A whole lot has been written about the education documentary Waiting for Superman and the debate it’s engendered. I won’t try to restate it all, but for those who just came out from under a rock, here are a few links to bring you up to date.
You can watch the film’s trailer here.
There were lots of glowing reviews, like this one from USA Today, which says, “It's hard to deny the power of Guggenheim's lingering shots on these children, waiting on a superhero who isn't going to come.”
And this one from the New York Times, which says, “By showing how fiercely dedicated idealists are making a difference, it is a call to arms.”
And then there were a few negative reviews, like this one from the Village Voice, which says, “But Guggenheim's insistence on not engaging with the injustices that children of certain races and classes face outside of school makes his reiteration of the obvious—that ‘past all the noise and the debate, nothing will change without great teachers’—seem all the more willfully naïve.”
We saw Big Media jump on the “Waiting for Superman” bandwagon, including Oprah, who devoted two shows to the movie and its message, and NBC, which produced a weeklong “event” called Education Nation.
And of course there were lots of educators refuting many of the arguments presented in the film, as summarized in this Washington Post blog.
For the record, I fall solidly in the camp of those who are horrified by the way the film lays blame for all the failures in American public education at the feet of “bad teachers” and their unions while willfully glossing over the fact that, as a society, we have created shameful poverty, especially among urban minorities; we’ve refused to create a strong safety net for our most vulnerable citizens; and we’ve systematically pulled the plug on whatever shreds of a safety net used to exist - and then we pretend that all that has nothing to do with education. I also believe that the magic bullet proposed by the film - charter schools - reflects a vast right-wing conspiracy to undermine public education by privatizing it.
Also, I freely admit to you now, before anyone asks, that I didn’t see the film. I read a hell of a lot about it, but I didn’t see it, nor do I plan to. I’m sure if I did, I’d cry for the poor kids sitting through that hellish lottery - but it wouldn’t change my opinion. A film can succeed at being emotionally manipulative without offering anything helpful or useful in the way of analysis or debate. It just means it’s good propaganda - in this case, propaganda for what Diane Ravitch calls The Billionaire Boys’ Club, a group of ultrarich white guys who want to throw their money at privatizing education without knowing anything about actual schools.
Those of you who feel the need at this point to vent their rage at my expressing an opinion about a movie I haven’t seen, please go right ahead. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay. Moving on.
There’s one aspect of Waiting for Superman that really disturbed me, about which I’ve seen little discussion: the poster. That’s what I really want to talk about here - and I’m qualified to do so because I did see the poster. And you can, too, right here. Take a long, hard look. You can click on the image to make it bigger.
I’m frankly amazed that more hasn’t been said about that poster and its messages, subliminal and overt. It’s a pretty impressive piece of visual propaganda, really, which packs a great, big emotional wallop. And, like a lot of great propaganda, it manages to suggest multiple ideas that are intellectually contradictory but serve a single agenda: to promote the notion that the educational apocalypse is at hand - but so is reformist salvation.
Let’s start with a point made by blogger Duane Campbell at Choosing Democracy: “Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world. The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark grey, then a little white girl sitting at a desk is dropped in the midst of it. The text: ‘The fate of our country won't be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom.’" Campbell goes on to ask some excellent questions, including: Who declared this war? And when did that fourth-grader become a soldier in it?
But those questions barely scratch the surface of this apocalyptic image.
Like, for example, what exactly IS that battlefield where the blonde-haired, blue-eyed cutie sits? On the one hand, as the poster’s blurb says, it represents education itself as an international battlefield on which we as a nation must struggle for world dominance, or for that matter, simple survival, lest the better-educated foreign hordes overrun us with all their lethal math scores and hostile multilingual communication skills. Lock ‘n load, kids. The Chinese are gunnin’ fer us.
On the other hand, that wasteland is, paradoxically, the blighted disaster zone of our own school system (note the chalkboard lying amid the rubble), an apocalypse of our own making to which we subject our precious, vulnerable children. You knew things at school were bad, but you didn’t realize how bad, did you? Think nuclear holocaust. In fact, think the end time, that vision of the biblical apocalypse that heralds the second coming which, in these bizarre times, drives the politics of so much of the Christian right, the same Christian right that would really love to make some...adjustments...to a public school system that clings tenaciously to the value of church-state separation. Reinforcing that subliminal end-time association, there’s even a ray of light descending from the heavens, a sign of the divine promise of educational salvation illuminating that sweet, innocent little white girl.
