between schools.
Even more telling is his cartoon of a teacher opening up student’s empty heads and pouring in knowledge that looks strangely like alphabet soup. This scene inadvertently opens up Guggenhiem’s head to us, revealing a dangerously impoverished understanding of not only teaching, learning and for that matter the purpose of public education in a democratic state. Instead Guggenhiem layers in dubious research about our education system’s falling behind the rest of the world to deliver a message as simple-minded as it is self-sealing: kids go to school to get filled with knowledge to go to college to get good jobs that we must now give to better educated foreigners. This “A Nation at Risk” redux is the runaway ideological train steaming through the whole movie; the train is never examined but highly endorsed by American aristocrats such as the technological robber baron turned uberphilanthropist Bill Gates.
Public education in a democracy must serve more than the economy. Education must prepare citizens to be critically engaged participants in their community, society, government and globe. This engagement involves learning to collectively question the assumptions underlying movies such as Waiting for Superman, as this kind of education is our only safeguard against people like Guggienheim trying to opening up our heads and pouring his answers in.
A telling irony lies in the fact that we do not hear from teachers in a movie that is, for all practical purposes, all about them. While teachers show up in clips of good teaching (which in case you did not know is standing in front of a classroom chalking and talking knowledge into kid’s heads) and as buffoons in the videos and cartoons, they do everything but speak. Instead, everyone speaks for and about them. Guggenhiem, who cannot get enough of his own voiceovers, treats teachers like nineteenth century women and children- best seen but not heard. For their perspective might sully Guggenhiem’s tidy story, making it less politically palatable and therefore less easy to pour.
Waiting for Superman is as close as I have seen to an educational adaptation of the spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In the famous final scene from this Sergio Leone classic, we find the camera pressed into the faces of the three gunfighters, offering amazing close ups of the good, bad and the ugly, all set to an unforgettable musical score. In Waiting for Superman, Michelle Rhree and Geoffrey Canada play the goodies while Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, along with the cute little dancing lemon/teachers her union protects play the baddies. Guggenhiem carefully cuts the ugly from the movie because it is like sand in the gears of his ideological machine.
Guggenheim refusal to acknowledge the ugly, such as an economic system that produces social inequality or an educational system that succeeds in perpetuating it, strips his social justice tearjerker of the contradictions and complexity necessary to even begin to fathom the problem of schooling in America. And yet, by leaving out all that does not serve his tidy message, Guggenhiem ends up peddling what amounts to educational snake oil.
Mouth agape as audience members around me earnestly applauded the end of Waiting for Superman, I could not help but ponder if our schools’ obsession with teaching students to take tests rather than think critically might signal another form of school failure, one in which those who ace all the tests end up charging off on an educational crusade on the back of a convenient lie.