Which brings me to the next point. When we talk about blighted schools, we all know that we’re really talking about inner city schools in crime-ridden neighborhoods from which white people fled decades ago. You know, the kind with all the graffiti and broken windows and barbed wire and metal detectors. So what’s the poster girl for the Aryan Nation doing there? Why not just show us the population we’re really talking about here - black and Latino kids who are subjected to what we all agree is a pretty harsh educational environment (and who are, in fact, the primary subjects of the film)?
There’s the obvious answer: Show a white kid to draw a white audience. (And in pragmatic terms, you can’t really blame them; it works.)
But there’s a less-obvious and far more insidious answer: the implication that, if we don’t stop the blight in “their” (inner-city minority-populated) schools, it will soon spread to “our” (white suburban) schools. You know about “our” schools: the ones with the adorable, towheaded, freckle-faced schoolgirls, dressed in white button-down blouses with Peter Pan collars, pleated suspender skirts, white tights, and Mary Janes - escapees from 1950s TV shows that portrayed American families as they never were. But those idealized families - and the schools they attended - are entrenched in our communal unconscious as a nostalgic ideal, and it’s that ideal the little girl in the poster represents - and that ideal that is threatened by the creeping decay of urban blight.
The jarring juxtaposition of Norman Rockwell’s American childhood with that bleak, scarred wasteland is designed to make white, middle-class America feel directly endangered; to ratchet up the hysteria about the dire educational crisis; and to make it an issue that threatens the white majority. What a perfect (and emotionally manipulative) way to create a sense of urgency - even panic - that prepares the audience to accept whatever prescription the movie has to offer, without subjecting it to much critical thought. Privately run charter schools, made possible by the death of the bad-teacher-defending unions? Bring it on! The end is nigh!
Of course, there’s one little problem: Charter schools aren’t conventional public schools, and at the moment, our country is littered with old-fashioned community-based schools with names like “Woodrow Wilson” and “Springfield Elementary,” not “North Star” and “Promise Academy.” How do we pull off the switch? What to do, what to do?
The answer to that, too, lies in the poster. Those bad parts of the public school system are already a devastated wasteland; there’s really nothing left to salvage. When the Woodrow Wilsons and the Springfield Elementaries have been reduced to smoldering piles of rubble, we get to build them anew - start from scratch! Yes, ladies and gentleman, the free market sees an upside to everything! We’re all about the opportunity! And when we rebuild those schools as small, privately run charters, little blonde girls will be able to raise their hands in safety and security once again, assured that our supremacy over the big bad Asian hordes is guaranteed.
Think that’s a little extreme? Consider this: As part of its Education Nation event, NBC announced a discussion panel entitled, “Does Education Need a Katrina?” The name recalls a remark made in January by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.'”
Yup, that’s right. Not only is wholesale destruction an opportunity - it’s actually a valuable tool for educational reform! Without Katrina, those ignorant black folk down in the Big Easy didn’t even realize they “have to do better!” Lucky them - a killer hurricane turned up just in time to show them the light.
Even after the Education Nation panel was renamed (because the network was deluged with protests about the insensitivity of that title), it still described the subject of the discussion as “the advantages to the New Orleans school district of starting over post-Katrina.” Are we really talking about the advantages of living through a (semi)natural disaster that caused suffering the magnitude of which we’d never before seen in this nation? An event that illustrated just how little we really care about poor, urban, minority communities?
Yes, we sure are. As Nancy Flanagan says in her blog, Teacher in a Strange Land: “It strikes me that a lot of the Famous People who are ‘speaking out’ on education...are precisely the people who drive past public schools and other unpleasant realities on the way to their real lives. Pretty much the same way emergency rescue teams and Heckuvajob Brownie went right past the 20,000 miserable human beings huddled in the Superdome six years ago.”
Put yourself in the shoes of an African-American parent in New Orleans who’s been reading these comments about education “needing a Katrina.” You see this poster - a city in ruins, an educational system reduced to rubble, not unlike your own home and your kid’s school. And there, sitting unscathed, ready to pick up the torch of education, is - not your kid. Instead, there’s a picture-perfect little white girl, looking all smart and eager, lit by a ray of light shining down from the heavens, ready to soldier on in the battle for American educational supremacy.
Well, what would you think? At the very least, you’d be pretty damn sure that you are not the target audience of this film.
The Waiting for Superman poster serves up a noxious stew of fear-mongering and emotional blackmail designed to sell its agenda - the replacement of traditional public schools with a new, unproven, free-market education model. The one remaining question: Will America fall for it?